suffer

Called by Name, We Follow

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By Linda Rex

May 3, 2020, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—As I recently looked at how well we as a community, a state, a nation, and a world are coping with COVID-19, I was reminded anew that all this COVID-19 data are not just numbers on somebody’s spreadsheet. They are actual people and families and businesses which are being impacted by what is happening right now. These people have names, relatives, jobs (or at least they used to), and are doing their best to deal with those concerns which weigh heavily on them in this moment—illness, death, job loss, financial stress, or being separated physically from those they love.

How we deal with the particular stresses we are facing right now individually and as a nation depends primarily, I believe, on our perspective—the lens through which we view all these events. In a culture in which there is such a strong emphasis on our ability, even our responsibility, to solve these life and death issues on our own, it is easy to understand why there are so many views regarding this whole situation. These include a sense of fear or anxiety at all the inevitabilities or possibilities and an insistence that our government resolve all these issues apart from any personal political preference or leaning.

Honestly, I’m not sure what a person does when faced with catastrophic issues such as these if they believe it is all up to us solely as human beings to solve these issues. How can we have any assurance that any of this will work out all right in the end?

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we want there to be people in our lives who know us by name and care about us enough to look after our interests, not just their own. We want to have governments who seek the best for every citizen and for the country as a whole, without taking advantage of anyone or neglecting those who cannot care for themselves. We want community leaders to take an interest in providing the basics of life for residents while at the same time providing quality of life for each person who lives there.

We ask for a world, nation, state, or community, in which each person is known by name, cared for according to their needs and preferences, and is able to pursue his or her own goals or ambitions. In this life, these are obviously not realistic expectations, yet I believe we often have these expectations even though we may never openly admit to it. It is made obvious by our response to events such as COVID-19 and all its accompanying restrictions and changes.

I believe we may be a lot wiser if we were willing to surrender these expectations to the reality that there is a profound difference between the human systems, governments, societies and culture of this world and the kingdom life described for us within the pages of the Bible. One of the flaws throughout the ages of the Christian church was its equating the kingdom of God with a particular human government or ruler. This was never meant to be the case.

What Jesus teaches us is that in his coming to us as God in human flesh, the kingdom of God came near or came among us. In his power and presence, God’s kingdom is real, tangible, and planted within our cosmos, to effectively, in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, alter our human existence both now and forever. There is an over-reaching, undergirding, cosmos-filling kingdom which supersedes and surpasses any human government or leadership. This is a spiritual kingdom which can only be entered into by faith in Jesus Christ.

This may be hard to understand and accept. To say that Jesus is the center, the only door by which we enter by faith into these tangible spiritual realities, is, for many, a way of saying that these realities are exclusive and leave people out. This is far from being true. Rather than leaving anyone out, this is the assurance that everyone is included. This means that no person needs to live life apart from the blessing of knowing and being known by the One who created, redeemed, and sustains all. No one need struggle through life and its catastrophes and troubles all alone without comfort, solace or help.

Yet we do it. We choose to believe that none of this is true and that we can get through life just fine on our own—we don’t need anyone telling us what to do, how to do it, or to rescue us when we fall. This is especially true in these parts of the world where we do not really struggle to make ends meet or to take care of the everyday necessities. Many, if not most of us, can comfortably live our lives apart from any of the spiritual realities.

This is why Jesus said that we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as little children (Matt. 18:3-4). Children tend to realize their dependency upon those who care and provide for them. We need to recognize that we are more like wandering sheep who get ourselves into dangerous situations when we don’t listen to and follow our shepherd. Sheep who know and follow their shepherd are the ones who find themselves in pastures where they have the water and food they need, and they will be tenderly cared for should they be sick or injured.

There will be struggles and suffering in life, whether we believe in Jesus or not. The difference will be that as believers we know that God knows us and calls us by name. We have come to realize that God not only knows us personally, he loves us, and he is personally interested in what is happening in our lives. He is working moment by moment for our best, even though that may mean we temporarily struggle or suffer. The psalmist writes, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 NASB, emphasis added).

Jesus knows the way of suffering, for he has walked it himself. He does not ask us to go anywhere he has not gone or will not go with us. To follow Jesus is to share both in his glory and in his suffering. But we do so in the knowledge that God knows us by name and we belong to him—we don’t go through anything in this life that he is not going through with us right now and helping us through. There is no reason any of us need face life apart from being intimately connected at the core of our being with the One who is our life, and spiritually connected with others who share our life as adopted and beloved children of God, sheep of the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.

Today, take a moment to ponder—in what way am I personally wandering about like a lost and forgotten sheep? In solitude and silence, invite God to call your name and to speak his words of love and grace to you. Consider, even if you do not sense God’s presence or words, what it means to be a sheep who hears his voice and follows. What does it mean that God knows you by name? What does it mean to be loved by God? Share with Jesus your commitment to follow him wherever he leads, from this day onward, no matter the cost.

Dear God, thank you for offering us life in Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to listen to your voice, to hear you call our name, and to know we are your very own. Enable us to know we are loved and held, cared for tenderly as a shepherd cares for his sheep. We want to follow you wherever you lead, Jesus, even if it requires suffering and struggle. Grant us the grace to do this. In your name, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you can example for you to follow in His steps, ‘who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth’; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25 NASB

“But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” John 10:2-5 NASB

The Cost of Grace

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By Linda Rex

August 18th, Proper 15—Years ago I recall opening an edition of the Worldwide News and seeing an article about the Holy Spirit. As I sat and looked at the title of the article, I realized that if what it said was true, it was going to change me and my life significantly from that day forward.

Why? What was the big deal about this? The reason it was so significant was because the message in this article was in contradiction to what my parents believed and if I followed this road where I knew it was leading—following Jesus by the Spirit to a new place in relationship with God—it might mean losing my relationship with them. It would mean losing the common ground of religious belief that had been ours since I was a little girl.

There are times in life when we are faced with critical decisions. The most critical are those in which God places before us the choice between following ourselves and those around us or simply following Jesus Christ and where the Holy Spirit leads. We can cling to what we believe now, at this moment, and resist any change or we can submit ourselves to the penetrating work of the Holy Spirit and allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out.

Choosing to follow Christ does not automatically mean the people in our lives will all choose to love us more. If anything, each of the relationships in our lives will be set in stark contrast to the one true relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit. When someone begins to see Jesus in another person as they begin to live a life of obedience to the Spirit, it challenges them. It shows them where they walk in unbelief and how they fall short of the glory God created us to bear.

Experiencing the life of Christ in another and the joy of community they are blessed with as members of the body of Christ exposes other people’s need for Christ and the result may be anger, criticism, jealousy, rejection, fear, and a host of other negative responses. These responses come as a result of their own resistance to the work of the Spirit within themselves.

This is why Jesus warns us that following him involves a cross. It involves the rejection of those who want to stay in power and control what happens to us. Jesus walked the road each of us faces when we choose to live and walk in the way of Abba, where humility, service, grace, and compassion are preferred over power, prestige, popularity, and pleasure. Sometimes there is pain in the Christian walk and it does hurt when the people we love reject us and criticize us because of what Jesus is doing in our lives.

Following Christ is a counter-cultural path. It doesn’t mean we suffer constantly. But we do walk the path of the cross where we die to self and live to Christ, and this may mean difficulties in the process. The blessing of following Christ is that by the Spirit we are placed into the body of Christ, the church. We are surrounded with brothers and sisters who are walking the same path we are walking—we are one in Christ Jesus. As one member suffers, we all suffer together—carrying one another, praying for one another, and lifting each other up. In healthy spiritual community there is a bond of love and grace, and a spirit of joy in their unity and service to others.

For some people, the church becomes their new family. The rejection of family members cuts deeply, but sometimes those ties need to be significantly loosened or ended because of the harm family members are doing to us. If we are being harmed in a family relationship, we may need to set healthy boundaries, especially when addictions or abuse are a part of the problem. This isn’t to cause permanent separation, but to create an environment for love and healing to flourish.

The church can be a part of this process by providing a safety net for those struggling in such dysfunctional family situations. The body of Christ, the church, can offer safe relationships, prayer, and other meaningful support. The church can guide those who are struggling toward the resources, help, and counseling they may need. And the church can act as our spiritual mother, providing nurture, spiritual counsel, teaching, and guidance which can help us grow up into Christ and begin to participate in healthy ways of living and being.

