Boston Marathon 2013 – Reflections

April 15, 2013 will be a day not soon forgotten in the United States.  As an iconic sports event held on Patriots Day, the Boston Marathon was supposed to typify all that is essential to the American dream.  It was to be a day to celebrate.  Instead it ended in tragedy with 3 dead and more than 100 wounded, with the lives of civilians on U.S. soil rocked and destroyed.

In the past week other tragedies have occurred around the world.  A week ago a bomb blast in Damascus killed 15.  Last night a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the Iranian-Pakistani border, killing at least 8.

What makes this different?  Because it happened at home [for us], and the expectation is of safety at home, and that these things only happen “over there”.  Increasingly however, tragedy is striking close to home, and it is home-grown. Newtown is still fresh in our memory.

The Boston Marathon bombing is another reminder of how quickly life can change, and how we should not put off until tomorrow what we need to do today… particularly in the area of relationships – to God and to each other – in love, forgiveness, compassion, patience, and reconciliation.  Tomorrow may never come.

It is also a reminder of the transitory nature of this phase of life that we live, and that we need to make each day count and not waste it or get hung up on self-absorption.  The way we live each day is how we live our lives.

The challenge, especially in times of challenge and suffering, is to not let the experiences of your past and present to negatively define your future.

We all can, and must, choose to go on.  We all can, and must, choose to respond positively and truthfully, even in the face of danger or tragedy.  As someone once said, “you can choose to curse the darkness, or you can choose to light a candle and dispel the darkness”.

In the summer of 2005, I was in London when the tube was bombed and civilians died. One day we were on a bus returning to the City from Oxford, and the tour ended at Victoria Station where we were to get on the tube.  The tour guide asked us if we were afraid, and then told us not to fear.  England, he said, had endured years of IRA bombings, and did not and would not bow before it… NOTHING would deter us from continuing to live life without fear or surrender.  So don’t be afraid, he told us… get on the tube because this was a new day. We would NOT change our lives or bow to fear.

I had a similar experience in 2009.  I was in Israel on a tour of the Holy Land, and one day we visited the Golan Heights overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), and then went on to visit historic sites under the shadow of the Lebanese border.  The next day, while in Tiberias, we learned that Hezbollah had launched rockets into Israel right where we had been the previous day.  When we inquired of our hosts, they said that they lived with the threat of attack on a regular basis, but that they would not be shaken because Israel was their home and they would not surrender to bombers or rockets or hatred.

In both countries, they have learned three lessons very well. First, as a people, they will carry on, no matter what.  Threat and attack and pain and suffering and loss do not lead to a crisis of faith or of soul-searching or of wondering where God has gone. These lead rather to a strengthening of resolve and, if anything, greater certainty of one’s identity.  Second, as individuals and as a people they have come to recognize that a refusal to surrender to fear is far more powerful than any weapon or any right to bear arms.  Third, they have learned from experience that the threat of terror is home grown, and comes from people who sound like you and look like others in your midst.

These are lessons we need to learn in North America.  First, our identity is not defined by our prosperity or by the crises within our borders. If our identity has been defined in these terms, it needs to be redefined. God is still here in our midst… but we need to better define what His blessings look like, and what a strong, or peaceful, or just society requires of each of us… as in Christian terminology, we are in the business of putting His kingdom and its principles into effect.  American values, or Canadian values, need to be redefined in term’s of God’s values and what He would require of us.

Second, and this is particularly true in America, our response needs to be one where we refuse to surrender to fear or anger or revenge, but rather to carry on, and implement the values of a Godly, just society, not by force of arms, but by strength of character, and by faith.  The response to defend the right to bear arms, no matter what, is no answer.  Qualifying the meaning and context of the Second Amendment, and realizing that the right to bear arms is instead a privilege and a responsibility, is essential. Change will be brought about by a change of hearts and a return to Godly character, and not by the right to carry handguns and assault weapons.  America, like Canada, is not a nation under God at this current time, and we had better realize it and stop fooling ourselves.  To call us a Christian nation at this juncture is to make a faith statement as a downpayment on a future that requires us to return to God and His values, and implement these in our society.

Third, there must be a recognition that the threat of violence against our state and its people is coming increasingly from within, from people who sound like us and look like others in our midst, but who do not live by Godly values or by what is defined in the New Testament as the fruit of the Spirit, the outworking of one’s faith in practical terms.  This means re-defining our notions of “enemy combatants” or the stereotypes we conjure up when the word “terrorist” is used. It was distressing to hear, even today, that the FBI were following up on a tip, and declaring that they were looking for a perpetrator who was a dark-skinned male, possibly black and with a foreign accent.  In word association, one says Palestinian, you think terrorist; one says Muslim or fundamentalist Christian, you think extremist; one says dark-skinned or black, many think criminal.  This must change… for in most of the mass violent crimes committed in America in the past couple of  years, the perpetrators were white, born in the U.S., speaking English with regional accents, of no particular religious conviction, and only a minority of them had previous criminal records.

Profiling on the basis of skin-colour, ethnicity, language, gender, age or religious conviction must end.  The perpetrators of violent crimes are home grown and come from every walk of life.  There are individuals who do good things and individuals who do bad things, and sometimes they are the same individuals.  It is time for a re-load of American values based on God’s purposes and values.  It is time for a re-load of Canadian values based on God’s purposes and values, to recapture in people’s hearts the scripture carved into the Parliamentary building: “and He shall have dominion from sea to sea”.

It is fallacy on the part of the NRA to desire to place armed individuals in our schools… as if arming ourselves with weapons is the answer.  They say that “good guys with guns don’t commit crimes”.  The enormous flaw in that argument is the pre-supposition that you can tell the difference, by looking at someone or talking to them, whether they are a “good” person or a “bad” person.  You can’t.  And despite the popular revisionist approach to reconstruct the past lives of perpetrators to see how they were bad all along and “the signs were there”, the fact remains is that good people have often done bad things.

In a similar fashion, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, there is an intense hunt on to track down the bombers to bring them to justice.  I hope they succeed.  But success will not be defined ultimately by catching these perpetrators, or by intensifying security or by arming ourselves.  Success will be defined by a paradigm shift in our corporate and individual identities, to return to values based on the Word of God in our actions and in the actions perpetrated by our governments, and to not be moved from this no matter what comes.  We must not give in to fear or recrimination or revenge but instead establish a just society in which peace, order and good government is not maintained by legislation and by force of arms but by the change of heart and action in each of us.  Building this just society means that we can no longer turn a blind eye toward the increasingly desperate plight of the lower classes, women and visible minorities.  We must recognize that the American dream does not remove us individually and corporately from caring for the least in our midst, and indeed if we are to call ourselves a Christian nation once more, there is a moral imperative to ensure that no one leads a life of desperation or fear or hate, or a life of personal abundance at the same time as so many have no hope.  Desperation, together with a departure from Godly values, does far more to create violence at home than anything else.

For the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, today is a day to mourn.  Tomorrow is a day to bring the perpetrators to justice.

But of far greater import in the coming days, and by far the harder task, will be to implement a paradigm shift in our values and our actions, based upon the foundation of faith in God and His plans and His values, to implement a new and just society.

Borrowing a quote from the movie “The Matrix”: –  “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. It is time for you to choose.”

It is time for each of to choose.. and there is really no choice about it.  We all must take the red pill, and walk in our new identity, based on Godly principles, and work together to implement a truly just society with no one left behind.  It will be a long and hard but edifying road, and be one that will please God.

Just sayin’….

Go Where No One Has Gone Before.

In my childhood I remember watching Star Trek re-runs after school, the adventures of Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew as they explored “space… the final frontier”. This fueled my imagination about other worlds, expanded horizons, and different peoples, exploring the realm of the unknown.  Then in my later teens came Star Wars on the big screen, which I saw four times.  I dreamed of what it would be like to go to places no one had ever gone before.

I knew nothing then about philosophy or theology or world view or science. But the appeal of a future showing freedom for all, with no one left behind, regardless of race, gender, language or culture, combined with excitement and adventure and the triumph of the human spirit, appealed to me then.

It still appeals to me today.

I continue to enjoy movies and novels that portray such an exciting world and universe of possibilities where the human spirit is free and enabled to be all that we were designed to be.  Many might say that this is escapism in the midst of a decaying, dysfunctional, corrupt world.

That may be a fair statement.  However, if true, I think that this is the same escapism that fuels scientific exploration, and in particular the exploration of space itself.  The other day Stephen Hawking was quoted as saying that earth and humanity on earth is doomed to destruction, and that we need to accelerate the process of exploring space with the view to colonization and escape.

This is a gloomy picture.  It says that the earth is not redeemable.  Ironically, it sounds a lot like the end-times viewpoint of many Christian evangelicals, who expect a cataclysmic end to this current iteration of the earth which will be preceded by their escape from this imminent suffering and destruction to be with the Lord.

The problem of course, with this gloomy picture, this utopian view of a future in the stars, or waiting for the rapture to escape destruction, only to later rule with the Lord in a re-made heaven and earth, is that it removes us from responsibility to go change our world.  It denies our fundamental call to stewardship of all humanity and in fact of all creation itself.

Does it not seem strange to you that billions of dollars are spent on military weaponry, influence and political intrigue, and on space exploration, while a blind eye is turned toward the poor and disadvantaged in our midst, the oppression of women, the sexual slavery and exploitation of children, the curable sicknesses where available treatments are unaffordable and the persecution of entire people groups based on race, ethnicity, caste or belief?

Imagine instead a world where the billions of dollars spent on military strength, political hegemony and escape to the stars were instead re-directed toward transforming our world and changing the living conditions of its people.  Imagine the efforts of the “haves” in our world re-directed toward transforming our world and changing the living conditions of all of its people, especially the “have-nots”.

Imagine the Body of Christ actively engaged through a full implementation of the gospel to go out and transform this world, instead of being fixated on escaping from it.  We have dumbed down the gospel to mean only the spiritual salvation of souls which will then escape this corrupt world to be with the Lord in heaven.  We have forgotten that His kingdom was inaugurated on earth at the moment of His resurrection, that Jesus (Yeshua) spoke more to his disciples on the kingdom of God and its practical implications for living than He did on going to heaven, that in His instructions on prayer He stated “May your kingdom be established on earth as it is already established in heaven”, and that our eternal dwelling place will be here and not away someplace else.  His kingdom, through the full embodiment of the Great Commission, will be implemented through His body in people and on earth, in part as far as we are able, while we wait for His return and the full consummation of His kingdom with a transformed and renewed heaven and earth.

Gnosticism pervades our worldview, even inside the church.  Basically gnosticism is dualist, believing that all matter in this world is bad / corrupt, and the that the spirit world is good, and that at death the soul is freed from its corrupt encumbrance.

In popular thinking, exemplified by Hawking’s recent statements, this world view manifests itself in believing that the world is not redeemable, and that humanity needs to escape its destruction and shed its encumbrance to begin again in the stars, where all corruption will be left behind.  This leads to a fatalism about the future, and a withdrawal from active engagement in the lives of other people and in our society.

