An American Christian Identity Story

I’ve learned a lot in the last few years about losing things that shook my very identity. Losing both of my parents caused me to feel like an orphan, even at 50 years old. I was frightened by the lost sense of security, no longer knowing there was someone on earth who would always take care of me after my mother died. Losing my first-born son this year caused me to feel like a failure as a parent, even though my son was a beautiful, talented, loving adult and father when he died by his own hand. I was shaken by the lack of control I could have over someone I loved so, so dearly. Losing my husband (to divorce, not death) several years ago caused me to feel like a failure as a wife and as a godly woman. I lost my passion in many ways when that relationship failed and still worry that I may never be completely unguarded.

I am in no way fully healed from any of these things. However, I will say that I have some new understandings. I see ways in which I’ve misplaced my anchors. For the most part, the thing that I am holding on to, the little thread that I attach myself to that saves me on most days, is the knowledge that I have an unfolding identity that over-rides all of the ways I identified myself by previously. It isn’t unfolding in the sense that it is being created as much as it is unfolding in the sense that great sculptures are made … in the chipping away of everything that is not “it.”

Luke 9 23

I have to get to know myself in ways I never did before. I am more than my parents’ child. I am more than a loving mother. I am more than a wife or an ex-wife and even more than a woman. We all are so much more than the circumstances to which we are born and live through. I am more than all the ways I’ve failed in so many areas of life and more than all the failures of people I have loved. I have to learn to see myself the way God sees me. Unique. Formed for a purpose. Forgiven. Loved … immensely… and driven to love others in spite of ourselves. If I don’t learn to identify myself in God – in the Christ who rescued me and teaches me to let go of the me I thought I knew – then I will learn to hate. Because when I identify myself by the brokenness I’ve endured and the pain that surrounds me in this world, it’s hard to see or understand love.

So, if you find yourself identifying strongly with cultural symbols or ideas that don’t lead to the narrow way of love, take the time to see if this might be an area of misplaced identity in your own life. Is there eternal value and virtue there? Is God building a kingdom of love through this aspect of your self-built or inherited identity? To whom are you truly loyal? In whom (or what) do you actually place your faith? There is nothing harder that we face in this world than “dying to self” while still walking the earth. But, if you believe Jesus, it’s what we all must do.

When the most unlikely thing happens

I place a certain amount of faith in numbers. I think we all do, consciously or subconsciously. But sometimes, seemingly out of the blue, all of the odds, all of the polls, all of the numbers let us down. The most unlikely thing sometimes does happen. And the sails drop and our jaws drop and we are stunned, leaving us momentarily useless.

I rather like that feeling while I’m watching Sherlock on Masterpiece Theater. You know, he calculates probability in a seemingly supernatural way, predicting (accurately) two weeks in advance where his partner John will be and with whom at a particular time on a particular day. But the rest of us are surprised – surprised at the accuracy of Sherlock’s ability and surprised by our own inability to make a similarly calculated prediction. But even Sherlock has to regain his balance when the unpredictable, unlikely thing happens.sherlock

We might feel empowered when the unlikely thing happens for good … such as hitting the Powerball numbers perfectly. Or dodging a tragic accident by a hair. And power is a drug like no other. So, finding empowerment through lucky chance is, well, far more often disappointing than empowering.

Typically, we either thank God or blame God for these unlikely events. When those of us who claim to have faith in God are shaken by the failure of the odds or the polls, we are shaken more likely by the fact that God didn’t outweigh the odds or the polls to restore order and balance in our suddenly-chaotic universe. And that shows up as fear and anger. (It shows up as fear and anger in those who do not claim any faith, too. That’s just the human default.) If we aren’t careful, we take on the role of the victim. You see it on social media all the time – the scrappy victim who defies everything the “other side” stands for in articles and memes, but who does nothing to be a proactive champion of what is good and right in the world. We all see what victims are against, but never what they are for.

So, what do you do when the most unlikely things happen? I mean, after you get over the stunned phase. After you recover and realize that some things remain predictable after the unpredictable thing shook your confidence. What do you do?

The way you answer that question has everything to do with where your faith lies.

And everyone has faith in something.

Holy Week Reflection: True Unity in the Body of Christ

“We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together for a common goal.”

In this year of heightened political tensions in the U.S., the subject of unity has been weighing heavily on my mind. Unity sometimes seems like a pie-in-the-sky concept. Is it even attainable?

Differences of belief in political and religious matters are well known obstacles to unity. That fact is more obvious during any presidential election year, but I don’t remember a more contentious election environment than this one.

Speaking from the perspective of a Christian minister to people of varying political persuasions, I truly dislike the current political climate and all the rhetoric. I don’t like the fact that political issues often undermine unity within congregations. Perhaps it is no coincidence that churches are experiencing increased tension and disunity at this time, too. Having served in churches for the past 20 years as a staff member and having been involved in church life for 90% of my time on earth, I can say that congregational unity is incredibly difficult to achieve in any long-term way. But, imagine how difficult it would be for us to manage unity within, say, TWO congregations. Then, following that line of thinking to its end, imagine unity among all followers of Jesus everywhere. Sounds impossible, eh?

It may sound impossible to maintain such radical unity, but disunity was not Jesus’ desire for us, the Church.

