By Linda Rex
February 21, 2021, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT [Easter Prep]—There is one thing which has become clear in my mind recently and that is that we as the body of Christ are in a time of wilderness wandering. In many ways we are being brought face to face with our fragility as humans in the face of powerful temptations such as those Jesus faced when he was led into the wilderness following his baptism. During this Lenten season as we move toward celebrating the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, we have the opportunity to reflect on our need and weakness in the midst of Jesus’ sufficiency and provision.
In the book of Mark we find the condensed version of Jesus’ early ministry. First he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptizer, and as he came up out of the Jordan, his heavenly Father affirmed him as his beloved Son and the Spirit descended upon him in the tangible form of a dove. Mark tells us next that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
As Jesus was in a place in the wilderness which was filled with wild animals, so he was vulnerable and in danger, open to harm. During his wilderness experience, he went without food, causing him physical weakness. In the midst of this preliminary walk through death’s dark valley, he stood in opposition to God’s adversary, faithfully keeping his focus on his heavenly Father, and on his identification with all of humanity as God in human flesh, and on his purpose in laying down his life on behalf of all people.
We all, in ways similar to Jesus, experience the temptation to resolve our problems under our own power by taking matters into our own hands or manipulating people and circumstances to accomplish what we believe needs to happen. Jesus, being extremely hungry from fasting for several days, was challenged to prove he was Son of God by turning stones into bread—something he could have easily done simply with a word, since he was the Word of God in human flesh. But to do so would have caused him to cease to identify with you and me in our weakness and need, our human frailty and weakness. Jesus instead drew upon the written word of God to combat this temptation, saying that we as humans are not to live only by bread we put in our mouths, but by every word of the living God.
We all love magical solutions to our problems, a simple app to resolve our difficulties. But we often miss out on a deeper solution which goes down into the very core of our being. The real difficulty often lies in our refusal to believe that we can’t work it out somehow—we keep believing we can solve it, if we just try a little harder, or change things up a little, or maybe find a better way of doing what we’ve been doing. However, we often need to come to the simple realization that we are powerless—we do not have within us the capacity to heal ourselves, to fix things, to make things the way they need to be.
We need to embrace the truth that we need a power greater than ourselves—we need a savior or rescuer to deliver us. Jesus expressed this truth on our behalf when he chose to honor his own humanity by depending upon his heavenly Father to care for him, rather than solving his temporary need for food by using his hidden divine capacity to turn stones into bread. Following the confrontation in this story, we find that Jesus had angels tending to his needs, providing for him as he recovered from his conflict with the evil one—which proved the point that he did not need to do this himself under his own power—his Father faithfully provided.
In the midst of these challenging times, as we struggle with the pandemic and accompanying financial and political stress, are we questioning God’s goodness and faithfulness? Are we testing God with poor decisions and irresponsibility, attempting to make him prove to us that he loves us and wants what is best for us? Jesus himself was tempted by the evil one to prove he was the beloved Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that the angels would catch him. The adversary even used scripture in an effort to prove to Jesus that he should do this. To jump in this way would have tested his Father’s goodness and faithfulness—something Jesus refused to do. Like Jesus, we need to refuse to test God, choosing instead simply to trust and obey him, and walk each moment in loving obedience to him in spite of how difficult or dangerous our experiences may be at the moment.
Again, the Son of God did not need to prove his Father’s love and faithfulness—he was confident of it, having experienced it since before time began. But as a human being, the temptation was there and was real. We may have walked with God for many years, and have experienced his love and faithfulness through many circumstances and situations. But in this time of crisis, have we lost our confidence in God’s goodness and love? Will we simply trust that he has our best interests in mind and is still watching out for us and providing for us even though the evidence seems to show otherwise? Or will we take matters into our own hands and try to work it out ourselves?
Finally, Jesus faced the third temptation—that of being offered the all kingdoms of the world if he would just bow and worship the evil one. This temptation is not unique to him, but is one we each face as children of the Father. Surely we all have had opportunities where we were promised the world, if we just did that one thing which was unjust, unholy, inhumane, or unloving. How often have we traded in our eternal glory for the transient glories of this world? We are not alone as we face this temptation—we turn to Jesus who knew and gave the perfect response which silenced the enemy.
Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And we can see that while he was there, he faced the reality of what it meant to be truly human and to face the evil one’s temptations, while he was at his weakest and most vulnerable. In identifying with us in the wilderness, Jesus joins with us as we wander through our own wilderness times.
Experience this Lenten season or preparation for Easter as a wilderness journey, similar to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness with God, and Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness battling the evil one. During this time, we may choose to fast or practice other spiritual disciplines as a participation with Christ in his own wilderness experience. We may want to spend extra time in reflection and humble repentance, acknowledging our need and weakness, and our dependency upon God. We may want to surrender ourselves anew to the purposes and will of our heavenly Father, trusting in him for provision, healing, renewal, and restoration, through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. As we wander through these forty days of Lent or Easter preparation, let’s draw near to God as he draws near to us, resist the evil one as Christ resisted him, and rest in God’s faithfulness, grace and loving care.
Dear Father, thank you for always being with us in every circumstance, caring for us and strengthening us even when we are at our weakest. Thank you, Jesus, for being with us in the middle of our temptations and struggles, enabling us to resist the evil one and endure whatever may come our way. Spirit, grant us renewal, refreshment, and transformation, as we turn to Christ in faith, praying in his holy name. Amen.
“Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Peter 3:18–22.
By Linda Rex
February 17, 2021, ASH WEDNESDAY—As a congregation, we have been seeking God’s face, participating as a group in prayer and fasting. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During this season, many of us will choose to fast in some way, whether by ceasing to eat certain foods, or stopping the use of certain items, or restricting our participation in certain activities.
