A Fresh Start to the New Year

It’s a New Year! As we seek a fresh start in 2015, new resolutions and new covenants abound. Many of us get a jump start by resolving to lose at least the weight we acquired between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Others commit to bigger goals of weight loss, physical fitness, spending more time with family or greater regularity to a devotional life. We do so knowing well that such resolutions rarely last. We will likely regress to the old ways, despite all our good intentions.

Nothing predicts behavior like past behavior.

More serious than resolutions are covenants,often made over the holidays. Young people become engaged with June weddings in mind. Puppies are adopted. Spiritual commitments are initiated with good intent but not consistently maintained. What’s with us making and breaking these resolutions and covenants? Some we keep faithfully and others we cast off like the shells of pistachio nuts.

Life is defined by covenants: formal and informal agreements in which we resolve to do or not do something. Our formal covenants are legally valid agreements. They spell out the major consequences to ensue if we break them. When we sign a mortgage, get married, swear an oath of office, enlist in the military or obtain a driver’s license, we enter into formal covenants. If we are clergy, ordination and commissioning are covenants. Our nation enters into covenants on our behalf when our leaders sign treaties or pass laws.

Our formal covenants are serious agreements with serious commitments on both sides, and they carry the full impact of the law when broken. Informal covenants take countless forms, including doctors’ appointments, coffee dates and fundraising pledges. Whether formal or informal, covenants are best honored when carefully considered in the first place and not entered into casually.

We enter into covenants when their blessings are clear and compelling. Sadly, humanity’s covenants are broken when memories grow faint, especially over time and generations. This has always been the case with God and humankind. Over millennia, the covenant God offers humanity is always a gift of His grace that requires a faithful response. This is because covenants with God require contingency. They are “if–then” agreements.

We may remember when we were small our parents saying to us, “If you love me, you will obey me.” Our response to this if–then statement was something our parents anticipated as the blessed familial covenant relationship unfolded from when we were conceived.

In the same way, we were included when God initiated a covenant relationship with humanity and continued it over thousands of years, throughout Scripture and up to the present day. Jesus expressed this clearly by saying, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

Covenant with God can be summarized like this: God promises, “I will bless you if you obey Me. That is the essence of covenant. Jesus said, “If you remain in Me and I remain in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 5:4). The Apostle Paul puts it another way by underscoring the importance of our faithfulness in response to His great gifts of redemption, reconciliation and restoration. He says we were once alienated from God due to our sin, but now Christ has reconciled our relationship to God, presenting us holy in God’s eyes, but only if we stay grounded and steadfast in the faith, not moved away from the hope we find in the gospel:

For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through Him God reconciled everything to Himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross… As a result, He has brought you into His own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before Him without a single fault. But [only if] you continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News” (Colossians 1:19-23).

That little word “if” carries heavy weight. God is the maker of covenant, but covenant always calls for the contingency of faithful obedience. This has been the case since God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If we remain faithful, there is the blessing of the covenant’s promise. If not, the blessing is invalid, no longer in effect, often with costly consequences. When Adam and Eve hid from God after disobeying Him, the Lord banished them from that original paradise.

Broken covenant marks the long history of God’s people. Their failure again and again to remain faithful occasioned the need for a new covenant, one that God would establish for all mankind through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christ was the fulfillment of prophecy. God declared:

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people… This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors… this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put My instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know Me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”" (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).

The remarkable history of God’s lavish love is underscored by His patience. The sad history of humankind is our failure to be faithful to the grace–filled covenants of God. Nevertheless, God has continued to reveal His mercy and patience with us. Scripture declares, “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Romans5:20). This is to say that thanks to God’s patience and grace, our sins of broken relationship with Him, our failures of faithfulness to covenant, our disobedience in response to God’s love, may be forgiven.

This is good news. In the context of God’s love, it is possible to begin again.