In evangelical Christian thinking, this manifests itself in making salvation only a spiritual matter in which the soul is liberated, and, in terms of end-times scenarios, manifests itself in the glorious rapture of His faithful people to meet the Lord in the air, escaping tribulation and a world heading to destruction, finally free of earthly and carnal encumbrance.  This leads in its most extreme form in a “people of God” who have interest only in people for their soul liberation and the jewels it puts in our crowns, and who display no interest in environmentalism or in social responsibility for the disadvantaged or in the liberation of oppressed people in the world, because the world is going to be destroyed anyway.  One sad but amusing picture of this dualist escapist approach to our stewardship appeared in the movie Left Behind, where, on a plane filled with major Christian leaders in bit parts, the rapture takes place and their clothes are left behind.

In a recent keynote address given at Liberty University, Christian rap artist Lecrae identified the issue another way: that Christians in every day life have compartmentalized their faith in a sacred/secular divide.  On Sundays and in church circles Christians tend to exercise their “spiritual side”, and then go out into the world for the rest of the time, living in their neighborhoods and working their jobs / careers to make money and to help themselves to “live”.  Lecrae challenged students when they left the bubble of Christian college to go out and transform their world, and to break down the dualist sacred/secular divide, to practice a lived faith in Christ evident in all parts of their lives.  In this way, our neighbours are our mission field, not just for the sake of their souls, but for the sake of the kingdom which pervades everything everywhere.  In this way, our jobs are not just about us or making money but about impacting people and impacting our world.

This is a challenge to us all to a paradigm shift in world view, in the way we understand the kingdom of God and our calling (the calling of every believer) to the great commission and to living a practical lived faith in Christ.

It is a call to go where no one has gone before… to go where Jesus Christ calls us to go, and to be fully engaged in what He calls all of us to do.  And others have gone before… starting with our Saviour, and with people who lived their faith in every generation since the Resurrection.

Take up your cross, and follow Him.  Go and change this world, and its inhabitants.  To this we are called!

A Day to Remember

Today is a day set aside to remember.

Why do we establish a day or event of remembrance? So we do not forget.

After G-d made it possible for His people to cross the Jordan River, they set up twelve stones as a commemoration, and Joshua spoke to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’  For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear theLord your God forever.” (Joshua 4:21-24)

Sometimes we remember the lives of people whose lives are considered significant, like Queen Victoria, or Martin Luther King. Other days, such as Remembrance Day or Memorial Day, we commemorate the sacrifice of people who gave their lives for a greater cause, lest we forget what they did, lest we forget them.

Today is a day that we remember the horrible deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, who in the great man view of history did not achieve anything noteworthy, nor did their deaths accomplish any greater good. They were herded like cattle, treated with disrespect and hatred and contempt, processed for their valuables, murdered and buried in mass unmarked graves., all because of their ethnicity, distinctive lifestyle and faith.

They were Jewish. They were regarded as insignificant. Their individual identities were erased. Their burial was designed to be hidden and forgotten. The goal of their oppressors, and those who colluded with them, was the extermination of the Jewish people.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Today we remember them, and what their deaths, and lives represent.  They are Jewish. In G-d’s eyes, every single life is significant. Their individual identities are remembered. The Jewish people, G-d’s physically, ethnically chosen people, survive, and many once again dwell in their own homeland of Israel.

Those who oppressed them were defeated… some were brought to justice, many others escaped.  Unfortunately the underlying attitudes remain.

There is a need for repentance by every Christian, individual and corporate, for the Holocaust and the attitudes that led to it.  For the inconvenient truth is that anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviours took root in the Christian church by the 5th century, resulting in the Inquisition, forced conversion, torture, abuse and segregation being directed at the Jewish people.  Martin Luther, one of the major figures of the reformation, was virulently anti-Semitic. In one of his publications, On Jews and Their Lies, he advocated “that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books be destroyed, their rabbis forbidden to preach, their homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, [and] afforded no legal protection.”

In large measure Luther reflected prevailing attitudes in the church, and these anti-Semitic attitudes persisted. Leaders in Nazi Germany, in perpetrating the holocaust, read his anti-Semitic works and believed they were finishing what Luther had started. During the Second World War, much of the German church and the Roman Catholic Church colluded with, or at least turned a blind eye to, the treatment of the Jews. A latent anti-Semitism existed worldwide: in a famous case prior to the war, a ship full of Jewish refugees tried to find a country in which to seek asylum, but was repeatedly turned away.  A Canadian official, when asked how many Jewish refugees they would take, infamously replied “none is too many.”

We might respond, rightly, that we had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Yet today, when we hear of anti-Semitic graffiti or the defacing of Jewish cemeteries in our country, or hear leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran deny the Holocaust, call for Israel’s annihilation, or perpetrate rocket attacks against the Jewish nation, we do nothing.  When do you become what you don’t resist?

Latent anti-Semitism pervaded Christian theology for centuries, ending only in the mid-twentieth century, although it still persists in some circles. The prevailing view since the 5th century, called supersessionism,  was that the church had replaced Israel as God’s chosen people, since “Israel” had rejected the Messiah. This view was and is blatantly incorrect, ignores Romans 9 – 11, and has coloured our understanding of God’s design and our interpretation of scripture.

In our remembrance, we can and do feel horrified at the Holocaust, yet we must be actively engaged, going forward, in fighting anti-Semitism, and indeed in combatting any discrimination based on race, ethnicity, social status, education, or gender.