It is good to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. But the question we need to attend to is, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? And what do we hope to gain from such an activity?
When we practice the spiritual disciplines—and there are a wide variety of disciplines we can choose to practice—we must remember that we do not do them to try to get God’s attention or earn his love. Praying more, studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, and going to worship services do not earn us brownie points with God—he gladly receives our devotion to him, but it is not necessary to his happiness. Neither does practicing spiritual disciplines alter his love for us. God loves us apart from our actively seeking his face—he sent us Jesus long before we ever thought to say a single prayer.
However, there are times when we acutely feel the distance between us and God. Aren’t spiritual disciplines helpful to bring us closer to God? Absolutely, but not in the way we often seem to think they do. They do not change God’s mind or heart toward us but rather, they bring about a change in us toward God and others. What spiritual disciplines do is open us up to the work God wants to do in us by his Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, service, humility, and even self-care and care of creation, are ways of placing ourselves in God’s presence and inviting him to do whatever he wants to do in us and in our lives.
There is a distinction we must observe between simply being pious and devout for the sake of trying to move or control God and others, and sincerely laying ourselves out before God in open submission and surrender to his will. Doing the first means performing actions which merely give people the impression of our being good and holy while doing very little to bring about healing and wholeness in us or in our relationships with others. The second is profoundly different, for it is a deep personal interaction with God that can be life-changing, and can move us to begin to live in new ways, offering ourselves to God in whole-hearted love and obedience that is demonstrated by loving our neighbors and ourselves as we ought.
Through the prophet Isaiah God took his people to task for doing their humble fasting to be noticed by God. The reason was because in the midst of their religious practices, they were still mistreating people, neglecting the poor and needy, and not caring for their own families. Jesus himself took the religious leaders, who were so pious, to task for doing these things as well. What good is all our religious ritual and practices if we are unwilling to actually love those people who are already in our lives?
Sadly, it is often we as followers of Jesus who are the worst at being critical and condemning of one another. We are most often the ones who are guilty of deceit, denial, sexual promiscuity, greed and gluttony. We cannot get along with one another, it seems—there are so many things we disagree on. And so often we refuse to allow others the freedom of being guided by the Spirit in some direction that is different than the way he is guiding us.
As a congregation, we have had many opportunities to serve and help those who are poor, needy, and homeless, along with those who were simply struggling to get by. Let us not lose heart in our service to those God places in our lives—we have a calling and a gift, a grace to share with each one. In our seeking after God, our following Jesus, let us allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, giving us Abba’s heart for each of his children. Let us continue to open up our hearts to receive his love and grace that we might share the good news of Jesus with others.
The Word of God took on our humanity, to share in our struggles, so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, he might bring us up to share life with him now and forever. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul enumerated a great number of ways in which he and those in ministry with him suffered and struggled as they shared the good news with others (2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10) In Christ and in Paul, we see the willingness to simply go to whatever ends were necessary to share the good news of God’s love.
Paul tells his readers, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” There is a cost to the good news of Jesus Christ—he gave up the glories of heaven to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What a precious gift of grace! With this gift in mind, our participation in spiritual disciplines arises, not from a sense of neediness or desperation, but from a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, an appreciation for the gracious gift of eternal life we have been given in Jesus. And our lives will reflect our understanding and appreciation for the gift God gave to us in Christ.
Drawing close to God, then, by practicing spiritual disciplines becomes an expression of thanksgiving, and an opening up of ourself in grateful worship and praise to do whatever God’s will may be in our lives. God has given us so much—so our fasting and prayer, our worship and service, and other disciplines become a laying down of ourselves, a response of love and appreciation to the God who has loved us so thoroughly and so well. The result of genuine spiritual disciplines then will be an even greater desire to share with others what has so freely been given to us and a life which is a fuller expression of Christlikeness, in which pouring ourselves out in service to others is our daily practice.
Dear Abba, thank you for your gift of your Son Jesus Christ and your Spirit. Open us up more fully to you and renew in us a passion for your will and your ways. Give us your mind and heart so that our lives more fully reflect your goodness and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.” Isaiah 58:(1–12) 3–4, 9–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
PENTECOST—As a pastor, I am often burdened by the struggles and suffering of those I minister to and of those I encounter as I move about in my community. I would love to help people find freedom from the things which enslave them and to find peace, joy, and renewal in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I realize how easy it is to allow the distractions and interests of life to occupy my own mind, time, and attention to the place that I lose focus on the things of God. Any relationship becomes stale or divided if not enough attention is given to it. To become indifferent to another person rather than deeply connected with them can easily happen without our realizing it if we are preoccupied with other things.
When we read about the disciples after the resurrection, we find them gathered together in community continuing in their relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. As a group they were focused in prayer and they remembered that Jesus had told them they were to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus had told them to wait—to wait until they were clothed with power from on high.
I have no doubt that Peter could have told a powerful story of his own personal redemption, of how he had betrayed Jesus but Jesus had forgiven him and recommissioned him to tend the flock of God’s people. Matthew could have told about how Jesus found him in the marketplace, a despised tax collector, and told him to follow him, and how Jesus had changed his life and given him a new purpose. Mary Magdalene could have shared how Jesus had freed her from her many demons and given her a new life of service and obedience to her Lord.
But Jesus had told each of them to wait. He had told them that telling his story in their story would not be enough. Something more was needed.
God had come in the person of Jesus Christ, had taken on our humanity, had forged a new human existence for us, and had taught his disciples how to love and serve others in the way God meant us as humans to live. But Jesus was touching only a few people’s lives while he was here on earth. From the beginning God had intended the transformation of the entire cosmos. He had meant a change in the very substance of our human existence which would heal, restore, and renew all things.