Along with a litany of New Year’s resolutions, you may want to reaffirm your commitment to Christ and establish or renew your covenant with Him. Do so recognizing God’s love and embracing your continued desire to serve God faithfully. Pledge your responsiveness to the Holy Spirit’s work and obedience to His leading. Seek to grow in grace through the means God makes available (Scripture, worship, prayer, fellowship, testimony, and service). Embrace Christlike integrity in every word and deed of life and live a life of Christlike love in every relationship. Share the Good News of the gospel. Keep yourself accountable to your covenant relationship with God by making trustworthy people in your life aware of your commitment and your progress. Seek the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit. Be open to the still, small voice of God’s calling.

Remember that the only thing that truly counts is God’s love in your heart and life expressing itself to God and others in love (Galatians 5:6). This is the life of a faithful follower of Christ, in sanctified covenant with God, enjoying the blessing of a fresh start this New Year.

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By Dr. Johnathan Raymond

Still Relevant, Still Advancing

War Cry: What plans do we have to celebrate the Army’s 150th anniversary in the United States?

David Jeffrey: There are several things that are happening. Two books are being produced. First, there’s one entitled Others, which is an overview of Army ministry at any given day in the United States (October 2015 release). And the other, Valiant and Strong, will be ready in March 2015; [it] is an international pictorial history of The Salvation Army.

We’ll also be launching the Pathway of Hope campaign next year, which is significant. We also expect that the Human Needs Index, in cooperation with Indiana University, will be launched. Another really significant event will be the results of an economic impact study from the 26 Kroc Centers on their local communities. 2015 is shaping to be an historically noteworthy year.

WC: What would William Booth say about the present day Salvation Army?

DJ: I think he would be pleased. When the Founder was promoted to Glory over 100 years ago, the Army was in nearly 50 countries. Now we’re in 126 around the world. We were just a fledgling movement in the United States in 1912. We have remained true to our mission of preaching the Gospel. The mission statement didn’t exist back then, but I think he would be pleased with its call to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” He would be right on top of that.

WC: Is The Salvation Army still relevant in 2015?

DJ: There is still a lot of human need out there. We’re still a Christian movement, motivated by faith. Jesus said that we’re to love God with our total being and to love others as ourselves. In this day and age that’s still relevant. Matthew 25 always comes to mind when I think about the mission of The Salvation Army. Jesus with some of His last words to His disciples before His passion, said, “‘I was hungry, and you fed Me. I was thirsty, and you gave Me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited Me into your home. I was naked, and you gave Me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for Me. I was in prison, and you visited Me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see You hungry and feed You? Or thirsty and give You something to drink? Or a stranger and show You hospitality? Or naked and give You clothing? When did we ever see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to Me!’” (vs. 35-40).

That is still relevant today.

WC: What are The Salvation Army’s greatest challenges?

DJ: I want to make sure that we advance the cause of Christ, and that we’re known for that. I dream of a larger, stronger and more diverse Army. To keep the Army growing and to keep it fresh is important. The good news is we have 100 more corps than we had 40 years ago when I started as an officer. We’ve got more cadets in training today than we had 40 years ago. For a while we had more and more second career people becoming officers, which is fine. But now that the four USA training colleges give officers a way to earn a bachelors or advanced degree, it is resulting in more people coming to train younger. Why go to college first if I can go to training and get the same thing done?

There’s greater participation in worship services than there was 40 years ago. But what concerns me are youth programs of The Salvation Army. We have 44% less junior soldiers today than we had 40 years ago. We have 39% less corps cadets. The attendance in Sunday school is down about 35%. On average that’s a loss of 1% per year. Hopefully we can start seeing some growth of about 1% or 2% per year in those areas.

WC: What shows the most promise?

DJ: The Pathway of Hope initiative is cutting edge. Each year through social services we serve 18 million people. But the Pathway of Hope initiative seeks to move families with children to stability by breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

This past Christmas we celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Angel Tree program that began in Lynchburg, Virginia, by then-Captains (now Lt. Colonels) Charles and Shirley White. From one corps and 470 angels that first year it’s grown to reach across America. Last year a million children were served through Angel Tree. While it’s a great program that puts a smile on children’s faces at Christmas, it’s much more than that when considering all the outcomes. It helps families remain stable in their homes, helps prevent hunger and homelessness because families aren’t deciding whether or not to buy a child a gift for Christmas or to buy food, pay rent or pay the light bill. There are many units that have launched services to these Angel Tree families that extend throughout the year by helping people earn their GED, enter job training skills programs, financial management programs, savings programs—to name a few—as a result of that simple program.