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be [one in us], so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21, NRSV)

I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. (John 17:20-21, The Message)

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was extended beyond their time in history. He prayed also for those of us who would believe based on witnesses who have continued to carry the story and traditions of our faith throughout history. Beyond us, Jesus’ prayer for unity extends to all believers of all eras.

“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind.”

Any Church-lover will tell you that the Church (universal) is in a state of transition. It is my personal belief that the transition is not toward anything destructive, but is instead a transition toward unity. In the midst of all of our current denominationalism, “worship wars,” tensions between small churches and mega-congregations and other divisions based on personal preferences and interpretations, I believe that God is impressing upon the Church our goal toward unity.      unity

If dividing ourselves into like-minded groups of people (by way of differing denominations of believers) was something believers did to achieve some measure of unity, then why hasn’t it worked? Why doesn’t unity automatically happen in a group of (supposedly) like-minded people? My opinion is that denominationalism hasn’t worked in attaining unity because it is not Jesus’ desire for the Church.

We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together toward a common goal.

A key word in this picture of unity is “respect.” This one very important virtue is sorely lacking in our society. Spending a very short time reading through online comments – related to just about ANYTHING – will demonstrate just how comfortable many of us have become with disrespecting others. Yet, we witness daily how quickly disrespect can escalate into something more violent. In order to understand what makes another person feel respected or disrespected, we must genuinely care about him or her. Once we are made aware of something we are doing that is considered disrespectful, then we have to stop doing it. Married couples learn to maintain unity this way … or they don’t remain married. Some families are able to maintain unity while respecting each other’s differences. It requires a commitment to stay together in peaceful times but also through conflict. Our commitment to unity rarely goes beyond the nuclear family, but we must extend that commitment into our church community. It’s a commitment based in love – love that unites God, others and self.

During this Holy Week, the faithful will reflect on the tensions Jesus holds together between love and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness, death and new life. May we also reflect on the prayer of Jesus for us and our calling toward oneness of heart and mind, even in the midst of our intense diversity.

Our love-hate relationship with fear

Our hearts cry today for and with the people of Paris. pray-for-paris-1The effects of terrorism are not foreign to us. We still feel the anger and the grief from 9/11 acutely. Days like yesterday remind us of that. Because the impressions of September 11, 2001 are so deep, we have the ability to feel for our neighbors in France who are suffering in November of 2015. I would like to say that we feel the way we do today because we feel compassion and sadness when we see atrocities or injustices anywhere, but that’s not the case.

Terrorism, you know, doesn’t only occur when ISIS or al-Qaeda or Hamas or name-your-least-favorite-Islamic-terrorist-group plans an attack on Westerners. Terrorism has existed as a tactic of fighting to impact economic, military and religious power balances since some-ancient-somebody figured out you can effectively use fear to manipulate another person’s resources and/or decisions. While the media makes it hard to miss in certain instances these days, terrorism has been happening our whole lives. Heard of the KKK? Yeah, they’re terrorists, too. Remember Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma City? Terrorist.

The whole point of terrorism is psychological warfare. Have you ever considered how far we are willing to go, when we are afraid of something, to protect ourselves from it – whether or not it really exists or is actually happening? Well, if you haven’t, please know that terrorists have. And what they understand about human responses to fear drives their strategic planning in whatever war they choose to wage.

I haven’t been on a plane since 2000. Want to take a guess why? My reaction is small potatoes. One person’s outcome. The effect of 9/11 on us as a nation? Immeasurable.

American culture is confusing. We encourage and indulge fear as evidenced by our love of horror movies as a means of entertaining ourselves. (Not me, by the way. I hate those.) One word: Halloween. We appear to love violence if you judge us by our entertainment appetites. We come across as not being afraid of violence or death. (Zombies DO scare us, apparently.) Consider the violence in schools, for instance, that we have witnessed just since Columbine. We fail to take seriously the gunmen or their social media manifestos and cult followers. We certainly don’t fear them. We just assume they’re crazy. And we hope there aren’t more of them out there. (There are, by the way.)

Terrorists resort to terror when the enemy cannot be engaged by traditional means. Controlling or harming the enemy through traumatic fear becomes the “best option” if war is to be fought.

So, if a) social media isn’t going away, which means, from now on, we are going to know all the way-out, incomprehensible things that happen on earth as soon as they happen, and if b) terrorists have always been and will remain a part of the landscape until all of creation is restored under Jesus, then what are we supposed to do? Hope to avoid terrorists and acts of terror? Just resign ourselves to being bullied by fear-mongers? Pretend it isn’t a real threat because we haven’t been personally hurt?

It’s probably safe to say that we continue to try all of those things. I think it’s important to remind each other that God DOES care about what is happening here. We pray for those families who have lost loved ones and for those who are injured when tragic events like yesterday’s terrorist attacks happen. It’s rightfully our first response.

For those of us who believe in prayer wholeheartedly, we pray believing that God will answer and be present for those who are hurting. We pray believing that God will intervene and good will come. We pray believing that, as we pray, God will transform US. We pray for peace, believing that the God who instructs us to “fear not” will actually build a faith in us that can move mountains. We pray for healing and restoration, believing that God’s love is the answer to all our suffering. Then, after all of that praying and believing, we walk out into a sometimes terrifying world and spread some perfect love, which, according to the God who loves us perfectly, casts out all fear.