Also in our remembrance, we must not only feel remorse over the event of the Holocaust, or repent and renounce the attitudes which led to it. We hear the oft-quoted number of six million Jews killed. But these were six million individual lives, each valued by G-d, and each with their own individual stories.

Psalm 33:15 tells us that G-d has fashioned each of our hearts individually. Before he formed us in the womb, He knew us, Jeremiah 1:5 says.

This is the principle behind Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust museum… Giving voice to the six million individuals who were killed, telling their stories, that we might never forget them, what led to their deaths, that we might value their lives, that we might value each life, without prejudice, and see the individual as G-d sees.  The memorial is based on Isaiah 56:5 – “in my house, within my walls, I will give them power and a name greater than sons and daughters; I will give him an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

The attitudes and prejudices that led to the Holocaust are alive in each of us. We might not be anti-Semitic, but every time we gossip, demean or discriminate against anyone different than us, on the basis of colour, ethnicity, gender, education, appearance or social status, we are denying Christ, his death, resurrection and the new kingdom He has inaugurated.

this is a call for us to repent of attitudes and actions… it is also a challenge for us to live differently, according to the spirit of the law as the living embodiment of the gospel.

As we repent of attitudes today, as we remember, let us commit to see individuals as G-d sees them, to respond to them as He would, and actively seek justice on their behalf, and as His ambassadors go out and change our world.

Your Born Identity – Part 5.

It happened again.

This time it happened when my connecting flight was cancelled on my way back home from a conference.  My initial reaction was frustration, but as I approached the counter, I reminded myself once again that I could choose my reaction to this waste of my valuable time, and choose how I would use this “wasted” time. I could choose to respond with an attitude like “Don’t you know who I am?”, and take my irritation out on the flight attendant; or I could choose to respond with an attitude like “Don’t you know who He is? Let me show you.”

This is Part 5 (the final part – for now) of a series on Your Born Identity – who you were designed to be, and who, now restored by covenant faith, God has called you to be.  In Part 1 we discussed how through the all-sufficient work of the Christ on the cross, that God has declared you to have legal righteous standing before Him when you believe in the Messiah.  In theological terms this is called justification.  In Part 2, we discussed the nature of the unconditional new covenant relationship between you and God, and that you have the Holy Spirit implanted in you in all His fullness to work within you to put moral righteousness into every part of your life.  In theological terms this is sanctification, and in Part 3 we learned that this sanctification process is not optional, but essential because we belong to Him now and we are to be fully engaged in God’s kingdom work.  Sanctification is progressive, requires hard work and sacrifice, and your new identity needs to grow.  Self-examination is required, and the growth will be evident in tangible ways and by the fruit of the Spirit in your life.  In Part 4, we discussed the need for an essential shift in focus away from yourself as the main event, and toward God and His purposes – on to what He would have you do, as a covenant member of His new royal priesthood over all creation.  This is why you are here, not just to wait and hold on hopefully for his promised return, but to go out and extend His kingdom, to make Him known.

Why you are here is for so much MORE than your personal salvation and personal blessing and gratification.  A shallow interpretation of the gospel leaves one to conclude God’s favour means blessing, and the presence of suffering can be hard to understand.  Yet the uncomfortable truth, rarely spoken of but appearing through the scriptures, such as Hebrews, is that we have been baptized into both the Messiah’s resurrection and the Messiah’s suffering.  Through both – the resurrection and the suffering – we are called to the Great Commission, the working of the harvest, to make Him known and to glorify Him.  He blesses us that we might bless others. He sustains us through the challenges we endure for His sake.  And both the blessing and the hardship – and our response to them – are not about us but about Him.

I have just returned from a pentecostal studies conference that focused on holiness.  The roots of pentecostalism go back to Wesleyan methodism of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Holiness Movement of the 19th century.  Both of these stressed the subsequent sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, not just for ourselves, but so we could go out and change our world and reach people with the practical good news of the new creation in Christ.

Today, even in pentecostal circles, this emphasis on holiness and its inward and outward manifestations is not adequately spoken of or acted upon, at least in North America.  In certain branches, christian faith has descended into a kingdom-now, personal blessing-based, corruption of the gospel message which has re-shaped the Saviour into a personal manufactured Jesus blended with the American dream.  In other branches, the imperative to change the world for the better has become separated from the truth and spiritual foundation of the gospel, so the engagement in social issues contains no gospel at all.

To neither of these descents have we been called.  We have been called to so much more.

We need to return to basics, to a firm foundation, to a covenantal relationship with God made possible through the saving work of the Messiah, to an on-going process of sanctification both inwardly and outwardly.  Like the Wesleyans and the Holiness movement, we need to commit to holiness and to go out and change our world, in this time of already, in-process, not yet of kingdom living as we prepare for His return and the full consummation of the kingdom.  This is a far more accurate depiction of the great commission.

The great commission is not just about personal spiritual salvation, rescue from death and the promise of living in God’s kingdom some day in the future, which we hope will come soon…  It is far more than that.  In short, it is about the restoration of God’s original design and the establishment of his kingdom.  Hesed (lovingkindness) which is at the core of God’s character, which undergirds His kingdom and which is the essence of the gospel, has been extended in covenant faithfulness to you and me as His people.  It needs to be at work through you as you extend and establish His kingdom.

Understanding this – that the great commission is about, but not limited to, “sharing” the good news and saving souls from hell – requires a change of perspective to see the great commission as a greater more encompassing commission than we have realized.  Being about our Father’s work – the great commission – is actually being an ambassador for, and the living embodiment of, the kingdom of God.  This de-mystifies the great commission, and excludes no one, either from working the harvest, or of being part of the harvest. We are all workers in His kingdom, working His inheritance, blessed by Him to do His will, no matter what comes.

