By Linda Rex
August 9, 2020, PROPER 14—When the disciples finished feeding the five thousand and walked about gathering up what was leftover of the bread and fish, they must have felt a sense of elation and maybe even triumph. The miracle Jesus had just done was so much like the manna that came through Moses—surely he was the Prophet spoken of! But there was a significant problem with the thoughts going through everyone’s mind right then.
Jesus never meant to establish a powerful political human government at that time. His purpose was not to become solely the provider of physical bread and physical healing. His life and ministry had a much deeper purpose—to be, as he already was, the Savior of all humankind.
As Jesus practically pushed his disciples into a boat to cross the lake, he sought to stop the momentum of the crowd’s passionate appeal to make him king. As the disciples left, he disbursed the crowd and made his way up the mountain to have time alone with his heavenly Father.
Jesus was in grave need of his Abba’s strength, power, and wisdom in the face of this human temptation to take matters into his own hands and rule under his own power. During his wilderness wandering the evil one had tempted him with this very thing. And he knew, after what had happened to John his cousin, what the most likely outcome of his ministry would be if he continued on this path of humility, compassion and service. He needed to keep himself in tune with his Father, in the oneness of the Spirit so he could finish what God had set out to do.
The communion of the Father and the Son was apparent as Jesus spent hours up on the mountain with his Abba. Meanwhile the disciples were making their way across the lake. A powerful storm blew up and the disciples were afraid for their lives. Great waves rose and fell, filling the boat with water. The wind blew harshly, tossing the boat about and making forward progress impossible.
Somewhere between three and six o’clock in the morning while it was pitch black out on the choppy water, they saw a figure walking across the lake. All of their superstitious fears arose—they thought they were seeing a ghost. People at that time believed that unembodied spirits haunted the deep waters late at night, and here one had found them. They were terrified.
Jesus must have sensed their terror for he called out, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” In the other gospels we learn that Jesus intended to pass by them and go on to the other side of the lake by himself. But when he saw their distress, he had compassion on them and came to them in the midst of the battering waves.
Many times, when life gets complicated, when we feel like we are in danger of drowning in debt, in relational quicksand, in depression, or other struggles in life, we feel as though there is no hope to continue on. What efforts we make might be like those of these disciples in the boat, fruitless, powerless against the force of the storm. In the darkness it may be difficult to see where we are going or how we ever are going to get safely home. We may be endlessly going in circles, finding ourselves right back where we started from—or worse.
What we must remember at times like these is that what we may believe is a ghost or phantom, someone who has forsaken us, is actually our Lord coming to us in the midst of the battering waves. There is a genuine, real Savior who is master of the storm, who can still the wind and waves simply with a word.
Impulsive Peter wanted Jesus to prove who he was by inviting him out to walk on the water too. And he did. Peter and Jesus were the only humans to ever do this—but there was a difference between them. The minute Peter took his eyes off Jesus and began to focus on the wind and the waves, he began to sink into the water. He was completely dependent upon Jesus saving him. He had no power over the storm. It was when Jesus entered the boat with Peter that the storm ceased—and this drove the disciples to their knees in worship.
The reality we must come to terms with is that our existence is dependent upon God. We are at the mercy of our creation in ways we don’t want to admit to. For millennia we have worked to master this world and all its intricacies. But there are still things we don’t have control over—earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes—other natural occurrences. We have made great progress in dealing with COVID-19, but we have at no point come up with the power to stop the disease simply with a word. Only one human has ever had that power—and he was God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.
Nor do we have the power of redemption that Jesus has. There is a way where God can, and does, take the horrific experiences of our lives and redeem them—turn them into good, in spite of the harm they have done. The storm created havoc in the lives of the disciples, but Jesus turned it into an opportunity for them to grow in faith and in their knowledge of him as Lord and Savior. The storms in our lives, if we are willing, are opportunities for us to grow in our ability and desire to trust in Christ and to come to a deeper appreciation of our need for him and his love and provision. As we turn to Christ in faith, he can take these storms and use them as opportunities to refine us, to transform and heal us.
Coming to a realistic affirmation of who we are as God’s children is a great place to be, for there we find comfort, peace, assurance and hope. Today, are you feeling battered by the waves in your life? Do you feel tossed about, forsaken, hopeless? Perhaps you need to look up, to hear Jesus’ words to you, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” Ask Jesus to awaken you to his presence in you and with you in the midst of the battering waves. Fasten your eyes on him, walk with him, and ignore the storm—he’ll take care of it in his good time. Thank him for his faithful love and grace as master of the storm. Worship him in gratitude and praise.
