My life right now is a seemingly endless series of naps. And these are not the good kind of naps where I get to sleep, mind you, but the kind where I rock and shush and sing to a tired, screaming three-month-old until he’s fought his way through exhaustion into a tentative sleep that may only last five minutes. As a new mom, my days revolve around feeding my very hungry son, finding something for myself and my husband to eat, and perhaps, if I’m feeling rather industrious, cleaning up the house a bit so that the mess doesn’t swallow us.
Now these are all important tasks, to be sure, and the sweet smiles I receive in return are a heart-melting reward that I cherish deeply. But caring for children is not something that I personally have ever considered even close to the center of my gifting, so as I wash yet another load of spit-up-covered laundry or search for the pacifier for the umpteenth time in one day, I find myself confronting an emptiness. It’s the emptiness that emerges when exhaustion and the priority of my son’s care prevent me from living into the fullness of who I am as an individual and a minister. And as I confront this emptiness, I stumble into an important truth: as significant as my God-given gifts and desires and roles in life are, none of them is at the core of my identity.
It is true and important that I am a learner, a teacher, a pastor. It is true and important that I am a good wife, a good mother, a good friend. It is true and important that I love crafting words, creating meals, and cultivating beauty. These are all part of the charis and the calling that God has placed upon me. But what is most true and most important is that I am a beloved child of God. This is the unshakeable core of my existence and my identity. God loves me and has drawn me into a relationship that is not predicated upon . . . well anything, really.
We all need this reminder sometimes. It is far too easy to get caught in the trap of basing our meaning in our accomplishments, abilities, and distinctions—whether because we have them or because we crave them. Individuals do it. Congregations do it. Even whole denominations and the church at large can do it. These things are important, don’t get me wrong. But when the charis becomes the center, we have lost our way.
Christian, your identity is not found in what you accomplish or in how you measure up (or don’t) to any kind of self-imposed or others-imposed standard. It is not found in your ability to perform well at your job, your enviable talents (though I’m sure they are many), or even how well you embody the fruit of the Spirit. As much as you are called to and blessed by these kinds of things, they are not the center. On your best day and on your worst, your identity remains the same. You are a beloved child of God.
Congregation, your identity is not based on your denominational affiliation or the number of people filling your pews on a Sunday morning. It’s not in having an astute preacher of the Word, an incredibly transformative small groups program, the tastiest potlucks in town, or even solid doctrine and successful mission efforts. These things may be blessings from God and gifts you have developed in partnership with a God who intends you to steward them well and use them to proclaim good news. But on your best day and on your worst, your identity remains the same. You are the beloved family of God.
Church, your identity is not contingent upon your ability to be salt and light in the world, your faithfulness to the commands of God, or your capacity to extend God’s loving invitation to the ends of the earth. These (very important) things are products of knowing your identity and living into it fully. And I pray you do that well, in ways that honor and point to the God who has redeemed you and set you apart. But whether you do or not, as the often faithless Israelites can testify, unconditional love is just that—unconditional. So on your best day and on your worst, church, your identity remains the same. You are the beloved people of God.
It is only when we wholeheartedly recognize and live in these fundamental identities that all the rest finds its fullest significance. For while alone these other things are no more than mere trimmings (and often trimmings emanating from either vanity or fear), when flowing from the unassailable identity found in our relationship with God, they all matter in ways that the church and the world greatly need. Yes, the gifting and the calling matter; they are a God-given blessing and charge. The activities and accomplishments matter; they are a God-honoring use of time and effort and talent. The faithfulness matters. The good character matters. The distinctiveness matters. These are the very kinds of things that allow us to express the goodness of God in all its diversity and in all its unity. But always what must be at the core is that we are the beloved children, family, and people of God. And this identity, as I sometimes need reminding, is something that can never be lost among the laundry.