So this brings me back to my story of the delayed flight… and giving visible evidence of the kingdom of God.

Many years ago, I found myself stuck in a checkout line at a grocery store, and it was supposed to be the express line.  As time passed, I became inwardly somewhat frustrated, as patience hasn’t always been my best feature. As I waited though, I became aware of the conversations around me, particularly between the cashier and the person at the checkout.  The cashier had made a mistake and was being roundly criticized by the patron.  The next person in line, just in front of me, was abrupt to the cashier, taking out his impatience on her, probably expressing what I inwardly felt.  As I watched and listened though, my impatience vanished and I had compassion on the cashier.  I realized that my inward frustration was wrong and that I was capable of (and expected to be) so much more.  When I approached the cashier with my so important purchase, she was visibly crushed from the previous 2 customers, not crying but close to it, and she wouldn’t even look up at me.  I thought to myself, “I’m going to talk to her… I’m going to make her talk to me and make her smile”…  which I proceeded to do.  At first she responded in only one word answers, but gradually my banter began to have an impact, and she looked up and engaged in a full conversation.  And then she smiled and laughed at something I said.  As I left, she said “Have a great day!”… and then greeted the next customer with a smile.

Something clicked in my mind at that point… getting stuck in a line-up was not optional, but I could choose how to respond, and how to use the time while I was stuck in line.  Routinely now I will engage people in conversation, in line ahead of me or behind me, and always the cashier.  I don’t quote John 3:16 but I give visible tangible evidence of the kingdom of God at work through me, and it changes someone’s world.  Oh yes… the next time I went to that store and that cashier was on duty, she spotted me 3 places back in the line-up and smiled at me.  She remembered.

I did the same thing with the airline attendant who was re-booking my delayed flight.  She had been having a rough day – in her words, “a day like I’ve never had before”, with other delayed flights, and the 3 people in front of me had vented their frustrations on her.  When it was my turn, I was reasonable, friendly, asking questions, and got her to smile and let her guard down a bit.  I thanked her and told her she was doing a great job.  What a visible response, surprised but pleased, I got to that!  Then, 3 hours later and 4 boarded flights at the gate, as we prepared to board our delayed flight, her co-attendant at the desk was checking my flight itinerary, and the woman who had re-booked my flight stopped what she was doing, leaned across, and told her co-worker that everything was fine, as she had “verified Mr. Ambrose’s itinerary personally”.  She remembered!  And my inward reaction was not “Thank you God for favour! She knew who I am!”.  Instead it was “Thank you God.  I hope she caught a glimpse of You and Your kingdom.  I hope You send others of your people across her path.”

Somewhere at some time, there will be the right time for someone to water the seed I planted and share with her John 3:16.  That needs to happen.  Maybe it will be you or me who gets that opportunity.  But every day you and I get opportunities to be  the visible evidence of the kingdom, the tangible manifestation of practical holiness, which you need to extend into your world and into peoples’ lives.  Otherwise the words of the gospel, without its works, will be dismissed by those who are perishing and thrown out for lack of evidence.

As you carry out the great commission, let it be evident to everyone at all times through your words and actions as a covenant member of the kingdom of God.  This is who you are.  This is your born identity as a new creation in the Christ.  To this you have been called!

Your Born Identity – Part 4.

One of my all-time favorite movies (at least the first half of it) is Fiddler on the Roof, a musical about a rural jewish village in Russia as it copes with religious persecution and the social upheaval brought on by a rapidly changing world.  In the midst of this, Tevye, a poor farmer who daily wrestles with God, says to Him: “I know we are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

Sometimes, as we live our lives as believers and followers of the Christ, it can feel very much like this.  Christians can face ridicule in the news and the workplace.  We face many challenges, and if we are honest, it is difficult to walk out our calling as believers and followers, and a daily struggle to purify ourselves.  Combined with a lot of shallow theology these days that equates faith and obedience in the Christ with a smooth road and blessing in every area of your life, you can wonder what you are doing wrong, or grow discouraged or disillusioned in trying.  “Lord, I’ve tried so hard and it seems like I can’t get ahead.  Why me? Can’t you choose somebody else?  I’m done here.”

This is Part 4 in a 5 part series called Your Born Identity.  In Part 1 we discussed how through the all-sufficient work of the Christ on the cross, that God has declared you to have legal righteous standing before Him when you believe in the Messiah.  In theological terms this is called justification.  In Part 2, we discussed the nature of the unconditional new covenant relationship between you and God, and that you have the Holy Spirit implanted in you in all His fullness to work within you to put moral righteousness into every part of your life.  In theological terms this is sanctification, and in Part 3 we learned that this sanctification process is not optional, but essential because we belong to Him now and we are to be fully engaged in God’s kingdom work.  Sanctification is progressive, requires hard work and sacrifice, and your new identity needs to grow.  Self-examination is required, and the growth will be evident in tangible ways and by the fruit of the Spirit in your life.

During this maturing process, the character of God will grow within you and manifest toward people and situations (also toward yourself!) One key characteristic of God is hesed, meaning “persistent and unconditional tenderness, kindness, and mercy”, and “covenant faithfulness and love in action”.  This will begin to manifest in a maturing believer actively engaged in covenant sanctification.

Some of the questions we ask, as we face challenges, result from not really understanding our new covenant identity, why we are here, what blessings are for, who this is really all about, and what “already, in process, not yet” kingdom living looks like.

Would it shock you to learn that you are not the main reason or the end result of Christ on the cross? Or that His blessing is not about you, and may involve suffering and death?

