I’m working out a thesis that every human being is tempted to construct an identity, a self that we desire to be. In a series of posts, I'll address three ways we seek to build an identity and three historic Christian practices that provide a better answer to the identity question.
Henri Nouwen provides the inspiration for self-diagnosis. We’ll begin with the first, “I am what I do.”
I am what I do, what I have, or what others say about me.” - Henri Nouwen
Every weed has a root. I contend that under every sin is an identity issue. It's a thesis I’ve been working with for awhile. The worst things about us are often an attempt to justify a self made identity. Greed, ego, self-importance, addiction, sexual conquest. These are symptoms of something deeper. There’s always a root under the stem and leaves.
A teenager asked me, “Would you ever use Chat GPT to write a sermon?” The controversy around AI generated papers and essays is vigorous. But I hadn’t given much thought to using artificial intelligence to write a sermon.
I must admit I’ve never used Chat GPT. But here’s why I won’t use it for sermons.
Texting forces you to be clear and concise. It’s harder to say something important in 50 words than it is in 500 or 5,000. Every word counts.
So my daughter is at a public university and having conversations about faith. She texted, “Dad. My roommate is asking about Lutherans. Not sure what to say.”
Remembering something from a mentor of mine, I texted back:
I wrote a book a few years ago. I did it for my church and for pastors-in-training who were asking to take resources to their first churches. The title is Loved & Sent. In a narrative way, it explores the heart of Christianity through the lens of identity and purpose.
These two words emerged through the hard knocks of life and ministry. As a new pastor I was connecting with college students and young adults for whom the church was a liability and Jesus was merely an interesting dead guy. I wondered, “Does this Christian thing even matter? How much difference does it really make? Should I get a real job?”
What if you could invent a religion? You’d probably make its central figures heroic and virtuous. All the characteristics we wish we had. This is true of most ancient religions and mythologies. They are typically a picture of a peoples' aspirations more than they are of reality.
I only know of one religion that is scandalously sober in its assessment of its key leaders. Only the faith named for Jesus, the Christ, has such a scathing view of her adherents.
You go to a mechanic to look over your car.
You go to a financial advisor to review your retirement plan.
You go to a doctor to examine your health - blood work and scans.
But what about your soul? Do you ever examine your spirit? For Christians, Lent is an annual soul examination. I thought about how odd this is while watching a Serta mattress commercial. They promise that their beds will improve “physical and emotional health.” We hear a lot about health in the body or mind. But what about the soul?
We have millions of remedies for physical maladies - nutrition, drugs, treatments, surgeries, and mattresses for good sleep. We have ways to address mental health - counseling, therapy, rest, social connection, pills. Few address the spiritual reality of being human. The Bible has words to describe the core of who we are. Soul. Heart. Spirit. Their meaning overlaps with one another, although they all refer to an inner, hidden reality.
Stop for a moment. Look at the device and the platform upon which you are reading these words. An unintended (or maybe intended) consequence of our technology is that it instigates comparative competition. We can’t help but size up our own lives in comparison to what we see of others.
“How is her family so picture perfect?”
“Why don’t I look like that?”
“Why haven’t I gotten another degree?”
“I wish I was on the beach in February.”
“Why am I not married yet? Will I ever be?”
Put aside the fact that you are often seeing a constructed reality. Life is generally not as good as the pictures we post.
Your life is a unique creation of God, not a picture. You dare not be a parody of someone else’s curated self. You have shoes that are uniquely your own. Don’t try to fit in someone else’s.
So turn off the screen, put those shoes on, and start walking the distinct life that God has willed only for you.
“Criticism of others is thus an oblique form of self-commendation. We think we can make the picture hang straight on our own wall by telling our neighbor that all his pictures are crooked.” - Fulton Sheen
The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus has one head but two faces, each turned in opposite directions. Janus is the god of doors, gates, and transitions. So January is aptly named, a time to look back and gaze forward.
We all have Janus moments in life where we stand in a doorway between two rooms. We pause at a pivotal moment between two seasons of life. We can’t stay in the doorway. We need to set down our things and settle in a room. But there are times where we feel “in between" two places.
Going off to college.
A relationship change.
Illness or injury.
Children growing up and moving on.
I’m unplugging for a while. After 17 years of ministry, my congregation has given me a three month sabbatical. I won’t respond to calls, texts, or emails. Don’t take it personally. Sabbath means “to cease/stop,” and so I’ll be doing just that. Here are a few things I’ll devote myself to.