spiritual

Just As You Are

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by Linda Rex

Sometimes it’s hard to accept the reality God knows us much better than we know ourselves. We like to believe we are good, well-meaning people who will always do or say the right thing in every circumstance we face. We hope we would never do or say anything cruel or hateful. We think in our heart of hearts we would never betray a friend or ruin a friendship because of greed or resentment.

But indeed, God does know us better than we know ourselves. One good example which comes to mind at this time of year is the story of Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Here Jesus was facing his death by crucifixion, knowing the reality of what he would be facing in the next few hours at the hands of people like you and me. He’s giving his disciples his last words, and says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Peter is a good friend of Jesus—a real pal. He says to Jesus, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” (John 13:37) Peter is in earnest. He really means it. He’s going to be the best friend Jesus ever had—he’s going to go all the way with Jesus. He’s just like you and me. We have the greatest intentions in the world to go all the way with Jesus, to go all the way with our family, our friends, our spiritual community.

But Jesus is very pragmatic about our humanity. He says to Peter, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” (John 13:38) Jesus just calls it as it is—“Peter, you don’t really know yourself as well as you think you do. You’re going to betray me and deny me just like any other human being would.”

Indeed, Jesus knew and accepted Peter’s brokenness as a part of who he was at that point in his life. Jesus knew in a few short hours, he would be on his own, wrestling with the evil one in a spiritual, physical and emotional battle he did not humanly want to fight. He was not unfamiliar with the failures of the human race, but felt keenly the weakness and frailty of his flesh.

It is instructive that Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 during his last hours on the cross. I was reading this psalm again this morning and was struck by the way King David put down in words the way we as human beings would treat the Lord when he came in human flesh. How many times as he was growing up did Jesus hear this psalm read? Did it put him in mind of what he was going to have to endure at the hands of the human beings he came to save? This psalm certainly describes in many ways what Jesus ended up experiencing before and during his crucifixion.

Isn’t it interested how the God who inspired this psalm, knew us better than we know ourselves? In fact, he inspired the writing of this psalm, he ensured it was preserved, and he used it as an instructive tool during his last moments before he died. The Word came to earth, knowing we would do these things to him. He was not put off by our brokenness or our capacity for betrayal and animosity. He allowed none of our human capacity for evil to prevent him from keeping his word to us that he would save us from evil, sin and death.

That the Word who is God would take on our broken humanity expresses the true reality of God’s love. As God, he had the capacity to submit himself to our human experience while remaining pure of heart, soul and mind. Rather than rejecting us or turning away from us, God joined us in our darkness and brought us up and out into his Light.

It is unfortunate that often we portray God as being so offended by sin he cannot be in the presence of it. If that were the case, we all would have been annihilated millennia ago. Seriously—what makes us think God is this way?
I think one thing which makes us think God is this way is we are this way. We get offended by a person’s problems or faults, and so we reject the person who does not meet up with our standards. We draw lines in the sand and when someone crosses them, we count them unworthy of a relationship with us.

But God doesn’t do this. He comes into our brokenness and works from within to transform and change us. He sends his Spirit into faulty human hearts so God can take up a permanent habitation there, healing us and transforming us from the inside out. He comes to the one, who like Peter, betrays him or denies him, and reconciles with him. On God’s side of the equations, there is nothing left standing between us and him.

Because God already knows us so thoroughly and completely, and loves us anyway, we can be upfront and honest about our failures and weaknesses. We can own our brokenness, telling the truth about our “messies” to God and to others. One day there won’t be any secrets—so we might as well learn how to be transparent, open and honest with ourselves and one another—living in the grace and love of God now as we will for all eternity.

Our heavenly Father has not allowed anything to come between us and his love. There is nothing which stands between us and him. This Good Friday we remember the gift of love God gave by embracing us in our broken humanity and drawing us up into life in the Father, Son and Spirit. We are beloved, cherished and held in God’s love and life, both now and for all eternity. Praise God!

