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.