It was a Saturday night in the summer term of 1996. I was attending the University Christian Union Bible Reading where David MacInnes, then rector of St.Aldate’s Church, was speaking on Ephesians 1. He referred to Paul’s great description of the Christian’s identity- we are those who are “in Christ”. David then made an application that was pretty unusual in the 1990s. He mentioned how a leading officer in the Metropolitan Police had recently come out as gay. He noted that this was a brave thing for him to have done but then made this comment- “Some of you here may well have the same experience. I want you to know that your chief identity is in Christ.” Scarcely anybody else knew at the time but I was attracted to other men- and so David’s words came straight at me with all the authority of the Lord. Much of what I have done since flowed from that evening. My experience of same sex attraction continues but, at my best, I know it is not my chief identity. I am somebody in Christ who wrestles with sexuality struggles. And- I suspect that evening is also why I’ve spent a fair chunk of time teaching anybody who will listen about Union with Christ.
November 2019 saw me have a mini-meltdown. It was mini- it didn’t need any medical input and I am happy to write about it now because the symptoms have passed. But I had a few weeks where I didn’t sleep much, a tearful conversation with colleagues about whether I could keep doing my job and a couple of weeks of a slightly reduced diary, about which the church was very gracious. What caused it? I suspect some of the ongoing struggles mentioned above played their part. But I suspect the chief cause was some of the challenges that we faced as a church in the autumn (that I referred to in a couple of sermons- here and here.) After a few years where numbers, finances, leaders and baptisms had gone consistently up we faced a few months where they all went down. Alongside that a large number of individuals within the church faced painful challenges. The phrase I used with friends was “It keeps raining all the time.” I felt responsible and yet there was also a sense that there was nothing I could do about it.
I am conscious that these two paragraphs are quite self-revelatory. That makes me feel mildly awkward as does the awareness that it was only a mini-meltdown and what I am about to write isn’t intended to be a trite response to those facing deeper and more long-term challenges. But the last few months have been a useful learning experience and I wanted to write that up in a couple of blogs. Here are two initial reflections:
The identity question is multi-layered
Partly because of the sexuality question, the identity issue is one that I’ve reflected on a fair amount. What defines the essence of who I am? What forms the core of me- such that if it were removed I would be bereft? I suspect what I hadn’t realised until the autumn was that sexuality was not the only (or even the main?) rival to an identity formed in Christ. I enjoyed thinking of myself as “successful pastor of growing church.” And suddenly when that began to change (albeit slightly- we are not a failing church!) I found it hard to face.
The fact that we have multi-layered identities isn’t a huge shock. I asked a friend recently who said that he had at least ten ways of defining himself. But I suspect we can be slow to think through the impact that has on us and others emotionally. Our chief identity will determine thoughts, priorities and our reactions to circumstances. That is at its most slippery when the potential identity is good. After all it is not bad being a pastor. I’ve seen difficulties for others in caring professions where the chief essence of who they are is the person who deals with other people’s problems- burnout is a fairly inevitable result. Or consider a parent who only has Christ at the back of their mind. That is a recipe for anxiety when the child is young and then conflict when the child heads towards independence and the parent can’t let go. For all these reasons it is worth reflecting on the identity question- which leads on to the second lesson.
Identity in Christ needs constant vigilance
Far more times than I care to imagine I have taught union with Christ and said this- “The question the Christian asks each morning is ‘What are Jesus and I going to do together today?’ because we are not going to do it apart.” That is the glorious consequence of union with Christ- I am in Him and He is is me. And yet, truth be told, that wasn’t the question I was asking very much in the autumn.
The objective reality that we are joined to Jesus never changes. But our experience frequently does. What do we do with that? Colossians 3 is hugely helpful in this regard. Paul describes the Christian as one who is “hidden with Christ in God.” We are joined to Jesus and so to God. But the word “hidden” is key. This is an invisible reality. I am as close to Jesus as I could possibly be but I can’t see that yet. One day I will- it is why Paul goes on to say that when Christ appears we will appear with Him. Our hidden identity as one who is with Jesus will be revealed for all to see.
For the moment, though, this is a truth I cannot see. And that requires me to take action or else I will lose sight of it. In particular, I need to set my heart on mind on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. So day by day I am going to need to fill my heart with these thoughts- “Lord Jesus, I praise you that today I am hidden with you. I am joined to the best, most wise, most loving person who ever lived. You are in me and spiritually I am raised up with you. And because I am joined to you I am joined to God. In this relationship I have fullness- I am secure, loved and forgiven. Thank you. From this wonderful place of security, help me to live as parent/pastor/employee. Help me to fight off sin and put to death whatever belongs to my earthly nature…”
I am hugely grateful for that Saturday evening over 23 years ago now. But I am reminded that such lessons are never a one off: they need to be constantly re-learnt. Again and again I need to tell myself that the essence of who I am is that I am in Christ.