We returned to California for Christmas this year, in part to get our visas renewed as they were set to expire at the end of January. Residing in a country while on a visa is a strange experience, all too common for many in our world, yet fairly rare for those like myself who grew up in the USA. Don’t get me wrong, the people of Scotland have welcomed us with open arms, and among other things, we benefit greatly from the national health care here (they’ve fixed four broken arms for free already). But the fact remains, from the government’s perspective, we are short-termers here who ultimately don’t belong once our visas expire.
As ‘foreigners’, we had to send off our passports along with loads of paperwork to the UK border agency who, behind the impenetrable walls of non-communication which only government agencies can muster, held our precious documents (in spite of our paying for ‘priority’ service) long enough so that we had to delay our return flights five days because you can’t enter a country in which you are not a citizen without a passport (not withstanding our kind Canadian friends).
This experience has got me thinking about different ways of viewing the Christian life. The typical way we tend to think of our activities as followers of Jesus are are as things which we do, yet we don’t do alone. We serve, we believe, we worship, we pray, we have faith…and God comes alongside us and helps us as we do it. We do things with the help of the Holy Spirit. In this way of thinking, God is our helper who enables us to live as we were meant to live. If you were to examine much Christian-speak, this is pretty much how we talk about stuff. Maybe this is how you have generally thought about it. It is certainly how I often think and speak.
And yet, is this right? And more importantly, does this way of thinking and speaking serve us well?
Does this not foster an image of our existence in which we have our lives over here and God has his life over there, and under certain circumstances our paths cross, either through God’s active intervention or our exercise of faith? And doesn’t this way of thinking suggest that our relation to God is basically extrinsic or external? As if at the core, once all the fluff of our religious activities get culled away, the truth is that we and God don’t truly belong to or with one another?
This way of thinking reminds me of our visa status here in Scotland. That visa in my passport is a constant reminder that i don’t truly belong here. My life here and all that I do is done, not as a citizen, but as someone who doesn’t truly belong. We may get to be here for a time and enjoy its benefits, but in the end, we have none of the rights nor permanence of citizenship. We are outsiders.
But what if we were insiders?
What if the real truth is that everything we do as followers of Jesus is done ‘in Christ’? What if Jesus, whom we Christians say is God as a man, is not just the ‘top up’ or ‘helper’ who perfects our imperfect acts of faith?
What if Jesus’ self-offering – his faith, his prayer, his worship, his service, his sacrifice, his obedience, his everything-that-we-Christians-do-to-please-God – is our personal answer to God?
What if there were nothing we could add to what Jesus has already done?
What if the life that Jesus lived and lives is so full of grace and so full of God and so full of us, that nothing we do is done on our own any longer? And the focus, the priority, is all on Christ and what he did and what he is doing and what he will do?
What if we are already included? What if we already belong?
What if we didn’t have to try to get God in on our stuff, or try to get in on God’s stuff?
What if we were already ‘in’?
Wouldn’t that make all that we do simply a sharing in his life? Wouldn’t that make all our actions, our faith, our worship, our prayer, our service…all acts of participation. We get in on something that already is, and that already includes us.
It would be like living not as superficial visitors or vacationers on a temporary visa in the land of God, but as those who truly belong. It would take us out of the realm of living like government-sponsored aliens and plunge us into the joy and mystery and intimacy of an eternal family.
As a citizen, as a full member of the family, I can cry ‘Abba’ and know I am a beloved child forever and always.
Now of course, like all analogies this one does break down if pushed. But I think the difference between visiting and belonging is both fundamental and practical. As a visitor I could be kicked out if i don’t meet the legal requirements required by my particular visa. However, as one who belongs, the only mode appropriate to me is that of prayer, thanksgiving and praise.
I’ll give T.F. Torrance the last word on this one: “We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father. This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ….” (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 135)