Dear Jesus, this world’s storms toss us about, blow us around in circles, and steal our hope. We know you are the Lord of all, our Savior and Deliverer. Grant us the faith to keep our eyes on you, no matter how bad the storms get. Speak your word of life and hope—carry us through these storms and silence them all in your good time. May your Spirit breathe life, peace, and hope to calm the battering waves in our lives and in this world. Keep us in our Abba’s hand and bring us safely to shore. Amen.
“Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” Matthew 14:22–33 NASB
By Linda Rex
TRANSFIGURATION—Lately I have had to reexamine the way in which I view people in my life. I thought that I was very open to people growing and changing. But God has shown me that I’m not as gracious and open to his work in people’s hearts and lives as I thought I was.
I’m also being reminded that real love works towards the other person’s best rather than only working toward their happiness. I grew up believing it was important to keep the people in my life happy. In reality this is a very selfish approach to life because the effort to keep people happy is more about my comfort level and my convenience than it is necessarily about the well-being of those around me. It’s not wrong to want to bring joy to the people in my life, but that is significantly different in my mind than just trying to keep them happy—a task which is nigh to impossible and ultimately comes under the heading of codependency and enabling.
To bring joy to someone is more than just keeping them happy. We can feel loving toward someone but our love for them must move beyond feeling into expressions of genuine love. Real love for someone takes conscious effort and discipline. One chooses to express love to another, using one’s reason along with responding to one’s feelings. These expressions of love seek the other person’s best interests and personal growth, rather than just giving the other person what they want, when and how they want it.
When we grow up in a family in which love was not expressed in healthy ways, our efforts to love can actually be sick and maybe even destructive. In some families the parents discipline their children in the name of love, but do so in ways which are abusive and cruel. The discipline God gives us isn’t abusive and cruel but rather is laden with mercy and compassion. In fact, the curse and death we deserved because of our sinful ways and thoughts, Jesus took upon himself. He allowed us to crucify him and kill him, and did not retaliate in any way.
Love as expressed by God is self-sacrificial, humble, yielding, and gracious. And yet, God’s love always seeks our best. His purpose in taking on our humanity, living the life we were meant to live, dying our death, and rising again was so that we could fully become and be the people God intended us to be from the beginning. The apostle Paul uses the concept of having letters etched on a page, and Jesus taking our hand and writing those letters with us (and on our hearts) by the Holy Spirit. Jesus not only went before us, but by the Spirit, goes before us and with us as we grow in Christlikeness.
This beautiful love of God as expressed to us in Christ and in the gift of the Holy Spirit is meant to transform us and to draw us deeper into loving relationship with God. The reality of our human brokenness doesn’t alter God’s love for us, rather it awakens his compassion and moves him to do everything possible to bring healing, renewal, and transformation. God is ever working to transform us into the image of Christ, because even now Christ bears our true humanity in his Person as he is united forever with us in hypostatic union.
When I say that we work towards another person’s best interests and personal growth, I do not mean that we work to change them. Changing people is the sole dominion of the Holy Spirit. We can participate in the Spirit’s work by allowing our own selves to be grown up in Christlikeness and by expressing genuine godly love so we are a positive influence in someone’s life. We can tell them about our own broken path which Jesus has worked to heal and transform by the Holy Spirit. But we do not and cannot change another person. Often our efforts to change someone actually cause them to become more deeply entrenched in unhealthy ways of being and living.
I learned this the hard way and never want to try to do it ever again. The human tendency is to try to fix people and situations which in reality only God can fix. It is the Spirit’s work. And sometimes he will not work his transforming work in someone’s heart and life until we get out of the way and allow him to do it. Even the twelve-step program recovering addicts follow teaches that we cannot change another person—we can only work on ourselves. And as for me, even changing myself is problematic—I need God to change me, as I really struggle to change anything about myself.
What if someone in our lives is actually changing? What if they are growing up in Christ and beginning to manifest new ways of being and doing? How supportive are we of those changes? It is much too easy hold someone to their past ways of being and doing and to their brokenness, and not allow them to move into their new life in Christ. At the first sign of struggle or failure, we say, “They’re just the same as they’ve always been” and turn away in disgust.
I’m grateful God has not done that to me. When Paul uses the Greek word we draw our modern word “metamorphosis” from, I cannot but help think of the process which turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. The change from a leaf-eating monster into a beautiful nectar drinking butterfly is a long and difficult process. It actually includes the complete destruction of the caterpillar’s body and its reconstruction into something new. And this takes time.
