suffering

Poor as I Am

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By Linda Rex

Yesterday I found myself humming and whistling a tune as I was using Adobe InDesign® to create a brochure where I work. The tune just kept popping back into my head. When I finally paid attention to what it was, I realized it was the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” I was amused that this particular song was running around in my head, but I decided the intense summer heat made caroling quite appropriate—anything to stay cool!

It’s not unusual, though, for the Spirit to spark a hymn or spiritual song in my thoughts—many times this happens when I wake up in the morning, and it usually is an indication of what’s on God’s mind and/or my mind at the moment. I believe this is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he told the Ephesians, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; …” (Eph. 5:18b-19 NASB)

This carol has several stories associated with it, but just taken at face value, it tells how a king and his page determine to aid a poor man by bringing him food and wood for fuel during a severe winter snowstorm. The conclusion of the song tells us that those who bless people in need will themselves be blessed.

When I look back at my life, I did have times when life was very difficult for me and my family. We struggled to make ends meet, and I would have been very happy at times to have had someone to simply bring me food and fuel. But the truth is, if I am very honest with myself, no matter how bad things got, we were still very well off and blessed. We were not really in need the way people in other countries or even in certain places here in America struggle just to find their next meal or to have a place to live.

I believe there were very good reasons we were extremely blessed. First, we had a support system. We had family, friends, and church members who were willing to come alongside us and offer a helping hand, often without us even asking for help. They were not ashamed of our poverty but were willing to lend a hand as they saw a need.

On the other hand, they kept their distance when they knew it would not have been to our benefit or theirs for them to help us. I struggled with my attitude at times because we were left to struggle when we could have been helped. But as time when by, I began to see that I had things to learn which I would not have learned if someone had stepped in and taken care of things for me in those particular situations.

The other reason I believed we were so blessed and did not have to struggle as much as I know others struggle was because of God’s mercy. He was very gracious to us and answered prayers when I turned to him in total dependency upon him. So often a need which I believed was impossible to meet was taken care of when I brought it to him in prayer. And many of those times I knew I didn’t deserve God’s help because I had to admit the struggle was usually due to my own mismanagement or neglect. It was solely because of God’s gracious provision that we were blessed.

To struggle in life in some way, though, is to open a space for God to work—if we are willing—and to prepare us to be able to lift up and help others who are struggling. Because we have borne heavy burdens, we find we have the strength to come alongside those who are overburdened and to help ease their load. God doesn’t mean for us to carry every burden of every person—they need to be responsible for what is theirs. But we are to be there to help ease the burdens of those who cannot carry their own load by themselves. (Gal. 6:2, 5)

The real story inside the story I find in this Christmas carol may be something of my own creation—I don’t know. But what I see is Jesus inviting you and me to participate with him in his care of the poor and needy. Sometimes the storms in people’s lives are powerful and dangerous, and they may drive us away and sap our strength as we try to help. But as we walk in Christ by the Spirit, allowing him to walk in front of us and carry the weight of the storm, we will find the heart, strength, and endurance to continue in our service to others in spite of the difficulty and danger.

What’s been on my mind a lot lately is what Greg Williams wrote in his article “Mind the Gap.” He wrote: “We say we value being a healthy expression of church, actively following the Spirit in participating with Jesus in seeking the lost and making new disciples, but that is not what we always do. There is a gap between our aspirational values (what we say we value) and our actual actions. We need to close the gap…” It is so easy to have great intentions but not to actually live out the truth of what we believe.

For me, personally, this last couple years has been a reawakening to God’s call upon my life in a lot of areas. As a pastor it is easy to slip into a way of living in which there are gaps between what we believe and teach, and how we live out our daily lives. I certainly do not want to be a hypocrite, but if I am honest with myself, I have to admit in many areas how I live doesn’t necessarily match up with what I believe about who God is and who I am in Christ. And that grieves me deeply. It is not how I want to be. The good news is, though, that very grief shows the Spirit at work within me through Jesus Christ.

In other words, before we see ourselves as the page following in the king’s footsteps, we must first see ourselves as the poor man gathering sticks in the storm for a little fuel. Our own efforts are feeble at best—we do pretty well for a while, but when the storms of life come, we find ourselves inadequate to the task. Or we find that gathering sticks when we already have sticks is empty and fruitless work. Either way, we need to recognize that our poverty is poverty of spirit and heart, not always of physical provision. Receiving help for the moment is good, but we need help which will last into eternity.

