(Message given 9/22/13 at Newberg Friends Church)
Today we’re beginning a series I’m calling, “Who Are We?” Not because I’m worried we’re a bunch of amnesiacs. No, I think our identity…how we see ourselves, what we choose to evaluate ourselves by…I think our identity is something which impacts so much of how we live and breathe and relate to each other.
Last fall, our oldest daughter went away to college. Obviously that’s a huge change for her and for our family; what made it even bigger was her friend group, the ones we were used to seeing and having around our house, they ALSO headed off to college on their new adventures. I missed them all.
When I would think and pray for them, I would often think about their identity. Leaving home, and young adulthood in general, cause you to examine who you are. When I would write, I would often write to them about identity-encouraging them to see that they are not just what they do or how they look or whether people like them. I encouraged them to root their identity in being created and loved by God.
Then last May, I began my sabbatical. And what did I discover? It’s not just young adults who wrestle with identity. Middle aged pastors do too. I’d say the main personal area of growth in my time away was re-learning lessons of who I am; wrestling to find a balance between the pendulum swings of liking and NOT liking myself.
The reason for looking at this issue for the next few weeks is that I think all of us have identity issues in various ways. I’ve had many conversations at Friendsview with people trying to figure out who they are when they can’t do the things they have always done.
May we find truth from God in this journey! May God give new vision, to see ourselves in a healthy light…and may our insights help us to relate with each other and live in this world as people who are spreading God’s Kingdom of love and grace.
I like watching people.
Over the years, I’ve gone to lots of Natalie’s cross country and track meets. I’ve watched a lot of these distance runners, watched their habits and patterns. Women distance runners are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Very polite, very kind; but these usually tiny, quiet people somehow transform themselves into beasts on the track. So highly competitive, ready to crush you into the ground without a second thought.
I’ve noticed that many of them have pre-race rituals. They will eat the same snack and drink the same drink at the same time before each race. Some will have lucky socks, or a particular hair scrunchie that they will always wear. The patterns and rituals are highly important for getting in the right frame of mind, and for some of them, the pre-race song on the iPod is essential.
If you watch, you catch them. These kind, nice, polite girls put in the ear buds, pull the hoodie over the head, find a quiet corner, and hit “play” on their “get pumped” song. And these kind, sweet girls will be bobbing their heads or jumping up and down or pounding out the rapper hand motions before they head to the line to run the race. It’s how they transform into beast mode and get ready for the mental grind of punishing their body on a run.
This summer Natalie and I got to laughing, imagining me following a similar routine on a Sunday morning.
I could be right back there, earbuds in, pullin’ the hoodie over my head…sometimes I wish I had a job that required pump-up music.
There’s a tension when it comes to speaking here in church. Part of the reason I laugh about that image is I really don’t view speaking here like a big show, like something to get pumped up for and then throw down and impress everyone. As I’ve thought about it, speaking here is not a success if you like what I say. It’s not even necessarily a success if you come away understanding something from the bible more clearly. Success is when what is said here helps our community experience and respond positively to God.
And that is something that requires my best effort. I want to speak and share the scriptures and ask questions honestly and in such a way that we all become better followers of Jesus Christ. When I’m the speaker (which I won’t always be-the beautiful sharing that happened this summer is a reminder that different voices are a key way God shapes our community)…when I’m the speaker, I’m recommitting myself to giving my best effort to aim toward that common goal of us all living as the hands and feet of Jesus.
So sometimes, to get to that goal, we will start with a section of the bible and see what it has to tell us, letting the text set the topic for the day. And other times, like in this series, we will start with a theme and explore related passages from the bible and the experiences of people in the community to get more than just understanding, but get to living and acting differently than before. We want to be shaped by Christ through scripture, community and experience.
That’s exactly what you’ll hear today.
I want to share some of my experiences during my sabbatical, things God spoke to me about my identity. We’ll connect those experiences with God’s revelation in the bible; and we’ll hear from someone who is part of our church community far away, and from each other right here this morning. Ready? 🙂
Before I started my sabbatical, I talked with a couple other pastors who had already had one. For a few of them, it had been difficult to disengage from the life of the church-it took a couple of weeks to really unwind and relax and experience the rest they were hoping for. I had the huge gift of feeling release almost right away. A lot of that came from the rest of the staff and the elders being so good about protecting me. They handled stuff well and kept me out of the loop.
