Three Words

Essential

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about people who are “essential.” In times of crisis, certain skills and services are necessary to preserve or protect life. In times of war, soldiers, medics, makers of tanks and arms, helmets, planes, boots, and armor become essential. In times of famine, farmers, and anyone with reserves of food or water become essential. In times like these, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and those who make or distribute medicines, PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, etc., are essential.

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Being “essential” may sound wonderful, but it comes with a heavy price. Doctors and nurses are stretched and stressed, working ridiculously long shifts and scrambling to find ways to arrest the progress of COVID-19 among their patients who test positive. Meanwhile, their neighbors are complaining about being told to stay home and do nothing because their skills, their businesses, and their contributions are considered “non-essential.” Grocers and the cashiers, restaurant owners, farmers, and truckers are risking their lives to keep people supplied with food, only to have people complain about prices and temporary shortages. And any one of their customers could be spreading the virus– not just to them, but to their other customers. Police officers, already putting their lives on the line, are now asked to interact with those who may be carrying and spreading this virus, as well as dealing with an angry and frustrated population chafing under orders to stay home and stay inactive. And those who are “essential” are also vulnerable– tired and frightened and inadequate to meet every need–they are not infallible or indefatigable.

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There are really only a few things in life that are actually essential–breathing (which is one of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary, because it attacks the lungs), water, food, and basic shelter (protection from excessive heat or cold). And, while many around the world are facing more extreme shortages than others, most of the chafing and complaining has less to do with not having the essentials than with being (or not being) labeled “essential” with very little notice or guidance, and asked to bear the brunt of a crisis they cannot predict or control.

Redundant (non-essential)

For every person who is feeling the pressure of being “essential” in a time like this, there are others who have been labeled “non-essential”– redundant, expendable, “in the way.” “Stay home!” “Stay away!” “Don’t!” Don’t shake hands, or hug, or visit friends or loved ones (unless you can do so via phone or internet). Don’t touch– don’t touch door knobs or counters or surfaces– don’t even touch your own face!

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The intent of these messages is a positive one–“help stop the spread of this virus”–but the message often gets lost in the tone of fear and panic that accompanies it. “If you don’t (go away, stay away, stop touching, stop asking questions, stop being in the way…) other people, especially ‘essential’ people, will get sick and die.” “If you could just go away, disappear, be quiet, etc., until this crisis dies down…” Feeding your family, keeping your business open, earning a living, using or developing your skills, offering your services or products– none of that is “essential” right now. You have nothing to offer in a time of crisis– you are expendable. Perhaps not forever, but just now– just for a few more days, weeks, months?…

Jesus offers us a shocking view of what is/who is “essential” or “redundant.” In his encounter with the “rich young ruler,” (see https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/07/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/) Jesus listens as the young man seeks to justify himself. He has done everything he deems “essential” to inherit eternal life. But Jesus challenges him with one “essential”–sell what he has in order to serve the poor and “redundant.”

Jesus had frequent encounters with lepers– the most “redundant” and expendable people of his day. They were contagious, “unclean,” unwanted. And Jesus also encountered those with great power and prestige–priests and rulers, centurions and tax collectors. Many of them were also considered “unclean,” and unwanted! Those for whom Jesus had the sternest warnings were those who refused to accept, respect, or help those they preferred to judge.

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Whosoever-

Jesus, the only One who actually has the right to judge, didn’t come to further the division of people into categories and labels. While he didn’t turn a blind eye to sinful activities, neither did he point fingers. And while he celebrated faith and service when he found it, he didn’t flatter or fawn over those whose service was more “essential” than others’. Instead, Jesus invited “whosoever” to believe in him (John 3:16), to follow him, and to become part of the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 22:17). Someday, He will judge us, and we will be separated. But the one “essential” will be whether or not we have chosen to depend on Him and trust Him for the wisdom and strength to do His will in service to “whosoever” we encounter.

