Identifying Identity

Understanding Identity
“Who am I” is a question as pervasive as “What is the meaning of life?” As a “PK” (for the uninitiated, that stands for “Preacher’s Kid”)
I was well acquainted with scripture, and with the appropriate sunday-school answers. I was taught that our identity is found in Christ, (2 Cor 5:17, Gal 2:20) that our identity was not defined by sins that we had committed (1 Cor 6:10-11), but by Christ’s redemptive work (Col 3:1-4). But as I pointed out in my previous post, I haven’t always been successful at appropriating what I was taught. The truth of how a “new identity in Christ” practically played out seemed to elude me. If I have had some difficulty understanding the concept, perhaps I am not alone.

Identity is a powerful thing. One small word can shape our whole experience of life. The specific choice to adopt any single attribute as a defining characteristic necessarily creates a bottleneck through which the whole of our experiences must pass. Even further, as every word has a context and stereotype that is broader than any individual’s experience, one might find themselves expanding their own experience to fit the context of their adopted label.

Let me provide an example from my childhood. I was a member of a boy scout troop. Not only that, but I chose to identify myself as a “scout” and was quite proud of my involvement. I donned the uniform, and found that I behaved differently when wearing it. In my mind there was an archetypal “scout” to which I must conform. There was a constantly running evaluation in my head. There was a certain poise, a certain professionalism, a certain confidence, and a certain competence that “a scout” possessed, and since I was a scout, I must measure up. In this way, an identity not only names some part of who we are, but also shapes who we will be.

Sex Sells
The power of “identity” to shape our own conception of ourselves works in both positive and negative ways. This is illustrated quite powerfully by our culture’s obsession with sexuality. Marketers use sexuality to sell candy bars and toothpaste. Sexually explicit imagery and innuendo permeates our entertainment and media. Western culture has become saturated by sex and, to a large degree, the Christian community has not done a good job addressing the pervasive sexuality of our culture. As culture has repeated the message “sex sells,” many Christian teachers have only responded “don’t buy.” While my pastors and teachers attempted to encourage abstinence in positive ways, the message that I received was that “if you succumb to sexual temptation, you are no longer pure; and with sexual sins, unlike other run-of-the-mill sins, you can’t really reclaim your purity.” This is a horrendous message under normal circumstances, but it is exceptionally damaging when one only hears it after that standard has already been broken (as in my case). While I will attest that you cannot really regain innocence, I must insist that by the Grace of God, purity is something that can be reclaimed.

I remember a specific time in my childhood when I consciously chose to accept an identifying label. It wasn’t a label I particularly wanted, but I was unable to argue with the logic my own mind presented to me. I saw this label as inevitable and so I reluctantly embraced it. As a result, I no longer fought my temptations or sought help to overcome them. I adopted an identity that spiraled into an emotionally detached yet promiscuous sexuality. I argued internally that as long as I didn’t “go all the way” there was still some hope for me. But I also knew that “who I was” was not fit for public consumption, and so I created a palatable façade to obscure from public view what I perceived to be the “truth” of my identity. Those dual identities were shattered when my perceived “true identity” was a secret I could no longer keep. At the ripe old age of 17, I became a father to a little girl. Though she was adopted in her infancy, her birth heralded the inevitable extinction of my secrets.

Interestingly, my journey to authentic identity was shaped by virtuous men who at some point in their life had experienced unchosen same-sex attractions. Even though their specific temptations were foreign to me, their struggle with identity was very familiar. Through my interactions and conversations with Dennis, Jim, Bill, and T.W., I came to see that it was possible to be defined by something other than one’s unchosen sexual attractions. They walked in virtue as an act of their will. They chose a title, a single word, a specific aspect of themselves as an identity and allowed that chosen identity, and not their unchosen attractions, to expand and direct their lives. These men all chose to be identified by their faith in Christ. While they were certainly not the first men in my life who claimed identity in Christ, they stood out to me because they lived in opposition to the cultural expectation. These four men each experienced same-sex attraction, some on an ongoing basis, but they were happily married. They were husbands and fathers because they chose to be. Some have said that they are lying to themselves or denying the truth of who they are, but I disagree. They have simply chosen what aspect of their lives they will allow to define them.

