Measuring church success

For decades now the primary metrics that churches have used to measure their success have been attendance and giving. And that was fine when churches were the center of the culture. But, as we’ve seen, institutional churches have declined in both attendance and giving. And the institutional church is not the center of the culture anymore. In many cases, the church hasn’t changed, but the culture has and it has determined that it no longer needs the church anymore. Yet the church has struggled to adapt and change to this new reality.

So the church continues to measure attendance and giving as the primary metrics of success. But are these useful measurements anymore? Or are we even looking at them the right way? A decline in attendance and/or giving is useful information, but I wonder if we are stuck interpreting it in a way that is no longer valid or useful anymore.

Too often the church is measuring these things in order to see how we are doing against a past that was out of the ordinary – large attendance numbers and lots of money in the coffers. Taken against the historical trends of centuries, the church of the 20th century was an anomaly. Maybe we should re-examine these metrics and what they are measured against. Instead of determining if a church is successful because there are lots of butts in the seats for worship, maybe we should be measuring how many people’s lives are transformed, or how much service is happening in the community, how many meals were served, or how many people are opening Scripture or praying – or at least struggling with these things. Maybe we should be measuring other things.

Because if we buy into the notion that a successful church is a large church (in terms of attendance at worship, or money given), then I think we’re going to continue to feel pretty depressed about the state of the church. Yet, I know for a fact, that in many ways, the church is more alive and healthy than it ever was when all the pews were filled. That’s because when our focus is on discipleship and service, we are focused on the right things. We’re like Peter being called out on the water. As long as we are keeping our eyes on Jesus, we stay up, but as soon as we turn our focus to other things, we start to sink.

Here’s the recipe for having a large attendance and giving – Don’t preach anything controversial. Don’t preach anything that could possibly be slammed with a label of being political. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t touch any injustice that occurs in the world. Don’t talk about the status quo of society. Don’t talk about poverty in real terms. Don’t touch violence and the means of violence that we rely on for our so-called peace and order. Don’t talk about money or greed. Don’t talk about loving your enemies. Don’t talk about systems that people are trapped in.

Instead, focus on personal piety as the means to salvation – just try harder. Talk about things that will have no impact on anyone or anything. Preach a generalized gospel that is forgettable and doesn’t touch our sins. All of these things are just messages about how good we can be and that God sees how good we are and rewards us for being and doing good in our own personal lives.

With that kind of message, there’s no need for grace. No need for forgiveness. Peace is a mythical destination. There’s no need for transformation of people, or communities, or the world. There’s no need to actually see the Image of God in strangers or enemies, or even neighbors for that matter. When we preach these messages, we lack imagination and we don’t expect anything from God or anyone else. This isn’t the Good News. It’s the underwhelming gossip column – fun to play with, but has no real value.

You can have a large church if what you offer up as the Kingdom of Heaven looks awfully similar to what already exists and requires little to no imagination of a possible future that is transformed. That message costs nothing. It says that everything is just fine.

Remember, Jesus ticked off the religious community enough to make them work with an exploitive government to show how Jesus was a threat to the established power structure of that religious institution and government.  That’s why he was killed.  He threatened the status quo of unjust power systems in religion and government – those things that control people.  He challenged allegiances.  If we take the filter off of nice, middle class, white, American, English speaking, perfect hair and hands Jesus to hear the real Jesus, then I wonder how many Christians would still be following him?

Is the goal of a church to have large attendance in worship and lots of money in the bank? I don’t remember seeing that in Scripture. So why are these the primary measurements for the church?

Worship is important. In many ways, it is the center of our spiritual life. At at the same time, worship is not a spectator event. It should stir us to live out what we hear in worship, and live the way of the one we encounter in worship.

It’s time to start measuring other things beyond attendance and money. It’s time to start measuring discipleship. That will look different in each context. There aren’t nice universal measurements for this. That’s because God is at work differently in different churches and communities. It’s time to use our imagination. It’s time to start expecting Jesus to show up. It’s time to expect big things from God. It’s time to expect transformation. It’s time to expect life, death, and resurrection. It’s time to see the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s time.

