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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Building Identity: Part 8 of 8

Identity in the Church: Community

What is our community identity?  Many moons ago, when my weeks were distinguished by my Pee Wee soccer schedules, my mom brought us, shin guards and all, to prayer meetings to plant a church that we didn’t have to drive an hour to.  You should worship in your own community, she said.  In college, I was part of a budding church called Liberti that still calls itself “a church for the city.”  The theme came up again last year when a group I was in did a Tim Keller study on living out the gospel in our cities.  And now, my latest church is a west coast plant of Keller’s Redeemer in New York City, so each week I hear the familiar catch phrase, “in the city, for the city.”  Maybe someone is trying to tell me something.

Or perhaps it’s just a resurgence of what the church was meant to be: local, on-the-ground living.  The great part about picking the neighborhood congregation is that you get un-gentrified really fast.  In a city you can see this played out most colorfully, but the point is the same everywhere: heaven is going to be a funky, diverse place.  In community, we can start to look more like that now, finding our similarities in Christ where before we’d have seen differences in our educations, languages, and hairstyles.

When our church identity is intertwined with our role in the community, we build intentional relationships.  Maybe you want to reach out to that crazy dude playing checkers on the corner, but he ends up teaching you something too.  Maybe your kids see that dude as more than background noise when they see you see him as more.  You might get to play pied piper one day, leading a trail of neighborhood kids to VBS, or you might just join the regulars at happy hour and meet your neighbors where they are.  We change the world one person at a time.  Local, on-the-ground living.

There’s a lot to this identity thing, and in eight posts we've only begun to explore it.  But here’s one thought to take from this series: in putting yourself out there as a Christian, a spouse, a parent, a pencil sharpener, a book-reading piece of tinder, and a neighborhood pied piper, there won’t be too much room to worry about what else the whole world is expecting of you.  You might discover a very full you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Building Identity: Part 7 of 8

Identity in the Church: Growth

What is our growth identity?  We talked recently about our responsibility for growth as individuals within our marriages.  Well, growth is a major component of our church life, too.  Sunday attendance is not our penance or a favor to God, and it’s certainly not the sum of our Christian lives.  Our Sunday attendance is our equipping for our Christian lives.  It’s a lot like a cell phone charging station, really.  Plug in and go forth.

In Tactics (which I’ll review here next week), Gregory Koukl highlights seven church friends that call themselves Women of Berea.  Regular women, mostly housewives and moms, they meet for the purpose of encouraging each other in serious reading and study.  Church was their launching pad from which they spur each other on in growth and knowledge of stuff that really matters.

Koukl writes, “You can’t start a fire with wet wood. You must begin with dry tinder. In nearly every church there are brothers and sisters who share your hunger, but have yet to share your discovery. They are dissatisfied, yearning for something more substantial, but do not know where to turn. These people are your dry tinder.”

Some churches do a better job than others at encouraging personal reading, mentorship, and individual growth.  But as I like to tell Songbird, “you’re the boss of you.”  When I say this to her, I usually mean that she is responsible to put on her shoes when asked without stopping to play with toys on the way, but I’m telling it to you now and here’s what I mean: don’t wait for someone else to say “let’s read more about sanctification,” or “let’s get together and talk about election,” or even just "What did you think of the sermon?"  Be a fire starter in your church.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Building Identity: Part 5 of 8

Identity in the Church: Service

Here’s the final angle we’ll take for now at forming an intentional, healthy identity.  To determine whom we are, and want to be, in our churches, we’ll look at our role in three areas: service, growth, and community.  And yep, I'll drag this series out a few extra days so that we can digest these three areas one at a time.

So what is your service identity?  When I start attending a new church (which, being a USMC wife, I do pretty often) I tend not to let on that I sing and play instruments.  I just don’t bring it up, and I volunteer for pretty much anything else.  I’d been at one church for several months when my [worship-leading] parents visited.  I saw them talking to my worship leader in a hallway after the service and sure enough, later, she sidled up to me and gave me a smirk.  “I knowww,” she said.  And the next week I was on the schedule.   