And evidently, I had been walking around looking like a stressed out, heart attack waiting to happen. Because whenever I would see people over the summer, I’d hear, “You look so RELAXED.” People would see Elaine: “He looks so RELAXED!” People would see my kids: “Your dad looks like he’s having FUN and RELAXED.” Come on!! Did I really look that bad before?
But the truth is, I did feel relaxed. I did feel like things were changing, like I was re-discovering parts of myself that had been buried for awhile. I think God made me, personality wise, to be a fun and a passionate person. God also made me to be a first born child with a high sense of responsibility, called to a job which has a lot of expectations. The hyper-responsible guy needed a break, and the “fun me” started re-emerging from under the shadow of the first born.
And. I. Liked. It.
I liked ME. The first third of my sabbatical could be summed up with the powerfully beautiful words of Psalm 139: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” It was easy for me, in that relaxed state, in that “freedom to be who I was created to be” moment, to believe that I AM valuable. I AM loved by God. I AM created well, and to see my identity as a child of God is a strength in my life. I could feel it, I could see it!
All of the things I had been writing to Natalie and her friends were so easy to live: I’m not what I do. I’m not my job. Just in who I am before God, just in being myself, I have value. The sabbatical had started, and lo, it was good!
Then we had the second third of the sabbatical.
It should have been the most amazing part, and in so many ways it was. The grant I got for the sabbatical allowed our entire family to spend three weeks in Europe. But the arrangements in the weeks leading up to going took a ton of time. It felt like I had time off work just so I could stare at a computer screen and make phone calls to hotels and trains and airlines. I got grumpy and felt sorry for myself. And then something happened, over and over in Europe…a window into my own soul that I did not like at all.
The trains to catch and the hotels to find and the details to figure out in a foreign place where you can’t speak the language…over and over again, the hyper-responsible, task-master oldest child started rearing his ugly head. Picture with me a train station in Florence, or an airport in Manchester, or the Metro in Paris. It’s the five of us, having the experience of a lifetime…and I’m fuming at my watch, or sighing, or giving someone an exasperated look. I’m stressed and anxious, trying to get us to where we had to be, saying words I would later regret and getting so frustrated.
The worst part was, then I would have to sit on a train for hours, with nothing to do but stew about how I had acted. If you asked me, I would have said that relationships, and especially my family, were far more important to me than getting somewhere on time. But time and time again, I acted as if the opposite were true. I would think and often journal on the trains, and I would be so angry and frustrated with myself, making bargains with myself and God that next time it would be different. But it kept happening.
And. I. Hated. It.
Worse than that, in this second third of the sabbatical, I did NOT like myself. I was getting windows into my soul, seeing what I was truly like…and it bothered me and scared me. I began questioning whether this transformation from God that I believe in and talk about so much, I began questioning whether it had even happened in me at all. Maybe what I thought had been God changing me was just me getting used to navigating my familiar life. Take me out of my comfort zone, put me in a stressful situation, and THIS is who I truly am. I’m a petty, selfish, anxious person who can’t seem to be kind to the people I love the most.
The second third of my sabbatical could be summed up with the words of Paul in Romans 7: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Can you relate at all?
I don’t think I’m alone in this process of at times liking, at times not liking myself. I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes wondering if God really has done anything good in me at all, or whether I’ve just messed up every good thing God has tried to do in me.
I want to invite you to share your experiences in a minute. When have you had times where it was easy to believe you are wonderfully made by God? When have you had times where you felt wretched and without hope, like you are not who you want to be?
But first, I want to start by reading some words from Mikayla Kinnaman. Mikayla was assigned a locker with Natalie in sixth grade, and she’s been part of our lives ever since; when she’s in Newberg, she usually sits up there on Sundays. She’s in Chicago attending North Park University, and I asked her some questions around this topic this week, knowing that she had read a lot of my thoughts about identity over the last year.
I asked her first what are some of HER experiences of wrestling to accept her own identity as a child of God. She gave me permission to share what she wrote:
“Some messages that cause me to struggle with who I am , to see myself not in a good light are when I don’t meet personal expectations. This can be in any area of my life. This is also why last year was difficult for me. I expected similar deep fulfilling relationships [to what I had at home] to come right away. [I expected] that my transition would be smooth & immediate. [Another] thing that can cause doubt is not being in a caring community.”
For me, it was trains in Europe. For Mikayla, it was not meeting her own personal expectations. What are some of the things for you that make it difficult to accept and like who you are? [ASK]
There are times when the church community itself makes it harder to see ourselves as God sees us.
Mikayla said it this way:
“At times I can feel somewhat condemned and insecure by the church community and how “I think” God sees me… I think acceptance is very valuable.”
