It happened again a few weeks ago when I received this email from one of our pastors. “Am in a hurry writing you this note. Just wanted to seek your help on something very important, you are the only person I could reach at this point, and I hope you come to my aid. Because something very terrible is happening to me now, I need a favor from you now, I had a trip to London.”
“Unfortunately for me all my money got stolen on my way to the hotel where I lodged along with my bag where my passport was. I need you to lend me about £800 so I can make arrangements and return back. Please, I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the matter effectively, I will return the money back to you as soon as I get home. My hopes are on you.”
I was confused when I first received an email like this because the writing was poor, I had no idea the pastor was out of the country, and the last sentence pricked at my conscience. I immediately called the pastor, only to learn that the email was a scam. A thief eager to make some quick money stole this pastor’s identity through email.
It’s scary when it happens to you. Several years ago someone stole our credit card number and spent $1,500 at Kohl’s and $500 at Office Depot beforeGaryand I realized something was amiss. I still can’t figure out how anyone could find that much to buy at Kohl’s! Recovering from identity theft can take years, destroy our credit rating and cost thousands of dollars, especially if cyber thieves steal our full identity, including Social Security and bank account numbers and personal information such as date of birth and the maiden name of the victim’s mother.
In the secular world, our identity often takes the form of a number: Social Security, credit card, driver’s license or passport. We won’t get too far if we don’t have an official form of identity, usually accompanied by a picture. I learned that lesson the hard way when my passport was stolen 35 years ago on an Italian train, and I was stuck in Milan until the American consulate decided to restore my identity with a new passport.
In the world of faith, however, we receive our identity from God through Jesus Christ, and no one can ever take it away. The Bible is full of references to our identity as children of God.
- “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
- “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
- “Rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:26
Our identity as Christians cannot be separated from faith, light, love, grace, hope, servanthood, forgiveness, gratitude, encouragement, generosity, humility, and gentleness. In fact, much of the Bible talks about what God’s people are called to do because of their identity. Paul cuts to the heart when he writes, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Ephesians 2:10
As difficult as it is when our personal identities are stolen, it is even more distressing to observe how our spiritual identities are compromised every day. I am especially disturbed by 3 trends I observe about our spiritual identities.
- First, many Christians are easily misled by those who preach a gospel of prosperity. Rather than deny ourselves and take up our cross, as Jesus taught, many popular preachers insist that God wants to shower us with financial blessings in this life. How ironic that John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” seems to have a double meaning today. Some Christians use it to claim that all people deserve the abundantly healthy life that health care offers. Others cite this verse to insist that Christians are promised an abundantly wealthy life.
- Second, I grieve when people of faith are led astray by our consumer mentality and a cultural obsession with celebrities. TV shows like Dancing with the Stars, America’s Next Top Model, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, Project Runway are immensely popular because they give us hope that ordinary people can strike it rich or achieve instant fame. More insidious is the implicit assumption that these are worthy goals for Christians. Jesus offers a different kind of life: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, and if you happen to be fortunate enough to have treasures, give them away. (Matthew 6:19)
- Most of all, I am bothered that, rather than lead the way in imitating the whole life of Jesus Christ, the church is allowing other organizations to take up that mantle. Too many of us give in to sloth and laziness in the practice of our faith, becoming the massive passive. I am in the early stages of the church conference season, but I have already heard from several pastors and churches, “We can’t get people to serve. No one wants to do anything. Our older people are burned out, and we can’t get the next generation to lead.”
This past week the 5th annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative took place in New York City. In 2005 former President Bill Clinton began inviting heads of state, business leaders, Nobel Prize winners, activists and experts from nations around the world to meet together right before the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. The mission of the Clinton Global Initiative is nothing less than creating a new identity for our world. It’s an identity where people from all walks of life literally sit together at tables, generate ideas regarding 4 specific problems (climate change, poverty, global health, and education), and collaborate on how to turn our good intentions into real change.
Over the past 4 years the Clinton Global Initiative has generated 1,400 specific commitments made by several thousand people, worth 46 billion dollars. These commitments, all revolving around the vision of teaching, building, empowering, investing and promoting reconciliation, are already improving the lives of 200 million people in 150 countries. Attendees are expected to make concrete, measurable commitments. If they don’t, they are not invited to return.
There is no doubt in my mind that The United Methodist Church can lead the world in the same kind of change promoted by the Clinton Global Initiative. We even have 4 similar focus areas! Our identity as followers of Jesus Christ created for good works does not have to be compromised by institutional survival. Our identity as Wesleyan Christians who practice personal and social holiness does not have to be subverted by those who would rather focus inward and obsess over theological differences. Our identity as people of God who claim the power of the Holy Spirit and give ourselves away in service to the world does not have to be diluted by those who sit idly by and wait for good fortune to arrive.
The good news is that no one can ever steal our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. It is our most precious gift. Are you willing to claim and share that gift so that our world and its people can find their true identity? God’s hopes are on us.