Identity

A friend recently told me about the Fort Henry Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. Originally built as a private home in 1850, the building was turned into a private men’s club in 1890. Walking by as a boy, my friend would marvel at the impressive columns and grand marble steps.

The club had a reputation for elegance and propriety. Famous guests included Charles Lindbergh, Herbert Hoover, and Babe Ruth. Businessmen from across the country kept their memberships there. They didn’t just come for the networking; they came for a sense of stability; an experience of life as it used to be.

But then times changed. The club didn’t. The roof started leaking and the columns started crumbling. In 2011, the club declared bankruptcy and closed. But rather than see the building demolished, the church across the street bought the property, and later sold it to a developer, who began to restore it. Today three businesses lease space there.

Private clubs are just one of the things that help(ed?) us make sense of the world. Our friends, our jobs, our looks, and our families are also sources of our identity.

In his book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher describes the major changes in the global west over centuries. One of the sources of identity was religion. The root of the word “religion” is the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” A shared understanding of religion used to bind people together and was a source of shared identity.

But then times changed. Over time, identity became an individual thing, something that you create.

Dreher suggests that the practices of a monastic community prescribed by the 6th century monk Benedict of Nursia can help everyone, not just monks, survive in a changing culture.

Styles change.

Kids grow up.

Friends move away.

Companies downsize.

Our favorite places go bankrupt.

Only Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Odd truth

The late southern author, Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth, and truth shall make you odd.” It’s a twist of something Jesus said in John 8:32 about God’s truth. The truth of the Christian faith will make you different from the rest of world, sometimes shockingly so.

Ephesians 4:22 says, “Put off your old self.” Now that sounds odd to us, but it’s the language of Baptism. In Baptism, we become new creations. We put off our old identity and put on our truest and best identity, the one God gives us.

Every day, all day, the world tells us, “You be you.” “Be true to yourself.” It resonates with us because we’re basically self-centered. The irony is, it’s the culture telling us that. It’s others telling us to be us. If we believe it, we’re really just doing what someone else says.

What makes a Christian shockingly different is not their appearance, the way they act, or their likes and dislikes. A Christian has just as many problems as anyone else.

A Christian, a real one at least, is someone who is less and less motivated by what the world says.

A Christian is increasingly motivated by the truth that the living God stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ. The only rational choice for the Christian then is to start putting off the things of their old identity and follow the God-man, Jesus.

That may seem odd to some.

Discovering you

After living overseas for many years, a couple moved to the city and enrolled their daughter in a high school downtown. The first question her new classmates asked her was not, “Where are you from?” Their first question was, “Are you gay or straight?”

That was several years ago. Today the question students are asking is, “Do you identify as a male, female, or something else?”

In the January/February 2016 issue of Christianity Today, Alissa Wilkinson says that 2015 was “The year we searched for ourselves.” Wilkinson says that “Christians commonly assume, alongside mainstream culture, that the process of knowing ourselves is an individual one….”  “To thine own self be true,” the famous words of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, may be the unofficial motto of our culture today. But it’s not that simple. The people around us dramatically affect our perception of ourselves.

Wilkinson points to the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a young woman who’s freed after 15 years of captivity in an underground bunker. She sets off to New York to find herself. But the people she interacts with all have their own strengths and weaknesses; things they like about themselves, and things they’d rather not reveal.

The truth is, self-identification takes place in a particular context. If Kimmy went to Des Moines instead of New York she would identify something different in herself.  Wilkinson says, “In reality, though, we don’t first find ourselves, then participate in relationships. Instead, we were made to know ourselves in relationships.”

Christians understand that we were all created in God’s image. This is why God gave us the church; to be, in part, the context through which the creator reveals to us our truest selves. As Wilkinson says, “We become more like Christ as we participate in the life of the church and form relationships there.”