The Problem With Sexual Identity
Recently I watched a documentary called (a)sexual, about a percentage of the population who experience no sexual attraction at all. It spoke volumes about the pervasiveness of sexuality in our culture. It has become an expectation in our culture that one define oneself by one’s unchosen sexual attraction, to the extent that this subset of our population feels compelled to define themselves by the absence of sexual attraction. Rather than forming an identity from some part of their personality or ability (artist, scientist, comedian, athlete, musician, et al.), these men and women have decided to define themselves by a negation. They define themselves primarily by what they do not experience – sexual attraction. To complicate matters further, because these men and women’s experience of sexuality didn’t fit into the culturally accepted norms, they felt the need to associate themselves with the LGBTQ movement in order to find acceptance (though that community is reticent to accept them as well). Maybe, just maybe, that’s an indicator that our culture is entirely too fixated on sexuality.

Earlier this month, I came across an lengthy article on First Things called “Against Heterosexuality.” If you don’t click any other link in this post, click this one. In the article, Michael Hannon examines the surprisingly recent history and the danger of “sexual identity.” I invite you to read it, to examine your self in light of it, and to join me in utterly shunning the concept of sexual identity, both in defining ourselves, and in our evaluation of others.

Finding Authentic Identity
A friend of mine is on the front lines of reorienting society toward finding authentic identity. Andrew is a man who, though he experiences unchosen same sex attractions, specifically chooses to be defined by his pursuit of virtue. He is member of Courage and is a regular contributor to pursuitoftruth.ca. His articles do not disregard the power of sexuality, but rather examine that power in comparison with the power of authentic identity. If you, or those you know and love, have chosen an identity based on sexual attraction, I encourage you to read through Andrew’s insightful articles.

I contend that one’s identity cannot be found in an experience as narrow as sexuality, nor can it found in one’s choices or proclivities or failings. While we can be shaped by our actions, our identity can never completely be encompassed by them. I firmly believe that our identity is rooted in the inherent and incomparable dignity we possess by being created in the image of God. One’s identity is found in God whether one is aware of it or not. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

I confess

I Have To Make A Confession

A Syllabus
Nearly two years ago, a social-media acquaintance of mine asked me to explain the Sacrament of Confession. I thought long and hard about what to say, and how to phrase it so that it would make sense to Protestant ears. Eventually, I decided on a logical path I could take that would explain the reason that Catholic theology requires the Sacrament of Confession.

This was the introduction to part 1:

As I began to formulate this answer, I realized that it would not be short or simple. Imagine going to a box of Christmas lights and attempting to retrieve only one. Most often, you end up with all the wires in the box coming out as one big ball. In order to retrieve just the one, you have to sit there and focus on the winding path of the one you want, paying attention to all the places where it intersects with the others. The doctrine of the sacrament of Confession is not all that difficult. I could answer it in a few short scriptures and be done with it. But, those scriptures a Catholic uses to support confession are not interpreted the same way by Protestants. And so in order to give an answer for why Catholics confess our sins to a priest, we must first address the nature of sin, the nature of sacrament, and the validity of the priesthood, and all of these concepts hinge on the way Catholics view Scripture.

I practically put together a syllabus for a semester-long lecture series. Ultimately, I became too daunted by the amount of material I couldn’t articulate, and I gave up.

Tonight, As I stood in line for confession, I realized that I had tried to give a lecture instead of an answer. So tonight, let me attempt to give the answer that I should have given two years ago.

“Why do Catholics go to confession?”
I’m glad you asked! I can’t speak for all my fellow Catholics, but I can tell you why I go to confession. I go to Confession because so many times I choose to do wrong and fail to do right. I go to Confession because, when faced with the choice, to often I choose my familiar sin over my Father God. Every time I sin, I damage my relationship with Him. Every time, I choose to distance myself from His grace in order to draw nearer to my own sins that so easily entangle. I go to Confession because I need to be reconciled again to God, to be forgiven by His never-ending mercies, and to draw near again to His grace.