This is why we need Jesus. We need to lay aside the old garments which are of no use to us any longer and put on Christ. The old ways which sustained us for so long need to be replaced by our new life in Christ. The poor man gathering fuel might have refused to receive the blessing offered him. If he had, he would have continued to suffer, not only going without food and fuel, but now also without companionship on his journey of suffering. In refusing the new life offered to him, his poverty would have increased all the more.

God does not mean for any of us to stay in our poverty-ridden state of unbelief and disobedience. We have been given all the heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus—this is our new life. We are included in God’s life and love and are encouraged to participate in all God is doing in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. We are blessed by God with all these gifts not so we can keep them to ourselves, but so we can share them with others. So, this is what we need to be actively doing—blessing others as we have been blessed. This is the perichoretic life.

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and your boundless grace in your Son Jesus. We pray by your Spirit that we will begin more and more to actually live out the truth of who we are in you and what Christ has forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. May we each and every day acknowledge our poverty of spirit and heart is fully supplied in Jesus, and freely share all these spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus with others. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. …You were running superbly! Who cut in on you, deflecting you from the true course of obedience?” Galatians 5:1, 7 MSG

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. …You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” Galatians 5:1, 7 NASB

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’

‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’

‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3674124/The-story-behind-the-carol-Good-King-Wenceslas.html: Accessed 7/12/2018)

Lost Children

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By Linda Rex

One of the Bible characters I admired most when I was younger was Daniel. I was impressed by the way even though he was overwhelmed with adverse circumstances throughout his life, he still came out on top. His devotion to God in the face of an anti-God culture has always been inspiring to me.

In his day, tyrants and despots ruled the known world. They believed they could move people about like pawns on a chess board (Sound like anyone we know today?). When Judah was conquered by Babylon, many of the people were carried away from their homes and taken to a new location. Daniel, a child of Israelite nobility, was along with others like himself, taken away from his country and family and placed in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace.

Now, true, Daniel was given the opportunity for three years to learn things many other people never had the privilege of learning. He was offered the finest of foods and wines and was being prepared to enter the king’s service. These were unimagined opportunities which no doubt other people longed for, but he had to pay a high price—giving up his nation, his people, and his God.

From the beginning, though, Daniel determined he would not sacrifice his personhood or his faith in God for the sake of this ruler and his political ambitions. He first risked the wrath of the king by asking to alter his diet to match the humble requirements of his faith—and was given permission to make the change. Throughout his life he came up against the simple question, do I do what is politically expedient and participate in evil plans, or do I stand for what is true and just, and do what I believe my God says I am to do?

The unique thing about Daniel is that he understood what his ruler did not fully understand—there is a God, and he is Lord of all. When he was a young child, he was forcibly removed from his family, taken to a new land, and put into a new environment. He had no control over what was done to him during this whole experience. But he did have faith in the God who did have control over it all, that he would work it out in the end for his best. And God did orchestrate Daniel’s life in amazing ways, allowing him and his Jewish companions to participate in bearing witness to the Babylonians about who God was.

We as human beings are often very arrogant. We presume to make decisions and to assume control of things in this world, acting as though we are in total control of the outcome. We have managed our world so well, with our technology and other advancements, that we feel we don’t need a God—God must just be a figment of our imagination. For centuries and even millennia the cry has been, “There is no God.” In this post-Christian culture, believing in God or in the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ is seen as a liability, a problem which creates trouble and bad feelings between people, not as a precious gift which creates healing and unity.

Sometimes leaders or business owners, especially here in the Bible belt, will use Christianity as the means by which they gain the trust of their constituents or customers. You may walk into a business which has a Bible verse prominently displayed on the wall above the counter, expecting to be treated honestly and justly. But beware—what is hung on the wall may have nothing to do with how they do business.

The problem is, when people rule themselves and others in such a way that God is set aside and replaced by dogmas or creeds of their own making, we end up with rulers like Nebuchadnezzar or Hitler. Hitler even went to the point he reconstructed the Bible to fit his agenda and reorganized the German church to fit in with his ambitions and prejudices. And, sadly, many people followed him and accepted his rule, not willing to stand against the evil he perpetrated.