For this reason, after his death and resurrection, Jesus needed to return to the Father and send the Spirit. Pouring out this gift of God’s presence and power on all flesh gave each human being the capacity for the new life Jesus forged for us while living in our humanity. And Jesus was frank about the reality that the world would not receive this gift. He knew and understood our human capacity to rebel against God and to resist the gracious love of the Father.
It seems that apart from our Abba’s work, we do not receive this gift and walk in the truth of our existence as his adopted children. Our tendency is to listen to and embrace the lies of the evil one instead and to seek our life in this broken existence rather than in the One who created us and redeemed us. We prefer to design and assume our own self-created identity rather than embracing the one given to us by God—to be his image-bearers, children who love him and one another with a self-sacrificial, humble, serving and gracious love.
What we don’t realize is that apart from this precious gift of the Spirit and the work of God’s power and presence in our lives, we are living as if something is missing. There is a capacity we do not have which we need so that we are able to truly be the people God intends us to be. We are not truly ourselves apart from the indwelling Spirit, for when the Spirit dwells richly within us, God dwells within and we participate in the realization of the kingdom of God. We experience in those moments what it describes in Revelation 21:3-5 where God comes to dwell with man and Jesus works to make all things new.
In Genesis, we read how Adam and Eve walked in the garden of Eden with God, talking with him and sharing all of life with him. Being in God’s presence and experiencing a personal relationship with our Creator is what we were created for. But more than that, we have been given through Jesus Christ by the Spirit the very real presence of God within our very being. Now God dwells within us permanently rather than merely being with us.
The power and presence of God within is lifechanging and transformational, but we will not experience the reality of this as long as other people and interests command our attention and focus. If our dependency is upon the things of this life, we will not depend upon God and his Spirit. Due to God’s grace, we can survive quite nicely for a while doing this, but we will miss out on the capacity to fully participate in our real human existence as children of God. We will struggle to truly express the nature of God in our words and actions and any witness we may give to the person and work of Jesus Christ will be limited and ineffective.
Attending upon the things of the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, silence, sharing, bible study, gratitude, and meditation opens us up to the Spirit’s work within. Slowing down and taking time to focus on Jesus Christ allows the Spirit fill us and renew us for the work we have been given—to testify to the goodness and love of the Father expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Just as the early church learned to wait for the promise of the Spirit before moving ahead on mission with Jesus, today believers learn to rest in Christ and to wait upon the Spirit before attempting to do ministry in this broken world.
Today, how can we pause and make room for the Spirit’s work within? How can we give undivided attention to the Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines? Perhaps all that is needed is simply silence and rest. God is present and real at all times—we simply need to awaken to his presence and power within, and to allow the Spirit to renew, inspire, teach, and lead us.
Thank you, Abba, that through Jesus you have sent your Spirit. Awaken us to your presence and power at work within us. Enable us to experience renewal, refreshment, and healing by your precious Spirit. Holy Spirit, fill us anew and empower us to bear witness to Jesus, and to live and walk in truth in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:4 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” John 14:12 NASB
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14 NASB
By Linda Rex
LENT—As I walked through the grocery store the other day, I was struck by the amount of choices placed before me of things to drink. Moving through a large open section filled with a wide variety of bottles of wine, I came to an aisle filled with beers, ales, and other cold alcoholic drinks. Beyond that was an even larger aisle filled with flavored and unflavored bottled water. And after that was an aisle filled with cans and bottles of all different kinds of soda pop.
The irony I felt was that God has given us fresh water to drink, but if I were to go anywhere in this country, hold a cup under a flowing fountain of running water, I probably would not be able to drink it. I would have to boil it first, maybe even filter it before I could safely drink it. The risk of illness would limit my ability to enjoy what God originally provided for my health and refreshment.
We live in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” not because there is no clean natural running water, but because we are parched for the living water of God’s real presence and power. Even within our churches today we find ourselves longing for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit’s renewal, yearning to see God at work in our lives, our families, and in our world. We live in a world where the Spirit’s presence is easily ignored and where our appetite for the things of God may be conveniently filled with anything our human flesh might crave.
God has given us so many things in this world to enjoy. They are meant to give us pleasure and to brighten our existence, and to show us the love and grace of our Creator and Redeemer. Yet they can so easily become the focus of our attention instead of turning us to the One who has given them to us for our joy and renewal. Rather than being a blessing to us they can enslave us or distract us from our unity with God through Jesus in the Spirit.
During Lent we may set aside some item, food, or habit in a worshipful offering to God as a means of fasting. This spiritual discipline is not meant to change God’s mind about us, but rather to open us up to the work of the Spirit in a new way. Setting something aside for a time reminds us of our dependency upon God and all he has done for us in giving his Son and his Spirit. We are reminded that our real sustenance is not in ourselves but in Jesus Christ—he is our life, and his lovingkindness is better than life (Ps. 63:3).
It is so easy for us to replace a deep abiding relationship with God with an abundance of cheap substitutes. We wander about from day to day constantly bombarded with temptations and distractions. It is so easy to find ourselves drinking from the well of our flesh rather than the free-flowing crystal waters of the Spirit. Our pause during Lent to attend to the things of the Spirit draws us away from this and turns us back toward our Savior and Lord.
When we feel we are far from Christ, God does not want us to wallow in guilt and shame. This is not his purpose. What he wants us to see is that even though we may believe we are totally lost, Jesus has already come to us, found us and brought us home to the Father. In reality, if we were to turn around and start moving in God’s direction, we would find Abba already running down the road to meet us, longing to embrace us and welcome us home.
