Our Fall 2015 sermon series considers the different I AM statements that Christ makes in the Gospel of John: I Am the I Am, the shepherd, the resurrection, the way, the true vine. In this process of gaining a better understanding of who Jesus proclaims himself to be, we journey together as a community in understanding who we are in light of our relationship with Jesus. This blog series continues this theme as it draws on the stories and identities of All Souls community.
I must admit that I am shamefully aware and consumed with labels. My brain usually works like the scene in the movie Mean Girls where Janice and Damian are explaining the entire lunchroom to Cady by identifying each clique: the jocks, the band nerds, etc. I enter rooms and place people into categories all the time. At best it helps me navigate new people and interact in a way that makes them feel comfortable. At worst, it makes me judgmental and narrow-minded. But don’t worry, the labels don’t stop with other people: I do the same thing for myself.
For the majority of my life, my predominant identifier was the ‘Christian one’. To this day at gatherings of family or friends, I am called upon to pray for dinner, because I am assumed to be ‘best at it’. One year for Easter my parents got plastic eggs that were decorated with themes: my brother’s eggs were sports themed and my sister’s were tie-dye. Mine were Easter themed. There were little lambs and crosses on my plastic eggs. And that was how I functioned for most of my growing up years. It was nice and comfortable. However, around my senior year of college, the label started to feel oppressive and cumbersome. It was not life giving and was stopping me from doing the things that allured me senior year. Namely getting drunk. I began to resent the label I felt forced to function within.
Unfortunately, I could not be honest with those around me because of my perceived role. My friends, if they knew, would worry and make me some sort of prayer request. I was still active in a high school outreach ministry called Young Life and the biggest on-campus ministry. On the outside I led and worshiped while I seethed on the inside.
One night, I was attending a worship bonfire on campus and could no longer pretend. Singing worship songs made me feel physically nauseous because I was so wildly angry. I removed myself from the circle of people and sat alone in the woods. There, I declared to the God I had followed all my life that I was done. I was over it all. Then I sat. I thought I would feel freedom from shedding this oppressive presence. Instead, I lasted about 45 seconds in my rebellious walk away before I felt like I was being ripped in two. Jesus is woven into the fibers of my being. Currently that feels lovely and honoring, but in the moment, I felt trapped and upset. However, at my core I knew that no matter how many four letter words I threw out, the Lord was not going anywhere.
I spent the rest of the year limping back to Jesus. I learned that in my pursuit of my Christian label, I had entirely missed the point. I was not celebrating the joys of grace or living in a loving relationship with God. So He taught me how. He gave me Scriptures and honest conversations with people who cared much more for me than my perceived role. He gave me worship through song and service and belly laughter. He reminded me of the identity I had all along. Through that year I learned that the great I AM defines who I am. No other label is as important or satisfying.
Sometimes I wish that was the end-all cure. That my brain could eliminate human categories and rest in the truth of the I AM. But in moments of stress or transition, I still find myself resting my identity in hollow things. I hardly wrestle with a Christian label anymore. But in the wake of disappointments, even in this week, I label myself with lies. I am Unimportant. I am Unhireable. I am Undatable. I am Average. I am too weird, too loud, and too self absorbed. I know better and I still do it.
But in the quiet, the same small voice that came to Elijah on the mountain top reminds me of truth. I AM defines who I am and that is the only label that matters. So I will fight tooth and nail to remember it. I will surround myself with people who remind me of it. And I will ask daily for the same God who waited patiently while I threw a temper tantrum in the woods to speak it to me. Daily. Hourly. Minute by minute. I will rest in grace when I forget and rejoice when I remember.