The one who leads and does not acknowledge the living Lord will in the end answer to God for his or her decisions. Even Nebuchadnezzar had to deal with God, spending seven years in insanity before he humbled himself enough to acknowledge the authority of God in the world. Decisions leaders make are held to a high standard by God, because they affect the lives of many people—people who are unable to defend or protect themselves from a powerful government or leader. God will and does hold them accountable for the harm they perpetrate on innocent people and children.

The lives of those who are victims of the evil and/or injustice of such a leader will be redeemed and restored as they trust in the love and faithfulness of God. The story of Daniel reminds us there are ultimately no lost children. God has his hand on the lives and futures of each and every person who walks this earth. Whoever may be in power and whatever decisions they may make will ultimately be made subject to the will and purposes of our Almighty God who seeks our best, and who loves us so completely he was willing to sacrifice what he held most dear—his own unique Son.

In Christ, each and every person has hope. The Jesus who held children in his lap and blessed them is not indifferent to the suffering they have been subjected to in being torn from their families and homeland. They are intimately known and loved by our Abba, who knew them before the creation of the world and counted them as his very own in his Son, and he holds them in the midst of their trials and struggles.

As believers, we have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, and to provide hospitality and welcome to those who are far from home. We are to show mercy, do justly, and walk humbly before the God who created us and redeemed us. These are simple, and yet very difficult things to do, especially in the midst of a culture which seems to have opposing values. And yet, we continue to participate in our Abba’s love and Christ’s redeeming grace by the Spirit as we reach out to provide healing, help, and support to those who have lost home or family.

And we assume responsibility for our leadership of this country as we vote, participate in community leadership, and reflect the light of Jesus in the areas in which we live. And we never cease to pray not only for those who have lost home and family, but also for our leaders. We pray for those who are in positions of responsibility, that we can live at peace and in unity with one another and continue to freely share the good news of Abba’s love and grace expressed to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and the grace you have shown us in Jesus. We know you love each and every child and adult, no matter who they are. You hold each of us in your loving hands, whether we are lost or we are found, whether we have been stolen away or we are safe at home with our families. God, please remember those who are mourning the lost of their home and family this day—comfort them and keep your promise to place the lonely in loving families and homes. Lord, your justice is perfect and restorative—judge our leaders and cause them to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god. Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and appointed that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service. Now among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.” Daniel 1:1-6 NASB

Our Springs of Joy

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By Linda Rex

Advent—JOY

As one who has suffered on occasion from the blight of depression, I have a sympathetic heart for anyone who experiences living in this dark place. When a person is in the midst of such sadness and grief, it can take all of his or her effort just to do the simplest tasks of life.

This is not a place other people can come to and pull the sufferer out of. It is rather a place where those near and dear can come alongside and offer support, prayer, and encouragement. The best gift a person can offer to one suffering with depression is a constant and faithful relationship—a living presence with a willingness to sit in the darkness with the one struggling.

Sometimes we choose our darkness. Sometime the darkness is a result of other people’s bad choices. And other times, the darkness just is—it exists through no fault of our own. It is merely a result of health issues or circumstances. Darkness—an inner weight of crushing sadness and grief, or just loss of joy—can happen to anyone. Being depressed is not a sin, although it may at times be a symptom of an inner struggle.

For some of us, being depressed comes easily. The negativity through which we see the world becomes a lens which darkens our view each and every moment of our lives. This causes us to miss many opportunities for joy. We can be so used to the darkness that when the light enters, we close our eyes to protect them from its brightness.

Here during Advent, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, we may find ourselves resisting the holiday spirit, and feeling overwhelmed by loss and grief for various reasons. It is hard to feel upbeat when your heart is broken and your thoughts are filled with memories of what was and what could have and should have been. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness during a season which should be filled with great joy.

The Holy Spirit calls to us during Advent to remember the One who joined us in our darkness, who didn’t feel it was enough just to say he loved us, but who actually came and sat in the sadness, grief, sorrow, and death with us. For God it was not enough just to be gracious and loving—he did gracious and loving. He took on our humanity and lived shoulder-to-shoulder with each of us.