God’s thoughts are so far above ours when it comes to the things of love and grace. God doesn’t hold anything against us, but freely and generously forgives us, even before we ever get around to saying we’re sorry. Admitting our guilt and saying we’re sorry merely affirms the reality that God needed to forgive us and so he did. God’s purpose is not to get us to feel bad and to try to do better—it is to bring us back into right relationship with himself so once again we can live in in joyful fellowship and unity with God and one another.
During Lent, our fasting can be a means by which we can attend to our thirst or need for God. A lot of times we don’t realize what’s really going inside of us because we are so distracted by our human, secular existence. Because we are so busy or caught up with the details of everyday life, we may not even realize we have turned away from our Abba and started down the road to destruction.
Our life at work, and in our family, school, and community are full of great relationships and experiences. There are challenges which stretch us and grow us into stronger, healthier people. There are circumstances and relationships which crush us and break us, causing us to wonder how we will ever be able to move on. Our human, secular existence isn’t evil in and of itself. But there is often evil at work in the things of this world and our human flesh has a proclivity apart from God’s work in us to succumb to the pulls of sinful thoughts and desires.
The only way we rise above the downward pull of our broken humanity is to drink in deeply of the free-flowing Spirit. We allow the recognition of our need for God to turn us toward him, not away from him in guilt and shame. Acknowledging our thirst, even hunger for God is an initial step toward healing and renewal. Seeking God in earnest means crying out for his redemptive power and presence, the living Christ, to finish what he has begun in us by the Holy Spirit.
Seeing how far we have fallen is not meant to create in us a determination to try harder. Yes, we want to leave behind old, broken ways of being and doing. But this realization of our need to change is in reality a thirst for the things of God which can only be filled by drinking in of the Spirit of love and grace given to us through Jesus. It is the Spirit who transforms our hearts by faith. He is the One who empowers us to live and walk in truth by the faith of the Son of God.
The spiritual disciplines we practice open us wide to the Spirit, allowing him to penetrate new parts of our being and relationships with his presence and power. Spiritual disciplines have been practiced by Christians for millennia and include such things as prayer, meditation, study of God’s word, celebration, praise and worship, service, truth-telling, humility, simplicity, contemplation, and fasting.
By creating spaces in our everyday lives to open ourselves up to the Spirit and grow in our relationship with Jesus through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we are able to drink in deeply of the living waters of God’s love and grace. We will find ourselves empowered to live in ways which are more compassionate, loving, and in tune with the heavenly realities. We will experience a nearness with Jesus and Abba by the Spirit which will be life-transforming. This drinking in of the life-giving Spirit will quench our thirsty souls in a way nothing else can.
Dear God, you are so gracious and kind! Turn our hearts once again back to you, Lord. Enable us to see our true hunger and thirst are for you and your ways. Thank you, Abba, that you did not leave us in our broken and thirsty flesh, but you sent Jesus heal us, to bring us home to you, and you gave us your Spirit to refresh and renew us. Cause our beings to resonate with your being, Lord. We are so grateful you do not leave us as we are but ever work to make us new through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Seek the LORD while He may be found; / Call upon Him while He is near. / Let the wicked forsake his way / And the unrighteous man his thoughts; / And let him return to the LORD, / And He will have compassion on him, / And to our God, / For He will abundantly pardon. / For My thoughts are not your thoughts, / Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / So are My ways higher than your ways / And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:6-8 NASB
“O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; / My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Psalm 63:1 NASB
By Linda Rex
A cedar tree stands in the yard behind my neighbor’s house. Its dark green pungent branches droop a little and sway gently in the breeze. Every day that tree stands in the same place, allowing the wind to blow its boughs back and forth. The tree never seems to tire of its simple task of just being present, breathing in the carbon dioxide and breathing out the oxygen we need to survive.
In fact, as I sit here in my flimsy patio chair, the tree doesn’t seem to express any anxiety or concern about whether or not it’s doing a good job, or if it’s producing enough oxygen each day. Granted, its ability to grow to its full height and expand to its full breadth has been limited by the neighboring deciduous trees. But this doesn’t hinder the cedar from just being what it is—a cedar tree—and from doing the one simple thing it was created for—being a living, breathing contributor to the well-being of the planet, a genuine participant in God’s gracious daily provision for his living creatures.
The cedar tree seems oblivious to my neighbor talking to her plants and her spouse. It seems indifferent to my gaze as I stare and it and wonder which side of the fence it is located on. It just continues to be who it is, day in and day out, rain or shine.
I am a little jealous of the cedar tree. It doesn’t have to worry about whether it can pay the bills this month, or whether the car tires will hold out for another month or two. The tree doesn’t really have any concerns, for it doesn’t have a memory of the past, nor does it have any concept of its future. It doesn’t even know it could be cut down tomorrow—that’s not even on its radar. It’s just living right now, being who it is, doing what it’s doing in this particular moment.
The tree has this incredible capacity to just rest in Jesus. Its existence is totally dependent upon the God who made it and who supplies its daily soil, water, air, and light. And that’s okay. That’s all it needs. It doesn’t need or even know to ask for anything more.
It does me good to slow down to the pace of the cedar tree, and to silence my mind of all the myriad thoughts and concerns which consume my inner world. How hard can it be to take an hour and just be? What’s it like to just rest in the One who made me and redeems me, and to let that resting be enough in and of itself?
Five seconds into my time of silence I find this concern and that issue popping up in my thoughts. “Okay, Lord,” I think, “I’ll give these things to you for a bit. I can deal with them later.” And I can be silent again. But it’s a wrestling match with my inner self.
