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Battling it Out

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cross

By Linda Rex

One of the stories I remember from my early years was when I was just not getting along with my older brother. It seems somehow he always got the best of me in everything and I was always having to prove myself as an equal to him.

Being run off the Risk game in a few moves—well, I guess I could just find something else to do while my two brothers fought it out between themselves. Being bought off the board in Monopoly—well, it’s hard to take, but it’s just a part of the game. Being creamed in chess in just five moves—it’s humiliating, but I bore up under it—I knew the men in my family were really smart—I just wasn’t savvy in the same way they were.

But after a while it seemed like they could do everything better than me—play football, baseball, play cards. You name it. I could keep up with them pretty well, but for a while, there was this kind of competition between my older brother and me. In my heart, I wished there was just one thing I could get the best of him in.

One day we were barricaded behind couch pillows and were battling it out with rubber bands. I’m pretty sure he started it. I retaliated only in self-preservation. At least that’s how I remember it.

I seemed to always end up on the worst end of such battles, but this particular day, I had a secret weapon—I had found a very large, very nice rubber band. So I loaded up and let it fly, hoping it would hit its mark. It was a lucky shot, but I hit him in the soft part of his arm near his elbow—it smarted and even drew a little blood.

The satisfaction I felt at finally getting him back for all his harassment was dimmed only slightly and momentarily by the wrath of my mother when she found out what had happened. Rubber band fights were henceforth banned (again), and we both got in trouble for having had one.

I may have felt a secret glee for a few moments but ultimately I felt sorry for having hurt him, and decided I wouldn’t do it again. It was never my intent to hurt him. I just wanted to gain his respect and to get him to quit persecuting me. Quite honestly, I lost all interest in rubber band fights after that experience.

Looking back, I recall there was a time when I just could not get along with my older brother, and there was also a time when I just could not get along with my younger brother. I’m not sure why now, but it was just the way it was. We had to work out our differences between us—our parents could not resolve them for us, other than threatening us with dire consequences if we didn’t get along.

In later years when my children were about the same age, I began to understand a little better my mother’s perspective on the constant squabbles between me and my brothers. There was a time when my two children just could not get along, no matter how many discussions we had about how they were not to squabble and fight. It seems like learning to get along with one another comes with the territory of siblinghood.

What I didn’t know then, but I realize now, is the way we live with one another is meant to reflect the inner life of God as Father, Son and Spirit. There is a mutual indwelling, a oneness in diversity and equality, which we are to mirror in our relationships with one another. Fighting it out with rubber bands is obviously not the best reflection of the inner love and life of the One we are to mirror.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years can actually be understood more clearly with this image in mind. For example, I learned that unity is not the same as uniformity. It is entirely possible for people to be quite different from each other and to still get along. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit, and the Son is not the Father or the Spirit—and I’m so glad they are not exactly the same but still are One in Being.

Just because someone in your family likes to place chess and is really good at it does not mean everyone else in the family has to like chess and play chess too. They can be quite good at watching you play chess and reading a book, and they can be getting along with you just fine while they do it. We are each unique—I am not you and you are not me, and that’s okay. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Sadly, I think there are nations and national leaders who haven’t quite figured this one out yet.

One of the other things I’ve learned about getting along with my siblings is to stop seeing people in over/under ways. What I mean is, we tend to put people either above us or below us, rather than seeing them as another one of us. We look at the well-dressed lady in the next aisle and think, “She’s really blessed—she must have a really easy life,” not realizing she is on her way to the hospital to visit her husband who is dying of cancer, and is barely holding everything together.

I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in line with a fellow who is in grungy clothes, has dirty spots on his face and arms, and thought inappropriate thoughts to myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that such men are often the most hardworking, good-hearted men I know—the farmers, mechanics, contractors, and plumbers—people who make and keep our homes and belongings running well. My unworthy thoughts were putting them down below me, rather than elevating them to a place of equality and respect. They are a reflection of the equality in the Trinity—they each have a place of love and service in God’s family.