This is what some might call an “inconvenient truth”.  Uncomfortable even.  But still truth.  “I know we are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” 

The truth is, God loves you and me.  He has set us free from the death-grip of sin and reconciled us to Himself.  But now we are not our own and there is a much bigger picture.  We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, that is growing within us, that He desires to be extended to all people, this Kingdom already established, in process, yet waiting for its complete fulfillment upon His return.  We are workers in His fields, over His creation, to make Him known. Your life belongs to Him.  You serve the Most High.

What this does, of course, is shift our focus.  It shifts our focus away from ourselves and on to Him and His purposes, and what HE would have each of US do. It shifts your focus on to what He would have you do, as a covenant member of His new royal priesthood over all creation.  This is why you are here, not just to wait and hold on hopefully for his promised return, but to go out and extend His kingdom.

This shift in focus to Him and away from yourself leads to other changes.  

First, If we realize who we really are, and what our role really is, it will accelerate the sanctification process and our active participation in it.

Second, it will change how we pray and what we pray for.  If you are like most believers in this generation, most of your prayers focus around yourself and your own concerns.  How would this change if your focus changed and you embraced your covenant identity?

Third, the shift in focus to God and His purposes changes our notion of blessing and of suffering.  God still desires to bless you, but as a co-inheritor of an already established but in process and not yet consummated Kingdom of God, the focal point of the blessing is not your comfort or reward, but rather that you might bless others, that you might better accomplish His purposes and establish His Kingdom and make Him known to others.  This also might change how and what you pray for blessing.

Fourth, changing your focus in this way to the correct focus on Him can change your perspective on the challenges you face.  Understanding that the Kingdom of God is in process, and not yet fully consummated, will alter your perspective:  like the battle of sanctification within you, there is a war going on in the fields you are working on assignment in His Kingdom, and the adversary is the enemy.  The presence of challenge and hardship in your life (and understand that the challenge and hardship discussed here is not that which results from your own past decisions, but the challenge and hardship because of who you are as a member of God’s covenant family, involved in a war) is actually a good sign that His kingdom is advancing.  It is still never pleasant to face hardship! But having the correct perspective on it helps… while these things are unpleasant, and may even demand your life, the presence of challenge and hardship does not mean that you have angered God, it means that you have aggravated an already defeated adversary and irritated those under his sway who have not yet heard the good news of the kingdom.

Fifth, having our focus upon Him and not upon yourself can actually make it easier to follow His commandments and display His character.  For instance, with this change of perspective, it can be easier to forgive, because the real offense is against God, and not you, and eternal separation from God is not something you would wish on even your worst enemy.  Enter the character of God, and the reason for sanctification, because that character trait of hesed – “persistent and unconditional tenderness, kindness, and mercy”, and “covenant faithfulness and love in action” – needs to be well and truly on display, to everyone, because you are God’s ambassador with the good news of His Kingdom.  His Kingdom is not advanced through the fruits of the old nature, but the new.  

Finally, as we will get into in greater depth in Part 5, the reason why you are here, why you face trials of many kinds, why you are blessed, why you need to sanctify yourself, is so much more than your personal salvation and right standing before God.  There is a bigger picture than just you, and in this sanctification process within you, and in this Kingdom work you have been given to do, the fruit of the Spirit are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

Your Born Identity – Part 3.

You will have heard the oft-used phrase “I am a work in progress.” Perhaps you have used it yourself.  For myself, when I have used this phrase in the past, it has been a self-deprecating way to explain away my flaws or less-than-perfect behaviours.

It is ok to use this phrase about yourself, as long as it is a positive declaration about what changes are yet to come, and you are actively participating in the transformation process!  

This is Part 3 in a series on your new identity as a believer and disciple of the Christ.

As we discussed in Part 1, through the all-sufficient work of the Christ on the cross, God has declared you to have righteous standing before Him when you believe in the Messiah.  As a consequence, the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, transforming you from within. God the Father’s SAME surpassingly great power that He exerted to resurrect the Christ from the dead is now implanted in you, and in me, in the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit in ALL His fullness.

In Part 2, we discussed the nature of covenant relationship, and in particular, the new covenant and your place in it.  You have now entered, and are under the unconditional terms of, a covenant relationship between you and the Lord. A covenant relationship always has 2 participants: under the new covenant, these are the Holy Spirit and you.

At the point of your faith in the completed work of the Christ on the cross, God has declared you to have righteous standing before Him, in Christ.  In other words, He has extended His righteous garments over you.  This declaration is as in a court of law:  all charges have been dismissed and your guilt and sentence of death removed.  In legal terms only, you have been declared to have righteous standing before Him.  The Holy Spirit is given as a guarantee of this declaration, and as an agent of change within you.  In theological terms, this is called justification.

From the point of faith onward, the Holy Spirit works with you in active partnership to put the new covenant into full effect within you, putting to death the things that don’t belong in your life any longer, and cultivating and growing moral righteousness – the full implementation of the gospel – into every area of your life, and also equipping you to effectively share the new covenant good news with everyone.  You cannot put the old nature to death on your own, and the Holy Spirit cannot work in you without your full active participation and consent.  In theological terms, this is called sanctification.

The process of sanctification within you is NOT optional.  In real terms, this is the response to God’s command from Leviticus 20:26, re-stated in 1 Peter 1:16:  “Be holy, because I am holy”.  The new covenant has not just saved your soul from death and hell, and fitted you for a heavenly dwelling place some day… it has restored and reinstated the image and glory of God within you that was present at creation before mankind sinned against God.  Under the new covenant, through the covenant (2-sided) process of sanctification, your life needs to progressively display more visible evidence of the glory of God.  In effect, sanctification is extending the kingdom of God within you.

