Image of God or Demogorgon?

We all carry around some sort of Identification.  If you want to drive legally on the road, you need a driver’s license.  Many places of work require you to carry some sort of ID.  And these days, if you’re a student, you have to have an ID card made and carry it around.  These pieces of identification almost always have a picture of our face on them. Our face is how people identify us.  We put our face in our profile pictures for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter so that people will recognize us.  Our face is in many ways synonymous with our identity.

But when we meet someone and we’re telling them about ourselves, we don’t show them a picture of our face.  We try and explain to them who we are.  For instance, if I meet someone, and I ask them to tell me about themselves they might say something like this:

“My name is Steve, I’m an accountant.  I grew up in Atlanta but now I’m living here in Nashville.  I went to Vanderbilt and that’s where I met my girlfriend Natalie.  I love backpacking and going to sporting events.”

And this is a perfectly fine way to describe oneself to someone they’re just meeting!  But lately I’ve been thinking about how we identify ourselves to ourselves.  

Throughout my life, I have done this in many different ways.  In elementary school I told myself that I was wicked smart.  I was a wiz at multiplication tables.  I had some showdowns with fellow classmates, but I was quite confident in my abilities.  However, when I failed to win a spelling bee for two straight years, I decided that maybe that was not my identity.  And then I thought I could be good at sports.  If you’ve met my parents, you know that I have been blessed with tall-person genes.  For whatever reason, I missed out on that biological pot of gold and wasn’t much of an athlete.  To give you a tweet-length scouting report on my football playing career it would be “Has a good low center of gravity, it just doesn’t move with much speed.”  So as many kids like me do, I developed humor as a way to fit in with the cool kids.  And throughout high school this was my go-to identity.  Since then, I’ve found my identity in many other things along the way.

I re-watched Stranger Things this week in anticipation of season 2 coming out soon.  (For those of you who don’t know, Stranger Things is a sci-fi thriller show on Netflix.  If you really wanted, you could watch the whole thing in one sitting.  8 episodes, 6 and a half hours of pure unadulterated distraction from the things in life that really matter)  VERY MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD…

In the show, people are disappearing, and a few of the townspeople spot a monster.  They describe this monster as a creature, kind of shaped like a man, without a face.  The “Dungeons and Dragons” loving characters in the show refer to the monster as the Demogorgon.  This faceless monster, the Demogorgon, is led by its impulses, consuming whatever grabs its attention.

And today, I just got to thinking, “Aren’t we like that sometimes?”  For the record, it’s never a good sign when the character that you identify with in the show is a bloodthirsty monster.  But there are times when I’ve felt this way.

See, when we are placing our identity in something, whether it be a job, a skill, a relationship, or a life goal, that in a way becomes how we identify ourselves.  It becomes our face that we can see and picture.  And most of the time, those things are not permanent.  We deal with loss, failure, and change, and all of a sudden, that thing by which we used to identify ourselves has been stripped from us.  We are left without a face.  In these seasons (days, weeks, months, years) we feel unrooted and unhinged, and we immediately want to jump and latch onto something else that we can identify ourselves by.  We want to find another job, skill, relationship, or goal we can merge ourselves with.  We scramble around seeking to find something to fill that leak in our hearts that had been filled with only a temporary plug.  And if you’ve been there, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Instead of scrambling, we have to sit.  We have to sit in the quiet and the darkness and wait for the Lord to remind us who we are.  And then, once we have slowed down and leaned in closer to the Lord, we may feel the presence of God reminding us that we bet on the wrong horse or horses.  We have spent way too much time clinging to the identity that we found in the things of creation, instead of the identity that we have been given in the Creator. In the beginning, we were created in the Image of God.  And we are loved deeply and fully by the Almighty God who sees our flaws and insecurities.  God’s love for us is perfect.  In Him, we are both fully known and fully loved, yet we spend our time seeking after imperfect affections from the people and systems who don’t and can’t fully love us.

Let us spend time diving deeper into the depths of God’s perfect love for us.  God has given us a unique face and identity.  We are each created in God’s Image, and together we are a masterpiece and small glimpse of the glory of God.  Let’s pray that everything that we do flows out of that foundational identity.