Silence as a spiritual discipline, as coming into God’s presence and opening ourselves up to his Spirit’s inner work, can be a real challenge for us. We often find reasons to stay too busy to stop and be silent. We know that to do so would be to open ourselves up to the possibility of having to deal with our problems, losses, or our faults. Quieting ourselves in the presence of the Living Lord may mean we have to stop running away from ourselves and the harm we have done or are doing to ourselves or others.
Yet, silence as a spiritual discipline is a real opportunity to be filled with presence and power of God in a new way. It creates an inner space for the Spirit to enable us to listen to our Abba’s heart, and the Word of Life speaking in our hearts. When we are quiet before God, that inner voice of the Spirit grows louder and our assurance of our Abba’s love grows stronger.
It seems foolish to pause in the midst of our busy schedule to just sit and be in the presence of God. And yet, I have found this is the best possible use we could make of our time. In having done so, we find a greater inner strength, a clearer vision and insight we would not have otherwise. We pause to take a deep breath of the Spirit, and in breathing out, we find ourselves participating more fully in God’s life and love.
Perhaps we are more like the cedar tree than we realize. Yes, God has gifted us and given us many opportunities and abilities the cedar tree does not have. After all, we do reflect the being of God himself. But we are still here as participants in God’s story—sharing in his care of this world and everything in it. We each have a place in his life where all he asks of us is just to be who we are—his beloved and redeemed children.
Acknowledging the simplicity of our existence as God’s beloved and redeemed children, participants in his life and love, means we can rest. We can trust God to hold all things together by the Word of his power, to care for each and every living creature. Our failures as humans do not prevent God from accomplishing anything he has intended from the beginning.
Yes, we cause harm to each other and to this world. We fail to care for what we’ve been given. But none of that prevents God from loving us and drawing us to himself through Christ and in the Spirit. Nothing we can say or do is sufficient to stand in God’s way. Jesus’ prayer stands forever hung in the air: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” And he did what was necessary in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension so we can be assured of the outcome—a new heavens and earth and perfected humanity in which righteousness dwells.
We can for a moment have a deeper grasp of this spiritual reality when we pause in the midst of our existence and just be in the presence of the One who made us and sustains us, and breath in deeply the living Spirit—our Breath of Life. As we are silent and present in the moment, drinking in the living Presence of God himself, we can taste just for moment the blessing of the cedar tree—our eternal rest in Christ who is our Life and our real existence in this broken world. In him we have our being—our peace, hope, and joy—our past, present, and future, for he holds all things in his hands.
So, pause for few moments, and take in a deep breath of Divine Air. Lean back, resting in the Everlasting Arms. For Abba is holding you, and singing over you his songs of joy and love. Listen carefully, and you just might hear him singing…
Abba, thank you for your love, for your gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for holding us and caring for us, whether we realize it or not. Grant us the grace to rest in you and in your perfect love, Enable us to just be, as we are always and forever yours, your beloved and redeemed children, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Zephaniah 3:17 ESV
By Linda Rex
Last Saturday I held the Sharing God’s Love women’s retreat at my home. It was a small gathering—altogether there were nine of us who participated. I have limited space in my downstairs, so it was a tight squeeze for everyone to have a place to sit, especially around the dining table at lunchtime. But we did it, and I believe we all had a good time together.
We began our event with an icebreaker where we shared some things we didn’t know about each other. Then we moved into contemplative prayer where we invited the Holy Spirit to show us areas in our hearts and lives where God would like to bring healing and transformation. We wrote these things down as God showed them to us.
I talked briefly about the spiritual discipline of inner-healing prayer and how God uses it to bring healing and renewal in each of our lives. I used as a reference the book The Handbook of Spiritual Disciplines by Calhoun. The ladies then split up into pairs and prayed for one another, specifically keeping the concerns in mind God had showed them earlier. I saw tears and heard laughter. It was a moving experience for those involved.
We paused to have lunch together, and then I began the afternoon session. I read Acts 2:42-47 and showed how what we had done so far that day was like what the early church experienced shortly after Pentecost. We had spent time hearing the Word of God, we had prayed together, and had fellowshipped and shared a meal together. They each had received a small gift. The ladies had also each brought an item to the event to give away, and put it in one of the baskets we would be giving away to some of our Community Café visitors in February.
During the afternoon session we continued in the spirit of the early church and created something to give to others. We began making Valentine’s Day cards using some templates and precut items Pat and I had made earlier in the week. Some wrote messages on the cards, others just pasted scriptures and greetings on the cards. It was all a simple project. We ended up with about 65 cards to give away.
We split these cards up between two people. Teresa would be taking some to the nursing home where her mother was, and Valinta would be giving some away at work. Our goal is to have them return and report to the church the way the early apostles would do after a trip sharing the gospel. So, we all gathered hands and prayed for Teresa and Valinta and God’s blessing on their efforts to share the message of God’s love with all those who received the cards. We followed this with communion and a benediction.
We had hosted one of these two years ago at Mercy Convent here in Nashville. That had been quite a different experience since we had the use of the chapel, the porch and the grounds during that event. But no matter the location, gathering together to share in spiritual community in this way is often healing, and creates a sense of refreshment and renewal.
I believe there is something significant which is lost when we do not slow down long enough to experience renewal with others. I’m afraid we are often so busy being individuals with our own plans and agendas, we don’t have time or even the desire to sit and be silent, or to share important parts of ourselves with others who can pray with us and for us, and be a part of helping us to heal and to be renewed.
The irony about this event, in my experience, was what happened afterwards in my own personal life. As a pastor, often we are the ones hosting these types of sessions, and we are not always the participants. Because this is the case, we don’t often experience the renewal others experience while participating in them. We had an uneven number of ladies on Saturday, so when we split into pairs to pray, I sat out. I prayed silently while they were praying, but did not specifically participate in the inner-healing prayer.