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There is no one so “essential” that God is required to accept her/him into the Kingdom. This may be a strange notion to some of us, who have fallen into thinking that we earn our salvation through good works or memorizing doctrinal statements. But NO person is essential in Heaven. And that’s not bad news or meant to condemn–it is simply a reminder that God’s standard is level and fair. We don’t have to strive and stress; we don’t have to have all the right answers, or do all the “right” things– in fact, we can’t.

And there is no one so “redundant” that God cannot accept him/her into the Kingdom. Again, this may be a strange notion, that we cannot “out-sin” God’s salvation. We can’t mess up, wash out, face-plant, or fail such that God cannot redeem, rescue, or revive us. God will never tell us to “stay away,” “wait,” “don’t get too close.” Instead he says, over and over again, “Come!”

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Whosoever is struggling with exhaustion, or impossible expectations, panic, fear, sickness, anger, depression, loneliness, hunger, rejection, injustice, confusion, or emptiness– let them come!

Christians, Christ-followers, and Jesus Freaks

I see a lot of articles, posts, and religious sites as I wander around the internet. And there has been a lot written and shared lately about the word Christian getting a “bad rap.” Many writers and church goers are no longer comfortable calling themselves Christians. They don’t want to be identified with “bad” Christians– hypocrites, political extremists, etc., who loudly and proudly use the label while treating others with contempt, and generally acting like bullies and/or clowns. The growing trend is to use the term “Christ-follower” to describe a lifestyle that seeks to mirror that of Jesus Christ during His life on earth.

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Proponents of this practice point out that Jesus never called His followers “Christians.” Instead, He consistently invited people to “Follow me.” The term “Christian” is associated with the earliest Gentile churches and with the scattering of the persecuted church across Judea, Samaria, and Asia Minor. The term originated in Antioch a few years after Jesus’ resurrection:

19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (emphasis added)

Acts 11:19-26 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)

For a more detailed look, check out this link: http://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-acts-11-19-26.htm

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Christian was not a positive or honorable label for the early followers of Jesus Christ. There are still many places in the world where the label “Christian” invites arrests, beatings, and death threats. There are places where the name “Christian” invites scorn and derision. What has changed (or seems to have changed) in the intervening years is that we see and hear of more and more places in the world where the label “Christian” brings up images of sneering protesters condemning gays or smug white faces spouting self-righteous phrases to justify greed, racism, and/or injustice. “Christians” are not just unwanted or misunderstood by others–Christians are unwanted by their own; misunderstood and misrepresented, at odds and at war with one another.

So what can be gained by followers of Jesus Christ in re-branding themselves as “Christ-followers?” After all, it’s just a name. In the 1960s, many Christians were condescendingly labeled “Jesus Freaks.” Jesus Freaks were viewed much like Hippies. They spoke of Peace and Love and Acceptance. They taught about kindness and unity. They were often young, and generally disillusioned with the older generation and its way of life. They acted a lot like Hippies; they just didn’t do as much experimenting with drugs and free sex. Much like the early Christians, they were labeled by those who dismissed their message and their way of life. They rejected traditional or mainstream Christianity, and were dismissed by many who called themselves Christians. Some were openly critical of previous generations of Christians. Many of those who wish to be called “Christ-followers” now are the descendants (or remnants) of the Jesus Freaks of the 60s. The mind set is very similar– disillusionment with others who have misused or abused the name of Christ, and a desire to “rescue” the reputation of the church.

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There have been other groups across the centuries who have tried to re-brand and re-label their devotion to Jesus– God-fearers, Disciples, Reformers, Witnesses, Saints, Fellowships, etc.. And there is no command in Scripture that we must all call ourselves by a particular label.

But is seems odd to me that the very label, “Christian,” that came about because of persecution, that came about as a derisive, sneering, condescending term, was embraced by those it sought to shame and intimidate. Why didn’t the original “Christians” re-brand themselves to make their cause less offensive? Why has this term, “Christian,” endured over the centuries?