I know the pain of watching my children squabble when they could not and would not get along with one another. No doubt this pain is a participation in the pain God feels when we refuse to and cannot get along with one another, whether as people in a family, church or organization, or as nations and races and cultures.

God has provided a way in his Son Jesus by his Spirit for each of us to live together in unity while making room for each other’s uniqueness and acknowledging each other’s value and worth. There is no reason for us to be taking pot shots at one another, discriminating against one another or demeaning each other in any way. We need to work out our differences, yes, but it’s a whole lot more pleasant to do it around the table with milk and cookies, than in trenches with grenades and artillery. And there’s a whole lot less regret and pain when we’re done.

May God by his precious Spirit teach all of us how to live with one another in the way he created us to. May his Son live in us, and come to be for us the Center in which we all gather together and live as One.

Abba, forgive us for our human proclivity to fuss and fight and to refuse to get along. Grant us the grace to forgive and to be reconciled with you and one another, as you have reconciled us all with you and one another in your Son Jesus Christ. Make us all of one heart and mind, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” John 14:20 NIV

“This is my command: Love each other.” John 15:17 NIV

Hanging on to Stuff

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Fall in Arkansas
Fall in Arkansas

by Linda Rex

One of the most difficult tasks that come with a loved one dying can be going through their belongings and dealing with the things they leave behind. This can be extremely difficult, especially when so many memories arise with each item we handle.

It’s amazing how much a person or a family can collect over the years! Sometimes it’s just the things of daily living, or the important papers or documents. But then again, it may be stuff—things that were useful at one time, but no longer have any use or value.

The memories and feelings that are attached with such items can have more pull on us than we realize. We may hang on to these things because of the fear if we let go of them we will lose everything we associate with those items. Sometimes the loss of something dear when we were young causes us to hang on to similar things when we are older, even though we really don’t have any use for these items.

I remember one time many years ago when I was still married, my husband was doing tree cutting as a way to help with our income since he was out of work. We were called by a man who lived in a quiet cul-de-sac in our small town, so we went to cut his tree. While my husband was up in the tree and I was spotting and praying he wouldn’t fall, the man whose tree he was cutting and his neighbor struck up a conversation. Since they were standing right next to me, I really couldn’t ignore what they were saying.

They got to talking about what they owned and what each other had. Early on it became a contest as to who had the most and best of whatever it was they had. The irony was that nearly everything they named, my husband and I couldn’t afford to own. I guess I could have been insulted, but instead I felt sorry for them. They felt having the best and most of these things was what was necessary to their self-worth and self-esteem, and what was necessary for their happiness.

This came to mind the other night when at our small group we were talking about a famous man who hid all his money in the mantel in his house. By the time it was found after his death, it was moth-eaten and useless. To me that is a good example of the transience of human wealth and property. In our affluent society, so often we don’t know the difference between what we want and what we need.

And sadly, as I have learned over the years, all such things are useless in the face of death and dying. When a person dies, they leave all these things behind. And then who gets them? The answer to that question has divided and destroyed many a family and relationship.

And I think that is what is crucial in this whole discussion. When it comes to the things we own, or the things we hang on to, how do they impact our relationships and the people we love? How do they impact our community and our neighbor?

Many wealthy people are wise enough not to give their children everything they want or to give them large sums of money when they are young. They realize how destructive affluence can be to a person’s character and well-being. When a person understands that money is a tool that can be used for good and that with wealth and abundance comes responsibility and duty to one’s fellow man, then wealth is not such a dangerous thing to have.

But that is a different discussion. Here we are considering the reality that someday the person who is wealthy will have to pass that wealth on to someone else. Everything we own in this life cannot be carried with us into the next. We cannot fill a pyramid with food, luxuries and people to bring with us into the life to come. It doesn’t work that way.

Through all this sorting, I’m being reminded again to narrow down my belongings and my activities to what is really essential and useful for this moment. This is the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Some things are just not important in the grand scheme of things, while others are worthy of our focused attention and devotion. May God grant us the grace to discern the difference and to choose only what is most important. And may he enable us to let go of all the rest.