WC: What will The Salvation Army look like in 25 years?

DJ: In 25 years we will be an even more mature Army. It looks different today than it did 40 years ago when I started out as an officer, but in a lot of ways it remains the same. The mission is still the same. The Lord knows what it is going to look like, but as long as we remain true to Christ, remain true to our mission, preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, emphasize holiness, serve the poor, the Army will continue to be strong and vital.

It has been a joy serving in The Army and seeing The Salvation Army at the national level. We’ve visited two local communities recently, smaller communities where the Army is really doing good work. For example, in Schenectady, New York, a place where a lot of organizations have folded their tents, the Army remains, continuing to provide vital services. That’s always exciting to see.

Living the New Covenant Way

Whenever I drive down Dayton Street on my way home from work, I glance through the window of a house on the west side of the street. Without fail, the curtains are wide open and their enormous television is on. The thing is so huge, I probably couldn’t avoid seeing it if I tried.

I remember the day in my childhood when a color television entered our home for the first time. It was a clunky box with antennae, and if you sat too close, you’d harm your vision. It only had about five channels, and you had to stand up and walk to the television to change from one to the other. Though we were delighted with it and it served its purpose, we have come to expect something of far superior quality now. Now screens are so big that when I drive past that stranger’s living room I can clearly see Judge Judy’s face.

These days, the things we live with meet higher standards. We could even say that this is true in terms of our life with God. Before the coming of Christ, men, women and children lived under the Old Covenant. It was good, it served its purpose, but it was not as complete and wonderful as the New Covenant under which we now live.

Under the Old Covenant, a priest had to offer regular sacrifices to cover the sins of the people of Israel. The sacrifices of the Old Testament did what they were intended to do: they brought forgiveness. However, they could not erase or negate the sins committed. Hence, Christ came to “set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”

Surely such a monumental change in human history should impact the way in which we live. Are we so accustomed to God’s grace that it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal? I appreciate a big, flat-screen television more than my kids do, because I remember life before remote controls. They don’t. Though they’ve heard my tales about the caveman days of the 70s, they aren’t quite as dazzled by today’s technology, because to them it is normal. And to us, I fear, living under the New Covenant is normal. We forget not only the price that was paid but how blessed we are by such a superior, complete Covenant. We are cavalier about the greatest gift there is.

Furthermore, while taking the freedom Christ gives us for granted, we don’t seem to give it to others. Most human relationships dwell in an Old Covenant reality. We may forgive each other, but we never quite clear the record. An adult child doesn’t easily forget the mistakes her parents made while raising her. A husband nds himself unable to fully acquit his wife of her affair. Friends who once parted ways may only be able to regain a fragile friendship.

“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged,” it says in I Corinthians 13:4-5. Yet, while we may forgive, we refuse to forget. In so doing, we receive the New Covenant for ourselves, but neglect to adopt it in our relationships. We live with one foot in each covenant. Surely Christ did not die for such incompleteness. Surely He expects us to extend to others the grace He lavishes on us.

Some say they forgive so they themselves can be truly free. It is common knowledge that stewing in bitterness hurts the victim even more than the perpetrator. Yet the idea of forgiving for one’s own sake, which has taken firm root in the Christian world, is incomplete. When Christ offered Himself as sacrifice, was His own happiness His first concern? Did the Father send the Son for some sense of personal relief? Certainly not! John 3:16 gives us the reason for the blood sacrifice: “For God so loved the world.”

It is true that forgiving those who have offended us will help us heal our own hearts. But if we are to model ourselves after Christ, we are to forgive for the sake of the offender first and foremost. Think of the mercy shown the apostle Paul:

“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 1:13-14).

Such is the grace of God. It is undeserved and it is complete. It brings utter freedom. I suggest we relish it, and I suggest we offer the same thorough forgiveness to anyone who may offend us. Let us live New Covenant lives; it is our privilege to do so!

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By Major Amy Reardon