CROSSROADS, Part 6

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ENDING TO BEGINNING

While it may sound strange, if we want a new beginning, we must first have an ending. “Because transition is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world,” says author William Bridges in Managing Transitions, “we can say that transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? If a wall of our house has become permeated with mildew, we must tear out the gyprock and replace it with new wall sheet before a fresh coat of paint will have any real lasting significance.

Our lives are no different. Being content with the status quo makes us want to hold onto our old lifestyle, even if it is harmful to us. But if we become aware that there is a gap between our present reality and a future we desire more, we will become willing to leave the past behind. We finally want to make an end of the old life.

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” asks the apostle Paul. He’s trying to help us see the gap, to have a sense of urgency in leaving an old way of life that is killing us by degrees.

He’s presenting an early version of Bridges’ change management theory. He uses a different term for that first stage Bridges calls endings. Paul uses the word death, which paints a much bolder picture than the term ending, but it’s apt. The transition Paul describes is not insignificant.

“We died to sin;” he explains. He’s talking about the choice we each make to either stay as we are, living under our own set of rules that tell us we’re good enough as we are as long as we do such-and-such, or to accept the ending of that self-satisfied way of living. Paul specifically uses the terms died and death as literary devices to communicate a complete severing from an old way of life.

Paul’s advice to “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11) may be the single most concise guideline for the change that is happening in the mind of a person while God is working in the spirit of that same person. It is the deliberate choice to turn away from a lifestyle established apart from God. Regardless of the ‘freedom’ that lifestyle touts, Paul’s synopsis is that it is nothing less than “slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness.”

‘Slavery, indeed!’ we gasp. How can a self-determined lifestyle be slavery?

We are all slaves to something, he says. We all submit ourselves to one ideology or another whether we put a label on it or not. The point is not that we are, in effect, slaves, but rather determining to what we are bound. Are we slaves to something that will eventually destroy us, or to God who promises infinite benefit to us?

Bridges’ Transition Theory adds one piece of clarifying information. Between the ending and the new beginning there is a neutral zone, a place where we gradually, by increments, fully release the old way, explore what the new way will entail, and learn how to embody the new way of thinking and acting. This, I believe, is the zone of Christian living. It’s where we are in the process of learning to live out our God-centred beliefs. It’s where we make mistakes and need to remind ourselves we made an end of the old way, and focus again on the new way. Critics are quick to shout ‘hypocrite!’ but rather than hiding our weakness, we can simply agree. We fail – we address our inconsistencies – we get up off the ground and turn our eyes again to Jesus – and we move on. That is part of this crossroads that following Jesus entails. It’s humbling, yes. But it is the only way to real, lasting, transformational change.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Derek Harper)

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Crossroads, Part 5.

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The ancient Syrian city of Palmyra may be next. The destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq is spreading; from burning the National Library, pillaging the National Museum, and bulldozing Hatra and Nimrud, the Islamic State jihadists have advanced on Syria. It’s a violation of the Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention, social and ethical convention. And that destruction pales in comparison to the human destruction being wreaked. Investigations of one month alone (November, 2014) show that 80% of all death in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Afghanistan were the result of jihadist violence. That the ISIS-led reign of destruction appalls us is a good sign, though. It reveals that we have deep within us a sense of fair play, a knowledge that although this reign of destruction is all around us, it is somehow foreign to our inner moral code.

There is a more fundamental issue in the realm of earthly reigns and destruction than what ISIS or any violent group or individual is doing, though.

“Death,” explains Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans, “reigned…” He is explaining the moral situation of which all of us, Adam’s hapless descendants, have found ourselves both perpetrators and victims. We are all morally culpable not only for our own personal continuation and version of the Great Rebellion against God. At the time of Moses, Judaic Law was introduced. Was this a crossroad, a solution to the age-old problem? No, explains Paul. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Our situation was moved from bad to worse. Our problem was simply highlighted to draw our attention to it. So death continued its merciless reign.

Study the history of the human race. Pore over the documents and archives of our sad story. Watch the news. Beneath the innovations and revolutions that emerge intermittently, something deeper permeates the journey of our species: Inequities, cruelties, and atrocities stain the social fabric of our history across time, place and culture. In a word, death reigns. That path is descriptive of the movement of humanity’s masses even today.

Picture it. Imagine a huge highway absolutely plugged with people jostling and rubbing shoulders with one another, fights breaking out occasionally, some being trampled by the many, a rare helping hand reaching out to another. This is the picture that describes us.

Now picture a gift—not a box wrapped in tissue and ribbon, but an opportunity to escape the mad wanderings of the death reign. This gift is mentioned five times in three verses—Paul must be trying to make a point. It’s a “gift…not like the trespass”; it’s a “gift of God (that) is not like the result of the one man’s sin”; it’s a “gift (that) followed many trespasses”; it’s a “gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ”; and it’s a gift that allows “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness (to) reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Did you catch that? At this crossroad, we step from the road where death reigns onto the path where life reigns, where those who accept the gift reign in life.