Lord, we thank you for the abundance with which we live day by day. Thank you for providing us with so many wonderful things, but most especially for the people you bring into our lives—our neighbors, our friends, and our families. You shower your love on us daily. Grant us the grace to see it and always be grateful and generous with what you give us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—A time to give birth and a time to die; …” Ecclesiastes 3:1–2 NASB

“And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ “ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:16–21 NASB

Thorns and Finding Significance

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Serene lake
Serene lake

by Linda Rex

I was sitting on my loveseat this morning admiring the beauty of my indoor forest, when one of the plants caught my eye. This particular plant was given to me last year and is called Crown of Thorns. Legend says a plant from its family was used to make the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion.

Whether or not this is true, I can’t say. But it is a pretty plant, and interesting to look at. It grows in its little pot, feeding on air and water, and puts out new leaves that reach toward the sunlight. I’m sure it has no thought that perhaps many millennia ago its forefather was used in such a significant way. It simply goes about its business of glorifying God by being what it is, a thorny plant.

How unlike this simple, beautiful plant we are! We go about day by day, worrying about the weather, politics, the neighbors, the laundry, and give very little thought to the simplicity of just being who we are created to be—human beings made in the image of God to love and be loved by him. We make life so complicated!

We search for some kind of significance in this world. We try to be the best at something, to impress the boss, to be the most attractive woman at the party. We want to write the best-selling novel, win the Emmy, bring home the Best of Show ribbon from the fair. If we’re not trying to be the best, often we are trying equally hard to be invisible. In this case, our significance is in not-being, being nothing of value or importance.

Somehow along the way, we miss the realization that significance of any kind, even insignificance, is inherently dependent upon human expectations and values. There is a perceived standard that we seek to achieve so that we are good enough or better than most or someone worthy to be noticed. In every contest to determine who is the greatest, there will always be the one who is the worst.

Perhaps this is one reason Jesus was so emphatic that this is not the way to deal with issues of significance. For Jesus, real significance comes through service, sacrifice and a willingness to die for others. The things which we value don’t even count in the real scheme of things. We’d be so much better off if, like the plant, we just lived each moment being in relationship with God and others, trusting him to supply our daily needs.

It’s hard to understand the significance of a plant with lots of thorns. What good is it? Does it serve any worthwhile purpose? Even if it is used as a crown of thorns on the brow of a Savior, the plant’s significance is inherent within, not in how it is used. It is worthwhile because it is. And that’s enough.

And we are significant not just because we are but also because we are made in the image of the One who was, is and will be. We find our significance in our relationship with the One who made us and who provides us all we need for life and godliness. Our real significance is fully expressed as we live in love with him and with others he places in our lives, who share his life and love. This is what really matters and what will last when everything else we value is gone.

To be concerned about our significance is to be inwardly focused. God calls us to be upwardly and outwardly focused instead. We trust him to meet our needs, while we live joyfully and gratefully in relationship with him and others. We are valuable and worthwhile because we are and because we are his.

So we can approach life, with its weather, neighbors, politics and laundry, from a place of rest, of peaceful assurance that all will be well and is well because we are held in the arms of the God who made us and declares that we are his. He has demonstrated in Christ that we are important, significant and valued, not because of our performance or perfection, but because we are and we are his.

Thank you, Father, for valuing us, caring for us and providing for us. Thank you for the gift of your Son and your Holy Spirit, through whom you transform and grow us up into your likeness. May all our significance, value and worth come from you alone. Through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

“And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” Matthew 27:29 NASB

Oh, To Be Somebody…

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Gathering of pumpkins
Gathering of pumpkins

by Linda Rex

This morning I was thinking about all the ways we go about trying to find or create our own significance in this world. As we grow up, we want people to notice us, to see that we are somebody. Unless, of course, being invisible is a safer way of being for us.