God’s judgment on sin and our proclivity to evil and our preference for the darkness was the precious gift of a baby in a manger—the Word of God in human flesh—Immanuel, God with us. God’s judgment on our darkness was a gift of joy in the Person of his Son. He judged all humanity worthy of grace and worthy of salvation, worthy of his presence in the midst of their evil, suffering, and death.

That dark, starry night as the shepherds sat with their flocks on a hill outside of Bethlehem, God entered this broken world welcomed by Joseph and Mary as the fulfillment of the word of God through an angel. This little baby may have seemed insignificant and unimpressive in his humble circumstances, but his birth was the cause of the celebration of the angels. As we read in Luke 2:

“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:8-14 NKJV)

Here was a message from God to his people—a message of peace and good will from God toward his people—a message of joy. These shepherds were astonished and overwhelmed, but their response was to seek out this baby to welcome him.

In our personal darkness, we may feel as though God has forgotten us, or as though we are lost in a dark night, barely holding ourselves together. But the truth we need to be reminded of is that God’s heart toward us has not changed. He is faithful and he still loves and cares for us. God has come into our darkness in the Person of the Word of God, and in Jesus Christ has lived our life, died our death, and carried us from death into life in his resurrection.

And it was not enough for God to join us in our broken humanity. He also sent his Spirit—pouring out on all the gift of life in his Son. The call to faith, is the call to believe in and embrace the joy, the good will of God toward each and every person in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. God has given us an inner source of joy in the gift of his personal presence in and with us in the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist said: “All my springs of joy are in you.” (Ps. 87:7b NASB)

The reality is, when we are in a dark place such as depression, depravity, or despair, we need a source beyond ourselves to raise us up and deliver us. We need a source of joy which is real and endless, and which will not be squelched by our stubborn desire to remain in the darkness. We need “springs of joy” to draw upon.

And God has given us this in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. We celebrate the breaking in of heaven into our darkness this time of year, and we find in the birth of Jesus Christ the hope, peace, and joy we would never have otherwise. He is the source of our true life, a life which God has lived in for all eternity, a life he is determined to share with you and me for all the eons to come. He calls us to trust—to believe in the truth: God is here. God is near. And he is with us forever. Immanuel—the most precious gift of all!

Dear Abba, thank you! Thank you for the precious gift of joy. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, sorrow, grief, and depravity, but giving us a way out—your own Son. Fill us by your Spirit with all your hope, peace, joy, and love—we do not find these things within ourselves. They are a gift. And so we thank you, and praise you with the angels, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout joyfully before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98 NASB

Message of the Ages

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by Linda Rex
Advent–PEACE
This morning I was listening to Casting Crowns sing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. In this song, the lyricist tells about how he was overwhelmed by the evil, pain, and suffering of the world around him, and how he allowed it to darken his view—until the light of grace and love dawned and he truly heard the eternal song, and it transformed his perspective.

Indeed, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the negativity in the world around us. How is it possible to continue to struggle day by day and never seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel? There are times in our lives when one bad thing happens after another, and soon we have lost hope anything will ever get better.

But God calls out to us in the midst of the midnight darkness in the cry of an infant. He proclaims the amazing news: “I am here! You are not forgotten! You are loved!” And he says to you and to me: “There is nothing which could ever come between us—nothing that could ever be so awful I will not enter into it and save you from it.”

And he is here. He is Immanuel. And in him, death, evil, and sin are defeated. We in our broken humanity, are rescued and brought into the marvelous light of the presence of Abba through Jesus.

We are included in the divine life. As we by the Spirit embrace the living Lord, we begin to realize we are not alone. The Spirit bears witness to our spirit—we are God’s adopted children, we are beloved, we belong. Abba holds us in his arms, welcomes us home to be with him forever, in his Son and by his Spirit.

Whatever struggles there may be in this life, whatever isolation we may feel, whatever suffering and abuse we may encounter—these are but a straw to be blown away by the wind of the Spirit. They are but a passing moment of pain in the midst of eternal joy and glory.

Yes, they are a real part of our human existence—something we must experience and endure. These things won’t just disappear. Rather, it’s our perspective which needs changed. We need to realize, as the apostle Paul wrote, it is in these moments of weakness we are strongest, for Christ is our strength and our redemption in the midst of our troubles, sorrows and struggles.

