Where is your identity found?

We live in strange and awful times.

Wars abroad, divisions at home, a global pandemic in its second year, and more vitriol spewed on social media than pictures of kittens and bad puns combined. People are quick to speak, slow to listen, and adept at jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.

And that’s just in the Church.

Why are we in such a hurry to defend ourselves and our positions about every social issue within the context of the Body of Christ? Why do we argue over vaccines and masks? Why do we separate ourselves into political camps? Why do we categorize our brothers and sisters as “other” based on how they look, think, or act?

And why do we usually do that behind a screen instead of engaging in conversations and dialogue designed to promote understanding and unity?

I contend that one reason we divide comes in how we perceive our own identities.

Who are you? Our current culture says that our individual identities are found in intersections of oppressions or oppressings. According to the rules of societal engagement, you are either oppressor or oppressed. Oppressors must rid themselves of every hint of historical wrongdoing; the oppressed must rise up and ensure the oppressors are re-educated and replaced. The issue with this worldview is that it ignores the fact that we are all sinners, desperately broken, and in need of redemption. There is no doubt that there is a historical record of wrongs done by one group of people to another group; the practice is the natural state of humankind and continues all over the world to this day. No revolution, no education, no secular state has been able to overcome the desire for power that is inherent in the prideful heart of people. Nor is it possible for that to be accomplished in the human dimension. Humans will ALWAYS default to us versus them. Utopia is a myth.

Reality is that the human condition is irreparably damaged by sin. Every person who has ever lived is broken. Our identity is not found in intersections, nor is it found in groups. Intersections of oppression create an illusion intended to cover personal sin. Groups serve only to divide into us and them. But there is hope in a new identity that restores broken people. Paul observed, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believed in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 ESV). Paul was both oppressed as a Jew, even though he was a citizen of Rome, and oppressor as a well-educated Pharisee who persecuted followers of Jesus. Paul, then, might represent each of us, regardless of how society has labeled us. Paul rejected the labels of his culture and embraced the mercy of Jesus.

When we embrace the mercy of Jesus, we are adopted as the children of God. No matter what this broken culture says, we can throw off the politics of identity by claiming the inheritance that begins with forgiveness and continues with the riches of God’s grace, poured over us with all wisdom and understanding according to His good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5-6). We are Christ’s, sons and daughters of the Most High, justified by faith alone. As sons and daughters, we are also brothers and sisters, members of one family. Each of us has put on Christ, and in doing so, we have entered into a new identity, one where “there is neither slave nor free” we are ONE in Jesus (Galatians 3:23-29; Colossians 3:11).

If, then, we are one in Jesus, how can we continue to participate in arguments over things of this earth? This world is not our home; we have an eternal promise, a citizenship in heaven. Any glory of this world is the worst kind of dust compared to the kingdom that is to come (Philippians 3:8). Instead of turning against each other, quibbling over things that are meaningless in the scope of eternity, let us look ahead, together, standing side by side as we work out our salvation, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-20; John 14:1-6). We are a family, not competitors in a cultural debate over which group is “right.” We need to imitate our Father, not the current culture. As a family, we put on love above everything else, because love unites us (Colossians 3: 14).

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

The gift of rest

Resting is hard for many of us, especially those of us who grew up in a community where work was prized above almost anything else. Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise…” Productivity, even in ministry, becomes an idol, but it is an acceptable one. We take pride in how much we accomplish and we hold up our calendars as trophies of superiority.

The pandemic that rocked 2020 should have been a reset of rest and work in balance, and for many people the reset was real. For others of us, however, resting led to guilt over falling behind on plans and goals and work, so when restrictions were lifted, we jumped in doing double time to compensate for the jigsaw puzzles, movies, and books that kept us entertained for a year.

I know the feeling because that’s what I’ve done for the last few months.

When “wait” became my word for 2021, I should have know this season would be one of forced rest. God know that my temperament is one that seeks after accomplishment, so He ensured that this year, I would not be able to show a list of doing. Instead, He gave me opportunities to practice being. I haven’t been entirely cooperative, if I am perfectly honest. I looked for jobs in my field for months. When none materialized, I started up several side projects and looked for part-time work somewhere doing anything. I found that my resume made me look overqualified for pretty much everything, so I didn’t get call backs for entry level jobs. When I finally settled down to examine why, it was like the Lord told me to wait–and write; He would provide.

God designed a day for resting and worshipping because we (I) need it.

I started this blog with the intention of writing a book about the need for grace in the church. I still believe I need to write that book. This season of waiting and being seems to be designed for following through. It is also a reminder that Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). God designed a day for resting and worshipping because we (I) need it.