It’s not the hours (you have to get up early for Sunday practices) or the strain on Cookie (he has to braid hair and tie bows and keep the oatmeal off the polka-dot satin).  It’s just that it feels self-serving to waltz in and put yourself up on the stage.  I would gladly assert myself with a less spot-lighty gift, like sharpening pencils in the office.

“You gave me away! I was in hiding,” I complained to my parents.  But Mother says my reasoning is stupid.  It’s ok, she says, to serve where you’re gifted.  In fact, we’re supposed to.  That’s why God put arms, legs, necks, and spleens in the body of Christ.  If we all sharpened the pencils, who would answer the phones?

That’s not to say that we can’t also serve in places we haven’t considered our areas of expertise.  The best thing about small churches, in particular, is that the needs are greater, so you can serve in ways that really stretch you to your limits.  I’ve worked with teens and preschoolers when there was a need, and I’m sure kids of every age could confirm that I have no gift for it.  But I did learn a lot of patience and how to churn out piles of grilled cheese sandwiches quickly. 

If you’ve been at a church for a while but still duck out without socializing after service, don’t be shocked if you feel a little underfed.  The quickest way to feel purposeful and needed (and to make friends) is to serve.  We all get gushy feelings about the Early Church, like it was a big artist’s colony of daisies and happiness.  In reality, it was a sharing-stuff, dining-together, caring-for-widows group.  Want that gushy feeling?  I guarantee that you will not get turned down if you ask your pastor where you can help out.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Building Identity: Part 4 of 5

Identity in Marriage

On this subject, I’ll write primarily to wives and try to weigh our expectations for our marital roles from both Biblical and cultural perspectives.  My conclusion is applicable to both men and women, though: that fulfillment in marriage is predicated on fulfillment in Christ.

With trepidation we approach the subject of marriage roles because we know we’ll have to grapple with what may seem an odious and antiquated idea: submission.  So let’s grapple quickly!

It’s important to analyze why the idea grates on modern women.  Besides the fall and our grasping little natures, are there cultural values that undermine our pursuit of godliness as wives?  Maybe it’s a matter of definition.  Individual happiness is, perhaps, the highest cultural value today.  In marriage, though, you vow to give up watching your own back as you instead watch your partner’s.  He vows to do the same for you.  Marriage is antithetical to individualism.  Submission of one’s will to anything external defies the ideal of My World, My Way.  There is a definitional conflict.  And so these vows are a choice; we know that at various points, each of us will fall back into self-preservation mode and upset the balance.

But what if we stay in self-preservation mode?  Eventually, the pursuit of individual bliss, the cultural imperative to never be uncomfortable, must trample on relationship, which requires compromise.  So in marriage, we choose between self and selflessness, and only one route leads to satisfaction.  Happiness itself is just a weak destination.

But so far, this sounds mutual.  Why do women draw the submission straw?  Well, we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of give required to love and respect, as men are commanded to do.  But practically speaking, maybe it’s also the wrong question.  Does it matter why we get green pinnies or blue if it makes the scrimmage work?

In the obvious analogy, ballroom dancing doesn’t flow when everyone’s the leader.  Yet the man is also a frame for the purpose of displaying the skill of the female dancer.  It’s an interesting duality of purpose.  Submissiveness, rather than veiling the woman’s identity in the man’s, yields a partnership that fosters the development of a woman’s BEST identity.  If you’ve ever tried to follow, you know it’s not passive.  It’s extremely difficult, and the more gracefully it’s done, the more grueling the dancer’s effort has been.

Is our status then just that of hard-working subordinate?  I think that subordination is more of a choice than an identity.  Even in marriage, our primary identity must be that of Christian, and the requirements of Christians in any relationship are both practical and sacrificial.

