Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thoughts on Identity

This week has been one of those rough weeks. I think externally there is nothing anyone could point to that would identify it as such for me. It's one of those internal things. Like many of you, I sometimes just get trapped in the inner-weavings of a complex set of thoughts, emotions and feelings. And so much of what I dealt with this week was just getting caught in the crossfire of reason-vs-gut instinct-vs-feelings of insecurity. Make sense?

This guy dares you NOT to stay on the Elkhorn.
This morning, I came for my weekly jaunt to Panera. I have no idea why Saturday mornings at Panera have become so special. They just are. It started about a year ago on a Sunday morning actually in Frankfort, Kentucky. After a fitful night involving a lack of sleep on the Elkhorn I decided since I was up, I would find a place to hang out before spending time with my buddy Jeff and his congregation. I remember there being a few places by the highway heading toward the church, and it looked like only Panera was open. I think I had a two hour "quiet time" for those of you who like that language. If you know me, you know that two hours of anything is pretty amazing. And so, my love affair with Panera began.

This morning, amidst the internal swirl of life, I found myself reading my weekly homework from Henri Nouwen's Spiritual Direction. As I have mentioned before, Nouwen is pretty special for me. I took a class on him in seminary. This summer when I asked for a mentor at church David Prince stepped up to the plate and we decided to read through Spiritual Direction together.

So, halfway through my cup of coffee, after finishing my Scripture reading, I opened up chapter 3. It was one of those overwhelming/peaceful moments. I think you know what I've probably been there. It's overwhelming because although it is exactly something you need to hear (read), it is so sweet that it brings deep-abiding comfort. At the heart of the chapter is one central point: we are the Beloved of God.

Everything else in the chapter is pivotal to that. Nouwen (or rather Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, who composed this book from Nouwen's teachings and unpublished works) points to three areas that we frequently point to as identity: what we do, what others say about us, and what we have.

What We Do

The first area we often point to as our identity is what we do. Ask anyone about my aversion to claiming my identity by what I do, especially TJ Felke. Really, ask them. For some reason, early in life, I simply refused to identify myself by what I did. I can't tell you why, but there was a deep felt disdain for that type of identification. Some of that may go back to my dad. Buck Love (still quite possibly the best name for a dad anywhere) was a mechanic. That is what he did. I was never ashamed of that. But, anyone who saw my dad as just a mechanic just radically missed who he was.

Buck Love (w my niece Sammy) is the stuff of legends!
My dad may have the ability and understanding to fix many types of machines, but that could never define a man who is one of the most fierce protectors of friendship, lovers of family, and seekers of truth alive today. So, to say, "Buck is a mechanic," radically missed the mark. And I think seeing that, understanding that about my father, caused me to always reject the idea of vocation being linked with identity.

On the flipside, my inner Pharisee would hound on acts of service and devotion. In my younger years I wanted my faith to be seen by just about anyone and everyone. I wanted people to know if I had a quiet time. I wanted people to praise me that I led men and women in worship. I think that I so heavily depended on works, and identification with works that there was really no growth. I didn't develop a secret life apart from community...I just performed like a monkey in costume for the adulation of those around me. Works were about love and acceptance. And looking back is a reminder not to purse that type of identity.

What People Say About Us

The second area Nouwen pointed to in terms of identity is what other people say about us. I think this is one of the easiest things for us to acknowledge as a bad way to live life. If we are constantly leaning on the words of others there are multitudes of ways we can be let down. Silence. Criticism. Lies. Cynicism. Any of these can derail who we "are." There is no safety in living your life banking on the praise of other people.

Despite knowing this, I know that I live and die by the praise of those around me. It is just old hat. I am a people person. I want to know that the people around me like me, love me and generally want me around. At the end of the day I am more prone to base success or satisfaction on how things shook out relationally than by how many tasks I completed or did satisfactorily. In other words, this is where I have derived a vast amount of my identity.

What We Have

Nouwen looks like someone I'd hang with.
The last area Nouwen pointed to in terms of identity is the things we own. I like the way that Nouwen explained this. He didn't just point to things we own like houses, cars, books, music. He also pointed to things like our national identity, familial identity and such. In other words, everything that we own, physical or otherwise. 

Finding our identity in these places is quite simple. It is easy to say, "I am a Texan from Florence who has four brothers and a sister. I am a Baptist with some Charismatic and Catholic tendencies who banks at Union State Bank. I am an athlete, musician and scholar with a master's degree."

Those are all things that I have. Every statement is thus true. And more than owning a Nissan Frontier (speaking of, any of you in the market for one?) or MacBook Pro, I can easily derive a sense of identification from those things. It is easy to fall prey to these things as the source of who we are.

I Am God's Beloved

But, Nouwen says that all of these things are false identifications for those of us who call ourselves Christians. We are simply "God's Beloved." I'll admit, I have heard this and similar messages for most of my life. Many great teachers and pastors have planted these seeds of identity, but they have not always taken root. I think to an extent I was just so hurried that I would say, "Yes. I know," and never reflect on the true meaning of being God's Beloved.

That has frequently been my problem. I can analytically decipher a statement and cognitively process it back in the storage of my mind grapes, but I never really access it on the level of identity. I never really let my life be transformed by the understanding that God calls me Beloved. I know for some this sounds like the very dregs of sentimentality that turn you off of Evangelical thought, but this isn't just ooey-gooey emotional sentimentalism. It is instead simple truth that should transform us not to live by the whims of what so easily passes through our fingers. We cannot hold onto nationalism, family, monetary satisfaction or anything of the like. We can hold onto proper identification rooted in eternal truth.

Identity is something that we will struggle with our entire lives. "Who am I?" is a question that will always be around. Whenever we are able to answer that with something substantive and eternal we will be changed. Whenever we answer that with something fleeting, insecurity will pad beside us. I may not have it all figured out. I may never. But what I feel like I am learning in this season is that when I can respond as God's Beloved, I am more prone to act of love and not fear. I won't get caught up in the waves and currents of emotionalism or even ill-gained wisdom. Instead I will find peace and rootedness in that which is eternal.

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