Now, there aren’t many Christians who would disagree with my assessment of myself, but quite a few would disagree with the act of Confessing to a priest. Some (maybe even you) say that no man can forgive me, that only God can forgive. I could respond that in Mark 2:10, when Jesus forgave the paralytic, He also healed him in order “that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” I could quote James 5:16 which emphasizes the necessity of confessing our sins to one another. I could also point to 1 John 1:9 which says “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” and make note that John did not use the word “acknowledge,” but rather used a word that included a verbal component – “confess.” I could even point to the institution of the sacrament in John 20:23, when Jesus said to His Apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But depending on your hermeneutic, you may not accept my interpretation of those scriptures. So what is an adequate answer?

My Story
I grew up in a faith tradition which taught that there was no sin so great that God could not forgive it. Not only that, but that He never tired of forgiving. He would forgive and forget. He wouldn’t even remember what it was that you had done after you had sought forgiveness. I was taught that forgiveness was only a repentant thought away. Most of this I believe today; but I did not believe it then.

Several years ago, when I was still on my journey to healing and forgiveness I started to write a song. I never did finish it because I couldn’t figure out how to say what I needed to say without sounding trite or triumphalist, but it started out like this:

I’ve said, and done, and been
A lot of evil in my days
And I’ve never been the poster child for innocence.
As I look at my life I find
a lot of wounding in my wake
And I’ve nothing I can say to you in my defense.

The song went on to say how God had worked redemption in me. But regardless of how many times I sang about that redemption, or declared it, or repeated it to myself, I didn’t believe it. My past was a continual weapon that the enemy of my soul used against me. I intellectually knew that my theology said I was forgiven completely, but I still felt the stain of my sin; I still felt separated from God. There were moments when I would have a profound encounter with God, and know fully that God loved me and had forgiven me of my sins, but eventually the shame and guilt would return. It didn’t matter how many times I looked in the mirror and told myself that the remaining guilt was a lie from the devil, the guilt remained.

My sin was dark enough that I didn’t feel comfortable telling a youth director or pastor or accountability partner. Part of this likely stems from the fact that I’m a pastor’s kid. Part of it stems from the fact that when one of my darkest sins came to light, it was the pastors (who were supposed to keep things in confidence) who gossiped and shared that information with their fellow pastors. So while no laity knew about it, every pastor for hundreds of miles knew, which doesn’t do a lot to build up trust.

As a side note, it is a comfort to know that if a priest even acknowledges that I confessed to him (even if he doesn’t mention WHAT was confessed) he is automatically excommunicated. There is an inviolable seal of confession that protects the Penitent.

As my conversion was imminent, I felt absolutely compelled to go to Confession. My priest was very kind, and likely bent the rules a little by allowing me to go to confession before we were sure of my confirmation date. He listened for nearly an hour as I recounted each sin (at times tearfully) that I had committed since my baptism. Then he said these words — these words that have brought me such comfort time and again:

God the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.

As he said those final words, I felt a wave of warmth roll over me that I had only ever experienced in times of deep prayer, praise, and worship in the Charismatic services of my youth. I recall being so overcome with those words that I broke down into tears of relief. From that day to this I have never doubted my forgiveness. I have never again been tempted to despair by my past.

When God needed to make a way for us, He took on flesh, became incarnate, and bought our freedom. He knew that we are both Spirit and Body, and that we need more than intangible assurances. Because of this He gave us material conduits by which we can receive His abundant grace! It is God who forgives us through the work of Christ, but He grants us that forgiveness in a tangible way through the priests who act on behalf of the Bishops who are the successors to His own Apostles.

Through the sacrament of confession, I have found an assurance of pardon that I never experienced in all my days of “going directly to God.” To me, confessing to a priest isn’t a hoop to jump through in order to be forgiven, it is a powerful grace that solidifies in my soul the forgiveness that God freely gives.

I go to confession as a prodigal son, humbled and weary, needing to reconnect with my Father God. I go to confession because I know that God will meet me there.


The Dying of the Light

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams. He is, in one sense, merely the latest in a string of tortured entertainers who eventually were overcome by their inner demons. I don’t plan on having a tearful “we’ll miss you Robin” Marathon of his movies. And while I do feel a sense of sadness, it is not for the loss of his art, but for the loss of his humanity.