Indeed, God had brought a particular thing to my mind during the contemplative prayer session, but I held onto it, thinking the Lord and I would work it out together later. I would have some downtime later, and we would talk about it then. And God did address it with me, but not as I expected.
The next day I had a busy day at church. I not only played keyboard in the band during worship, but I also preached. That is draining enough, but I also had a meeting following the service which I felt was very important. So by the time I left the church building and headed home, this introvert was pretty drained.
I got into the car and started up the road. I vaguely realized I needed gas for the car, so I started looking for the brand of gas I prefer to use. And I just started driving, and driving, and driving. I finally realized I was just driving absentmindedly, and stopped to fill the tank. I had not realized how overcome with grief I was until that moment when I felt I could just keep driving and not look back.
I wasn’t really very far from home, so I went there, parked the car, and called one of my team members. I explained what had happened and asked her to pray for me. And as she prayed, I cried. God had called me into inner-healing prayer in spite of my neglect of it at the retreat. God knew I was grieving and needed to grieve, but also knew I needed to grieve with someone. God works healing within the context of relationships, whether we like it or not.
It’s tough to let go of our rugged individualism and humble ourselves enough to confess our brokenness and need to someone so they may pray for us and we may be healed. But this is what God encourages us to do (James 5:16). This is extremely difficult to do in a culture where such spiritual, emotional intimacy is mistaken for other types of relationships, but it’s what we were created for. God did not intend for us to live as islands—we were created for deep, close, loving relationships with him and with one another.
If I might share this piece of encouragement—find a safe person who you feel you can trust, and who loves the Lord, and ask them to pray with you and for you. Don’t keep your grief, struggles, and brokenness to yourself. If you don’t have one, begin seeking one out, asking God for direction and wisdom. God never meant for you to carry this all alone. And if I might help, I would be more than happy to pray with and for you—just ask.
Abba, thank you for surrounding us with caring people who are willing to pray for and with us when we are in need. Make us more aware of the love which you have placed in our lives—show us how you share your love with us day by day through all the caring relationships we participate in. If we do not have these, then Lord, I pray—shower us with your love. Without you, and without one another, we are truly lost. Thank you for your faithful love, through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42–47 NASB
by Linda Rex
Lent: In our two churches we have been considering the reality of temptation. We’ve been learning that temptation is something every human faces, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Falling prey to temptation is part of our human condition—none of us are exempt from the lure of sin.
As we look towards Holy Week and the gift of the death and resurrection of God’s Son on our behalf, we can find comfort in the life Jesus lived, the death he died, because he faced every temptation we face, but did not sin. We participate in his perfected humanity by the Holy Spirit, and in that way we are able to endure temptation and resist the pull to sin.
It is normal for us as human beings to come up against something in our lives that tells us quite convincingly that God is not to be trusted—that he is not the loving, compassionate God he is in reality. Life circumstances, the way significant people in our lives treat us and our response to these experiences, all play a role in the way we view God and whether or not we believe he is trustworthy and loving.
What we believe about God and who he is, and about ourselves and who we are, directly impacts the way we respond to the events in our lives as well as the way we respond to the desires and pulls of our broken humanity. The emptiness we may feel at times and the hidden dark areas we push down inside ourselves because they are too painful to face often drive us in ways we don’t recognize or expect. Sometimes it seems that our behavior is beyond our control.
We may find ourselves addicted to substances or habits we’d rather not be held to, and we may find ourselves in relationships or circumstances that are unhealthy and destructive, but we don’t know how to step away from them and move on. We may hear some preacher say that we need to repent and put sin out of our lives, but sin doesn’t hear the sermon and stays in spite of all our efforts to get rid of it.
If facing temptation is a common human experience, and temptation is something that Jesus faced alongside each one of us during his life here on earth, then we need to understand being tempted to do or say or be something that does not express love for God or for others is not a sin in itself. Temptation happens. How we face that temptation will determine whether we will endure and resist it, or whether we will give in to it.
The key, when it comes to resisting temptation, has to do with our relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit. We need first to understand that God is faithful. He would not allow us to be tempted if he hadn’t first provided us with what we needed to overcome that temptation and to resist it. And he did this—he gave us Jesus Christ and the Spirit.
Jesus Christ endured the same temptations and yet did not sin, no matter how enticing those temptations were. His perfected humanity is ours through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Jesus dwells in our hearts. The “mystery of godliness” the apostle Paul said, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in us by the Spirit is what we need to overcome every temptation and resist it. Christ did it, and we participate in that finished work by the Spirit in us.
When we are living in intimate relationship with the Father, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, in a daily walk with God that involves transparency, authenticity, humility and an acknowledgement of our dependency upon God for all things, temptations begin to be seen for what they are. We begin to see that temptations are invitations to break fellowship with God and others.
When we experience the broken relationships, alienation and separation that comes with yielding to temptation, and we face the pain that comes with the consequences of our sins, this can be a springboard to a deeper relationship with God. It is God’s mercy and kindness that brings us to the place of repentance so that we will give up our idolatries, our immorality, and our ingratitude towards God.
When we have experienced what it is like to walk in a close relationship with God, where the Spirit begins to work to transform us and we encounter Christ in a personal, intimate communion, we find that we don’t what to do anything that will mar or break that relationship. We won’t want to offend or insult or harm God or others in any way. This is Christ in us—God’s heart and mind are beginning to become ours. This is our best resistance to temptation.
Granted, we do participate in the process of resisting temptation. We do this by growing in and deepening our relationship with God. We open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, and invite him to grow Christ in us, and we do this by practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation on God and his Word, meeting together for worship and fellowship, reading the Word of God, caring for others, and participating in small groups.