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take all our evil and broken ways upon yourself and redeeming them. Thank you, Spirit, for working all this out in Christ and in us. For your glory, God, and by your power, in your name. We thank you. Amen.

“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.” Psalm 22:27–28 NASB

Beyond Good Intentions

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Violets

by Linda Rex

Watching my teens go through the process of deciding what kind of career they want to pursue has caused me to reflect on the angst I experienced back during my senior year in high school and when I first attended university. I remember taking surveys on skills and interests. And I remember the effort I put into making sure I passed the SAT and other required exams with as high a score as possible. I wanted to be able to attend my college of choice.

I intended to enroll in my church’s college, but my parents advised me not to, telling me that they were not teaching the “truth” there any more—I may as well attend a secular university. So I applied to the University of Santa Barbara, and I was accepted. My objective was clear. I was going to graduate with a degree in astrophysics, and one day, I was going to be an astronaut on a space shuttle.

I had the best of intentions, and I really thought I could do it—I was an A student and a member of the honor society. But when I got to university, I got a D in chemistry, and I almost flunked calculus. My first attempt to succeed in finishing undergraduate school failed.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t very realistic back then. Maybe I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. But honestly, how many of us actually achieve on the first try the exact thing we set out to do?

As I’ve gotten older and have experienced the ups and downs, successes and failures of life, I have become more conservative in my estimations of what I can and cannot do. I am learning not to rely solely on other people’s opinions and preferences, and to not presume I can do whatever I want to do or think I can do. I’ve realized I need a sober estimate of the truth in the light of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is especially true when it comes to matters of a spiritual and moral nature. I have learned my utmost efforts to do the right thing in every situation are flawed at best, and I am utterly dependent upon God for any possibility of doing things the way they really should be done. I am too easily swayed or distracted from where I should be, and too easily influenced to do the wrong thing, especially in difficult situations.

I’m mindful of Peter’s experience when he told Jesus he would follow him anywhere, even to the point of laying down his life for Jesus. But Jesus was no fool. He knew the truth about Peter—in the midst of the intensity of the moment when Jesus was taken captive and interrogated, Peter would deny him three times. And sure enough, Peter did exactly that.

But amazingly enough, doing this did not change Peter’s status with Jesus. After the resurrection, Jesus restored his relationship with Peter and instructed him to feed and tend his sheep. Jesus already knew what Peter would do, and even though he did do it, doing it did not alter Jesus’ love for Peter or his commitment to what he was doing in Peter’s heart and life. In fact, after the resurrection Jesus renewed Peter’s call to ministry, and when the Holy Spirit came, Peter stood up and gave a powerful, moving sermon which inspired many people to repent.

This is so comforting to me. Jesus is not put off by our failures or inability to perform perfectly. Since he already knows we are going to come up short, and he has already given us grace by including us in his death and resurrection, our failures and shortcomings are not an issue. They are already taken care of before they ever happen. Jesus’ relationship with us is not dependent upon our performance, but solely upon the nature and character of God, which is love.

Knowing this isn’t intended to make us want to go out and do awful things—rather, we find we don’t want to presume upon the grace given us. We are so grateful Jesus cares that much, we are compelled even more so to do the right thing in every circumstance.

God’s love for us demonstrated in Jesus and poured out into our hearts and lives by the Spirit moves us to think, say and do those things which agree with who we are as God’s children made in his image. We love God so much in response to his love we don’t want to harm or wound our relationship with him in any way by doing, thinking or saying things which we aren’t created for.

It is when we feel strongly we are in control and able to handle things ourselves we are most likely to get ourselves into trouble. Indeed, pride is our downfall—we trust in ourselves and our ability to do the right thing in every situation—and we find ourselves doing and saying things we never meant to which are hurtful and destructive. And like Peter, if we recognize it and look into the loving, gracious face of Jesus at that moment, we will be heartsick and broken.

And this is where and when God in Jesus will go to work. The Spirit will begin to bring us to that place of true humility where we recognize only by God’s grace can and will we ever be who God created us to be—children made in his image and likeness to reflect his nature.