If there is one thing we as humans have proven over the millennia, it is we don’t know what we are doing. On our own, we are incapable of walking in the paths of peace with God and one another. Since the Garden of Eden when we chose the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have been determining for ourselves a path which involves achieving some human-defined goal of perfection. And along this path, we have found suffering, evil, death, and a host of human ills.

The way of peace—a way we have not known. We have tried to create our own paths of peace. We try conformity—forcing others to our will and expectations. We try silencing any voice other than our own. We try unlimited freedom and self-indulgence. But these only create suffering, chaos, or slavery.

But God offered us a tree of life—this life which is in his Son. This is the eternal life which Jesus himself defined as the intimate knowing of our Abba and his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit. This is a relational path—one of out-going love and care for God and others. This is the perichoretic life our heavenly Father, Son, Spirit-God has lived in for all eternity. This is the life we were created to dwell in. And this life—is the way of peace.

The way of peace is in reality a Person, not just a way of doing things. This Person lived his life in a communion of intimate relationship with our heavenly Father in the Spirit—in total freedom bounded only by outgoing love and concern, and filled with gracious compassion and purity of mind and heart. This Way of Peace, established in our humanity a way of being which defines us—it is the truth of who you and I really are. And he sent his Spirit so we could begin to live in the truth of our being as we embrace our divine life in him, in Jesus Christ.

God’s will toward you and me from the beginning has been a Spirit of good will. God wishes for you and me—peace—the same peace which he has dwelt in for all eternity in his perfect life as Father, Son, and Spirit. God so passionately desires we share in this peace with him, that he came in person, and joined with us in our broken humanity in Jesus Christ, so we could experience true peace.

And on that starry Bethlehem night, he came—a tiny, fragile human life—an infant in the arms of a young mother. And as Abba promised through the prophet Micah centuries before: “This One will be our peace.” Abba knew it would take nothing less than the gift of his Son for us to experience true peace.

This Advent, may you begin to experience more and more the blessing of true peace, with God and with others, through Jesus Christ our Lord by his heavenly Spirit. May God bless you with his true peace.

Abba, thank you for the gift of peace through your Son, the Prince of Peace. Thank you for being our God of Peace, who through your Spirit of Peace enables us to share in your heavenly peace. Grant us the grace to embrace the truth of who we are in Jesus, and to walk in the way of peace you have established for us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. Therefore He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the bends of the earth. This One will be our peace.” Micah 5:2-5a NASB

“To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, ‘to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:77–79 NASB

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 NASB

The Subtlety of Unbelief

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By Linda Rex

On Wednesday evenings at our discussion group we have been addressing the topic of hell. One of the concerns which was raised this week was how we determine whether or not we are getting off track in our reading and studying. This is a really good question.

Sometimes we can be so afraid of being deceived or getting off track we become afraid of reading anything other than the Bible. We can take this fear even to the place where we restrict our reading of the Bible to only one translation, or we only use a Bible put out by our particular denomination, rejecting all others as heretical.

At other times we may believe only one particular Bible teacher has the truth about God’s Word. We read everything this person writes, listen only to this person speaking, and we believe they are the only ones who really know the truth about God’s Word. We refuse to listen to what anyone else may have to say about the Bible or what to believe because we do not trust them to be telling the truth.

Unfortunately, our approach to learning about God and about the Bible may end up being governed by fear and mistrust rather than by the faith, hope, and love God gives to us in Christ by the Spirit. Instead of resting in Jesus Christ and trusting he will keep us in the center of his will, we anxiously work to make sure we don’t accidentally wander off the path of holiness.

The Scriptures say God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and sound mind. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth as we trust in Christ and allow him to lead us. Yes, it is important to ground ourselves in the Word of God, but only as we allow the living Word of God to take precedence in all things, and allow the Holy Spirit to convict us of where we may be getting off track.

This whole process of studying the written Word of God and seeking to know the truth which will set us free is a relational effort—a participation with Christ by the Spirit in listening to, hearing, and acting upon what the Father is saying to us in the Scriptures. The question is, do we trust God to keep us on the right track, and if we wander off somewhere, to bring us back to the Truth who is Jesus Christ?