We are loved beyond measure by a God who knows everything about us.

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Reflecting Praise

Sometimes, people say good things about me.  I’m sure people say good things about you too.  Isn’t it nice when people say good things about us?  Doesn’t it make us feel good about ourselves?  Well it does sometimes, anyways.  Other times, doesn’t it make us feel shameful?  I know this is part of my story.  Why does someone saying good things about me make me feel shameful?  Because I know myself.  I know I’m not good.  Maybe you’ve felt similarly?

For the longest time, when someone would give me a genuine compliment about something they saw me do or heard me say, I would say, “Thanks,” but immediately think, “If they knew about that one thing that I’ve done or do, there’s no way they would say good things about me.”  We’ve probably all felt that way on some level before.  I know as someone who works in a local church, sometimes I feel pressure to look like I’m loving and flourishing at the whole following Jesus thing, even when I know I’m not.  This feeling of “if they only knew ‘x,’ they wouldn’t love me,” is called shame, and yeah, shame is not from God.

See, we all have issues.  Each and every person on earth has that sin or sins that tempt us, that call out to us, and that we have given in to before.  And yes, by the grace of God we have been set free from the bondage of sin!  But if you’re like me, sometimes you might choose the temptation of the sin that is familiar over walking freely with God.  And this happens, and no its not the right decision or action, but unfortunately, it happens.

But here’s the kicker, if I were perfect, I might start reading my own press clippings.  I might start thinking that things are going well because I made good things happen.  I may start thinking that when people compliment me, that they are doing as they should because I’m pretty awesome.  And if we’re honest, there have been times where we’ve had this attitude as well.

“OK, Michael.  Now I’m confused, because first you said that shame and thinking that we’re bad is not from God, and now you’re saying that we’re not supposed to think that we’re super amazing.  So like, what are we supposed to think?”

That’s a fair question!  So here’s the thing: Any compliments or praise that we receive for the way we live is a compliment or praise that belongs to God alone!

Let’s face it, God works through us, and we are FAR from perfect!  I would go as far as to say that God exclusively works through imperfect people.  It doesn’t take much time reading the Bible to see that He used people with some serious issues to advance the Kingdom of God on earth.  God used Jacob, a cheater and liar, to be the forefather of His people.  He used David, a scheming adulterer, to unite His people.  And God used Saul of Tarsus, killer of Christians, to spread the good news all over the known world.

Here on earth, we are God’s instruments in the symphony of His Kingdom.  When someone does something impressive with a violin, we don’t go up after the show and tell the violin that it did a great job.  The good things that others see in us are merely a reflection of our Heavenly Father, who has given us great gifts.  “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down for us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.  He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” (James 1:17)

God gives us words to say and things to do to reflect His glory on earth.  So when we receive praise, let us pass that on to God who uses us in ways that we could never choose for ourselves.  For God’s is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever and ever, Amen.

 

Leading with Love

So maybe you have heard over the past few days about the Nashville Statement.  I honestly don’t know how widespread it has become, but as someone who works in a local church, I guess I might be more likely to have heard about it or read it than some others may be.  If you haven’t heard, a group of evangelical faith leaders met in Nashville in order to come to some sort of consensus on a doctrine regarding sexual stewardship.  They released this 3-page document this week in the midst of nationwide concern for Houston.  Besides Houston, there has been many other tragedies in the U.S. recently, for example, the show of hatred and evil in Charlottesville 3 weeks ago. Much of the Nashville Statement is directly in relation to the LGBTQ+ community.  If you’d like to read the document, you can find it here.

I know, you are all still reading this to find out all about my beliefs regarding marriage and God-honoring sexuality, but that’s not why I am writing today.  I will say that wherever you come down on these issues, I would try my best to understand your beliefs and how they have formed or changed throughout your life.  I write this today because I think many are missing the point as I did when I read the document the first time.