Prayer for September 1, 2020

Prayer for September 1, 2020: Please pray with me. God of transformation, do we really understand what that means? We get really attached to our buildings and our structures. We get really attached to the way we’ve always done it. But that’s not the point is it? Our institutions, buildings, and structures exist for one purpose – to assist in bringing about the Kingdom of God. And as the world changes, the way you go about this alters and adapts too. Institutions don’t exist for their own survival. Rather, they exist to serve a greater purpose and to change in order to serve that purpose. This is what life, death, and resurrection is all about. Let those things in our lives and our institutions that do not serve you die off. Let them die off so there is room for resurrection – new life. Better life. Let us let go of temporary attachments and be embraced by eternal purpose. Amen.

Why is the church in decline?

There are plenty of articles on why the church is in decline. These can be interesting and even informative. They range from churches being out of touch in their messaging, to being too political, to being too worldly, to being too cloistered, to taking a stand for something, to not taking any stand at all, and more.

Why is the church in decline? I think it’s important to remember that this is complicated. And it’s important to define things. When the word “the church” gets thrown around, we make a mistake when we assume everyone is talking about the same thing. They aren’t. “The church” can mean a number of things – the institution of the church, the body of the church, a specific church.

The other thing to remember is that most of those articles talking about the church being in decline are oriented towards America and Western Europe. The reality is that the church is growing leaps and bounds in Asia, Africa, and South America.

So with that said, here’s my theory on the decline of the church in America. When I talk about the church in America, I’m talking about the institution of the church – primarily Protestant churches – an organization with a building, staff, and institutional identity.

The simple answer – Western society has moved past trust in institutions. Institutions don’t carry a special place in Western society any longer. There’s a variety of reasons for that – the biggest one (at least I think it is) being that institutions have shown themselves to lack trust. In recent time, scandals and abuses have been reported on. Sacred trust gets destroyed each time a new scandal and abuse is reported. Why should people trust these institutions – they have proven themselves to be untrustworthy as a whole.

So the obvious question in response to such a statement is – Why are you a pastor in an institutional church? I was called into it by God is my answer. I think God is up to something incredible with the institutional church and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’m excited about how God is transforming the church. The decline of the institutional church is not a negative for me. It speaks to opportunity and transformation.

See, the image and ideas that had been painted by popular strains of Protestantism are showing themselves to be empty and a waste of time. Jesus was presented as your BFF. I don’t need a BFF. I need a savior. And I’m willing to bet there’s a whole lot of people who believe that too.

If Jesus only cares about your personal private relationship with him and your personal private beliefs and actions and doesn’t care about the world outside of me, then what’s the point? If that’s all Jesus is – then you don’t need Jesus. You need a self-help book and a motivational speaker.

However, if the institutional church reclaims Jesus as transformational for individuals, communities, nations, and the world – well, look out, people have a reason to pay attention and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Because transformation means actual change, rather than coping mechanisms for injustice and evil to be maintained. Transformation means that injustice and evil end. And that impacts lives and systems. It improves our lives and our communities and our world. That’s actually worth while and worth identifying with. That’s worth attaching oneself too. That’s worth all the sweat and blood. That’s worth taking a stand for and even risking your life. That’s worth dying for.

Let’s be real – no one’s going to devote their life, risk their life, or take a stand for a self-help Jesus who doesn’t actually change anything. Why would you? That Jesus won’t lay down his life for you either. You only lay down your life willingly if there is some kind of significance to doing that.

Why is the institutional church in decline? Because it traded in savior Jesus for self-help Jesus and people saw what a waste of time it was. Can we dump self-help Jesus now. People are desperate for transformation in their lives, for meaning and purpose, for service that builds real community and impacts lives (their own and others). People are desperate to be released from all the bondages that hold them down. People are desperate for community that isn’t a social club, but rather a community that actually cares about each other. People are desperate to experience transformation – to let go of the facade they put up – and to be changed. If the institution doesn’t embrace this, then Jesus will move on past the institution and yet the church (the Body of Christ) will be as healthy as ever. It will take on a new form that meets the needs. Because in the end the church serves the mission of Jesus. The church doesn’t exist for its own survival. It exists to participate in the transformation of people, communities, and the world. And if can’t or won’t participate in that, it will die off and be replaced with something that will.

Stroll through Scripture for September 6, 2020

So, I’m having some trouble with my video downloader right now. Which means that in order to watch the Stroll through Scripture, you’ll need to click on the link below. Sorry for the inconvenience. Which leads me to my next point – anyone have a recommendation on video downloaders?

