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Have you ever had one of those annoying conversations where someone asks you to try to define yourself without mentioning your job, your relationships, your abilities, your interests, or your appearance? It’s hard. We tend to always identify ourselves in terms of the other – “I am a husband” (in relation to my wife), or “I am a musician” (in relation to tone-deaf people, but not so much in relation to real musicians), or “I am a Child of God” (in relation more often to those who are ‘not a child of God’ than in relation to God Himself). This desire to distinguish ourselves is virtually unavoidable, but I believe it’s damaging on many levels.

For one thing, defining identity as in relation to the other almost always leads to some form of pride and/or persecution. We need not even go into the history of slavery, colonialism, apartheid or any such tragic realities. The insidious draw of nasty national pride is something every internet-using Springbok rugby supporter understands first hand. Who has not gone into a chat room or an online poker game and said, “Hey all you wallabies, kiss my green and gold butt! Tri-nations champions 2009, woohoo!!!”?…. Well maybe that’s just me. It’s worth noting though that virtually every nation has at some stage publicly voiced that secret “truth” that ‘we’ are just better than ‘them’. Consider:

    Cecil Rhodes on the British: “The British race is sound to the core and… dry rot and dust are strangers to it”

    Thomas Babington Macaulay on the English: “[we are] the greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw”

    The United States Journal 1845 on the US: “We, the American people, are the most independent, intellegent, moral, and happy people on the face of the Earth”

    Strabo on Europeans: “I must begin with Europe because it is both varied in form and admirably adapted by nature for the development of excellence in men and governments”

    South Africans at any large sporting event: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, We are the Champions, We are the Champions!”

Of course, as an English-speaking South African, I can laugh at this national sentiment a bit easier than most, feeling always a pilgrim, lost somewhere between the Isle of Wight and the Johannesburg Zoo. I can agree more easily than most with Dean W.R. Inge that “A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours”.

Who are we really?

Christians are citizens of another Kingdom too. And the lure of national (religious) pride there is as strong as in any other ‘nation’. We feel the same sort of ridiculous pride at Angus Buchan open-airs as we do at the Springbok rugby games. As if we had had something to do with being born South African… or being born again by His grace. In truth we have about as much right to be proud of being tall or having blue eyes. I reject this kind of identity in terms of the other. I will not sing with the Smalltown Poets: “Call me Christian”. I will not nod my head stupidly at the speakers at youth camps when they tell me “Your identity is that you are a child of God – nothing else matters”.

It’s not that I don’t value that adoption. It’s just that it can be a substitute. I spent years in the church nodding stupidly at altruisms that I didn’t understand and at the same time desperately trying to suppress the sinking feeling that I didn’t have a clue who I was. Identity is not an objective expression of relations between individuals. Identity is a subjective experience. I had just such an experience one day as I lay sobbing my eyes out and shaking my fist at God for abondoning me to my depression. I can hardly describe it in words, but I want you to understand that in one moment I was very aware of God’s nearness and love and in the next moment I was thoroughly aware of how mistaken I had been about everything in my life. I had a peace and a clarity that has never left me. I knew who I was.

And that is why I say that identity is an experience.

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In part 1 I shared my testimony and how I relate to Jacob and how reading obituaries reminds me to dream big dreams that please my Big God. This entry will seem to contradict all of that.

But before we get into the wonderfully madenning oxymorons that characterise the teachings of Christ and should characterise the lives of those who claim to follow Him, lets return to Jacob. I rather rudely left Jacob defined by one evening of wrestling with God. He obvioulsy lost that battle, walking away with a limp that he would carry for the rest of his life, and yet finally winning everything he’d ever wanted – the assurance of God’s blessing! And boy was he blessed! We read in Genesis 36:7 that Jacob and his now friendly brother Esau, had to part ways because, “their possessions were too great for them to remain together; the land they were staying on could not support them both”. How’s that for a big dream come true?

Which brings me back to the nature of big hopes and dreams and of faith and of the eternal question: “What does God really want for me?”