I think part of our responsibility as the body of Christ is to remind each other of Psalm 139 truth. We have a responsibility to fight off our “earn it” culture and affirm each other not just when we accomplish something, but to speak the truth that we each have value as a creation of God! Everyone! How might we find ways to speak our own version of the truth of Psalm 139 to the lovely and unlovely, the talented and untalented around us?
This psalm, this prayer to God can be turned around to a truth. God created your inmost being; you were woven together with care in your mother’s womb. God deserves praise! You are carefully, beautifully, intentionally and wonderfully made!God saw you in the womb; God sees you now. You are not forgotten, not ignored, not passed over!
When have you had an easy time believing you are a valuable creation of God? What things helped you accept that? [ASK]
So what is our way forward, our way out of this back and forth between liking and not liking?
One more time from Mikayla:
“My relationship with God does help make me feel secure in who I am. Knowing that I am enough, just being ordinary little me. Sometimes it gets difficult to remind myself of that. It’s not just another day, it’s a gift for Him, I need to treat it like it’s my first & last. [It’s] appreciating & loving others, [remembering] that everyone has a story I could never fully fathom.”
A beautiful, God-given gift on those anxious train rides of self reflection was that I had chosen to bring Thomas Kelly’s “A Testament of Devotion” to re-read. In one of my lowest moments, I read these words, words that described exactly where I was:
“There is in the the experience of God this insistent, imperative, glorious yearning–the craving for complete spotlessness of the inner self before Him. No average goodness will do, no measuring of our lives by our fellows, but only a relentless, inexorable divine standard…. Absolute honesty, absolute gentleness, absolute self-control, unwearied patience and thoughtfulness in the midst of the raveling friction of home and office and school and shop.”
This was the problem.
This was where my dark thoughts were taking me. I knew God called me to absolute gentleness and unwearied patience, but my goodness had I been unraveled by the friction of home and especially train. I had failed. I didn’t have any value to God. The unrelenting purity and perfection of God in the face of my failure made it almost impossible to see how I was worth anything.
I was making the same, age-old mistake all over again.
Do you see it? Can you see it as I do now? When I’m relaxed, when I’m fun, when I’m enjoyable to be around…I have value. When I’ve failed, not met my own expectations, let God down, hurt the people I care the most about…I am worthless.
After all my wonderful sermons on God’s grace…after all my letters to these young women I love, about finding their value not in what they do but in who they are before God…after all of the truth I have read and experienced over the years about the grace of God that is not based on works, the gift of God that comes not because of what I do…After all that; I was guilty of basing my own worth and value on how I behaved. If I got it right, I had value. If not, God hadn’t done anything in me and I was worthless.
The last third of the sabbatical was re-learning old lessons.
How had I forgotten Ephesians 2?
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions-it is by grace you have been saved.”
Our salvation, our identity, who we are…it begins and is rooted in the great love of God!
On a train traveling through the heart of France, through some tears, I read Thomas Kelly’s words that brought me back to center, back to the love of God, back to what I have experienced beyond doubt:
“It is an overwhelming experience to fall into the hands of the living God, to be invaded to the depths of one’s being by His presence, to be, without warning, wholly uprooted from all earth-born securities…”
Oh yes. I know this. I have known this. And if you haven’t, I join with Kelly to say it is possible. We can fall into the hands of the living God, we can be invaded to the depth of our being by God’s presence! And in the presence of God, we can be uprooted and shaken from the false securities of doing and being and looking right. And then, Kelly writes:
“One emerges from such soul-shaking, Love-invaded times into more normal states of consciousness. But one knows ever after that the Eternal Lover of the world, the Hound of Heaven, is utterly, utterly real, and that life must henceforth be forever determined by that Real.”
This is our way forward! To experience the never-ending love of God for us! It is utterly, utterly real. And our identity is forever determined by that real. Our identity, our salvation, is the gracious gift of a deeply loving God… “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
It is not from ourselves. It is not achieved when I am fun and likable; rather it was given long before I was born by the coming of Christ. It is not wiped away when I fail and sputter and don’t live as I would wish; it is the gift of God– and just as it wasn’t earned by my actions it can’t be wiped away by my actions either.
You and I are fearfully and wonderfully made by the God of all creation! You and I are pursued by the Eternal Lover of the world, the Hound of Heaven!
That is who we are! Rest in it. Live in it. Share it. Drink it in, and throw away the pendulum of the scales you use to constantly evaluate your good and bad deeds. Drink in the grace and the love of God!