It’s time for our weekly Stroll through Scripture where we take a first look at the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday and offer some commentary, thoughts, and questions about the readings. This is for Sunday September 6,2020. Let’s take a stroll together.

Posted by St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church, New Kingstown on Monday, August 31, 2020

Romans 13 is not what you think

(Below is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. You can listen to the sermon from the church website – www.ststephenlc.org)

Did you know that there is a long history of the Bible being abused and used as a weapon of control?  Did you know that slave owners in America would take their slaves to church?  They would sit in different sections of the church of course, because the slaves were considered less than human, and then they would hear a proslavery version of God.  There would be an emphasis on passages of Ephesians and Colossians that told the hearers – “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”  The point being that God was obviously in favor of slavery.  

A slave bible was published in 1807 which removed portions of Scripture including the Exodus story – why?  Because it might inspire rebellious thinking.  Can’t have slaves rebelling now can we?  Some ministers promoted the idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham, cursed in the book of Genesis, and thus their enslavement was fitting.  It’s amazing what lengths humanity will go to in order to maintain unjust and evil systems that oppress and exploit other humans.   It’s amazing how we can twist God’s word to suit our own desires and wants.  It’s amazing how we can weaponize God and make God and God’s word our slave.  

Romans 13:1-7 is another one of those passages of Scripture.  It’s one of the most abused passages of Scripture.  It’s so abused that the lectionary actually does not include it in year A, B, or C in the three-year lectionary cycle.  In other words, if I didn’t change the lectionary and add it this week, you’d never hear this passage of Scripture in your entire life even if you went to Church every single Sunday of your life.  That does that tell us?  

Instead of dealing with this difficult passage, the lectionary committee decided to take the easy way out and pretend that the passage doesn’t exist.  Ignoring a difficult passage of Scripture doesn’t make it go away.  It doesn’t help us to deal with difficult issues.  It’s unhealthy.  And that has long term repercussions.  

It’s unhealthy whether we are talking about ignoring unpleasant Scripture passages, or just plain ignoring injustice that is taking place in our communities – Like the fact that another black man was shot, this time in back with seven bullets, while a white man who shot and killed people and tried to surrender wasn’t arrested until the next day without incident.  There’s something wrong with this picture.  Are we just going to ignore it because we think it’s not our problem?  

Yeah, it’s unpleasant, but ignoring hasn’t worked.  It’s made it worse.  Just like ignoring the abuse of Scripture doesn’t help either.  

I know this much, there are pastors who abuse this passage of Scripture, often and in public, who don’t shy away from using it for their own purposes and to push their own causes.  Why should we avoid talking about this passage and allow those who abuse it to control the meaning of it?  That’s not right.  

It comes down to this – How would we describe God?  Is God primarily concerned with control, order, and compliance through the Law?  Is God more focused on punishing people and nations who step out of line?  Is God rarely satisfied with humanity and has mostly focused attention on human sin?  When Jesus returns, will he be upset and unleash death and destruction upon the earth – punishing those who were against God?  

Those views have been long argued in certain strains of Christianity.   Not Lutheran strains.  That’s not what we teach.  Those views are encapsulated in the popularized idea of the Rapture.  The Left Behind series from the 90s promoted this idea of a vengeful and blood thirsty God.  Makes for a great fiction story that will keep you flipping pages.  But it’s crappy theology that is extremely destructive and hurtful to a whole lot of people who don’t match up with the theology – people who are considered ungodly for a whole host of reasons.  The theology seems more concerned with figuring out who can be excluded from the Kingdom of God, rather than how expansive the Kingdom of God and God’s love and mercy and grace actually are.  

Those that argue for this view of God focus a great deal of attention on the Law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Romans 13, a large portion of Revelation (except for end of course), and the writing in 1 Timothy that focuses on order in the church (you know where women are supposed to remain silent – another passage of Scripture taken out of context and abused far too often).  This view is about control of people and compliance.  It’s a focus on punishment maybe best visualized through Dante’s writing – the Inferno from the 14th century.  

This view often tried to maintain the status quo – the current order and structure of society, regardless of what that order was, or how unjust it was, at the time of the argument.  Often in such belief systems, men are valued higher than women, and there is great concern for levels of society – whether that be based on economic level, racial stratification, or some other human made societal structuring.  A hierarchy is important to this way of thinking – few at the top making the rules and many at the bottom following them dutifully.  And when someone gets out of line, then violence is considered necessary in order to bring compliance and return things back to the divinely instituted state of order and control. 