When you go through your teen years in an evangelical, pentecostal background (like I did), you hear a lot of talk about “God’s plan for your life” and “your destiny in God”. This can leave you with a sort of sheepish grin on your face when you are forced to confess that you don’t really have any big dreams and you don’t actually know what your destiny is. I went through those feelings all through high school and took them with me to India on outreach during my gap-year, in which I had hoped God would reveal His grand scheme for my life. We were stationed in Darjiling, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was very beautiful and peaceful there, and often, on off days I would go into the forest and ‘wrestle’ with God about my destiny. One day, as I was walking along the mountain path, and tearfully lamenting my emabarassing “destinylessness” in prayer, God gave me a vision. I will not share it with you now, but it’s enough to say that it was in technicolour and sufficiently grand enough that when I openned my sleepy eyes and found myself streched out in the grass by the side of the path, I was impressed. So impressed that when I finally got home to my parents and my church, I immediately set up a meeting with the elders and shared my grand dream with them. And then… nothing.

None of it materialized that year, or the year after, or the year after that. And slowly, the sinking feeling of “destinylessness” began to take hold again. I accepted a ministry position as a counsellor in a rehab center on a farm outside of town, and there, amid the cattle and desperation, I watched my dream slowly die. Eventually I had a nervous breakdown and left. My dream was smashed and I was a broken young man. In all this time, it was only the gift of God – my Leane – that kept me believing that God actually loved me. I had become a “ptochos person”.

Now we come to Jesus and his oxymorons. Some are found in Matthew 5:3. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek word translated as poor is ptochos. Literally it means “one who crouches or cowers”. It depicts a poor beggar low to the ground looking for a handout – in this case a spiritual handout. A beggar. Christ says that if I understand myself as a spiritual beggar, then I will be blessed. Right… I know that everyone reading this is repulsed, as I am, and as were the vast majority of those who heard Jesus’ teachings. We want to be victorious Sons of God, not spiritual beggars! Like the Laodicean believers, to whom Christ said, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked!” (Revelations 3:17). Remember what David said in Psalm 51:17? “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Ptochos people.

With the overwhelming influence of the destiny-doctrine and the prosperity gospel in the evangelical and pentecostal Church, it’s hard to accept that perhaps the big dreams we believed that God had given us and in which we had put so much faith were nothing more than the sinful vanity of materialistic and self-centered people, and not the dreams of a Holy God for His Church. It’s hard for me to accept this teaching too, but Jesus was never one to shy away from uncomfortable revelations.

And yet… what about part 1??! Doesn’t God want me to be happy?! Doesn’t God require that I dream dreams too big for me to accomplish on my own?! Isn’t that what faith is all about?!!

Yes. God does dream dreams for us. God does want us to be happy. But God will not allow us to measure our success, our happiness or our dreams by any standard other than His.

My problem was not that I had dared to dream, or that I had lost faith. My problem was that I was very interested in success, and yet I didn’t even know what “success” really meant. In his much-read “Confessions”, Saint Augustine wrote, “It is all too possible to want gifts from the Lord, but not the Lord himself”. This is my confession too.

How do we know if we are more interested in His gifts (such as “my destiny” and “my happiness”) more than in Him as Lord Giver? Examine your dreams. Victor Kulgin writes, “Have you ever considered that perhaps God’s best for your life may well be poverty, persecution, and pain? This was the case for our Master, Jesus Christ. Remeber, ‘No servant is greater than his master’ (John 15:20)”. The modern evangelical Church will struggle to even begin to digest this statement. We think that the person with faith in God is blessed materially and is “successful”. But the author of Hebrews describes the great men and women of faith in the history of the Church as those who, “were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two… they went around in sheepskins and gaotskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” (11:35-38).

I am only beginning to see now why it took God so long to answer my prayer for a destiny all those years ago. He knew that I would never be able to understand His plans for my life until I was a properly broken, ptochos person. One who, like Paul could honestly dream of “knowing … the fellowship of sharing in His [Christ’s] sufferings, becoming like Him in death…” One who, like the great English evangelist John Wesley, could say that if he died with more than five pounds in his pocket he would be ashamed to face God.

I know that God is busy taking the Michael out of Michael. He is slowly and patiently washing away the pride and the selfishness from my life so that I will be able to dream dreams that are not only big and beautiful to me, but to Him as well.

I will finish with this thought by the 13th century German theologian, scientist (and genuine ptochos-person) Albertus Magnus (the teacher of Thomas Aquinas!):

“We should not desire any pleasure of this present, mortal and physical life, but rather to mourn, bewail and lament our offences, faults and sins without ceasing, and to perfectly despise and annihilate ourselves, and from day to day to be considered more and more abject by others, while in all our insignificance we become worthless even in our own eyes, so that we can be pleasing to God alone, love him alone, and cleave to Him alone.”