How do we gauge if a teaching or a translation is off track? How do we know if what someone is teaching doesn’t agree with the truth presented to us in Christ? And this is the key: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our living relationship with our Abba, and he gives his Spirit to us to lead us into all truth. He is the center.

When we begin to look at difficult topics such as hell, we begin with the appropriate lens. That lens is the Lord Jesus Christ and who he is as God in human flesh, and what he teaches us about the Father, himself, and the Spirit, and what he teaches us about ourselves. This grounds us and enables us to see more clearly the difference between truth and error. Looking through this lens also involves comprehending, believing, and receiving the reality of God’s love expressed to us in the giving of his Son and his Spirit for salvation and redemption.

We need to stay centered in the incomprehensible reality God willed not to be God without us: he chose before time began to include us in his life and love, and so he ordained before time began to send his Son in human flesh to draw us up into life in himself. Understanding and believing in the truth of this reality enables us to begin to read the Scriptures with greater clarity and less confusion. We are less likely to be swept aside by false concepts of God and eschatology (any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.).

What God did for us in Jesus wasn’t an afterthought or a reaction to what humanity did, but rather what he intended all along. It was not an outflow of his anger against humanity or the rejection of his Son, but rather an embracing of all of us as lost, broken, rebellious children in need of redemption. That God, in his freedom to be the God he is, would do something new—not only creating creatures to share life with, but also joining them to himself forever—is an amazing and wonderful thing.

It is equally amazing that he who lived ever and always in love, joy, and peace, was willing to reconcile suffering, sorrow, and evil with himself in such a way it would be forever nullified and transformed into the very thing which binds us to himself in love.

Jesus is God’s judgment on sin, evil, and death. This judgment (or krisis) each of us encounters is not something or Someone which we should fear, but the Person which we should embrace in faith, trusting Christ is for us all we need in the face of our sin, brokenness, and depravity. Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, is the perfect answer or response to God for each one of us, no matter our situation or history or failure.

For this reason, we have nothing to fear when it comes to seeking to know God more fully and completely. Christ has gone ahead of us and has sent his Spirit so we might know which direction to go.

Yes, we have the responsibility to choose our teachers wisely. They need to coincide in their teaching and life with what we know about who Jesus Christ is as the God/man, and who he reveals God to be in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit. Our teachers need to be willing to submit to being taught and to sit humbly under the mentorship of those with greater spiritual depth, maturity, and knowledge. The Spirit in them will resonate with the Spirit in us, and we will begin to see with greater clarity the magnitude and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ in their teaching.

One of the healthiest things we can do to keep ourselves on the right track is to find other believers who are well-grounded in Christ and to study the Word of God with them. As we pray together, listen to the written Word of God together, and wrestle with our questions and thoughts about what we are learning, the Holy Spirit brings us into a deeper knowledge and understanding of the truth. As we are open to it, we have brothers and sisters who can point out when we are drifting away from our center in Christ. And at the same time, we by the Spirit are growing into a deeper fellowship with God and one another.

Are there times when we may wander off the path? No doubt. But this is why it is essential to walk by faith, not by sight. We trust in the perfect work of Christ and in the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We hold all we read, hear, and see up against the mirror of the living Word of God as revealed in the written Word of God, and we ask ourselves, does this agree with the truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ? Does this diminish Christ or magnify him? And we go from there—it’s a walk of faith.

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son the living Word, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Keep us on the narrow path of faith, and free us from fear and anxiety about missing the mark. When we wander here and there, please bring us back to our center in Christ. We thank you that you are faithful and dependable, and that you will not leave us as orphans, lost or without direction. Open your written Word to our understanding, and transform our hearts by faith, we pray, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:1-6 NASB

Sharing the Gospel Amid Abundance

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By Linda Rex

Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.

One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.

After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.

As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.

These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.

The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.

Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.

Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.

Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.

But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.

In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.

It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.

This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?

The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.

The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.

And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB

“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB

Finding Blessings in Disaster and Suffering

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By Linda Rex

Last night my daughter and I crammed ourselves into the bathroom under the stairs along with our disaster essentials. Every time we left the room thinking the danger was past we would hear the tornado siren go off again. So back into the bathroom we would go.