Is God concerned with order.  Sure – the entire Creation story is about God bringing order out of chaos.  God likes order.  But there’s a difference in God’s version of order and using order as a weapon to control, exploit, and oppress people.  God’s order is an order that releases people, brings freedom and life.  It’s an order that allows for shalom – wholeness. 

If all we do with Romans 13 is read it out of context, then we’re no different than anyone else who has abused this passage of Scripture.  We are twisting it for our own purposes.  We are making God and Scripture our servant.  

And how can we tell when this is happening.   Pay attention to when this passage of Scripture if pulled out in arguments.  Often that happens when it is convenient to support a certain policy or way of thinking.  And those same folks who use this, conveniently forget that it exists when government does something they don’t agree with.  Then all of a sudden, the message is different.  

Romans 13 is about how we are to act in relation with governmental authority and with each other.  But Romans 13 is not a blank check for government to do whatever it wants to do.  Read the passage again.  

When Romans 13 is used in this way, it turns from the Word of God into a weapon that is used to attempt to control or silence people. It is nothing more than a proof-text designed to support one’s beliefs, instead of God’s Word designed to change us and bring about the Kingdom of God. 

When Scripture is abused in this way, it becomes a tool for humans in an attempt to control God and what God is allowed to talk about, rather than God’s Word designed to bring us into alignment with the unfolding of God’s kingdom.

Romans 13 only makes sense when it is read in context with Romans 12 and with the entirety of what Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. Here’s the context – Paul is writing this letter to Christians who live at the very heart of the Roman empire – the capitol. It is dangerous for these Christians to openly practice their faith in the heart of an empire that doesn’t welcome the Christian God. Following Jesus in the heart of the empire meant rejecting the Roman gods and the Roman culture. It meant declaring that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not – right in the heart of the empire none the less. This would have very real consequences for followers of Jesus – costly consequences.  You want to understand what Jesus means when he says “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?”  Look at the Christians in Rome.  It would impact what work they could do, if they could obtain food and/or housing, if their family would keep them in or throw them out, how they were seen in society and who they interacted with. 

It was most likely that Nero was the Roman emperor when Paul writes this letter. If you know anything about Nero, it should be this – he was an anti-Christ figure, as most caesars were. He lived his life in complete opposition to everything that the Gospel of Jesus stood for and what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Roman church. Nero was selfish (most likely a narcissist), sexually abusive and exploitive, greedy, and violent (Historians agree that he killed his mother and his first wife. Why?  To maintain power). The Christians of Rome would feel Nero’s wrath in the 60’s when Nero would blame Christians for the burning of Rome, and a year later he would have Paul executed. 

When we look at Romans 12:9-21, we read Paul’s words that come immediately before Romans 13. Romans 12:9-21 sets the stage for the meaning of Romans 13. Here’s what he wrote:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When you read these passages, you start to understand the context of Romans 13 differently. Paul isn’t arguing that we have unquestioning allegiance and loyalty to the government. Instead, Paul has just written a couple of paragraphs on how we are to live as Christians. Paul isn’t arguing that the Roman government is worthy of being obeyed because everything they do is godly. Rather he is arguing that the way of Christ is not to fight so that one side wins and one side loses, but rather to live differently so that all sides may be freed from the bondage of violence and death and sin. Paul is arguing to live a Christian life, in defiance to the Roman way of living, and to accept whatever punishment they deal out for living as a disciple of Jesus because living the Jesus way is radical in its outlook.  Paul would embody this himself in his imprisonments and ultimately his own death. 

Connect what Paul writes “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all,” in Romans 12:17, to what he writes just a few sentences later in Romans 13:1-2, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” 

Romans 13:1-2 has been used and abused as a weapon for governmental abuses and injustice for centuries. The problem with the argument that we are to obey the government no matter what is that this argument falls apart rather quickly when it is applied to specific situations of history. 

Using this line of reasoning, should the US have been at war with Nazi Germany? Everything the Nazi’s did was legal, they passed laws. Would we argue that the Nazis and Hitler were ordained by God? They were the legal authorities of Germany. Should we have gotten in their way on their quest to dominate the world, and kill those who were impure?

Was Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong when he did illegal activities (remember he was arrested for breaking the law) in his effort to have civil rights laws changed? After all, he did things that resisted authorities that had been instituted by God, supposedly. 