Do yourself a favour:

Instead of using that spare moment to check your friends’ facebook updates, next time, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKriRkSnXGY and watch British comedian Dave Spikey talk about obituaries. I’ve been a bit fascinated with obituaries lately. I’m not morbidly obsessed with death either. Obituaries are supposed to be about life. About asking what a life was worth. They help you to ask yourself, “If my liver suddenly throws in the towel and surrenders to the relentless onslaught of bit-too-strong-coffee, will my life have been worth anything?”

The most revealing obituaries are written by people who know they can’t really write. The epics written in honor of celebrities and politicians reveal very little except the skill of the journalist paid to write them. No, the shorter rememberings of ordinary people about ordinary people are the ones that really make you think. Disturbingly typical of these was one I read recently in honor of one “Henry ‘Road-Kill Donald”. After the obligatory list of relatives, follows the only thing the author could think of to distinguish this man from the hundred of others who were being remembered that day on that website: “He was a lifelong fan of hill-billy music”.

Seriously.

Reading obituaries like this makes me wonder if these people aspired to anything more when they were children? I work with children every day and I have never met one – not even the poorest orphan – who doesn’t dream of something more. Children understand about dreaming big… about hoping big. And then something happens to us, somewhere between matric maths class and our first last kiss, those dreams die.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” – Proverbs 13:12.

And now for something completely different…

I am a second child. Psychologists identify second children as the ones most likely to suffer from low self esteem. Nice… What’s the point of telling someone likely to have low self esteem that?!! I’m very blessed not to have a low self esteem. Not anymore. Why I don’t have a low self esteem and what that has to do with dreaming big is best explained by reading the life of Jacob.(Genesis 25:19-35:29).

Jacob was a second born son. In the patriarchal-age culture, that made him a second-rate son. His brother Esau was the apple of their father’s eye. He was big and strong and hairy and apparently smelled like “a field that the Lord has blessed” to Daddy (27:27). All of this added up to the characteristic low self-esteem that makes the shrinks smile knowingly. And so we see him struggling his whole life to prove that he was not second best! As a young man, he cheats his brother out of his birthrite. He has to flee his home and lives with his uncle Laban. There, he manages use his uncle’s flocks to build up considerable wealth for himself by some sneaky (and rather miraculous) selective breeding techniques. Whenever Laban changed the rules to keep more of his wealth, Jacob would struggle and scheme until things were in his favor again. Eventually, he grabbed all this wealth and ran away again. His indignant uncle caught up with him again, but after some fast talk, they strike up a deal and part ways. With nowhere else to go, Jacob decides to risk going home again, but not without first setting up a succession of bribe-laden scouting parties. Always the schemer. And then, it happens – one of the most powerful images in the Bible – Jacob wrestles with God. It’s a picture of his whole life. Jacob, wrestles with the Angel of God until morning without success, but refuses to give up. Eventually, God tells him to let go. Jacob’s reply is the summary of his whole life:

“I will not let you go until you bless me!”

I can relate to that. I also grew up second born and feeling (through no fault of my oarents) second rate. I also wrestled with life and with God. Always trying to prove myself and to grasp at bigger dreams. But I was never satisfied and I never felt that my parents or God were satisfied. Then one night I wrestled with God. I was on the point of suicide, but in my desparation I cried out to God asking “When will You be satisfied?!” The still small voice of God, reached out and touched me the way the Angel of God reached out and touched Jacob, and broke us both.

And after the brokenness came the blessing.

We all wrestle with God in our own way. We all want more. And we want to BE more. But until we learn that we don’t need to fight with a God who loves us as we are and dreams bigger dreams for us than we can imagine, we will never be satisfied. Our dreams will be a source of torment instead of a source of Hope.

God love us to hope. As Pastor Len likes to ask, “If faith is being sure of what you hope for (Hebrews 11:1), what are you hoping for?”

And so I read obituaries to remind myself to cherish the dreams that God has given me, and never to let them die. I think it’s an excercise in child-like faith to believe in big dreams in a cynical world, and that’s the only kind of faith that pleases God.

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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