And in exiting the cocoon, the butterfly goes through an intense struggle. If it did not press its wings through the small opening, it would never be able to fly. So the struggle is part of the process. We, as well-meaning friends and family, often snip the hole to make it larger so the struggle is not so difficult. But that only harms the butterfly. We can participate through being present, encouraging, praying, but we don’t want to do for the butterfly what it needs to do on its own.
I’m committing myself to becoming more aware of what God is doing in another person’s life and how I can be a helper in their joy. I want to encourage, pray, and be present as the people I encounter walk the road of transformation. I want to embrace and thank God for the work he has done and is doing to grow people into the likeness of his Son Jesus. And I want to fully participate in what God is doing to transform and change me. I hope you will join me in this commitment.
We are approaching Ash Wednesday this week. It is a good time to reflect not only on our brokenness and need for God’s mercy and rescue in Jesus, but also on the deliverance God has given us through his death and resurrection, and on the power of God to heal, transform, and renew given to us in the Person and presence of the Holy Spirit. May God bless you on your own personal journey of transformation.
Thank you, Abba, that you love us so much you want us to reflect your glory, the glory which shown in the person of Jesus Christ. Enable us to see what you are doing to grow those around us in Christlikeness and what you are doing to grow us up in Christ as well. Holy Spirit, we trust you to finish your perfect work in them and in us. Thank you for never stopping, but always working for our best, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NASB
By Linda Rex
Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.
As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.
It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.
I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.
One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:12–13 NASB) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).
God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.
In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.
As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.
When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?
To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”
Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.
The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)
by Linda Rex
The other night in our weekly discussion group, we talked about why God allows bad things to happen to innocent children and to “good” people. I put “good” in quotes because in reality, the goodness any of us do have is merely a reflection of and participation in God’s goodness. So why does God allow people to harm others, especially the innocent and those who are defenseless?
This can be a difficult question to answer sometimes, because not everyone is open to the possibility of owning responsibility for the way we as humans live our lives and the many ways we hurt and abuse one another. It is as if we want to hold God responsible for our faults and shortcomings.
It’s God’s fault, we say, that so-and-so abused his neighbor’s child, and so he grew up to be an abuser of children. It’s God’s fault that priest or pastor was unfaithful to his wife and destroyed his marriage. Sounds whacky, doesn’t it? Is it really God’s fault we make stupid choices and hurt each other?
Think about it. Say, you are a parent and you have three children, and you send them to play outside. You tell them to behave themselves and to not get into trouble. You want them to get along and have fun while they are out there.
In about an hour, you begin to hear screaming and crying, so you go out to investigate. One child is on the ground, with a big bump on her arm, obviously in great pain. Another child is yelling at the oldest child, tell him what an idiot he is. The oldest child is holding a large stick, with which he quite obviously hit his sister. Now I ask you—how could it possibly be your fault that your daughter got injured and all your children are quarreling?
Well, we could say it is your fault, because you sent them outside to play by themselves. You didn’t go with them. We could say it is your fault because you didn’t watch them every minute they were out there, telling them what to do and what not to do as they were playing. We could say it is your fault this happened because you allowed your children to play with sticks. There’s a lot of ways in which we could place the blame on you—but would you really be at fault?
Placing blame nearly always happens when we are not willing to be responsible for what is ours. If you want your children to grow up into healthy adults, they need opportunities to learn how to play nicely with others. Part of that learning process is having minimally supervised playtime where they have to apply what they have learned about getting along with other children. As they negotiate the rocky road of relationship building, they will make mistakes, and injuries will happen. As parents, we just try to minimalize the hurts while maximizing the learning.
God didn’t just send all humanity out to play though, and then ignore them. That’s the difference. What he did was to take on a human body in Jesus Christ, and join us in our humanity. He experienced, just as we do, the ups and downs of human life, including the unjust and degrading imprisonment, torture and crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. He allowed us as human beings to dump our worst on him so he could redeem it and turn it into his best.
Because, in Christ, the worst we as humans have done has been turned into our transformation. We have a new humanity which Jesus forged in the midst of all he lived and suffered while he played with us here on earth. We don’t have to stay in the brokenness which is ours, but can embrace the gift of a new way of thinking and being, and Christ’s way of living together. He illustrated for us and formed in us the unity amid diversity in equality the Father, Son and Spirit live in, and sent his Holy Spirit so we can live in this way with one another.
But we as human beings have always insisted on doing things our way. Just like stubborn, rebellious children, we believe we know what is best, and that our way is the only way that matters. And we are reaping the results of this way of believing and behaving. And God is not at fault in this—we are.
It’s okay to accept the reality we are messed up human beings. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves. We do not live the way we are meant to live. And that’s why Jesus came—so we could share in the truth of real loving relationship with God and one another.