Was it wrong for people to assist slaves in going to freedom from the South prior to and during the Civil War (before the Emancipation Proclamation)? There were laws that stated that anyone who assisted a slave, instead of turning them in, was breaking the law.

What is Jesus about?  What is God the Father about?  What is the Holy Spirit about?  At their core, The Trinity is about setting us free from bondage, abuse, oppression, and exploitation.  To create a new order in which those things are absent.  A world in which we come together and violence and coercion is unnecessary.  A world based on love.  A world that Paul writes about – if your enemy is hungry, feed them.  If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  Not the world we currently live in and have for most of human history.  A world that tells us that if your enemy is hungry, starve them.  If they are thirsty, drown them.  

Jesus’ way is far different than the world’s way.  While the world is more concerned with vengeance and control, Jesus is concerned with grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, freeing us from the bondage to sin and violence and revenge.  Jesus’s way frees people from hunger and thirst, nakedness and sickness, imprisonment and being unwelcome.  Freeing us from exploitation and oppression.  Giving us a new way of being and living.  A way that is radically different from what the world offers.  

I guarantee you this – if you live in Jesus’ way, it won’t be easy.  People will know because they will see something different.  Something freeing.  Something life giving.  Something not tied to the ends justify the means, the strong survive, and might makes right.  Something that satisfies the yearning of our very souls.  Something that offers us meaning and purpose.  Something that isn’t about controlling people, but frees people to live into who they are and who they were made to be – fully.  What they will see is the Kingdom of God in their midst.  A Kingdom that empowers people to live truly free lives in honor of God.  A Kingdom that creates a new order for life.  Amen.  

Prayer for August 28, 2020

Prayer for August 28, 2020: Please pray with me. God of the nations, why do we try to restrict you? Why do insist that faith in you is only a private matter? Is that an excuse that allows us to accommodate injustice? Is that some kind of spin that allows to believe we are “good” followers of you while still supporting systems that conflict with what you are about? We must think you are stupid. I’m not sure how else to explain the lie we tell ourselves and you. You love us. Not just as individuals though. That would be awfully limiting. We are told that you love the whole of creation. That’s expansive. That’s what you are about. Help us to let go of the small expectations we have of you. Help us to let go of the lies we tell ourselves about you. Instead, open our arms to feel your embrace and to see how you love the whole of creation and call on us to do likewise. Amen.

Individualism doesn’t mesh well with Christianity

In America, we value the individual. Individualism is a core principle of American idealism. We proclaim a message of rugged individualism. We value individual freedom and personal choices. We praise the individuals who have overcome great odds and succeed (however that is defined). We like to think that when someone does something wrong, that it is just the individual that is to blame – we don’t buy into the notion that there may be larger systemic issues at play. This belief in the individual has deep roots in America and permeates much of our culture.

Even parts of Christianity in America have adopted this core principle. The more fundamentalist and evangelical branches of American Christianity talk more about the personal relationship with Jesus than anything else. It’s about saying the sinners’ prayer and turning your life over to Jesus. It’s all about you and Jesus. Your personal piety and private faith.

Individualism comes with two seemingly opposing definitions

  1. The habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.
  2. Self-centered feeling or conduct; egoism.

(Source: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/individualism)

Individualism can be healthy. But like most things, it’s not an all or nothing thing. Too much Individualism pushes us into the realm of narcissism.

We shouldn’t be completely independent. That’s not actually possible either. We need other people. I believe that interdependent is far better than individualism.

Interdependence is defined as: The dependence of two or more people or things on each other. (Source: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/interdependence)

When we think about our lives, more often than not, it fits with interdependence, rather than individualism.

Christianity and individualism doesn’t mesh well together. “Individuals” misses a great deal of Jesus’ message. Yes, the individual is important. Yes, people are made in the image of God. Yes, God cares deeply about individuals. All of that is true. But if that’s where we believe that faith stops, then we have a very lacking faith. If God only cares about individuals, then why does Scripture talk about the God of nations? If God only cares about individuals, then why does Scripture talk about the judgement of nations? If God only cares about individuals, then why were churches set up at all? If God only cares about individuals, then why would Jesus bother with the Beatitudes, which speak about groups of people, not just individuals. If God only cares about individuals, then why did Jesus feed the multitudes and draw in crowds. If God only cares about individuals, then how does John 3:16 make any sense at all?

