On being a political (and ontological) alien

PhotoWe 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?

Photo (1)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.

image

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)

surprised by grace – why?

For most of my life I found grace a bore.  From the way people talked I got the idea that grace was some kind of a force or favor from God that he sent in our general direction out of condescending pity.  People would talk about grace like it was a Jamba Juice turbo boost, or a cell phone top-up, ‘I couldn’t have done that without God’s grace’.  People would speak about being ‘in a state of grace’ like it was some kind of realm of protection or safety.  I remember learning the acronym for grace: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.  It was catchy, but I was never sure what the ‘riches’ were other than forgiveness and eternal life.  Certainly those are some pretty impressive riches, and if that’s what grace was basically about who was I to complain?  Grace meant that Jesus died for me and there was nothing I could do to earn my salvation.  period.  end of story.  …and end of discovery.

So with this definition, it didn’t take me long to ‘get’ grace.  Sometime during junior high I threw my stick in the fire and accepted Jesus’ death for my sins.  From that point on, as I understood the charge, I was to follow Jesus by listening to him, obeying him and serving him and others.  His promise to me was to send his Spirit to help me do that.  The Spirit was another name for ‘the force’ of his divine top-up grace-power.  Again, who was I to complain.

The only problem was, it didn’t work too well.  I never felt good enough.  Sure, Jesus would keep forgiving me.  But I kept finding myself tired out, burned out, and stressed out trying to follow the man who is ‘full of grace and truth’.

Somewhere in my late 20′s grace took me down.  It absolutely clobbered, stunned, over-whelmed, shocked, flabbergasted ..surprised me.  I was in seminary, minding my own business, and for want of money as a teaching assistant (rather than for want of learning), I found myself sitting in on a class on Jesus.  I didn’t expect much, certainly nothing new – I’d already taken my core theology requirements.  Yet the class did have a weirdish title which made me a bit curious: ‘the humanity of Christ and human transformation’.  The professor, Alan Torrance, had come all the way over from the UK, and his uncle and father were both well known theologians, so he certainly seemed worth my time.

That week, having served in full-time ministry for more than 6 years (2 of them as a missionary in China) and mid-way into seminary, I felt like I was hearing the gospel for the very first time.  It had been more than 15 years since I’d thrown my stick into the fire while singing ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’, but nothing had prepared me for this.

That week I learned that, not only is Jesus ‘God with us’, he is also ‘us with God’.  Jesus hadn’t just come to reveal the Father to us, but to be the man before the Father for us.  Jesus didn’t just do stuff to me, but also for me; and yet not just instead of me, but in order to include me.  Jesus lived a human life in union with the Father not simply to achieve my forgiveness before a generally disappointed and wrathful Father, but to secure my fellowship in the divine life and love shared by the Father and the Son in the communion of the Spirit.

Well, there is a lot more to say, and I hope to say some of that in this ‘space’.  The purpose of this site is to explore and unpack the wonder of this amazing and surprising grace.  At this point I’m not promising to write daily or weekly.  What i do promise is to write with theological sensitivity (I am a pastor-theologian by training), biblical attentiveness (always seeking to be faithful and submissive to the authority of Christ as he speaks through the scriptures), and honest authenticity (not ignoring the fact that this life in grace is fraught with difficulties).  With this in mind, while some bits will be more on the technical side and other parts will be more anecdotal, all of it will relate to real life.  One of my best mentors, Eugene Peterson, once said to me, ‘All theology is experienceable.’  Here I explore the theology of grace so that you and I and the Church can experience its living reality every moment of every day.