In part this is about you, but only part… God loves you, and wanted to set you free from the bondage and death-grip of sin. Moreover, He loves you too much just to leave you as a newborn babe… having new life, but remaining there, with no growth or transformation.

But it is actually ALL about Him, about His design for creation, and mankind’s role (including your role) in His design to extend His glory throughout (and over) all creation.  That is the real purpose of the gospel… your new identity is not just about you, but about God and the work of His kingdom.  Through His new covenant relationship with you, the moral righteousness of the gospel is being extended through every part of you, transforming you to reflect the glory of God. But He also works this transformation within you to extend his kingdom outward into every area of creation, preparing the world and its people (His people) for Messiah’s return.  There will be more on this in Part 5.

This is why your new identity under the new covenant demands a covenant response.  Your life is not your own.  It belongs to Him – all of it.  The continual process of sanctification is the new covenant relationship at work within you – and it is hard work. The Holy Spirit is in partnership with you – as an active participant – to put into effect the gospel in all its fullness within you.  This does not enhance your declared righteous standing before Him, but it is reclaiming you as a representative and ambassador of God.

The process of sanctification extends morally righteous character into every area of your life, with your consent and involvement in continual choices.  As this morally righteous character grows within you, and the old nature is progressively put to death, (and it MUST be put to death), it is possible for your new identity, the morally righteous character, to become your normative response instead of your old way of doing things.

What is the litmus test of this covenant process of sanctification within you?  Obviously it is the evidence of change and growth in your life, to increasingly reflect God’s character in your thoughts, words and actions.

We like to work from lists and rules as evidence of our adherence to a standard of behaviour, (in this case “holiness”), but at best, lists and rules are not exhaustive but only illustrative of deeper principles and attitudes.  It is to these deeper principles and attitudes that we must go.

I have already referred to God’s instruction to “be holy, because I am holy”.  This is an underlying principle, but in God (and in those He considered righteous) it manifested itself not just in holiness, and justice, and righteousness, but in an attribute called “hesed“.  Hesed, translated in one bible version as “lovingkindness”, has a much deeper nuanced meaning which could be stated as “persistent and unconditional tenderness, kindness, and mercy”, and as “covenant faithfulness and love in action”.  This is a foundational character trait of God, evident in his behaviour toward His people.  Through the new covenant, hesed has been planted within us as part of our new identity.

This is identified by the Messiah when He summed up the Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your soul, heart, mind and strength”, and “love your neighbour as yourself”. Paul in Corinthians 13 identifies love as the foundational characteristic of the new covenant Spirit-filled life.  And in Galatians, Colossians and Ephesians, and in other places, the characteristics of the indwelling Holy Spirit are listed as visible evidence in your life (the “litmus” test) of the glory of God: “be kind to each other, tenderhearted; and forgive each other, just as in the Messiah God has also forgiven you.  So imitate God, as his dear children;  and live a life of love, just as also the Messiah loved us, indeed, on our behalf gave himself up as an offering…” (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2)

This then, is the litmus test, which we can apply to ourselves, of the state of growth within us of His moral righteousness.  It is in the fruit that we are producing, both seen and unseen, and in the extension of His kingdom both within us and through us, that His moral righteousness, our kingdom effectiveness, is demonstrated – or not.

This self-test involves realistic self-examination and required course correction, asking yourself such questions as: “What is my focus?” “What is my response to people and situations?” “What are my desires?” “What thoughts, words, and behaviours in my life do not honour or bring glory to God, and must therefore be removed (put to death).?” Ask the Lord what HE wants YOU to do.

In this process of continual self-examination, listen to the Holy Spirit within you… and do so together with the Word of God open before you, which you need to be reading every day, to ensure that what you are hearing is from the Holy Spirit.  Look at the fruits in your life. Course correct and repent.  And then act on what you hear.

In doing so, beware of your own attempts to rationalize, justify, make excuses for, or explain away behaviours that are not ok.  This is equivalent to self-deception and a refusal to be an active participant along with the Holy Spirit in your sanctification for His glory.  Also, this process will be painful at times.  This is normal and necessary.

The litmus test is best administered through Galatians 5:13-21.  What fruits are being produced in your life?

If, for any reason, your thoughts, your words, or your behaviours illustrate the fruits of the old nature (the “flesh”), then they do not bring glory to God, no matter what you think your reasons or motivation might be.  In this case, recognize it, renounce it, and submit to actively participating in the Holy Spirit’s course correction.

In all circumstances, your thoughts, your words and your behaviours must illustrate the fruits of the indwelling Holy Spirit: if they do, you are bringing glory to God and giving evidence of His kingdom at work.

As a refresher, here are the lists from Galatians 5:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are:
immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.
(Galatians 5:19-26)

2 last thoughts…

First, the fruit of the Spirit need to be evident in all of your responses, unconditionally.. i.e. your actions, thoughts, words, etc. are not dependent upon circumstances, or upon the actions, thoughts, words, etc. of anyone else.  This is a process in sanctification.

Second, as we will discuss more in Part 5, the fruits of the Spirit are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

In Part 4, we will look at your place and responsibility in the kingdom of God (why the covenant process of sanctification is necessary), and also provide kingdom perspective on blessing and suffering that we face.

Your Born Identity – Part 2.

There is a figure in greek mythology named Prometheus, who is punished by the gods and chained to a rock, where an eagle came and subjected him to the torment of eating his liver away, only to have it grow back again and be eaten again the next day.