When I look at the state of the church today, I see an unhealthy strain of individualism that runs rampant through our churches and culture – a strain of individualism that tries to pass itself off as Christianity. But it’s missing so much of what Christianity is about. So many people think they are Christians because they go to church, as if being a Christian is a passive thing with some check boxes.

Being a Christian isn’t about membership. It’s about a way of life lived out. Not just privately, but publicly. Being a Christian isn’t about knowing the right words to say. It’s about living those words, incorporating them into your life, and letting them transform you.

Being a Christian is about death and resurrection – death to our loyalties and allegiances, our nationalism and privilege, our preferences and comfort. Being a Christian is about denying oneself, picking up the thing that will kill you, and following Jesus. It’s about loving your neighbor, seeing the image of God in all, and seeking shalom, because that’s what God has always been about.

This strain of individualism allows us to ignore or spin away injustices because we believe that they are someone else’s problem, not ours. Individualism gives us cover to not speak up or act when something is wrong because we believe it doesn’t affect us.

Except it does – regardless of whether we believe it or not. Faith isn’t just a private matter. It is public too. The famous hymn states it clearly – “They will know we are Christians by our love.” How will they know if our faith is solely a private matter? People will know though if they see us living out our faith in a public manner.

Christianity is far more than the boundaries of individualism. It has to be. Trying to contain faith to just the personal realm makes about as much sense as sitting in the dark while a flashlight is on under a container. Why would you do that? Seems like a waste doesn’t it?

Prayer for August 27, 2020

Prayer for August 27, 2020: Please pray with me. God who makes us and forms us, we are made in your image and likeness. Why do we so quickly assume that only applies to us and us alone? Why do we have difficulty seeing that in others – especially our enemies. Is it because we would rather not see God in them? Does that make it easier to hate someone when we can’t see you in that person Lord? Does that protect us from feelings of guilt and shame – protect us from knowing that we are rejecting you? Ouch. Rip off the bandaids we put on ourselves to protect us some the harm we inflict on ourselves and others. Expose these wounds so that they might heal. Turn our hearts towards you. Clear our eyes to see you in all people. Open our hands to your embrace. Amen.

Where does our identity derive from?

Where does our identity derive from? If I were to ask you to describe yourself, what would you say?

Would you talk about what you? Your family unit? Your heritage or culture? Your political party identification or belief? A religious identity? What?

There are many different identities in our world and our society. Some healthy and some not so healthy. Often we mistake our beliefs for our identity. Our beliefs are not who we are. Our beliefs can change. Who we are though, doesn’t. Not at our core. Sure, we can change our health. We can increase our knowledge. We can go to working or not working. We can change relationships. But none of these actually change who we are at our core.

The danger with equating our beliefs with our identity is that it makes it impossible to talk about beliefs or issues or policies.

If you identity is tied up with your belief about guns, then there isn’t a possibility of having a constructive conversation about gun safety. Anything that is said that conflicts with your belief about guns will be seen as an attack on you and your identity. And when we are attacked, our survival instincts kick in – we either run and hide or we lash out in defense.

American society is extremely divided and verbally violent due to this. Try to have a conversation about economic systems with someone who equates their support of capitalism or socialism with their very identity. Try to have a conversation about abortion with someone who equates their support or opposition to abortion with their very identity. Try to have a conversation about role of government, protests, and speech with someone who equates their identity with their partisan political party membership.

Often we see touching these issues as a danger. Just talking about them. How did we get to this unhealthy state of affairs. I don’t buy into the idea that someone who brings up a conversation about a controversial topic is in the wrong. I believe that it is wrong to protect people from hard conversations because it might cause them to so some self-reflection and possibly change their beliefs.

Why have we tied our identity up so closely with our beliefs? What have we gained from this? Some kind of feeling of safety? A feeling of being part of some kind of tribe? We traded in our true identity for something fleeting and temporary.

But all of this is not our true identity. It doesn’t even matter if we want to reject or deny our true identity. We don’t get to determine it anyway. It is not in our control.

You want to know what your identity is? You are made in the image and likeness of God. That is who you are. Everything else is just an add on. If we stopped at that, I wonder how it would impact how we saw others. I wonder how it would impact our communication. I wonder how it would impact how we talked about topics and issues.