I wasn’t going to comment on the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams, because I didn’t know him, I feel no connection to him, and I honestly didn’t see how it would do any good.

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams…until…

…Until some popular commenter decided to put his [ignorant and/or poorly articulated] thoughts online. This popular commenter intoned in his article that, because he has experienced some depression in his life and has overcome it, that he can speak to the hows, whats, whens, and whys of Robin’s depression. Since there are apparently still some very uninformed opinions about depression out there, I feel the need to weigh in.

What follows is not an approval of Suicide, but rather an appeal for compassion. The Catechism, in speaking of the sanctity of life, has this to say about Suicide:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

I agree with that unnamed commenter, that there is an aspect of the will involved in the act of suicide. I also agree that we shouldn’t speak of suicide in a way that makes light of it or causes others with depressive tendencies to believe that they are justified in desiring it. However, (and this is the place I diverge from the commenter), the catechism goes on to say:

2282 (cont.) Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

When I was in Seminary, I was diagnosed with Dysthymia, which Mayoclinic.org describes as “a mild but long-term (chronic) form of depression. Symptoms usually last for at least two years, and often for much longer than that. Dysthymia interferes with your ability to function and enjoy life. With dysthymia, you may lose interest in normal daily activities, feel hopeless, lack productivity, and have low self-esteem and an overall feeling of inadequacy. People with dysthymia are often thought of as being overly critical, constantly complaining and incapable of having fun.

As I look back, I can now pinpoint when I first began to deal with it, a full two years prior to my diagnosis. Thankfully, with the help of a counselor, I was able to dig out from under the sedimentary layers that had buried me in this “mild” form of depression that had caused me to sleep through my senior year of college, and avoid any relational connections. I would tell myself that I was just sad, and I needed to exert my will and just “do” things that would make me feel better. But it didn’t work that way. I had to unravel a tangled mess of causal events, and I couldn’t do it on my own.

And here we come face to face with society’s biggest problem surrounding depression — it is a problem of words. If you have a bad day, you might tell your friend that you’re feeling depressed. Then, in the same conversation, I might join in and say that I’ve been depressed too. Lastly, a fellow like Robin Williams may (if he has the energy to do so) say that he too has experienced depression. But the blues and Dysthymia and Major Depressive Disorder are not three points on a single scale, they are not three different degrees of the same emotion, they are not three breeds of a single animal, they are three different species altogether. A person who has a bad day cannot ever understand the helplessness and listlessness of Dysthymia. Similarly, someone like myself can never fathom the complete and utter hopelessness of someone with Major Depressive Disorder. My experience was brought on by deep and abiding emotional pain that had to be worked through, but there were no chemicals involved. I didn’t have to take medicine to correct an imbalance. I simply cannot expect to understand the motivations and actions of a person who is chemically unbalanced.

Now, I’ve heard some folks (including our commenter from above) who intone that “Chemical Imbalance” is a cop-out of some kind. I’m thinking that these people have never visited a hospital or needed their wisdom teeth extracted. A quick youtube search for “wisdom teeth” will show you how powerfully effective chemicals can be at breaking down our will and our inhibitions. If you’ve ever had to care for someone just out of general anesthesia, you are well aware of this fact. While I do not disagree that there are factors beyond the chemical imbalance that contribute to the depression, it is naive to expect a person to simply exercise their will to escape from the depression.

Another powerful truth is that every person responds to chemicals in slightly different ways. What may be nothing to one person could be fatal to another. Therefore, it is especially important for those of us who do not experience deep depression that we avoid generalizations. We would be foolish to say “Robin Williams made the choice to commit suicide,” since we do not know how his body reacted to the chemical imbalance he faced. We know neither how crushing his depression was, nor how fully the chemical imbalance compromised his will. I think that we would be equally foolish to say, “People who experience deep depression are at the mercy of their disease, and have no hope of anything better.” The first foolish statement speaks without intimate knowledge of the situation, the second speaks in a generalization that doesn’t take into account the many different ways that people respond to chemical imbalances. The first dooms Robin, the second dooms those who share his affliction.