Too often this has become a picture of how we view God and how we live our lives… God as somehow distant and harsh and unconcerned with the suffering we face in our lives that we cannot escape from.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth for a believer and disciple of the Christ.

As we discussed in Part 1, through the all-sufficient work of the Christ on the cross, God has declared you to have righteous standing before Him when you believe in the Messiah.  As a consequence, the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, transforming you from within.

God the Father’s SAME surpassingly great power that He exerted to resurrect the Christ from the dead is now implanted in you, and in me, in the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit in ALL His fullness.

Yet many of us who wear the label “Christian” seemingly give no evidence of this amazing fact.  We live “lives of quiet desperation” and have come to settle for so much less than what we have been made to be.

WHY IS THIS?

The problem lies in a misunderstanding of what was accomplished when you first believed, and what is at work within you now: the fundamental nature of your relationship with the Lord.  You have now entered, and are under the unconditional terms of, a covenant relationship between you and the Lord.

What is a “Covenant”?

First, a covenant relationship has 2 sides.  In a covenant, each party in the covenant agrees or commits to certain things, unconditionally.  Under the new covenant, there are things that the Lord alone can and will do… and there are things that you alone as a believer, and then a follower of the Christ, must do.  Initial belief or receiving Christ is itself an example of covenant:  He alone could have paid the once-for-all sacrifice to break the power of sin and death over you and reconcile you to God the Father, but it will have no effect upon you until you agree by faith.  The initial steps of the new covenant illustrate the covenant principle of two sides.

Second, a covenant relationship is not a contract.  Under a contract, if one of the parties or signatories to the contract violates their side of the agreement, then the contract is broken and both parties are released from their obligations.  By contrast, under a covenant, if one party violates their side of the covenant, the other party is NOT released from their commitments.  Commitments under covenant are unconditional, and not dependent on the actions of any other party.
Marriage was designed as a covenant, but unfortunately these days we often treat it as a contract instead.
The new covenant illustrates this unconditional and two-sided nature.  God has promised never to leave or forsake you, no matter what.  Yet you can choose to leave and forsake him for a time.  Hopefully you will not do so, but your actions will never cause Him to change his mind or his covenant commitment.

Third, a covenant relationship requires active participation.  Under covenant, both parties commit to active and on-going participation and fulfilment of their roles until the covenant is completed.  For instance, using the analogy of marriage, husband and wife partner together to put their commitments into full effect for the duration of the marriage, growing closer together.  The marriage would not grow or be healthy if one or both spouses checked out or took a passive stance in regard to the relationship.
The new covenant is like that.  Through the Christ, God has effected our freedom from sin and accomplished our reconciliation to Himself, should we choose to receive Him.  But that is only the beginning… To those who believe, He gives the indwelling Holy Spirit to partner with you to put the truth of the gospel into full effect in every area of your life, with your committed active partnership.  God has not checked out and left you on your own; nor can you check out of the process and expect Him to transform you with you as a passive participant.  The new covenant relationship, like marriage, is not an armchair sport.

Fourth, covenant requires sacrifice and exertion.  If you have been taught that life as a believer and follower of the Christ is going to be easy and comfortable, you have been sold a false product.  Any covenant, in part because of its unconditional nature,  is filled with challenge and hard work, to put into effect the covenant’s commitments. Under the new covenant, as a believer, the initial declaration of faith is the easy part. The subsequent implementation of the new covenant into every aspect of your life, for the entire remaining time of this temporal existence, is far more difficult.  It requires sacrifice, surrender, strength and steadiness on your part…in covenant partnership with the Holy Spirit, the fullness of Him that indwells you to work out your salvation to its completion.  You do not do this alone.

Fifth, covenant demands your very life.  Under covenant, you are bound to another in unconditional terms until the covenant is completed, and you cannot be part way in.  Just as God the Father did not spare His own Son, and just as He has given the Holy Spirit in all His fullness to you, your covenant response is your very life, in all areas at all times, to do His will and to bring Him glory.  Your life is no longer your own.

Sixth, the payoff of covenant is huge.  This is true of any covenant, and particularly true of the new covenant.  Also, while the covenant participants walk out the covenant to its completion, there are benefits along the way.  The best way to describe the nature of the new covenant is “already, in process, not yet” … Through the completed work of the cross, and one’s faith in Him and this completed work, the new covenant is already established in the believer; the Holy Spirit indwells the believer as a deposit and active covenant partner, working with the believer each day to extend the completed work into every area of the believer’s life in process; and awaiting the full completion of the covenant, not yet here, upon His return for His covenant people.

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At the point of your faith in the completed work of the Christ on the cross, God has declared you to have righteous standing before Him, in Christ.  In other words, He has extended His righteous garments over you.  This declaration is as in a court of law:  all charges have been dismissed and your guilt and sentence of death removed.  In legal terms only, you have been declared to have righteous standing before Him.  The Holy Spirit is given as a guarantee of this declaration, and as an agent of change within you.

From the point of faith onward, the Holy Spirit works with you in active partnership to put the new covenant into full effect within you, putting to death the things that don’t belong in your life any longer, and cultivating and growing moral righteousness – the full implementation of the gospel – into every area of your life, and also equipping you to effectively share the new covenant good news with everyone.  You cannot put the old nature to death on your own, and the Holy Spirit cannot work in you without your full active participation and consent.

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Commit to the fullness of the new covenant today… be prepared for hard work, but in partnership with the Holy Spirit, be prepared for victory as well. Press through to become the righteousness of God in all His fullness as a completed work and an effective disciple!

In Part 3, we will look at the litmus test of which nature – the old or the new – is being cultivated in your life and mine.