God doesn’t prevent all the bad things from happening to us, but rather takes them and uses them as a means to heal and restore relationships with him and with others. These bad things, if we are willing to place them where they belong—at the feet of Jesus, become our stepping stones to a greater maturity and a deeper walk with the God who created us.
Assuming responsibility for what is ours is key. We need to own the truth when we mess up our lives. As human beings, we need to accept the reality we are broken and flawed people. This is not God’s fault, other than he allowed us the freedom to choose, so he would not have robots or animals, but persons who could live in loving relationship with the divine Persons.
God has given us personhood. And this personhood means there are things which are ours and things which are God’s—and the line really doesn’t become blurred, except in Jesus. He, as the perfect God/man, is the one who takes what is ours and transforms it, healing it, and restoring it to the place where God meant for it to be in the first place. Jesus made and makes for us the decisions we ought to have made but didn’t—and then by the Spirit—he gives them to us.
But we are always responsible for what is ours—God doesn’t do for us what is ours to do. We receive what Jesus has done and begin to live in the truth of who we are in him. We no longer live as bratty children who stubbornly want our own way. We begin to play nice, and to get along with our siblings the way we should so we can have a happy family.
We take the bumps and bruises, the encounters with hurtful people, and allow God to transform them into compassion, understanding, and a willingness to help and heal others. We comfort others who are suffering with the comfort we receive from Christ in the midst of our own suffering. And stronger, healthier relationships of love and acceptance result.
In Christ, all these negative, hurtful experiences can become the means by which God binds us to himself and to one another—if we are willing. When we stop blaming God and put the blame where it really belongs and receive the grace given to us in Jesus Christ, we find ourselves beginning to heal and to have a heart to help others who are in need of healing and restoration. May God give us compassionate, understanding hearts as he works to heal and restore all we have broken and wounded.
Heavenly Father, thank you for forgiving us all the times we do not get along with one another, and when we hurt and abuse one another and ourselves. Grant us the grace to bring our wounds and broken selves to you, to allow you to transform and heal us with the life you have given us in your Son Jesus. May we become more and more like you each day, learning to live in the truth of who we are as your beloved, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 NASB
by Linda Rex
Last evening I attended a neighborhood association meeting for the community around our Nashville church site. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to meet and get to know our neighbors a little better and to see them at work as they join together to bring improvements to the Highland Heights neighborhood.
One of the things being impressed on my mind more and more as I build these relationships is the understanding that God often works in community. Although I would not characterize all of these people necessarily as “churchgoers”, nevertheless I see in them a sincere desire to do the right thing and to make their world a better, safer place in which to live. I see them participating in God’s love and life—his work in the world to further his kingdom life right here and right now in the midst of difficult and sometimes alarming circumstances.
The longer I have served in this neighborhood, the more God has worked to change my attitude and approach toward this community. When I first came to the Nashville area, I was overwhelmed by the urban sprawl and the impersonal way of living and being which comes with living in the big city. I was frightened by the prospect of interacting with people in the church neighborhood because the community seemed dark and dangerous. Some of the people who we sought to help seemed to bring with them chaos, dishonesty and a determined effort to use and abuse those of us who wished to help them.
Since that time I have had multiple opportunities to meet and become acquainted with people who live and work in the neighborhood surrounding our church. I have found the demographic is dynamic—it is constantly changing. And our neighborhood is in the midst of a transition which is creating its own struggles and dangers.
I have learned our neighbors want a place where they can live together in peace, where their children can play safely in the front yard, and where they can enjoy their belongings without fearing someone will come and steal them. They want to have community events where they can get together and do fun stuff like at their recent East Eggstravaganza, which provided a safe environment for kids to play, learn and have fun. They just want what we all want—to live joyfully together in peace, being able to go about our lives without concern or fear.
This sounds to me like our neighbors want to live in Christian community, although I realize they would not call it by that name. And they would not want to have anyone limit them to a “Christian” or “church” box in order to have that community. Sadly, for them, “church” and “Christian” have negative connotations, because they are perceived as a means of restricting community not creating community.
And I do not believe this is what God intends. Too often our modern Christianity here in the West has had the “us” against “them” mentality. Some are “in” while others are “out”. We fail to realize God does not work within our restrictions. I have met many people who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully but who are disenchanted by the gracelessness and pride of the modern church, and so they do not attend church services. But they are active in creating Christian community and following Christ.
There was a time here in America where a church building was a place the community would gather, where children might be schooled, where community concerns were raised and resolved, and where the community would come together for celebrations. Not everyone was a Sunday-go-to-meeting type of person, but they knew the church building was where the people came together for the essential matters of life in their community.