It’s a noteworthy crossroad. It’s the same crossroad we’ve been exploring through the first four chapters of Romans, and now we hear it in yet another way. We’re reminded yet again of this uniquely central intersection Jesus created for us two thousand years ago to be current today. It is no wonder the cross is the paradoxical symbol of life for those who have chosen to follow Him. It pictures death being crossed by life. So take the gift and treasure it – and move into the reign of life.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Voice of America News; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvOZnXeJs3M&feature=plcp)

CROSSROADS

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Exploring Romans 4

Promises don’t mean much in our contemporary culture. When we bring home a new appliance boasting the latest technology and most trendy styles, there is an implied promise. It promises to do the job it’s designed to do. It promises to do it better than any other product on the market. And it promises to make our life easier, happier, and freer than it’s ever been before.

When the appliance fails, sometimes only months later, all promises are off. We’re told we should have purchased the extended warranty – the fault is our own; we should have worked to ensure our easy, happy and free existence with the product would endure. The promise was merely wishful thinking on our part.

The same seems to go for most other realms in life: in education, career, marriage, parenting, health and especially our lifespan, there are no promises anymore. Or, at least, we have learned that the promises weren’t really meant to be kept. Our world is changing too fast to be hampered by mere promises.

The one exception to the rule is found here in the fourth chapter of the New Testament letter Romans. In it, we are reminded of a millennia-old promise made by God to us. To who? While it was voiced early on in the history of mankind to an ancient, later named Abraham, there was, even then in the promise, a clause that included us. It said, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” What this meant, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, is that because of Abraham’s unconventional response of faith toward God, he would be considered the father of all who would also have faith in God.

“It was not through law,” explains Paul, “that Abraham and his offspring received the promise…but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” And later, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed…”

Let’s stop and rest here for a moment. This is heady news. God, the only being truly capable of making and fully keeping a promise of eternal value, has made you and me a promise. He has promised His blessing. The blessing of an all-good, all-loving and all-powerful God is not fairy dust and wishful thinking; it is the most solid, robust and meaningful element available to any creature in this world.

The great irony, or so it seems to me, is that it comes by faith. We are asked to simply believe it and entrust ourselves to the hope it will ultimately embody. But there is more. There is a guarantee. Unlike the new front-loading washing machine that self-destructs after only one year of service and is not worth repairing, God guarantees that our simple faith in His promise of blessing will never be disappointed. Faith is the full cost we bear in the transaction. The extended warranty is His responsibility alone.

“Having believed,” explains Paul in the letter Ephesians, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”

It’s good to think that through again, or maybe for the first time. God offers blessed relationship with Him; God provides the means for it to happen through Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross; and God guarantees our inheritance will be delivered by imparting His own Spirit to live within us. He is fully invested in His promise becoming reality for us. And again, what is our part? Our part is simply and only faith. Yes, it will be life-changing faith if it’s authentic. Our lives will be the expression of our relationship with God, not our means of purchasing it. That’s what happens when God makes a promise, and we accept it.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Ambitibo)

CROSSROADS, Part 3

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“Are you dying for him?” she whispered.

“And his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”

At the climax of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, an exchange occurs; an unexpected substitution extricates the story’s protagonist from his imminent appointment with death. An eleventh-hour switch happens and a ransom results.

While in this story the anti-hero who orchestrates the exchange is by no means faultless, his act is reminiscent of the greatest ransom and rescue ever performed, not in literature, but in real life, by a man who proved Himself to be God’s Son. It is this great rescue to which the apostle Paul refers in this third chapter of the letter to the Romans.

This concept of rescue is not as easy to accept at it would appear. Sometimes we even abhor the idea; the offer of a remedy we fail to see we need strikes us as intrusive advertising. At other times, we catch a glimpse of our desperate situation, but then do not believe the rescue will accomplish what we want; we’ve become skeptical in our old age and new morality, unable to believe there is a solution to our problem. Sometimes we philosophize there are no problems – only appearances. We just need to look at life from a new angle and all will fall into place, we think.

Who wants a rescuer?

Only children do, really. Yet, only when we see ourselves as children do can we admit that a rescuer is necessary. Romans 3 looks at this crossroads because it’s the place where we choose the direction our thinking will follow.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Paul is saying it’s a crossroads everyone entertains. In earlier verses he divides people into ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’, divisions that described the religious milieu of the day. He is saying we all come from one perspective or another that has its own road: the narrow law-keeping road, or the broader naturalist road. Those traveling each road consider themselves on the right road. Do you see yourself on either of these?

Yet, says Paul, the historical death of Jesus changes everything. It creates an intersection out of which two new paths issue. One path he calls faith – not faith in general, but specifically faith in the death-defying ransom paid by Jesus. The only other path is the absence of faith, in all its various expressions. Our daily lives are marked by our passage on one of these two roads. The former is easy to stray from, because we are, as one songwriter so aptly put it, “prone to wander”. The other path is so much easier to traverse but its ending, by small degrees and ultimately, destroys us.

As we make choices that will define our steps today, we do well to keep in mind a clear picture of that ransoming crossroad. It will be our best guide and strongest motivation to keep pace on the faith road and stay the course.

“Did You die for all humanity?” we ask Jesus.

“And for you. Hush! Yes.”

(Photo Credit: “La route qui mène vers le coté obscur”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg#/media/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg)