Monday, April 20, 2015

Identity Theft: Labels

This post is in response to Newbreak's latest sermon series: Identity Theft.  

I have long been aware of the power of names or labels. For years I lived under the label "Not good enough. Yet." This label kept me waiting until I got better. I would write when I was a better writer. I would sing when I was a better singer. I would talk to people when I had something interesting to say. I would move forward when someone gave me the new label, "Good enough."

I was frustrated and discouraged because other people, whose efforts seemed less polished than mine, seemed to be given the label I desired: "Good enough." I felt misunderstood. When would I be good enough?

My pride kept me from doing anything that was less than good enough.

And then I realized that I would never be as good as I wanted to be, which was perfect. And that was okay. I would never be given opportunities until I stepped forward boldly, confident in my efforts, which were not perfect but which came from my heart. My responsibility wasn't to be perfect, but to continue to do the things God had called me to do.

And when I stopped living under this identity-stealing label "Not good enough. Yet.," I gave myself a new label: "In process." And so I began writing. My writing didn't need to be perfect. It was "in process" and getting better. I began speaking up and sharing my ideas. I began going to school. I became an "in process" teacher, getting better all the time. And I began applying this label to others. We are all "in process."

Changing the label changed my life.
In last Saturday's service, Pastor Mike asked each of us to write down a label, a false identity, one that was stealing out ability to live out our true identity. I felt like I had dealt with my false identity, and so I didn't know what to write.

And then Pastor Mike began to pray. As the Holy Spirit began to speak, I began to write: "Unloved." "Misunderstood." "Rejected."

Vignettes from the past flitted through my memory, and I could see myself being chosen last for sports teams. I saw myself ignored in small groups and large groups, my voice seemingly silent. I saw myself sitting alone, invisible, wanting friends, afraid to reach out to others, afraid of being rejected again.  Tears slipped down my cheeks as I relived my past.

One of the ways God has used me in the past is to disciple young women, to encourage them in their faith, to challenge them to follow their dreams or to follow Christ. My labels, my fears of rejection and being misunderstood, change the way I live; they limit my ability to do what God has asked me to do.

And as Pastor Mike prayed, I confessed that I cling to these labels as a means of protection. As long as I live with these names, I can limit the people I reach out to based on how I think I will be perceived. I don't take risks. I don't contact people who might not like me or my faith or my ideas.

And so I confessed: Father, forgive me for living out of false labels. I don't want these labels to control me. I want to live out of your power. Out of the identity you have given me.  

And then I heard the new label: "Loved." "Chosen."
This is an identity I know intellectually, but which is hard to walk in.  True identities often are. How do I reach out to people I don't know? How do I love with God's love? How do I live authentically, with openness and vulnerability, willing to follow God wherever He calls me? Knowing He loves me and that is all that matters? 

When Jesus says, "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy" (John 10:10, The Voice), the thief is Satan. He isn't trying to steal our money; he is isn't trying to kill our bodies or destroy our possessions. He is stealing, killing, destroying our true identities.

Jesus has come to give us joyful life, and Satan wants to take that away.
Satan takes my experiences and suggests labels like "rejected." I choose to live with those labels instead of the ones that God has given me. Living under these negative labels prevents me from participating in God's mission.

In Christ, I am a new creation. The old me is gone, and I have a new identity in Christ. I am adopted into God's family. I am chosen to serve God's purposes.

What are some of the labels that define you, limit your choices and your actions? What does God say about who you are?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Identity Theft: Dreamer

This post is in response to Newbreak's latest sermon series: Identity Theft.  

I first heard about the danger of identity theft on some kind of nighttime news show. It seemed pretty horrible. Someone can steal your name and your social security number and then open up credit accounts, destroying your credit and ruining your life. Pretty scary stuff. Back in those days, experts warned people to shred their mail to prevent this from happening. Of course that wouldn't prevent an unscrupulous store clerk from the dangers of identity theft.

Nowadays technology opens up apparently unlimited ways for someone to steal your identity. Unscrupulous people can research archives can access your history. I saw an article this morning warning that these criminals can steal your kids' social security numbers. There's an easier way to steal an identity. Most of our lives are posted online. Hackers can set up ways to see what we do on the internet and they can break into the data posted on sites we do business with.

So we set up firewalls and change our passwords so often we can't remember them. (Maybe that's just me.) And we're still exposed. The faster we come up with ways to prevent identity theft, the faster the thieves come up with ways to steal our identities, destroy our reputations, and take our money.

I'm not trying to minimize this type of identity theft, but at the end of the day, even if these thieves take my identity, I'm still me, and while my creditors may be confused, I'm not, and my friends and family aren't confused either.

There's another type of identity theft that may be more dangerous, at least to my true identity, the way I view myself and the way others view me. This identity theft changes the way I live, the choices I make, the way I interact with the people around me and with God.

Our true identities are often formed by the identities we assign to ourselves, and those identities or names we give ourselves have the power to shape our lives. They can open up possibilities; they can shut down our dreams. They can propel us to move forward; they can paralyze us so that we can't move at all.

Think about it. If I see myself as a dancer, I dance boldly and confidently. And I hone my skills. If I think I can't dance, then I just don't dance. Incidentally, I don't see myself as a dancer. I wish I were, but I gave that dream up long ago.

If I see myself as a student, I believe my efforts at learning will be successful, and so I move forward with conviction that I will do well in my classes. I keep up on my homework. I study. I put forth efforts to absorb the material. If I don't think I can learn, if I doubt my ability to succeed, then I think, why even try? (I have a lot of students who take on this pattern.)

If I see myself as a teacher, I teach. I watch my students and assess their learning. I critique my lesson plans and make them better.  If I think I am a writer, I think my writing has purpose and power. This gives me the power to write, and as I write, I get better. If I think I am not a writer, why bother writing? 

My identity is closely linked with learning, teaching, and writing. I believe God created me to use this identity for His glory, and He has used this identity to draw people closer to Him.

And yet, there have been moments when I doubted my identity. I was tempted to stop learning, thinking that I was too old to learn new things. I was tempted to give up my dream of becoming a teacher. I have given up my identity as a writer more than once.  

In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us that we are saved by grace; we did not earn our salvation, our acceptance into God's family. He adds that this salvation is not merely for our benefit, that we are God's masterpieces and He has prepared good works for us to accomplish. These are His dreams for us, and as we set out to do these works, He gives us strength to accomplish them. We are part of His family, and we join Him in reaching out to the rest of the world by beginning these works. 

There is no greater joy than this. 
And this is part of the abundant life Jesus promises in John 10:10 when he says, "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy; I came to give life with joy and abundance." 

To put the passage in terms of this discussion, Satan wants to steal your identity, your dreams, and your joy in joining Christ to reach the world. He wants to stop you from doing the things God planned for you long ago.   We need to become increasingly focused on Jesus and His plans for our lives so that we can experience the abundant life He promised. We need to allow Him to establish our identity and our dreams as well as to protect this identity from those who would steal it.  

Long ago I allowed the thief, the enemy of my soul, to begin erasing my identity, and out of desperation I cried out to Jesus to rescue me. I am so grateful that He did. He is restoring and recreating my identity and my dreams.  He is doing more than I could have imagined.  

I hesitate to think what my life would be like if I had let the enemy win.  

Priorities. Or Lack of Well-Defined Priorities.

WARNING: This blog is basically a synopsis of my existential angst, an inability to come to terms with myself. 

I have always wanted to be a writer. 

Technically, I have always wanted to be a writer, a teacher, and an actor. There was also a brief period of time when I wanted to be president of the United States, but I think that was mostly because I was told that women can't be presidents, and I thought that limitation was stupid. I still do.  

But back to my real ambitions. After eliminating actor from the list, I was down to two things I really wanted to be: writer and teacher. My challenge has always been that I don't know which one of these ambitions to focus on. 

Honestly, these two life goals are so intermingled in my head that I have a hard time separating them. And these two goals are also linked to my insatiable desire to learn.  

Let me explain: I learn in order to open up new worlds, to understand these worlds, to make my life richer and more interesting and more meaningful. Writing helps me make sense of what I learn and then internalize. It also allows me to pass on all the amazing things I learn about the world. Writing is a way of learning and teaching at the same time.  

Teaching is a way of interacting with people on a more personal level. I meet the most amazing students, and I want to pass on the joy of learning to them. I teach to open up new worlds to my students, to explain these worlds, in order to make their lives richer and more interesting and more meaningful.  

I want to do both things, to write and to teach. But pretty much I'm just teaching. Teaching is also the way I make money, something that was never on my list of ambitions but which is pretty important. 

By the way, when I say I'm pretty much just teaching, I don't mean that teaching is not valuable or meaningful. I just mean that I'm not doing the other thing that is valuable and meaningful. At least to me. 

And there's my dilemma: I'm not sure how to do both things at the same time. 

Last fall I had lunch with my friend Sara Dunn and her adorable little girl Zoe. This was a period of time when I thought my life was settling down and I would have time to write again, a period of time before I took on some extra classes that sent my life spiraling back into the crazy zone. Sara is also a blogger, but she blogs more often than I do. 

Sara has a knack for posing questions that make me rethink my life. And this time was no exception. 

"Are you still blogging," she asked. She is very straightforward, and I like that. 

I wanted to say yes, I was just on a writing hiatus because of my schedule, but I didn't know how to answer her question because I wasn't sure how long this indefinite hiatus would last. 

"Well, sort of," I hedged. "I'm just really busy right now, and so I haven't had time to write." I couldn't actually remember my last post. And I was sad because I could remember how much I loved writing and sort of wondered if I would ever start writing again.  It's not like I'm getting any younger. 

Sara knows that I tend to overpack my schedule. At least I think she knows that. I'm not good at hiding my flaws.

"Oh," she responded. "It's just not a priority right now." She is very straightforward.

That stung. I wanted to say, "Yes, writing is a priority. I just don't currently have time." 
But that's sort of the meaning of a priority. It's important enough to make the time. 

I don't remember what I actually said after that, but I did make a note to talk about this conversation in a blog. And here I am. Talking about this conversation in a blog. At least six  months later.

And that brings me back to my dilemma, one I have been thinking about for some time. Do I want to be a writer or a teacher? Can I be both? Can I prioritize my life so that I have room for both in my schedule--and also make room for relationships and reading and exercise and cooking and cleaning and all the other things that make up a life worth living? 

And can I make room for listening to God? Making sure that my life and my schedule follow His plans and His mission and not the one that's so very fuzzy in my head? 

I think it comes down to priorities, something I have already established that I am not good at establishing. 


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Power of ONE: The Church

This blog is a response to the current sermon series at Newbreak Church. To watch the message, you can log on to Newbreak's website and watch ONE: One Direction

When I was a kid, we went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. If there was a special event or we sang in the choir, we went again.

And that was it. Church-related activities took place in the church.  Well, we were supposed to read the Bible and pray everyday, but mostly I just felt guilty because I didn't.

A few years ago, people started saying, "Don't just go to church; be the church."

In other words, don't just learn more about God with other people who already believe in God; instead, serve people outside church. Serve your community. Hand out water. Feed the homeless. Clean the canyons. Do something.

Going to church is good. Going to church gives us the opportunity to worship God with other Christ followers.  Hebrews 10:25 instructs followers of Jesus Christ to gather together in order to "inspire each other to greater love and to righteous deeds." When we go to church, we hear God's Word proclaimed and explained, and we're challenged to follow Christ in our daily lives.

Being the church, or serving the community, is also good--and essential. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the end of days, when he gathers together the nations. He separates people into two categories, those who have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, nursed the sick, and visited prisoners. He honors those who lived lives of service and rejects those who did not, saying,"whenever you saw a brother hungry or cold, when you saw a sister weak and without friends, when you saw the least of these and ignored their suffering, so you ignored me." If we don't serve the people around us, we are missing a vital part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

And so both of these actions, going to church and being the church, are biblical.
And although they both use the same word: church, they are using the word in two different ways. When we say, "go to church," the word church denotes a place. When I say, "be the church," the word church denotes a certain type of behavior representative of service.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure how to define the word church when used this way.

Definitions matter. Otherwise we're using the same words, but we're talking about two entirely different things, which is bound to result in misunderstanding or disagreement.

To clarify discussions, we need to make sure we're talking about the same things.
How should we define the word church?  More importantly, what definition can we form by examining the way the New Testament uses the word church? What is it? How does it function? What is its purpose?

This discussion could fill a book (and many books have been written to address these questions), and blog format is adequate to fully explore the topic; nevertheless, I do want to join the discussion.

In Ephesians, Paul describes the church as the " body of Christ." This is a beautiful image; Christ is the head, and we are are all united functioning together as his hands and his feet. Just as our physical bodies were designed to work together rather than individually, Christ's body is designed to function today. We are not individuals in the body of Christ; we are a team. Christ is the head, and we are his body, responding to his direction, working in conjunction with each other.

My two hands can do different things at the same time, but they must all work toward the same purpose, moving in the same direction, at the same time. Think of it a pianist. Each hand, even each finger, plays different keys, sometimes separately, sometimes together. Individually, the effect isn't that exciting, but together, the music can be incredible. Each digit works with the others to achieve melodies and harmonies and rhythms. The feet work the pedals to sustain notes. All parts, even other parts I have not discussed, are essential.

This is the body of Christ. We need each other. Individually, we are fairly insignificant. Together we can do magnificent things.

And so we gather together regularly, at least once a week, to make sure we are moving in the same direction, learning the same things, working toward the same purpose. That's the "go to church" part. And then we work together toward that purpose. That's the "be the church" part.

Together we worship God, glorifying His name, Together we illustrate the power of unity. Together we embody His heart of love and service. Together we show the power of Christ, that so many individuals can humble themselves and allow the power of God to empower them.

I can go to church without being part of the church, and I can do good things on my own without being the church. The goal is to be part of the body of Christ, something I will probably be learning my entire life.

Of note, this sermon series is specifically about Newbreak church, but there when the New Testament speaks of the body of Christ, it is describing the entire body of believers. I've never heard this discussed before, but I wonder if perhap each individual church body could be described as a part of the larger body. If that is the case, then we must learn how to work together in a unified way to glorify the name of God. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Power of ONE: Lost

This blog is a response to the current sermon series at Newbreak Church. To watch the message, you can log on to Newbreak's website and watch ONE: One Direction

Duane and I have had a lot of experience with being lost lately, with walking in circles, confused by GPS directions that tell us to turn down streets we can't see, that aren't labeled, that look like driveways.  Everything looks the same. But it's not. Getting lost is exhausting.  

Instead of being paralyzed by our lost-ness, Duane and I embraced the adventure of exploring new places. And we developed a system.  He kept track of shifting gears and watching for oncoming traffic, and I kept track of street signs and direction. Together, we stayed on track.

Most of the time. And when we got lost, we got "unlost" together.  (Unlost is not a word, but it works well here.)

We definitely needed maps and GPS directions. Somebody (or something) needed to know where we were actually going. But we also needed each other.  

Getting geographically lost is one thing, but every now and then, I feel emotionally and spiritually lost. Disoriented. Confused. Disconnected. 

I don't know where I'm going or what I'm going to do next.  I don't know where I'm going. Or what I'm doing next. 

I'm in limbo. Waiting for direction. 
I don't know where to turn. 
I don't know what to do next. Sometimes that's because there are too many options. And sometimes because I don't see any options. At least not the options I want. 

God seems far away.  Or at least not near. I don't hear Him. I don't sense His guidance.  
And so, in my confusion, I cling to anything that is familiar. 
And something the only thing that is familiar is the feeling of being lost. 

Feeling lost is such a lonely, isolating feeling. 

I've been journaling for nearly twenty years now, and my journals are sprinkled with this quotation from Psalm 119: 

I've strayed like a lost sheep; 
seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. 

Only God can take away the feeling of being lost. We need someone who knows how to get where we're actually going. Someone who knows where we're actually going even when don't.  

When I recognize that I'm lost--and sometimes I don't realize it for a while--I call out to God. And when I call out to God, I can trust that God loves me enough to reach out and find me. I cannot get "unlost" on my own. 

At the same time, I also need people around me to let me know that it's okay to feel lost, to be confused or disoriented, who remind me that even if I don't know exactly where I'm headed, God does. And He will find me.  

Hopefully we have those people around us. But what happens if we don't have those people? For a long time, I lived life on my own. I didn't know how to build relationships.  

But there are a lot of reasons why we might not have people around us, even if we've established those relationships in the past. Things change. They always do. 

In that case, we need to start all over.

I was thinking about all these things as I listened to the message on Saturday evening, and then Pastor Mike asked the church: Where are you lost? 

Maybe that question was for me. Right now I feel like I'm lost, and I'm trying to figure out how I got off track.

In some ways I I feel like I'm starting all over. After the Santee Campus closed, I seemed to drift relationally. Some Santee friends didn't follow us over to EC, and because the church was larger, I didn't see other Santee friends every weekend anymore. Added to that, I had a heavy work schedule and wasn't involved in church activities as much as I had been before.

After a year in EC, I'm back at the Tierrasanta Campus, a church I attended for fifteen years but haven't attended in six years, surrounded by people I know but haven't spent time with in years. And I'm surrounded by people I don't know. More than that, I'm at a new school. I'm living in a new house. My ministry roles are changing. I'm a little lost. 

I've been here before, and I think I know what to do. 
I'm calling out: Abba, I'm lost. I don't know where I'm going. Come find me. I need you. I need people to help me. I need to help other people.  

I'm embracing the adventure of exploring new places in life. 

And I'm joining a life group. I'm embracing my confusion so I can meet new people, so I can form new communities in my new church that is my old church, so that together we can help each other get "unlost." 

I'll repeat Pastor Mike's question: Where are you lost? 
Have you told your Heavenly Father? Who are your people? 
If you don't have people, what's your plan for finding them? 

Resolutions Part 8: Returning to San Diego (Let the BELLS Ring)

Well, my first day back from Europe has come and gone. It wasn't nearly as productive as I might have hoped.  

I have a lot to get done before school starts in a week.  
Aargh! Is it really only a week? 
And there I go. I've had this lovely vacation of discovery and rest and now I'm headed back to the craziness that is my life.
And I don't want to do that.  

I resolve to live less like a tourist, rushing to see this and that.
Instead, I want to slow down and spend time getting to know the people in my life, even getting to know new people.

I resolve to sit and sip coffee, less mindful of the time than of my surroundings.
I resolve to explore new things, dream new dreams, venture forth into the unknown. 
I resolve to get off the expressway and engage with life and with people and with God.  

And yet . . . 

Now that I'm back, with only a week before school starts, I have stuff to do. 
How do I slow down when I feel like I need to speed up? 

I need a plan, some guidelines to help me to live deliberately.  

In his book Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Era of Disengagement, Australian and theologian Michael Frost challenged his church with the acronym BELLS. This is a plan for engaging with community, becoming part of the community and inviting the community to join something bigger.

I thought about bells as Duane and I visited numerous churches in Paris, Southwest England, Wales, and London.  

Honestly, it seems like there's a church in every neighborhood. Huge churches with amazing artwork. And bell towers reaching into the sky.  

And yet, we rarely ever heard the bells. I'm not really sure why. The bells are old, so maybe they're broken.

At Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, Paris, the multi-ton bell in the tower fell silent last summer, and now the church is raising money to fix it so they can once again ring the bells, calling the community to prayer.

That's what church bells do.

They reach out into the community and speak of God's glory and God's love. They remind the community to worship God on a moment by moment basis. Conversely, at the same time, they invite the community into the church. Come. Come join us. Come worship God with us.

We who are followers of Jesus Christ need to do the same.

We need to go out into the community and live and speak and sing God's truths, and we need to invite people to join us and welcome them openly when they do.

I thought about Frost's challenge as I wandered through the churches, and I see it as a plan for the year.  This (with some modifications) is my plan to keep me on track, engaging, connecting, getting off the expressway. 

This year I will:

Bless at least one member of my spiritual community and at least one person from the other parts of my life every week. These blessings might take the form of a letter, a word of encouragement, or an act of service. This doesn't seem like much, but sometimes I get so focused on my own projects that I forget to bless people. Sometimes I bless people inadvertently, but I want my blessings to be deliberate and intentional, fueled by love.

I "[c]ommit myself to the weekly rhythm of performing acts of kindness and generosity."

Eat with at least one member of my spiritual community and at least one person from the other parts of my life every week. Frost explains, "Sharing a table is the great equalizer in human relationships. Eating together breaks down barriers and promotes a healthy sense of solidarity. It models hospitality and fulfils the model presented in Luke 10 of sharing table fellowship with others."

I love cooking for people. Eating with people. Sharing laughter and good food. I've been so busy that I've crowded this out of my life. I want to make room for this again.

I commit to sharing meals with people in my life, to opening my home on a regular basis. 

Listen - I will commit to listen to the prompting of God in my life. For me, this means reading Scripture and books and articles from Christ followers from various spiritual communities. It means journaling. Praying. Walking. Exercising. Meditating. Slowing down.

This is hard sometimes. But I need this. I need this in order to clear my head. In order to hear God's voice.

Learn - I will read from the Gospels each week. Of course I will keep reading from other parts of the Bible, but how can I be a follower of Jesus Christ unless I keep my eyes on Him? And how can I keep my eyes on Him unless I read his acts, unless I hear his voice?

Send - I will see my daily life as an expression of sent-ness by God into the world. Too often Christians see that "life outside the church is irrelevant to the expression of God's kingdom," but my daily life can be an expression of God's love to the world if I see myself as an agent of God's mission on the planet. This might include "acts of hospitality and the just stewardship of our stewardship as well as working for justice and striving for global peace" (212).

When I see myself as "sent," my words and my responses and my actions become become deliberate and focused rather than random. I am on a mission. I am Christ's representative.

A plan for getting off the expressway, slowing down, and engaging with my world. 
A plan for deliberate living. 
A plan for not letting the craziness take over. 

A plan. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Resolutions Part 7: Getting Off the Expressway

Duane's family is from Wales. We think. 
At least the Flewelling name is Welsh. We think. 

And so in the quest to learn more about our heritage, we headed up to Wales. 
I wasn't impressed.

The drive took us on the expressway through two large cities along the coast, and instead of the rolling hills with stone walls, sheep, and intermittent gothic churches, we saw industry and suburbs. 

Surely, the bed and breakfast in a conservation village would be a little different. 
A little different but not much. 

The expressway dropped us off at a stunning stone house built in the 17th century, but the house was located in the suburbs, surrounded by much newer homes.

At lunch, we asked the waiter for suggestions on what to do in the afternoon. He suggested the coastal village of Porthcawl, located on the Bristol Channel. 

I'm not really sure why.  
More suburbs. 

Ah well. At least the B&B was lovely.
And the church across the road surprised us with headstones naming possible ancestors. 


Maybe something more amazing was out there, but with a huge storm headed in, I didn't think we would get to see it.

On Friday morning, the rain died down enough that I talked Duane into stopping at some castle ruins on the way home.

And so we drove away from the expressway, past the suburbs, beyond GPS navigation, and into a faerie world of castle ruins and ancient bridges.

We almost turned around after losing the GPS signal and coming across water across the road. Instead I put on my boots and marched into the water to see if our little car could make it through.
And it did.

And one discovery led to another. And another. And another.

We just had to get off the expressway.

At the end of the day, as Duane and I drove back on the expressway, through suburbs and cities, I reflected on what we would have missed if we had not gotten off the expressway.

When we got off the expressway, away from the cities and the suburbs, we discovered unique stone ruins and living villages and people who laughed and asked about San Diego and told us about things we should not miss before leaving Wales.

Getting off the expressway allowed me to see Wales in a new way.
Actually it just allowed me to see Wales.  And it made me want to go back and see more.

Too much of life is spent on the expressway.
We need to get off the expressway if we really want to experience life, if we want to connect with people, if we want to make a difference.