We may need to practice a spiritual discipline which offers up to God our commitment to put away things that cause us to be tempted to do what is wrong. We may need to eliminate certain things or particular relationships out of our daily existence because they cause us to be tempted to break fellowship with God or others. We may need to stop listening to or watching things that encourage us to participate in ungodly ways of living or being.
Not all of us are strong in every area of our lives to where we are never tempted in some way. It is foolish to constantly tempt ourselves, especially when God is calling us to put off the old self and to put on our new self which was given to us in Christ Jesus. Part of our participation in Christ’s perfected humanity involves choosing to live in agreement with the King of the kingdom of God rather than insisting on being a law unto ourselves.
But ultimately, we will face temptations that seem beyond our ability to resist. We will have areas in our lives where we cannot seem to ever overcome some flaw or fault or sin. We will struggle in some areas and no matter how hard we try to resist the temptation, we fail. God will, more than once, bring us to the place where we have to recognize and acknowledge that we are incapable of resisting sin on our own. We are incapable of perfection in this life—it cannot be done by us, on our own.
God says to you and to me—accept the reality of your need for grace. Turn to Christ. He is your perfected humanity—he is your life. Respond to the gift of the Spirit God has given you. Open yourself to the work he is trying to do in you and in your life even now. God is at work in you, providing the way of escape from temptation and enabling you to endure the temptations you are facing. He is faithful. He will not stop until he has finished what he began in you—to reveal Christ in you. Praise his holy Name.
Lord Jesus, I thank you that you endured every temptation you faced and you did not sin. And thank you for sharing this perfect resistance against temptation with us by the Spirit. I pray, Father, that you will finish the work you have begun in us so that we might fully reflect the image of Christ and that by your Spirit we may live in close fellowship with you and one another. We look forward to an eternity spent in gracious loving communion with you and one another. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lent: Many years ago I used to have recurring nightmares of trying to hide from scary people or events by hiding in the walls of my home or escaping over the backyard fence. This was during a time in my life where I was starting to come to understand the magnificence of God’s grace to me while also going through some very difficult personal experiences.
I began some studies related to abuse and co-dependency, but also came across some information regarding dreams and how sometimes they are related to the internal struggles we may be going through. One of these sources indicated that dreams involving one’s home of origin spoke to the need to resolve inner issues that had not been addressed or with which one is wrestling.
The idea that I had some inner issues that needed resolved was not a new concept for me. I had already concluded that I needed to bring some light into some very dark places in my life—places where I had been abused, shamed and broken. But up to that time I had never felt safe enough to acknowledge them, much less to admit to them and begin to deal with them. I was busy hiding behind all the walls I had built up throughout my life, and spent much of my time and effort escaping my problems and pain rather than facing them.
But healing of this nature does not occur until such a time as a person is willing and able to open dark places to the healing light of God’s presence and grace. Indeed, Jesus said we experience real freedom when we measure ourselves against the light of the truth of Jesus and allow him to set us free. There is an appropriate place for us to practice the spiritual disciplines of examen and confession.
First, I’m always having to remind people that spiritual disciplines are not rituals or rites. They become rituals or rites when we misapply them, using these practices as a means of trying to make things right with God or to get God to do something for us. A spiritual discipline is very different.
When a person is walking closely with God, they will sense that God is wanting them to open another area of their lives up to him for the Holy Spirit to go to work. Often he places a desire in their heart to grow up in Christ in a new and different way. Such growth only occurs, though, by the Spirit’s transforming power and work in a person’s heart and mind, and life. So, when a person feels this sense of God’s leading, they can open themselves up to a new work of the Spirit by practicing spiritual disciplines. This creates space for God to go to work.
There are many spiritual disciplines Christians have practiced over the centuries. One of these is examen. This spiritual discipline involves “discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day. It is a vehicle that creates deeper awareness of God-given desires in one’s life” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, pg 52).
An example of this practice in action would be when at the end of the day, a person would reflect on his or her experiences and consider how and when they experienced God’s presence throughout the day, and what brought, as some describe it, “consolation” or “desolation”. In examen we reflect on what was life-giving and what was life-draining, where we gave and received love and where we failed to do so.
It is an opportunity to consider our relationship with God and to invite the Holy Spirit to show us those things we can be grateful for and those things which may need to be changed, and to invite him to make those changes in us. As you may see, this spiritual discipline is a way to open our life up to God’s light and allow him to go to work. Practicing it regularly can help us to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and in what ways we are actively participating in Christ’s work in the world and in us.
The other spiritual discipline I mentioned is confession. We often associate confession with the Roman Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest, but confession as a spiritual discipline is quite different. Self-examination is not meant to be, as Calhoun puts it, “a neurotic shame-inducing inventory.” Rather it is a way of opening up ourselves in the context of God’s love and grace so that we can in a real, authentic way, seek his transformation.
Confession carries this process of self-examination forward in a two-sided way. One is the declaration of what is true about ourselves—we are broken in some way and fall short of who God created us to be. The other is the declaration of who we are in Christ, the real truth of our being—that we are redeemed and in Christ we have and do experience renewal and transformation.
Our confession begins first between us and God. The light of God penetrates that dark place and we open up to God and agree that yes, this is true about me. But for real healing to be found and true freedom experienced, we may need to carry that confession forward to a friend, a safe person such as a counselor, or in the context of public error, there may need to be public confession. (James 5:16)
But talking about our faults and places of brokenness is not enough. We can talk about them until we are blue in the face, bemoan them, flagellate ourselves about them, but nothing will change in our lives. At least, not until we confess Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord who did something about them. He has freed us from our brokenness and given us new life—we begin to confess that, and begin to invite others to share in that forgiveness, healing and restoration, and we will begin to experience transformation.