So what can be said without crossing into either ignorance or naïveté? Be aware that everyone is fighting a difficult battle. Act in charity toward all. Be kind. Be aware of those around you. Pay attention to their needs. Recognize if they persist in sadness, and attempt to draw them out. If they won’t come out, get them help. And lastly, remember that you don’t have to understand them, you probably never will, just be with them.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
–Dylan Thomas

Seven Fathers of the Church above the South Porch of Lichfield Cathedral: Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Right Where We Are Wrong

Right Where I Was Right
My Conversion to Catholicism brought with it many shifts that I did not expect. I was confirmed in the Catholic Church on May 21st, 2011 because I had become convinced that She was right. I fit with the theology of the Catholic Church more fully than I ever did anywhere else. I came to believe not only that She was right, but that every other expression of Christianity was incomplete. I say this not to cause conflict, but only to say that if I had found another home that I thought would have sufficed, I would not have become Catholic.

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Through the Roof.

And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.” Mark 2:3,4

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2

One week ago, I aired my inner struggles concerning a particular family difficulty in a very public place. It was nerve wracking. On the one hand it felt like a failure, because it felt as though I were not trusting that God would take care of my needs. On the other hand, I knew that God provides through people. In the last week through the generosity of friends (and a few friends of friends) and our parish family not only have our immediate needs been met, but likely the all the needs we will have during the reconstruction.

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Job and his Friends

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…

…perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. – 2 Cor 4:8-11

If you’ve been following us on facebook over the course of the last month, you have witnessed a small demonstration of the above verse. Since Mother’s Day we have had a house flood, our car has been vandalized, and our children, filled to the brim with cabin fever from living in a hotel suite, have incurred various injuries from rough play in confined spaces – the latest of which required emergency oral surgery and the removal of our oldest son’s two front teeth. Kristin and I have done our best to keep everyone in good spirits, but we are feeling afflicted in every way and perplexed, and struck down.

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Noah: Deluge-onal or Buoy Genius?

I’ve just returned from watching Darron Aronofsky’s adaptation of Noah, and I’ve got a lot to say. I ask your pardon, in the middle of this review, my wife gave birth to a beautiful son, so this was written quickly in two separate sessions. If I have a few disjointed thoughts, I blame in on first night of sleep with a new baby.

On to the review!

Spoiler #1 There’s a big flood that covers the Earth.
Spoiler #2 When it’s over, only Noah’s family survives.
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Understanding the Sacrament of Confession: Part I – Scripture

Someone recently asked me why Catholics go to Confession. Honestly, this is a blog post I’ve been putting off for a while, but it is a question that deserves an answer. As always, when my answers touch on Catholic doctrine, I offer this *Quick Disclaimer.* I answer the following questions according to my current understanding. I cannot claim beyond a shadow of doubt that my answers are totally without error. I reserve the right to edit the answer at anytime. Thanks for your understanding.

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Praying to the Saints

*Quick Disclaimer* I answer the following questions according to my current understanding. I cannot claim beyond a shadow of doubt that my answers are totally without error. I reserve the right to edit the answer at anytime. Thanks for your understanding.

What’s the deal with praying to the saints?
Why wouldn’t I just pray directly to Jesus?
Isn’t it sinful communicating with the dead?

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Jesus Vs. Religion: Aggregate Me!

Recently, the internet has blown up with this video: In his poem his accurately identifies the dangers of religious practice without the life-changing relationship to support it. However, in this poem, he attributes that evil to the generic term “Religion” creating quite a stir.

After the jump you’ll find the original video and several rebuttals from different denominational perspectives.

Jeff Bethke, Poet, acknowledges the criticism, and agrees with it. Humbly accepts correction.

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40 Days for Life

Friday I went out to Pray at the Garden of Hope across from “Reproductive Services” at 32nd pl near Sheridan in Tulsa. I was amazed at how many cars arrived or left during the 45 minutes I was there. I spent time praying for the women who feel like they have no choice but to abort, praying for the souls of the infants, praying that the Holy Spirit would intervene and bring them out safely. Continue reading