Even though I had a rough start many years ago, God has never stopped working with me. My vocation has totally changed, my circumstances are entirely different. But my relationship with God in Jesus by the Spirit has only grown stronger and deeper. God has been faithful to me, and he is teaching me to be faithful to him. He is slowly and surely making me into the person he meant for me to be in the first place.

And he will do the same for you. It does not matter how old you are, what you have done, or what you have been through in your life. God will start with you where you are now and begin to work. And in time you may see he has been at work all along, even though you never noticed it before, or responded to his efforts in a negative way when he did try to work with you.

God will finish what he has begun in your life and mine—and his plans are so much more wonderful and adventurous than ours. He has amazing things in store for us—whether we believe it or not. And that’s something truly to be grateful for.

Thank you, Father, your plans for us are so much better than those we make for ourselves. And thank you for offering us the grace to grow up into all you mean for us to be. May we respond to each and every effort you make to grow us up in Christ by your Spirit, and allow you to transform our hearts by faith. In your name, we pray. Amen.

“Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.’” John 13:37–38 NASB

Breathing God’s Love In and Out

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by Linda Rex

My care of my mother during her end of life is teaching me to value simple things like taking another breath, being able to take care of my own personal needs, and being able to have coherent thoughts and express them. And I see how God is in the midst of even these mundane, yet essential, parts of life.

It’s amazing how the simple things in life have such powerful lessons for us as human beings. Take, for example, a breath of fresh air. We breathe for the most part without even knowing we are doing it.

If we were to take a moment and consciously breathe in and out, we would notice not only the sound we make while doing it, but also the movement in our body. This is an essential event that happens every moment of our lives and our body, unless it is ill, just seems to know when and how to breathe so we can continue to live. It knows when it is not getting air and reacts in a way that tries to ensure than another breath is taken before it’s too late.

When God breathed life into Adam, he set a whole stream of things into motion that scientists today are still trying to figure out. The human body, with its ability to metabolize oxygen from the air around it, is an amazing piece of architecture. And it’s so much more than that. Each human being is a soul.

As a soul, there is a life that goes beyond the life we see and experience as we take a breath in and out. This life transcends the physical. There’s a spiritual element, something that involves the heart and mind, the reason and the emotions. Something within us connects us to one another, and to a life that is other than our humanity. We find ourselves considering such things as life beyond death.

God created us for relationship—it’s built into us. We connect with others and they connect with us. We connect with God, because he made us, and he took on our humanity in Christ and intimately connected us with him. Connections between human beings and between humans and God are a natural part of our existence.

Yet, some of us find ourselves resisting relationships, or being unable to have healthy ones. We may shut people out, or close ourselves off from building relationships with other people for many reasons. When we do this, we are actually cutting ourselves off from God’s divine Breath—preventing our spiritual lungs from breathing full breaths of air.

It is in relationships that God moves to heal, transform and grow us as individuals. Our encounters with other people provide the means by which the Holy Spirit tends to our hearts. Our souls or inner beings grow thirsty, twisted and hard when we do not have healthy, nurturing relationships in our lives. So much mental and emotional ill health comes from having grown up in families or circumstances where relationships were unhealthy and did not reflect the divine life and love.

Spiritual community among believers should be a place where God’s love and life are seen and experienced in an ongoing way. The gathering of God’s people should be a place where the breath of God renews, refreshes and cleanses people. It should not be a place that is abusive, cold, rigid, hard and condemning. Rather, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit is breathing life into all who are gathered there for fellowship and worship.

Those who have relationships with believers ought to experience this same invigorating, life-renewing love. A real breathing in of God’s life and love ought to occur when someone encounters a follower of Christ. They should walk away encouraged, blessed, renewed and comforted.

This breathing in and breathing out of God’s love and life ought to be for each of us as natural as our breathing in and out of the air around us. In God, we live and move and have our being, Paul wrote. So not only is our breathing of air an essential part of our humanity, so is our breathing in and out of God’s love and life by the Spirit.

