I've gradually grown more comfortable with the reality that my life is a series of awkward moments. Strikeouts, air balls, ill advised or poorly timed comments, and a particularly grim farm accident all pepper my past. I have a rather charming habit of calling people I've known for years by the wrong name. I spit a lot when I talk. My whole life it seems has been preparing me to go to parties, be introduced as a minister (particularly a youth minister) to someone who has already had too much to drink, and still be at peace with my identity regardless of his or her reaction to the news. Still I vividly recall one of the first times I was confronted with others' perceptions of me and my calling. About twelve years ago I found myself in a classroom in Arizona listening to a student present his graduate thesis on "spirituality." Innocently enough the presenter, who happened to be an ordained minister (no doubt a "liberal" ordained minister), posed the following question to those of us in the room: "When you think of church, what comes to mind?" We sat quietly for a few seconds. In my head possible answers began spinning; worship, grace, truth, the overpowering scent of women's perfume... Then several students raised their hands and began to give answers from a very different perspective; answers like confining, restrictive, and oppressive. Much to my dismay the presenter agreed with and affirmed these answers, extolling the virtues of the freedom of self-expression as opposed to conformity to the demands of established doctrine and theology. Afterward I left the room shaking my head.
My turn came a couple years later. Without getting into all the sordid details let's just say that mine was a very different thesis presentation from the one described above. In the midst of a secular audience (i.e. a normal audience) I attempted to extol the virtues of submission to a higher authority. In fact I proposed that striving to live in accordance with scriptural ideals was a worthy goal given the Bible's life-affirming principles. Not surprisingly my presentation was panned. My academic adviser attempted to place a "cease and desist" order on my thesis. Nonetheless I soldiered on and got the dumb thing published, but I left many people at that particular institution shaking their heads.
I learned a couple of things from that grad school experience. First, I probably should have just gone to seminary. Second, identifying ourselves as either liberal or conservative Christians isn't all that helpful. Speaking in very broad, stereotypical, generalizations (note how I'm admitting it!) "liberal" Christians identify themselves with freedom of self-expression, inclusiveness, and open-mindedness. "Conservative" Christians on the other hand identify with established boundaries, traditions, and doctrine. Funny thing...scripture doesn't call us to either of these alternatives. Rather we are called to find our identity "in Christ," as "a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), presumably a creation impossible to characterize simply as "liberal" or "conservative." I'm not even sure the minister who gave that presentation years ago actually knew Jesus as his savior, but rather than initiating any further discussion I simply left the room shaking my head. Likewise most of my audience dismissed me as hopelessly conservative rather than filled with hope in Christ.
In real life being identified with Christ should make one hard to categorize and even more difficult to write off. It means making decisions based upon a commitment to the timeless truth of God's word rather than personal preference or the prevailing societal winds. On the other hand being identified as "in Christ" is where a person is most free. There is freedom from the worry, doubt, fear of failure, and guilt that plagues us most of the time, not to mention the freedom to be exceedingly gracious, generous, and even nonconformist.
The question then is how this identity works itself out practically speaking, without falling off into one tired category or the other. As a "new creation" in Christ does the believer simply become the victim of a perpetually awkward moment, or is this individual equipped to bring hope to a world "subjected to futility" (Rom. 8:20)? Over the next few weeks I'll explore some issues that create challenges for Christians in the real world. Better yet we can look at issues that create challenges for the real world in relation to Christians. Perhaps in Christ we will be able to rise above our awkward, unhelpful, and sometimes downright silly labels for one another and instead aspire toward something greater: recognizing our identity in Christ.