I can honestly say that I know some wonderful, absolutely good-hearted people who fall on either side of the debate regarding the Church’s affirmation of those who have accepted non-traditional sexual lifestyles.  And I do not write this to offend or send anyone into shock.  I write this because I believe that the overwhelming majority of the current dialogue regarding the Nashville Statement has not been fruitful.  There have been a lot of voices falling on deaf ears.

Before I go any further, let me clarify: I 100% believe that members of the Body of Christ have a responsibility to other members of the Body to hold each other accountable to live lives according to the calling that we have received as followers of Jesus Christ.

And now let me say: the only way in which we can or should hold each other accountable is within the context of a faith community in loving relationship with each other.

Think about it this way, has anyone that you did not have a relationship with ever scolded or chastised you?  I would assume that was not an enjoyable experience.  Has anyone that you don’t know ever said to you, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but…” That probably did not make you feel good.  Throughout my life, I have often resented being told what to do.  I’m working on maturing and growing, but man, that’s the worst!  Now certainly, there are times in my life where I need guidance, and I’m even learning how to ask someone else for their input (what a novel concept), but I will only receive correction well from someone that I know loves me.  Maybe this is just me, but I would bet you have felt similarly.

As followers of Christ, we are trying to be like Christ, right?  If that’s the case, we need to look at the way that Jesus lived to inform every aspect of our lives.  In Luke 19, there’s a story that I think really applies to this topic:

Jesus is traveling with his disciples through Jericho, and there’s a ton of people trying to see him.  There’s this short tax collector (social stigma implied) in town named Zaccheus, and he really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowds, so he climbs up in a tree just to catch a glimpse.  Jesus sees Zaccheus up in the tree, and calls out to him, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today!”  Ecstatic, Zaccheus takes Jesus to his home.  But the people were not happy with this.  They grumbled to each other, “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner.”  That day, Zaccheus’s heart was transformed.  Because of his interaction with Jesus, who just went over to his house, he vows to give half of his money to the poor and to repay anyone he has cheated four times over!

So let’s think about this story.  I would bet that Zaccheus knew that the religious folks disagreed with his lifestyle choices.  But guess what, knowing that a bunch of religious people didn’t like him really didn’t make him want to change.  All Zaccheus needed for radical life change was to interact with the transformative love of Jesus.  People in our world could use a little more of that.

When dealing with people, Jesus always lead with love.  He befriended many other “notorious sinners.”  Jesus offered the Samaritan woman caught in adultery living water!  Jesus had a quality about him that not only tolerated those who had been outcast by the religious establishment, but he attracted them!  You know what’s not attractive?  Someone that you don’t know telling you that you’re a sinner.

So let me bring this back to the Nashville Statement.  Whatever side you find yourself on, there are real people, living breathing people, on the other side who legitimately believe that what they are standing for is right.  People on every side of this issue are created in the image of God, and there are devoted followers of Christ who are still developing thoughts and views on these matters.  We cannot let this be divisive in our faith communities.

Too many times, we, Christians, divide ourselves into different camps.  We split ourselves by how we like to worship, our views on the Eucharist, our traditions, etc.  And in the midst of a world that has an immediate need for the love of Jesus, we have found yet another thing that divides us instead of unifies us.

We need to be known more by what we are for than what we are against.  We need to be identified by our love for one another, our neighbors, and our enemies.  We need to be identified by our desire to lift the lowly, welcome the outcast, and break the chains of the oppressed.  

And yes, we need to be having these important discussions in our faith communities regarding our views on these topics.  But any view that does not begin with a love for God and for our neighbor is not a view that is from God.  These topics need to be wrestled with in our faith communities, but not on Facebook or Twitter.  These are not topics to make decrees about.  These are conversations to be had together in homes and at coffee shops, not on the internet for the whole world to see.  And when we do have these conversations, we must give each other permission to still be working it out in our hearts.

I must say that when it comes to withholding grace from those with whom I disagree, I am the chief of sinners, but I am encouraged because through the grace of God I know I can grow in that way.  I pray that I will be a person who leads with love, and I pray the same for all of us.

Only through the power of God’s grace can we truly become people who can speak truth in love.