We are connected at such a deep level with God and each person around us, that sharing God’s love and life with others should be as natural as the next breath we take—we shouldn’t have to struggle with being able to do it—it’s a part of who we are in Christ.

So as we ask God’s Spirit to awaken Christ within us and to make us more aware of the life and love we are already participating in through him, maybe we can begin to see that following Christ and loving others is just simply being ourselves. Caring for one another’s needs, comforting one another in the midst of our hurts, and having compassion for the hurting are just a natural part of our being—it’s who we really are. Really, it’s just as simple as breathing in and breathing out.

Dear God, thank you for each breath I take today. May I live with you and others in such a way that your Spirit breathes life and love moment by moment into all my relationships. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.

“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22 NASB

Breathing God’s Air

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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

A Vacuum of the Soul

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Stream Scene
Stream Scene

by Linda Rex

I was reading “Crossroads” by Wm. Paul Young this week and was caught by the picture of a desolate valley with a dry riverbed running through a broken-down temple. This empty place was meant to be filled with running water, which would have given life to all the plants and animals that lived there. This picture of a broken, desolate human soul was profound.

It took me back to the beginning in the book of Genesis where we see that God placed a garden, the Garden of Eden, at the headwaters of four major rivers. This river was a source of life to the garden and to all the areas around the garden. When Adam and Eve chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil rather than trusting God and eating of the tree of life, they found themselves no longer able to access this river of living water in the same way.

And humanity has been seeking to fill this vacuum in our souls ever since. We find so many ways to try to inject some life into our souls. We seek life through relationships, sexuality, wealth, fame, and a myriad of other fruitless efforts. Instead of freedom and life we often find ourselves even more empty and enslaved to demanding taskmasters such as addictions, obsessions, depression and despair.

The prophet Ezekiel predicted one day a temple would be built from which a river of water would flow—one that was so strong and so wide that it could not be crossed. This river of water would flow out and bring healing and restoration to the salted desolate places.

It is instructive that the final picture we have of the summation of all things in the book of Revelation is a picture of God and the Lamb Jesus Christ being the temple from which flows the river of life. God has made his dwelling place with us as human beings and will never leave. His life, the Holy Spirit, forever proceeds from God’s inner being through Christ to all people.

Jesus, when he came, said that he would give the gift of a fountain of living water within our souls for those who are spiritually thirsty. He said this living water would overflow to others around us, so that they would also find their thirst quenched as well. Our souls were meant to be a place filled with the rushing water of the Holy Spirit, flowing in, through and from us, bringing life and renewal.

In the Epistles, we find that our bodies are temples where the Holy Spirit dwells. God with us. We were never meant to live with the emptiness and loneliness of going through life on our own without God. We were created to be filled with and overflowing with God’s real presence through Jesus and in the Spirit. For this is true life, real life—knowing God and Jesus whom he sent. It is living in relationship each moment with the God who made us and loves us, and will not be God without us.

It can be quite fearful and challenging to stop and take a look inside. What things are we clinging to? What have we made monuments to in our hearts and souls, such that there is no room for anything or anyone else? What has taken the place that was meant for God and God alone? For this is what is creating that vacuum—that hunger that will never be satisfied. Here is where we must, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, cast out all our idols and make room for God. What must we release our hold on so that we can wrap our fingers around the hand which holds us so tenderly and tightly? May God give us the grace to let go.

Dear Holy God, thank you for your gift of Living Water. We long to be nourished by your Holy Spirit, to be renewed and refreshed, healed and restored. Lord, today we release our control over our lives and let go of those things we cling to in your place. Forgive us for placing our trust in things and people other than you and for depending on ourselves instead of you. Wash these all away in the River of your love. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers.” Genesis 2:10 NASB

“Then he brought me back to the door of the house; and behold, water was flowing from under the threshold of the house toward the east, for the house faced east. And the water was flowing down from under, from the right side of the house, from south of the altar….Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded.” Ezekiel 47:1, 5 NASB

“Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” John 4:13–14 NASB

“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ ” John 7:37–38 NASB

“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Revelation 22:1–2 NASB