Today, however, a church is seen as non-essential, as even intrusive upon a community. It was suggested last night that our neighborhood group could meet in the community center at a church since it was a quieter venue, and more conducive to gathering as a group and talking. But a valid concern was raised—wouldn’t people be put off from attending meetings by the knowledge they were being held at a church?
There was discomfort with the idea of meeting in a church building, even though we would not be meeting in the church proper, because there was this innate fear someone would try to force them into believing something or doing something they were not comfortable with. There was not a perception of the church building as being simply a community gathering place.
This whole experience has been enlightening to me. I am beginning to understand more and more why there is a disconnect between us as a church community and our neighborhood community. The two ought to be so intertwined that it is hard to see the difference. Even though they are not one and the same community, they both include participants in God’s life and love. They are both at work in their own way of furthering his kingdom work in the world.
God is at work in every person’s life, whether they know it or not. And God is at work in these community groups, calling people together to do his work in the world. We can continue to isolate ourselves and create unnecessary divisions between “us” and “them”, or we can participate in his work to create harmony and unity, and to bring healing, health and wholeness to a broken world.
Our little church community in Nashville has been serving the people of their neighborhood for many years with the weekly lunch we serve at our Community Café. We have been striving to build healthy relationships with the people we meet, to serve and pray for them at this event every Sunday. This is an effort to serve our neighbors—and in my mind is very much a way exclusive of our worship services in which we hold “church” every week. We participate in God’s work in the neighborhood in this way.
But there are also other ways in which we can stop being “churchy” and start being good neighbors. We can become a community center where people can gather for fun and fellowship. We can begin to participate in community events and help to keep our neighborhood safe and clean. We can help tend to the needy, poor, the widow(er)s and orphans. There is much to be done when it comes to participating in God’s work in our neighborhood.
Whether or not people become members of our church or become Christians as a part of this process, in my mind, is irrelevant. That’s God’s call and is up to him whether or not that occurs—such things are a work of his Spirit. What matters most is we are being what God created us to be, his children living in harmony, unity, in our own diverse manner as equals in a loving, compassionate community. As we serve one another in love, following Christ wherever he leads us, we will find ourselves and our community transformed. May we be diligent in so doing.
Abba, thank you for all the brothers and sisters you have given us in Christ your Son and by your Spirit. Change our minds and hearts so we will begin to include others in our life of fellowship, and we will begin to participate more fully in what you are doing in this world to create your community which reflects the oneness, diversity and equality and love in your being as God. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:23
By Linda Rex
I’m sure by now that many of you have fallen off your January resolutions for self-improvement and life improvement. And I’m sure many of you are currently in the process of self-flagellation, beating yourself up because you didn’t meet your own expectations, whatever they were.
It is a given that we are broken human beings and we struggle with habits and behaviors that often are not healthy and life-giving. And most all of us want to improve ourselves, have better relationships, and grow as individuals. Now I’m all for New Year’s resolutions, but too often they are our own attempt at self-discipline, rather than a lifestyle change rising out of the deep inner power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, which is the spiritual gift of self-control.
When we look at the Scriptures which talk about being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and we are reminded at this time of year when we celebrate Christ’s transfiguration that we are being transformed from our human glory to the glory that is Christ’s, I think it is real easy to look at transformation as being something solely behavioral. What I mean is we often think that our transformation means that we will be better people who will act in better ways.
Indeed, God wants to transform our behavior, but I believe that he wants to go much deeper than that. I believe God wants to transform our inner being. And he wants to transform our relationship with himself—so that in relationship with him we become the people he created us to be—his adopted children who live eternally in intimate relationship with him and one another for all eternity.
It occurred to me this morning as I contemplated the transfiguration that what Jesus said about this process was significant. When he prayed to the Father the night before his crucifixion, it is recorded that he asked that the glory he was given by the Father would be given to those who were his so “that they may be one, just as we are one”. In other worlds, the purpose for sharing in Christ’s glory, in Jesus’ mind, was not so much that we become good people, but that we could and would share in the unity, the intimacy, the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
Jesus’ prayer was a request with regards to unity and oneness. Going on, he said, “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity.” This has to do with our sharing in the divine perichoresis or mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit. This is a relational oneness that we struggle to have with almost everyone in our lives.
Apart from the grace of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, it is difficult or next to impossible for us to have the relationships in our lives the way we should have. We don’t realize how often the Spirit is at work interceding between us with one another and in our relationship with God so that we can have unity, peace and harmony. I think if we did, we would be a whole lot bolder and consistent about asking the Spirit through Jesus to intercede in every relationship in our lives, whether individually, as communities, or as nations.
