Monday, April 25, 2011

The Transforming Identity: A Brief History

Let me start out with a generalization and specify from there:
We are always trying to figure out who we are.

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The past chunk of my life (8 years or so) has been this journey of coming to understand who I am. I think that is generally true for most people going through their teens and twenties. Part of that time for me was spent swimming within the current of my own life and mind and experiences, isolating myself from risks and vulnerability. The latter part of that chunk of time, though, was spent learning about a new way of life and learning about other people's minds and experiences. I've been  both learning and unlearning a lot of things.

The beginning of high school was really rough for me. I had left middle school being friends with everyone in my eighth grade class of 32 people, and when I got to high school I realized maybe I wasn't such good friends with any of them. They all found their niches, and I attempted to find mine. I had "friends" who were in my honors classes, "friends" who played softball with me, and "friends" who would invite me to go to punk rock shows with them. I never felt understood or fully accepted by the majority of my high school friends, and I learned to guard myself against being open with most people. I would attempt to trust someone, and often that trust would be broken.

Things changed for me when I started attending church in high school and found some truly loving and nurturing people there. Pretty soon after I started attending, I decided that I wanted to commit myself to being a part of that community and the Christian community as a whole. Anything with love smack-dab in the center has an element of allure to any human, I think, but it especially drew me in. It's what I was longing for. At that point, I had spent my life living in the identity my parents established for me, feeling like a square peg in a round hole. I felt genuine oppression of who I was at home. Similar to how I felt at school, I couldn't be myself at home or even begin to understand what that meant. My family had no desire to discover or help me discover who I was at the core of my being, and that had a huge effect on me as a whole person-- issues I am still dealing with today. Everyone's family has problems, and mine is no exception despite the fact that I love them dearly. It's funny how you can still love something that makes you hurt so much.

I digress.

It was at church that I began to discover nourishment and true care. It was in that community where I saw people who maintained this unexplained/unexplainable supernatural connection to a powerful being who showed them the same love they had shown me. The moment I decided to follow the prompting in my heart to join this body of people, I saw myself beginning to change, to truly transform into someone new.

Then I went to college. So began a new process-- new people sharing their new ideas and experiences, new community and experiences for myself.

Along with a new school/community experience came a new church experience. I had a really great community of friends at my church back home, but my church as an organization prompted quite a few frustrations in me. I was sad to leave the people I loved, but I knew that my search for a new church would broaden my understanding of what a church could (and should?) look like. After attending a couple different churches in my college town, I started attending a really unique church in another college town about 40 minutes away form my own. This church is nearly the antithesis of my church back home, and that is not necessarily why I chose it, although some of those elements played a factor. This church was a church full of those who didn't seem to fit the popular mold of "church-goers," especially in their town, which is the headquarters for one of the most "American" "Conservative" churches in the US. My identity began to form more strongly as I found a body of people who believed strongly in the elements of ministry and Christianity that I had always believed to be important. Finally, a church with it's priorities straight!

Something I am questioning a bit lately, though, is how much we cling to those identities that we strive so hard to discover. Take my church, for example: some people in our church seem to embrace and promote the "misfit" identity that our church has developed naturally. I would agree that the people in our church do not fit the American Christian mold for certain reasons, I don't think that "misfit" identity is necessarily more Christ-like. I agree with and promote wholeheartedly the redemptive and reconciliatory theology of the church, but I wonder if people in our church are desiring to jump out of their misfit visages into a reconciled and redeemed life. Or maybe it's just not easy to see on the surface. I would love it though if I church got past the "misfit" rhetoric and decided instead to be an all-inclusive church-- a place where everyone fits, not just the place for people who don't normally fit. I don't think that is an accurate portrayal of reconciliation and redemption. We are just as accidentally exclusive as the "Conservative American" churches down the street until we seek to be the place where everyone fits, even the people who might fit more snugly and comfortably somewhere else.

Ultimately, this comes down, again, to our individual identities. Some people relate better to others, which is why we often have homogeneous groups of people in our society. Churches made up of all middle class white midwesterners, bingo nights made up of all 65+ year olds, bars filled with people who want to get wasted, Sufjan Stevens concert filled with every indie-hip fashion to date. Despite the individualism, we are still similar to other people and we gravitate toward those people. There is something bigger about our identities to realize here.

Only one thing about our individual identities is determined-- we are determined to be like Christ because we were made in His image. I am but a partial expression of who God is because if I encompassed all of who he was, I would be Him and that just wouldn't make sense because there is only one of him! God has placed certain people in my life and certain genes in my body to determine the parts of him that I will reveal to those around me. Some people will share similar traits to me because we are all parts of God. That's why a church should not look like a homogeneous group of people. It should instead look like a mosaic of parts that make up one beautiful, holistic picture of God himself. We were meant to be his revelation on this earth-- when we hold onto who we think we are, at any given point in time, we are missing out on who he is constantly making us to be. He is making us new. He is transforming us if we let him. The body is a growing and changing one, but are we open to that change? If it means better understanding God and our purpose on earth, I think we should be.

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