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I think there are a few very good reasons:

  1. “Christians” bear the name of Christ, whatever other name they give themselves. When I say I am a Christian, I know that there are people who will compare me to others who make this claim. But I am not just a member of a group that likes the idea of Christ; I’m not just a Facebook follower of Christ, or a fan of Christ, or a student of Christ. Christ is my Lord; my life; my identity. Christ– Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Not Joe Smith down the road who also attends my church, or a famous evangelist or Bible teacher, or even one of the Apostles, or Saints. Jesus– son of Mary and Joseph; Son of God and Son of Man. This same Christ was arrested, given a sham trial, condemned to be crucified like a common criminal, and hung, naked and tortured before a mocking crowd. He was humiliated, misunderstood, and abandoned by those who claimed to care the most. THAT is the name I willingly bear.
  2. “Christian” is a label. I can label myself in any number of different ways– “Woman,” “American,” “Caucasian,” “College graduate.” But there are many others who can use those same labels. They may define what I am, but they don’t define who I am. I may be appalled (and I am, sometimes) at things other women do, at things other Americans say, at the history of Caucasians and their interactions with indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, at the snobbery of other college graduates…But I don’t say, “I’m no longer going be an American; I want to be known as a resident of the United States, but I have my own system of government and culture and language independent of those living in Missouri or Idaho or Chicago– they don’t represent who I am.” Of course they don’t represent who I am–they never did. We all, collectively, are Americans AND residents of the United States. I can’t decline to be a woman because I don’t like the way other women behave or speak. And I can’t choose to be “other than” a Christian…all I can do is give it another label.
  3. Finally, who I am is not found in a name or title or label. It is the sum total of my character and the way I live my life. Jesus didn’t tell His disciples that they would be known by any particular name, but He did say they would be known and identified by their love: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NKJV). That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything other “Christians” do– in fact, if they use the name Christian and do not have love for others, they prove they are liars– but it means that I must do everything in the name of Christ.
    I am a Christian first, before I am a woman or an American or any other label. That means that I am the co-heir and sister to a young man in India who has been rejected by his family and expelled from his school for being a Christian. I am an ambassador of Christ to the woman I meet in the grocery store whose children are taxing her patience and whose cart is blocking the aisle I want to enter. I am an example of Christ’s love to the young couple who have been victimized by other “Christians” because they are “different.” And I am a Christian in a world of “fake” Christians, and confused Christians, and faulty and very human Christians just like me, who need correction, mercy, justice, and wisdom to follow Christ, to die to self, and to bear the honor of His name. Ultimately, I can call myself a Christian, a Christ-follower, a Jesus Freak–any other label I want. Whether I AM a Christian or not will be determined by how I live, not what I call myself.
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If you are a Christian reading this– how are you bearing His name today?

I Am..

There are many ways to describe who I am (or who you are). I can describe myself in terms of my appearance, my social status, my occupation, age, familial role, or any number of other labels. These labels help distinguish me from other people around me, while also grouping me in with still others. Even my name functions in this way. My surname connects me with my current family; my maiden name with my birth family–my first name distinguishes me from my siblings within the family. However, there are many others in the world with either the same first name, surname, or both!

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I know that I am a unique person, but I am not singular. That is to say that while I am a unique combination of genetic materials, with unique hopes and dreams, I still belong to the human race, to my family group, and to the culture and time in which I live.

Only God can say “I AM!” and not have to add any modifier. God is..God. There is no one like God–no label that can be applied to Him and to anyone or anything else. We use words like “King”, “Father”, “Lord”, “He” even “God”, but none of them convey the fullness, the enormity, the eternity of the great “I AM.” Many ancient cultures worshiped gods; supernatural beings who ate and drank, married and had families, ruled the skies or waters or land or underworld, fought, loved– some even died. But none of them could say they were “I AM”. I AM stands in the face of doubt and unbelief; I AM remains unchanged and unchanging in the face of progress and technology; I AM defeats our attempts to shrink Him into our own limited understanding and our own limited lifespan; I AM is ever present, ever aware, everlasting.