Indeed, it is our rejection of our Father, Jesus and the Spirit who indwell human hearts that creates such havoc in our lives. When we are fully in control of all that happens in a relationship and insist that others behave in the ways we think they should behave—we create havoc and destruction in those relationships. When we suffocate the people in our lives because we expect them to take the place only God should take in our lives, we reap the consequences that go with such behavior. When we demand things from others that only God can do for us, we create relational holes that are impossible to fill.
God created us for relationships. They are important and essential to our human existence. Introvert or extrovert, we all need people in our lives to love us, to affirm us, and for us to share life with. Some of the saddest people I know are those who have shut out everyone and have holed up in a place all by themselves. The twisting of the human soul often comes with the significant relationships in our lives harming or attempting to destroy us. And it is only through loving, healthy relationships with God and one another that we find true healing.
Our behavior is often a reflection of what is going on inside of us. It rises out of the depths of our being—the being that we really are inside, not what we project to everyone around us. There are times when we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and we can’t figure out why.
This is because there are depths to our being we push down or hide away, or reject because either we don’t want to face them, or we are afraid to let them surface because we may not be able to control what happens when we do allow them to come to light. Indeed, there are times when it would be good to see a counselor or therapist to get help with these deep issues of the heart. And in other cases, to be in a spiritual community where we can be authentic, transparent and accepted is essential.
But other times it’s more a matter of inviting the divine Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to go with us into the dark places and inviting him to bring the healing light of our divine Physician Jesus Christ there. And God will heal us as we ask and cooperate with him in our healing.
Transformation of our lives begins first by the transformation God gives us through Jesus and in the Spirit in our relationship with himself. God draws us near so that we can draw near to others.
When we have a strong foundation in our lives of a deep, intimate relationship with God through Jesus and in the Spirit, we will find that our relationships will begin to reflect that change. Sure, some of them will fall away because there is no room for God or the divine realities in them. But others will begin to heal and blossom and grow. And as we choose to respond to God’s guidance in making healthy choices in our relationships, we will find ourselves in the midst of a healthy spiritual community, and we will find ourselves beginning to heal.
It is in our healthy relationships with God and one another that our true being is reflected back to us in such a way that we begin to change. This change comes not by following a list of rules, mind you, but by God’s work of transforming us by his Holy Spirit.
Our relationships, when they are filled with God’s love and grace, begin to influence us and change begins in our hearts and our minds. True, it is good to study the living and written Word of God so that our minds are renewed in the true realities, but it is God through the Spirit who brings about our true transformation. We are merely participants in the work God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. May it be our new resolution to receive this gift of transformation God has given us and to actively participate in what God is doing in our hearts and lives.
Dear loving Father, thank you for the gift of yourself through Jesus and in your Spirit through which we may experience loving relationship with you and one another. Please finish the work of transformation you have begun in us, and grant us the grace to fully participate with you both in listening to the living Word and obediently following the Spirit as he leads us, so that we might ever walk in step with Jesus. May we be fully transformed by grace through faith. In your Name we pray, amen.
“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:22–23 NASB
By Linda Rex
A while back I was getting some help with health issues from a local chiropractor. It was good to receive some assistance with my problems, but I was appalled at the way shame and guilt were used there to try to motivate people to take care of their bodies through eating right, exercise and chiropractic care. If a person did not leave that place feeling bad about themselves, I would have been surprised—it was hard to escape the message that was being given.
As I began to look around me, I found many cultural messages that try to tell us we are guilty and ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Often it is churches or parachurch groups that push this message—with the best of intentions, of course. But it can be seen and experienced in many places, even in advertising and in the business place.
I remember a pastor saying once that guilt and shame are healthy—they tell us when we have crossed the line between wrong and right, and they show us our need to repent. That’s all well and good, but I really don’t see Jesus using shame and guilt as a motivator anywhere in his ministry. Even his call to repent pointed people to himself as the coming and presence of the kingdom of God in their midst.
For example, when the woman who is caught in the act of adultery is brought before him, he merely asks that the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. So instead of shaming the poor woman further, or making her feel more guilty than she already probably felt, he pointed out our common humanity—that we are all imperfect and in need of grace. Then he invited the woman into a new way of living and being—“Go, and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus’ ultimate invitation to a new way of living and being came through the cross. The apostle Paul helps us to understand that in Christ we are all new creatures—all that old self with its guilt and shame was taken up with Christ on the cross, crucified, buried and resurrected into a new self. God not only gives us a perfected humanity in Jesus, he also transforms us by his Spirit into a new person who can fully participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father.
At some point we all face the reality that we are not what we should be. It isn’t helpful to pile on guilt and shame in such situations. It is a whole lot more helpful to address such personal failures through love and grace within the context of community and loving relationship.
In other words, we are offered in Christ and by the Spirit a relationship full of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, predicated on Christ’s perfected humanity and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us into alignment with all we were created to be as image-bearers of God. We offer this same relationship to one another, understanding that Christ defines our humanity now, and our shortcomings and failures, which are real, are buried in Christ and transformed by the Spirit as we are willing to participate with God in his work of transforming us into Christlikeness.
There is an appropriate time to speak truth into someone’s life about the harm they are doing to themselves and to others. This is a participation in God’s justice, and must always be done with love and grace. It is not constructive to go from there to shame and guilt—it is much more productive to offer forgiveness and unconditional acceptance while at the same time refusing to allow the person to continue to hurt themselves or others.
I’ve heard this called passive resistance. I once heard someone say that this is actually what Jesus was talking about when he said to turn the other cheek. In the culture of the time, turning the other cheek wasn’t about letting someone abuse you freely, but rather about exposing the one who was being abusive to the public exposure and criticism of his behavior since it was culturally inappropriate and wrong to be abusive in that way. And therefore, within the context of community, the person would be motivated to change.
This means our communities and relationships need to be places where love and grace abound, and where people are accepted and forgiven rather than overwhelmed with shame and guilt. They need to be places where we point out our common center in Christ, and where we invite one another to grow up into all that Christ won for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Here the Holy Spirit is welcomed and obeyed, as he leads us into all truth and creates in us and among us the holy fellowship of the Triune God and the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ our Lord.
In this place of our common center in Christ, we both acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses, but we also acknowledge where others are growing up in Christ as well. We create a safe environment in which people can face up to their shortcomings, confess their faults and receive the grace and help they need to begin to change. We open ourselves up through spiritual disciplines and shared community life to the work of the Holy Spirit who is the only one who can truly transform a person from the inside out.
This is what James Torrance and others call Christian community. This is a sharing in the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit. It is a wonderful experience to participate in such a community, so I encourage all my readers to find a group they can be a part of where such grace, love and truth are lived out in the presence of the Triune God. It can be hard to find people who are willing to be this transparent, humble and gracious. But it is definitely worth it.
Father, thank you that through your Son and by your Spirit you have freed us from guilt and shame, and you offer each of us participation in Christ’s perfected humanity and your Triune life of love. Grant us the grace to offer one another this same love and grace, and to live in fellowship with one another as you do. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.
“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB
by Linda Rex
Over the years since I came to see the dangers of legalism, I have come to see the harm that such a belief system can do to relationships. When people focus on moral perfection, they tend to become very critical of themselves and others. Every little fault or imperfection is picked at and fussed over. And in spite of intense efforts to self-transform, this way of thinking and living not only causes a spirit of condemnation, but also harms the way we look at ourselves and at others.
In Matthew 5:48 (NASB) we read: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” According to HarperCollins Bible dictionary, the term “perfect” is an English word sometimes used to translate Hebrew and Greek words with a range of meaning (“completeness,” “wholeness,” “blamelessness,” “maturity”) We often read this passage as though Jesus was telling us something we should do and have to do in order to be acceptable to God.
In reality, when we read it that way, we are reading it backwards. We are doing a dyslexic flip of the meaning of that passage. In this passage, Jesus intentionally showed that human beings could not and would not be perfect like God is perfect. There is something missing that they need. They are incomplete without this, and cannot be perfect or whole without it. We are made in God’s image, to reflect his glory, but we are imperfect reflections and our human carnality causes us to reflect darkness rather than light.
It is our human proclivity to try to attain perfection on our own. We want ourselves and others to attain perfect standards under our own efforts. Jesus was pointing out that this is an impossible task, because only God is perfect.
This is the whole reason that Jesus was standing there, preaching to them. Because the Father wants us to be wholly, completely all that he created us to be, he gave us himself in Christ. God took on our human flesh and moment by moment lived the life we should have lived and ought to live. In Christ, God breathed our breath, cried our tears, grieved our sorrows and shared our joys. Down to the last detail, Jesus Christ perfected, or made whole and complete, our humanity.
This is because God knew exactly what we needed in order to be all he created us to be. God didn’t create us to try to become perfect ourselves. He created us for a relationship with himself and others—to love God, love your neighbor.
Trying to perfect ourselves and others only destroys relationships. Nothing is more destructive to love than the constant nitpicking about every little fault or failure of someone to be what you think they should be. There is no room for creativity, personality, or ingenuity. Everyone has to fit a human expectation of what they think God or perfection is like. And they can’t do it.
How do we become perfect as God is perfect? Only in Christ. He is our perfection. The writer of Hebrews says “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14 NASB). Once and for all, each of us were perfected in Christ, and we are being perfected in him as Christ is being formed in us through the Spirit.
God is the one with the responsibility to perfect us, because he is the perfect one. As we participate in his perfection by living in intimate relationship with him day by day, we are transformed. We focus on the relationship, on coming to know God intimately, and in his presence we are, in time, renewed in his image, to be all he created us to be.
God makes us into a new creation in Christ through the Spirit. Only God is perfect and he holds our perfection in himself in Christ. And he is working out that wholeness and completeness of his nature in us moment by moment in the Spirit. We participate in this work God is doing by growing in our relationship with him and by living in a relationship with others that reflects the perichoresis or “making room for one another” in which the Father, Son and Spirit live.
We make room for one another in the same way that God makes room for us in his life and love—through grace. We offer one another grace—forgiveness for being less than perfect. We allow each other room to grow, to have different ways of thinking and acting and living that are unique to ourselves and yet in harmony with the nature and character of God. Just as there is diversity and unity and equality in the Trinity, there is diversity, unity and equality in our humanity. And we respect and embrace that. To do any less than this would be to embrace imperfection.
Thank you, Holy Father, for seeking our perfection by giving us yourself in Jesus Christ. Thank you for your Spirit, who ceaselessly works for our perfection by forming Christ in us. Thank you for your gift of grace—grant that we may offer it as freely to one another as you offer it to us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
“For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 NASB)
By Linda Rex
Recently, just for the fun of it, I’ve been watching some old episodes of Lost in Space. Since these were made back in the 1960’s, it’s amusing for me to see what was considered science fiction back then—reel to reel tapes and punch card computers, dials and buttons. The clothing and hairs styles of course are very 1960ish. And all these space adventures took place in the 1990’s and 2000’s (We aren’t even doing manned intergalactic space travel yet and it’s 2014!).
The ongoing pain-in-the-neck on the Robinson family’s space voyage is Dr. Zachary Smith. He seems to be the picture of every worst human trait—greed, dishonesty, laziness, and so on. He’s always finding a way to get out of having to work and spends his time getting himself and everyone else into dangerous predicaments. Whenever there is the slightest issue or problem, he goes into a despairing decline: “Oh, the pain…”
Vainly the Robinson family tries to reform him, but to no avail. Over and over, they swear they’re going to cast him adrift or abandon him to his fate because he deserves it. But once again, they choose love and grace over giving Dr. Smith what he deserves.
One night as I was working on a project and watching another episode of the series it occurred to me that in many ways, this whole thing was like a picture of the divine perichoretic relationship and us as humans. How often we are like Dr. Smith—annoying and offensive and downright diabolical. And yet, the Father, Son and Spirit continue to make room for us in their relationship of love and unity. We deserve to be cast adrift, to receive the full consequences for our choices, our unloving and corrupt behavior, but once again, God covers us with grace in Christ and brings us home.
Sadly, like Dr. Smith, we can receive warnings, corrections, and even the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and yet keep returning to our old, comfortable way of doing things. We can have a mirror held up and be shown our shortcomings and yet keep on following our destructive path.
But this isn’t how it needs to be. Because we have a God who is committed to us becoming all that he created us to be in Christ. He has formed us in his own image and will not cease to work toward that end in conforming us to the image of Christ.
One way in which we participate in this process is by choosing to allow the difficulties, strains and struggles of life to be used by God to transform us. We allow God to use sorrow and pain as a means of discipline—not punishment, but rather as a training tool. We let the strong winds of suffering build spiritual muscle in us.
We permit God to make changes in the way we think, believe, and act by responding to his Spirit and filling our minds with his Word. We choose to do the hard work of growing up in Christ rather than making every excuse in the book to keep from having to face the truth about ourselves. We, for the moment, choose sorrow over laughter—taking seriously God’s call to follow Christ wherever he leads on whichever path he chooses to take.
Unlike Zachary Smith, we don’t have to spend endless space miles caught in the corruption of human sin and depravity. When God goes to work, we become new people. It takes time—our whole life. But as we willingly participate in what God is doing to transform us—turning to Christ daily, trusting in his grace—change will come. Who we are at the beginning is not who we will be in the end. We have God’s word on that.
Thank you, Lord, that you have promised to perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish us. You have given us the privilege of sharing in your eternal glory in Christ. We trust you will finish what you have begun, in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
“Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” James 4:9
“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:10–11