So now, I enter that rest with a little trepidation, but certain that the Father will supply my needs. I will fill my mind with His word. I will learn and write about grace. I will keep my calendar flexible, knowing that God will put me where He wants me too be while keeping me free to do the work He has called me to do. In time, not all at once. Day by day, practicing the gift of rest.

For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works”…So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:1-11).

Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

Malachi 3; Amos 5; Micah 6-7; Philippians 3

There’s an old song that keeps playing in my head today. The words I recall are these:

This world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through.
 My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
 The angels beckon me from heaven's open door.
 And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. 

The events of the last several weeks that culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 just confirm to me that I don’t belong to this world. I knew there would be a time when many people calling themselves “Christians” would turn away from the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; evidently that time is now. I am horrified by the events at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was also Epiphany, a day set aside by liturgical traditions to remember the Magi and to ponder the baptism of Jesus by John. It was at the baptism that John introduced Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:19-34). Epiphany, a sudden illumination of something. Epiphany, the recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully man. The wonder of the Incarnation, now a man beginning his public ministry. How far the Church has fallen from the wonder of God’s mercy and grace for us. How devastating is that fall!

The Church in the US and much of the West is broken. It has been broken by teachers and pastors who sought recognition and fame. It has been broken by church attendees who stay for the music, but leave as soon as the teaching gets serious. Cultural Christianity (churchianity) focuses on blessings instead of trials and boasting instead of truth. The Church in the US, for the most part, has moved away from worshipping the righteous and holy God who created all things and holds all things together, replacing the Father with a national identity and the human leaders they elect.

28 Tweets About Trump's Rioters In The Capitol Building
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images Retrieved from Buzzfeed

Whether or not people believe that the 2016 or 2020 elections resulted in fraudulent officials is irrelevant. The kind of violence exhibited on January 6 was illegal, seditious, and wrong on every level. Those who hung up the name of Jesus in the process defiled his holy name. Amos wrote that God’s people must seek good, and not evil, especially when they live in a country that thrives on the titillation of wickedness. “Hate evil and love good,” he wrote. “Establish justice in the gate.” Amos goes on to describe how the Lord looks upon self-indulgent and proud people who claim they have “rights” because of their affiliation with God. The Lord abhors that pride. Amos spoke for the Lord saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen.” Displays of nationalism and religiosity do not honor the Lord. He is not the God of the United States of America. He is the Lord of ALL creation. To honor the Lord means His followers pursue justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s righteousness, not self-righteousness. The actions of people on January 6 revealed the utter wickedness that dwells within all people. They pursued a path that would vindicate their self-righteousness and the false gospel of nationalism. They put a political figure in the place of the Lord.

Nations rise and nations fall. Institutions are built up and torn down. There will come a day when the US will fall, just as every empire has fallen. But the people of God are not to be part of that destruction. We are to seek peace. We are to pray for the welfare of where we live (Jeremiah 29:4-14), not listening to those who seek to deceive. God is abundantly clear about what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord. None of the humility, kindness, nor justice were on display by the people who called themselves Christians while they broke into the Capitol, wreaking havoc in their violence. Make no mistake, these people were not acting in the will of God and God was not glorified. In fact, Malachi wrote that people like those who use the name of Jesus and the idea of Christian the way they did on January 6 weary the Lord with their words. They say that doing evil is doing good and that God is too slow in enacting justice. These claims illustrate just how self-serving these people are. They worship a nation, a Constitution, and institution, not the Living Lord.

The Lord will refine His Church. The pandemic has revealed those who used church as a social gathering place by closing the physical doors. The ugliness of the campaigns of 2020 revealed just how deep the corruption of ethical behavior has become. The riots of summer 2020 demonstrated the inadequacy of church teaching, especially with the notion of the prosperity gospel or the social gospel that infiltrated many churches. The refining has begun. The heat has been turned up, and unless there is general repentance and lamentation of the Church’s failure to teach the Word to the people, things will continue to get more difficult. All the dross must be burned away in order for those of us who seek Jesus first to fully reflect Him in all that we do and say.

In the end, however, this world, this country, this national institution is just a place of passing as we journey to our eternal home. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing. We will look to the Lord, waiting for the God of our salvation. He hears us. He is our light. His love is steadfast.

And that song? It has an interesting story that I’ll share another day. For now, enjoy one of the first recordings of it by the composer, Jessie May Hill:

This World is Not my Home. Jessie May Hill (May, 1927)
Philippians 3:  17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

My word for 2021

Habakkuk 1-3

Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.

I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:

How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.

And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.

And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.

I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.

Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.

God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?

With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Additional reference

Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.