Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking the Next Step

Easter has come and gone least on the 2008 calendar. But in my encounters with people who find themselves intimately connected with what God is doing in the world I am discovering that Easter is happening every day of the year.

The hope that was established and is now offered by the resurrection of Jesus is increasingly prevalent in the lives of those who call themselves followers of Jesus. These are the people who are quite literally offering food and water to a hungry and thirsty world. These are the people who are adopting whole villages of kids for whom their parents have either died or are dying of AIDS. These are the people who are stepping into some of the most church-forsaken places on earth and proclaiming a message of hope with their words, but more importantly, with their lives. These are people who not only dream of a restored and redeemed world but are actually taking steps to see that come about.

And that's what faith is really about, isn't it? Isn't it about taking a step of action in partnership with God to see change come about in one's own life as well as in the lives of those we encounter? So we overcome addictions and leave behind a destructive part of our life, only to find ourselves wanting to help others do the same thing. In this way, I think we pray with more than our words, but with our lives to see heaven come to earth, which is the very thing Jesus prayed for (that the Father's will would "be done on earth as it is in heaven").

So what's the next step for you?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Identity theft

Have you ever had your identity stolen? I haven't, but I've heard enough stories from people who have to know that it's not a pleasant experience. In fact, it's quite horrible. I mean, imagine having to change all those numbers with which you are identified. Your Social Security number, your credit card number, your phone number. All these numbers hold the key to your identity. Think about it. If someone presses the right sequence of the numbers 1-9 on their phone, they could end up having a personal conversation with YOU!

I can't imagine having to change all those numbers, and then having to re-establish relationships with those people who connect with me using those numbers. It would be much easier just to continue using the same old numbers and let the thieves have their way, but it would probably be much more costly.

While the practice of identity theft is not something explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, I think it is a concept Jesus introduces to those he encounters. In John 5:1-18, we find the story of Jesus healing a man who had been ill for 38 years. While that demonstration of the healing power of God would be enough for me, the point John wants to make is that Jesus healed the man on the sabbath, and the reaction of the Jewish religious leaders reveals that their identity has been stolen.

Now the sabbath was (and still is) incredibly important to the Jewish people. It was a sacred practice that identified them as God's redeemed people, so God commanded them to keep it (Deut. 5:12-15). The religious leaders of Jesus' day had analyzed this commandment "to keep the sabbath" to such a degree that they had developed over 30 different nuances of the commandment, essentially creating a list of things you could or could not do on the sabbath. The religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees, loved the law of Moses and they had given their lives to following the law down to the letter for it was in following the law that they found their identity.

So Jesus enters the scene and heals a man for whom death was not imminent on the sabbath--a BIG no-no in the Pharisees' book. And not only does Jesus heal this man on the sabbath, but then he goes on answer their criticism by saying that just as his Father is still working, so is he still working, essentially saying that he, himself was equal to God.

These two things--the healing of the man and the claim of Jesus to be equal to God--were what upset the Jewish leaders the most (John 5:18), and I think I partly understand why. Now if I were a Jewish leader, I too would be upset with Jesus because his actions and words are a threat to my identity. My zealous obedience to the law of Moses is the very thing that sets me apart as holy, as one who belongs to God, but then Jesus comes along claiming to be equal to the God of my people, the one who gave us the law in the first place. "Jesus, stop messing with my identity!" is something I would shout at Jesus. If I don't have my strict adherence to the law, then what do I have to identify myself?

If we believe Jesus to be the one who in fact IS equal to God, then his presence on the earth is a sign of the ushering in of the reign of God and with it, the true way of living. The Jewish religious leaders thought that true obedience to the law was performed one way--in continually discovering ways to separate themselves from others--but Jesus demonstrates that true obedience is in bringing salvation to the world--salvation in its most holistic sense. For Jesus, this means that instead of fighting and waging war, we love our enemies; instead of distancing ourselves from those who are "unclean", we get close enough to touch and heal them, even if it means breaking the rules established by community leaders.

Jesus healing this man on the sabbath confronts something deep within the Jewish leaders, namely the source of their identity. They had established a system of rules in which they found their worth and identity, and they didn't want to lose that because it meant losing themselves. And just as the identity of the Jewish leaders was confronted, so too are we today confronted by this act of Jesus.

I think this healing act of Jesus is particularly difficult for those of us in Western society where success and achievement are so highly valued. The primary mindset of Western society leads many to base their identities on what they do and how well they do it. Perhaps this explains why not getting through the first round of American Idol--i.e. not getting to go to Hollywood--is such a crushing experience for so many people. It isn't surprising then that when all the young aspiring singers are told their performance aren't that good (or as Simon would say, "it was rotten") they seem to go off the deep end because the three judges are not only commenting on their singing ability, but it feels as if they are evaluating the singer as a person!

But getting back to Jesus, I think the most challenging part of his healing is that he is essentially asking people to surrender those things on which we have established their identities and to embrace the simplest, yet most profound identity as a deeply loved child of God.

For so long I have based my identity on my accomplishments, but according to Jesus, having that as my source of identity will not lead to the true way of living. So in a sense my identity has been stolen by my accomplishments. This leads me to ask, by what or by whom has your identity been stolen? What consumes you? What things/people/tasks falsely give you value and worth?

My identity has been held ransom for a long time and I'm learning that the best thing I can do is to die to those things that really shouldn't determine who I am anyway. This means I have to first identify what or who it is that has stolen my identity, and then I have to spend time reflecting on why I allowed that thing/person to steal it in the first place. This includes moments of confession and repentance, which finally allow me to experience the grace and love of God, who calls me his kid.