This is why so often God brings light into some dark place in our lives and then begins to bring us into relationship with others who are struggling with the same things. As I began to deal with the abuse I experienced, bringing it into the light by being honest and truthful about it, and by sharing this struggle with others, God began to allow me to help others along on a similar journey. And in the process we all experienced God’s grace and healing.
In my case, the dark dreams stopped. Walking in the light of God’s grace and healing meant I didn’t need to hide behind my walls any more. I could be genuine and real, and broken, and I was still loved, forgiven and accepted by God and by others. I began to recognize God’s presence throughout my days in the positive and the negative experiences of my life. And in sharing my broken places with others, I could help them on their journey of healing.
All of this occurs and did occur within the context of relationship. God calls us to love him and to love one another. It is in the light of spiritual community with God and others that we can stop the hiding and begin to live freely and joyfully, as well as transparently, and with authenticity and integrity. May God give us the courage and faith to come out behind our walls, and to quit running and hiding.
Dad, thank you that you are so tender with us when we are broken. And you want us to feel safe enough with you that we can and will open up our dark places to your light so you can mend and heal them. Grant us the grace to be brave enough to let others join with us in this journey of transformation and to respond obediently to your calls to open ourselves up to the light of your love and grace. Thank you, that through your Son we have redemption and restoration. In his name we pray, amen.
“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’” John 8:31–36 NASB
by Linda Rex
Have you ever thought about how amazing it is that you breathe air and how doing so enables your body to function in such a way that you live? The air we breathe can be filled with a lot of things besides oxygen and yet we still are able to metabolize what we need. We take another breath without thinking about it, and go on living.
This is near and dear to my heart because I have someone close to me who, in spite of receiving oxygen in copious amounts, is unable to assimilate it like she should. It is quite upsetting to watch someone desperately trying to catch their breath and not being able to, even though they have plenty of oxygen available to them.
This morning it put me in mind of how God must feel when he breathes his life and his Word into us and yet we seem to be unable to assimilate it. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and always has, and yet we can go through life without ever responding to his presence in us and with us.
We may be frantically trying to catch our breath, so to speak, in the midst of the horrors of life, thinking we are left alone to manage it all ourselves. But the truth is that we are never alone.
Psalm 139 poetically describes the real presence of God being with us and in us in every situation and circumstance of life. In light and in darkness, God is present. No matter how far we run, or how high we fly, or how deep down we dive, we cannot and do not escape the Spirit. Our life is in him.
Not only did God in the Spirit breathe into us our very life, but he also sent the Word to bear our human flesh, to live, die and rise again in our humanity. And this Word of God to us, Jesus Christ, said that he would not leave us orphans when he died, but would come to us. And he did.
After the resurrection, Jesus came to show all of his followers than indeed he now bore a glorified human form as part of his divinity. And after his ascension, he sent a special empowerment of the Holy Spirit so that each of his followers would share in his new life and participate in his mission of seeking out the lost and bringing them home. Through Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, God breathes new life into each of us.
But it seems that we can have a lot of clutter in our lives that prevents us from breathing in God’s good air. In fact, we often choose to breathe bad air—we ingest a lot of unhealthy things that damage or injure our spiritual lungs. Our spiritual clarity begins to dissipate and we suffer spiritual oxygen deprivation.
So pretty soon, even though we are hearing about how loving and gracious God is, all we can see or grasp is that he is cold, distant, hard and unloving. Even though we may be told that we are a beloved child of God, all we hear or get out of the conversation is that God expects us to perform perfectly before he’ll consider we’re worth his time or love. Our mind becomes confused about what it means to live in union and communion with God through Christ and in his Spirit.
Truly, we all have those moments when we seem to be suffocating in the midst of a room full of spiritual gas fumes. It’s important then that we pause and remember who the Source of good air is. It’s not that he has stopped providing spiritual oxygen for us, but that we may need to step outside for awhile, and take some time alone with him to recover. Perhaps there is something we need to do differently or maybe even quit doing, so that we can catch a full breath of God’s air.
The spiritual disciplines are a way that we can open our lungs up to a big dose of healthy spiritual oxygen. I have found several resources over the years that can teach us how to make room for God to restore and renew us spiritually. Our spiritual formation group studies Calhoun’s “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook” and another popular book often recommended is Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline”. “Invitation to a Journey” by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. also is a helpful introduction to learning to walk in the Spirit.
Taking time for spiritual renewal is an important part of the life of a disciple of Christ. Even Jesus, in his humanity, took time to be alone with his heavenly Father and to rest. He sought solitude and conversation with God when he needed renewal. After tending to the crowds, Jesus knew that he needed to tend to his disciples and to himself.
A lot of times we mistake our need for spiritual renewal for physical hunger or a desire for physical contact. We try to fill our stomachs or other appetites, when really it is our spiritual lungs that need some divine oxygen.
Developing a way of living that includes God in an ongoing way and that recognizes when there is distance in our relationship with God will help us to recognize and attend to the needs of our souls. Walking in step with the Spirit, communing with God through Jesus, will invigorate us and restore us. This is our life in Christ.
So how about just pausing for a moment and taking a deep breath of God’s good air. He’s got plenty to give you, and even some to share with others.
Creator God, Redeemer of all humanity, thank you for each breath of air you provide. Thank you for breathing your very life into us, and for giving us new life through your Son Jesus Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Renew us in you. Fill our lungs with your divine air, with its heavenly oxygen, and enable us to absorb and grasp the depths and heights of your love for us. You are our life. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7
“So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:21–22