So part of the secret to satisfaction in our marital roles is the development of our identity in Christ.  This means that even if your spouse is not a Christian, or if he is less bold in leading your family’s growth than you’d like, you’re not off the hook.  “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Peter exhorts all believers (2 Pet 3: 18).

Salvation is like starting blocks.  Your race and your spouse’s will be judged one day, and if your spikes are still in the blocks, you won’t stand up to fire-testing.  You’ll still be saved, “but only as one escaping through the flames,” (1 Cor 3:15).

The good news is the transformative power of identifying with Christ.  As we deepen our knowledge of him, our desires will reflect not the ideals of our society, but the role God has designed for our good and his glory.  Submission and noble character and sacrifice, and especially the harmony they produce, will look more appealing.  We will find that yielding to the demands of partnership frees us up to be our best selves.

For a more in-depth treatment of submission and what it is and isn’t, GirlTalk blog happens to be running a series on that subject.  Here’s the first installment with links to the rest.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thoughts on Reading

Since moving to California, I have found myself more devoted than ever before in muddling through non-fiction books on subjects ranging from Middle East politics to tactical evangelism.  And when I say devoted, I mean I am finishing books.  To what do I owe this miraculous turn of events?

Though it's hard to isolate the variables, here's a guess:

I have no friends.

Having frequently neglected duty to finish works of fiction, and having occasionally neglected duty to spend time with friends, but having almost never (before this month) finished non-fiction books in a timely manner, I must conclude the following... 

That I prefer socializing to reading serious stuff, and that I prefer a thrilling novel to both.  Lacking both fiction and friends, I am making serious headway through my personal library.

From lemons, lemonade!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Building Identity: Part 3 of 5

Acting: A Role and A Context

Have you ever noticed how many unpleasant personality tendencies this world offers?  Passive aggressive types.  Super-duper sensitive types.  Super-duper sensitive types who are also insensitive to others.  Hoarders.  The worst part is, you and I probably fit loosely into any number of unpleasant categories ourselves.  [Maybe I shouldn’t lump you in.  You might be terrific.  But I am idiosyncratic, and this is my blog.]  So once we get honest about how freaky and offensive we can be, there are two ways in which to process that information.

Option 1: “I may act this way, but it’s not who I am!”
This is the positive take.  It’s also not really true; they way you instinctively act probably IS who you are (sorry).  But on the bright side, to view our tendencies this way requires nothing of us!

Option 2: “I recognize that this is who I am, but it’s not who I will decide to be.”
This is the negative angle, the one they won’t print in SELF magazine.  It’s realistic, though, and goal-oriented.

The best part about deciding to be less [insert flaw-y adjective] is that the plan is mapped out for us, the role model designated.  It’s delightfully one-size-fits-all.  No matter what your brand of imperfection, you are just as hopeless as everyone else.  And in my personal version of hopelessness, I can exclaim, “YES! I am a people pleaser with irritating nervous twitches, but I am getting a little more like Jesus every day!”

In the day-to-day of it, though, it’s hard to leave behind your snobby/aggressive/over-sharing/mouth-breathing ways.  One practical way to envision this problem is as improv theatre.  (I just wanted to say “practical” and “theatre” together in a sentence.)

I’ve never been in an improv because they usually end in chase scenes, and also I’m not funny.  But I did lighting for one once, and it seems that they usually work off a loose script or outline.  The details, the punchy lines, the parts where Jimmy Fallon drops character and laughs, may be more off-the-cuff.  Here’s what this means for a people pleaser or a Sensitive Sally. 

We have a role within a context.  We are part of a complete story.  So situations change, but the purpose of our dialogue is constant.  We have meaning and order within the chaos of the unknown.  We have a loose outline: we are to glorify God and testify to him with our reactions and behavior and speech.  The scene may play out in spontaneous ways, but we know the general punch line we have to deliver, so we have a security, even an adventure, within the chaos.

What’s our role?  We were passive aggressive low-talkers who always took the last brownie.  But now we are Christians.  And our context is the story of a fallen world’s redemption.  It’s an identity worth hoping for.