But this drive to be noticed, to be considered worthwhile, motivates approaches to life and living that are not always healthy and sound-minded. I came across the story of a young man who discovered this power of significance the day he first rode a bull in a rodeo competition. Somehow, being the guy at school who rode the bulls gave him a feeling of self-worth and made him believe he had value he would not have had otherwise. It was only after he began to evaluate the cost in terms of suffering and loss of life that he began to look for other ways to establish his significance.

It is interesting to flip through the channels on the TV and to look at all the shows based on this whole premise—if I’m the best at this then I’ll be somebody—if I do this thing in this unique way, everyone will notice me. Watching one of the newest sitcoms the other day, I realized that the whole concept of a person trying to be somebody, to be noticed, to be approved of, to be a good person, drives so many of the plotlines. It’s just our story as human beings.

And this story is as old as the history of humanity. My morning reading in the Old Testament today was the 15th chapter of Samuel. God had given Israel the king they requested and his name was Saul. He started out a pretty humble man, but in this chapter we find that somehow being significant and important supplanted his humility.

God instructed King Saul to lead the Israelites into battle against a particular king and told him to destroy everything associated with that particular group of people. God wasn’t being cruel—he was just exacting justice and was inviting his people to be a part of that process. (He does that today in a similar way through our armies and police forces, though he typically doesn’t call for genocide any longer.)

In this case, though, the point the writer was making was that King Saul hadn’t grasped the importance of following God’s instructions exactly. He won the battle, but he kept the king alive and brought the best of the cattle and animals, ostensibly for an offering to God. Then he built a memorial to himself. Note: the memorial built was to the king, not to God, the One who had given the king success in battle.

Needless to say, God was ticked, and so was Samuel. In the unpleasant conversation that followed, King Saul was more concerned about the opinion of the people and his significance with them than he was about the reality that he had alienated himself from the God who made him king in the first place.

Sometimes the price we pay for some type of significance and worth and value is too high. Sometimes we lay down our most important relationships in payment for this feeling of importance and power. We give over the only things that in the long run will carry us through eternity—our relationships with God and each other—for the sake of our moment of glory. Is it really worth the price we are willing to pay?

I think it is instructive that Jesus Christ spent the majority of his earthly existence refusing to accept any pats on the back for being the Messiah. Instead he focused on being a servant. Over and over, he reminded his disciples of the inverse values of the kingdom of God: the least are the greatest; the servant will lead; the dead will live; the rejected are those who are most valued by God.

In being God in human flesh, Jesus had every right to expect people to make everything be about him. Yet, instead, he pointed people to his Father. Whatever he did, he did in, with and for his heavenly Father. It wasn’t about him. It was about the will of God.

How clearly Christ demonstrated that our human existence isn’t about us finding some significance in ourselves or in what we do! It’s not about us at all. We don’t find our value and worth in anything we say, think or do. We only find it in God and in his Son, who enveloped our humanity within his own and gave it ultimate significant, worth and value in himself.

So when we live wrapped up in trying to find some value and significance in our own feeble, human way, we will find in the end only emptiness and loss. Human applause and approval are fickle things. They come and go like the weather changes.

But when we surrender this search to the will and purposes of Almighty God, and seek Christ and value his significance and worth, we find that we are cherished, valued and significant ways that really matter. We are God’s treasure. He has every intention to share his life and glory with us in Christ forever. And that’s something worth sacrificing everything for.

Heavenly Father, we confess that too often we make life all about us, and about what others may think or feel about us. Forgive our self-centered, self-seeking ways of being, and grant that, in Jesus, we might live God-centered, other-centered lives instead. Grant us the grace to obey you first and foremost—to surrender our wishes and wills to you, Almighty God, no matter the cost to ourselves. Thank you for the grace you give us, and for your precious Spirit who awakens us to our true value and significance in Christ. Thank you for counting us as precious, valued and significant forever. In Christ, we pray. Amen.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.’ And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.” 1 Samuel 15:10–11