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And this I AM created each of us to BE. Because of I AM, I can say that I am, too! And my purpose is to be, and to become more like He is, to the glory of I AM, and the fulfillment of what I am in Him.

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Lord, Father, and the great I AM– help me to see you more clearly for who you are. Help me to become more like you, and more like the person you created me to be. Help me to reflect your glory in the words I speak and the actions I take today.

Identity Crisis

Who are you? If someone were to ask me such a question, how would I respond? Where would I begin? Name? Gender? Race or Ethnicity? Nationality? Marital Status? Age? Profession? Social or Economic Status? Religious Affiliation?

While I can be “identified” by such labels and descriptors, none of them get to the essence of who I “am.” More than just “identification”, there are four important ways to think of “identity.” Jesus dealt with two of them (and hinted at a third) in a discussion with His disciples:

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1When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 
Matthew 16: 13-18 (NIV)

“Who do people say (I am)?”–Those who label us are usually those who are most removed from us– “people” who don’t know our personality, our life story–people who can only identify us by faint impressions and simple observations. Unfortunately, our world has become a place where we can feel trapped in this sort of surface identity. Others see that I am young or old, short or tall, Christian, Muslim, Black or Asian, American or Brazilian, Hispanic, female, blind, etc. Or they judge me to be rich or poor, native or foreigner, educated, clean, socially adept…or someone who thinks or speaks like them..or not. Others can shape our social identity, but we must resist the trap of letting them define it.

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Through the ages, people have tried to define Jesus– to identify, label, and dismiss Him, just as the people of His own time did. Some have seen in Him a “great teacher”, a “prophet”, a madman; some even question the reality of His physical existence. Jesus was aware of this when He asked for feedback from His disciples. But He wanted more.

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“Who do YOU say that I am?”– Those who are close to us can give us a more accurate reflection of who we really are. They know more of the complex nature of our personalities, our backgrounds, the events and experiences that shape our thoughts and emotions. Close friends will often give us a “reality check”, as well–drowning out the voices of other people who may give us a false sense of our worth and identity, and reminding us of where we’ve come from and where we are headed. Our friends and family can remind us that we are maturing (or not), that we have value far beyond our labels. When Jesus asked His disciples to answer the first question, they gave vague answers– “some say…others say”–the second question required a more personal, deeper answer.

Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was He having an identity crisis? Did He not know who He was? Of course not. But He knew what it was like to be misunderstood, mislabeled, mis-identified. And He knew that sometimes, we need to stop and ask the question; we need to reevaluate where our identity comes from and not let others decide for us.

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God created us as individuals with unique identities–no two alike, and each one infinitely precious. We, by our thoughts, feelings, actions, experiences and beliefs, become who we are. We can change our identity– not necessarily those parts that people tend to label; we can’t become taller or younger, for instance–but we CAN change our outlook, attitude, beliefs, and choices. Others can give us their observations, advice, encouragement or criticism, but we choose which voices to listen to, and which roads to follow in our life’s journey.

None of the other disciples had a ready answer for Jesus on this occasion, but Peter jumped in with an announcement, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This was more than the question demanded. Peter could have said “I think you are the Messiah,” or even “You are my master, my teacher, and my friend.” But Peter cut to the chase–“You ARE the Messiah..” To which, Jesus replied that “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven…” Ultimately, our identity will be declared and confirmed by our Creator. Our identities, unique as they are, were created for purposes– we live and move and have our being within the scope of God’s creation, and within His plan for all of humankind.

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Father, who do YOU say that I am? Help me to become the person you created me to be, to fulfill the purposes you have for me, and to honor your Son, who came to reconcile us to Yourself. Amen!

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