The air conditioning went out earlier this week so we were getting pretty hot and steamy in our little cramped place. While I tried to cram some more from the commentaries for Sunday’s sermon, Eva started watching “Man from Snowy River” on her laptop. I love the scenery and music on the movie like she does, so I had a hard time concentrating on what I was doing. The movie then prompted conversation on all sorts of topics, even leading us to watch and listen to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Yes, I just looked it up to make sure I spelled it correctly.)

Even though I was pretty tired from lack of sleep, I was super grateful this morning to find we came away from the storm without any damage to our property. But I was sorry to see others were not quite so fortunate.

As I was reflecting on all this, I realized I don’t want anyone to have to struggle or suffer yet these are golden opportunities for the beauty of God’s love and grace to shine through. When these dangerous and difficult times come into our lives, they have a tremendous potential for building interdependence and for fostering deeper relationships with the people in our lives.

I remember many years ago up in Iowa when an ice storm shut down our power for over 24 hours. Yes, we were cold—it was in the teens outside. But we were blessed with a propane furnace in the basement from which the heat rose to the first floor, keeping the house about 50 degrees. We snuggled in blankets in the warmest place we could find in the house and played Monopoly by candlelight. The fun and sharing in the midst of our struggle is what I remember most about that disaster.

Now, I can think of other disasters which were devastating to me and my family financially or otherwise which we did not handle as well. What I have found is the difference lies in our ability to realize and believe the presence and power of God is with us in the midst of whatever is happening. When we have the peace of knowing and believing we are held in God’s love and care, there is a sense of rest and freedom which accompanies our trust in him.

It’s as though the Holy Spirit just pours over us a deep sense of calmness and even joy in the midst of the pressing circumstances. This doesn’t mean we are floating around on some false fairy cloud, but rather, in the midst of this place where evil is occurring, we have a sense there is a deeper mystery at work—one in which the Spirit is in the process of taking all this and turning it into something worthwhile, meaningful, and worthy of praise. And we can join in this mystery by trusting in the faithful love and grace of our God who is mightier than any evil force which may come against us.

Granted, sometimes the disasters which strike us are so evil and so devastating we are left numb and immobilized. We are so deeply wounded in these moments our response is anything but trusting and hopeful—especially when we are hit repeatedly by overwhelming events.

In these moments, it is important to lean on those in our lives who can lift us up by trusting in our place. They can pray when we have no words left. They can help us through one more day when we don’t know what we’re going to do next. And this is the calling of the body of Christ in Jesus’ command we love one another. This is the work the Spirit does in and through community in the midst of disaster and suffering.

Too many of us shut ourselves off from, or live and act in ways which destroy, meaningful relationships in our lives. And then we are left high and dry when we need someone to come alongside and help us. Sometimes merely circumstances which are out of our control cut us off from relationships which would normally offer us support, help and encouragement in the midst of suffering. In either of these situations, it would be helpful to know there are people willing and able to come alongside us to offer their assistance in spite of our failures or our circumstances.

I was looking at some of the reports on what was happening in Texas and Louisiana, and soon I was seeing pictures of people helping one another. Such physical acts of mercy and kindness crossed all relational borders. The compassion and caring of one human being for another and for animals and the environment was wonderful to see. This is the heart of Abba expressed in and by these people whether they realize it or not.

No matter how powerful evil and evildoers may get, I do not believe they can ever surpass the power of God’s presence and love expressed through human beings for one another and for the environment in which we live. Sometimes it may seem as though evil is winning. But I have learned we tend to see most clearly what we look for. If we only pay attention to the evil going on around us, I believe we may miss the kindness and goodness of God which is at work all around us in this world, especially since it often takes a different form from what we expect and it often works behind the scenes in invisible ways.

My heart and prayers go out to all those carrying an unbearable burden today. May you find in the midst of your suffering and difficulty the resilience to try one more time and to take one more step. May you be surrounded with caring, supportive people. And may you know beyond a shadow of doubt, you are loved and you are held in the unsurpassable love and grace of God.

Abba, thank you for remembering each and every person who is struggling today. Thank you for opening doors for them. Thank you for providing for their needs. Thank you for healing their wounds. And thank you for surrounding them with people who will protect them, love them, comfort them, help them, and challenge them. We know you hold each and every one of them in your love and grace through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; he will lift me up on a rock. And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, and I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.” Psalm 27:4–6 NASB