When the Spirit moves us to turn away from ourselves and this world and to begin to follow Christ, changes happen. The Spirit puts new desires and longings in our hearts and begins to remove our ungodly passions and desires. It is a slow and difficult process, but we can participate with it as we focus on Jesus Christ and seek to grow deeper in our relationship with him.

When we find ourselves stuck in our spiritual life, it is helpful to ask ourselves whether or not there is some place in which we have refused to receive and follow the Spirit’s lead. Where are we stubbornly insisting on our own way and our own agenda? Surrender, submission, and relinquishment are the everyday rythyms of our life—follow Christ and listen to and obey the Spirit. We draw our strength and our life from Christ by the Spirit, we live in community with our fellow believers, and no matter what those around us may say, we keep on the journey on into eternity.

Abba, you call us out of this world into relationship with you and others in the body of Christ. You pour your Spirit into us and begin to transform our hearts, minds, and lives. Thank you for holding us in the midst of our struggles, enabling us to bear the rejection and criticism of others. Grant us the grace to follow Jesus wherever he leads and to respond faithfully and obediently to your Spirit, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;…” Luke 12:51 NASB

Tomorrow Still Comes

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Colorful pumpkins and mums--fall's here!
Colorful pumpkins and mums–fall’s here!

By Linda Rex

This morning my pastor friend Carrie and I were driving up I-65 as the sun was coming up. As the sky turned glorious colors of gold, orange and blue streaked with purple and gray clouds, I felt God’s presence and peace in the wonder of a new day dawning.

I thought about the conversations I had had recently with Mom when we talked about what it would be like to live in the new world God has for us beyond death. We talked about how Mom would be able to garden to her heart’s content and not have to worry about the weather and the weeds.

For me, saying goodbye to her these past few days was so much like saying, “See you in the morning!” There is the momentary sense of the loss of immediate companionship. But then there is this delightful sense of expectancy, as the mind and heart begin to look forward to a renewal of the relationship and the opportunity to spend more time together doing things we love.

There is an assurance of a future time when we will share sweet companionship together again. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Indeed, we have a great hope through Jesus Christ. He has purchased eternity for us, establishing a new humanity through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

But what about the loss? Doesn’t it hurt?

Yes, actually it does. And how much it hurts and how we deal with that hurt is unique to each of us. For we each grieve our losses and experience our relationships in our own particular ways. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process.

And how our losses occur and what those losses actually are in our lives is specific to each person in each situation. That means that for some people grieving a significant loss may be a simple and easy process, where others may grieve in a very complex and difficult way because of grief over unresolved losses in the past, or because of complications in the relationship in the past. To compare oneself to another person in how we are affected by our losses is not a wise thing to do.

Sometimes complications in our lives hinder the grieving process. There may be difficult circumstances surrounding our loss of a dear one that may prevent us from being able to deal with our feelings about the loss right away. It may be much later—days or weeks or even years—before we are able to come to the place where we can face the truth of the pain and begin to allow ourselves to feel it, grieve our loss and begin to heal.

As friends and families of those who have experienced a great loss, it is important for us not to be afraid to engage the suffering one in a healthy relationship of comfort, compassion and companionship. What a person who is grieving needs is not instruction, criticism or indifference. The one who has suffered a loss needs to know that they are loved, and that others are sharing in their grief and loss with them. It is important to come alongside them and to offer them our love and support, even if it means just sitting silently with them in the midst of their pain.

I have been very blessed to have family and friends join me and my children in the midst of our loss. I am grateful God brought my mother and me back together after life had taken us away from each other. He redeemed the difficult situations in our home and now I have happy memories to carry with me until I see Mom again. There is much reason for gratitude in the midst of this loss.

So rather than having a great sorrow about losing Mom, right now I am feeling comfort and peace. Perhaps that will change later when life slows down and I can truly grieve the loss of the mother who invested so much in my life. Meanwhile I am looking forward to that new morning when the sky will be even more glorious than anything I saw today. May it come soon!

Heavenly Dad, I am grateful that we are not alone in the midst of our losses, but we have you and each other to carry us through. Thank you that in the Spirit, you and Jesus join with us in our suffering, offering us comfort, peace and hope. Lord, lift us up. Enable us to find and live out the new life you have in mind for us as we let go of the past and our loved ones, and move on into the future. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB