Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lost & Found: My identity as His Beloved

I bet I have at least 20 different messages/lessons on the topic of Christian identity hidden away in my files from my years of being a youth director. It's a topic I covered every single year with my middle and high school students - and not just with one lesson, but several, sometimes an entire month. Adolescents are asking the big questions of 'Who am I?' 'Where do I belong' and 'Do I matter'. It is a season of life many of us have no desire to revisit. We know how difficult it is to be searching for answers to these questions in a world that can be harsh, unforgiving and unrelenting. I longed for my students to have a Biblical framework in which they could start making sense of these things, as well as a safe place to explore their beliefs, doubts, gifts, passions, failures and faith.

When we moved here in July of 2013, I was 33 years old. I was certainly not an adolescent but slightly on the young side to be having a mid-life crisis, but in a sense, that's how I felt. I had gone from full time church ministry to missionary. It might not seem like that big of a switch. Except it was.

From the age of 21, when I graduated college, I had been involved in full time ministry. I participated in Mission year straight out of college in Oakland, California. From there, I took my first youth ministry job which I was at for five years. I then moved to my second church as the youth pastor for another six years. Student ministry in the context of a church had been my entire post-college, professional life so far.

I went from being a well-known and respected leader in the church to a newbie missionary who had no idea what culture and language I had just entered into. I went from having regular child care lined up so that I could work to not feeling comfortable leaving my kids with anyone for months and months. I went from having long-term relationships with students who called me 'Mama-G', 'G-money', 'mom' and friend to students calling me Mrs. Driesenga. I went from being in charge of planning and leading weekly youth group, teaching, preparing lessons, Sunday school, retreats, trips, bible studies and more to not really having anything regular on my weekly schedule (at least at first!). I went from feeling fulfilled and satisfied as I was able to use my gifts to questioning what my gifts were and how I could use them in this new context. I went from a regular salary and benefits to lousy benefits, self-employment taxes and a 'salary' I had to raise (which wasn't going all to well).  I went from a strong community and network of friends, family and co-leaders to a missionary/expat community that, to be honest, can be a bit challenging to break into as a newbie. I went from feeling confident that God was using me to questioning why I was even here in Tanzania.

You can see where this is going, right? I found my self, at age 33, asking the classic adolescent questions of 'Who am I?','Where do I belong?' and 'Do I matter?'.

Throughout my years of ministry, my identity had slowly became enmeshed with my work. I was Gretchen, The Youth Pastor. Coming to Tanzania without that identity caused me to panic slightly. Our first year here, I frantically tried to find places to plug in - I had 40+ kids come play in our yard every week, I taught 8th grade Bible for a term, I co-coached primary swimming for the year, I started taking Swahili classes, I joined the worship team & ended up a worship leader, I joined a Bible Study, I went to a weekly prayer meeting...looking back I see that I was desperately trying to 'do' something, because in that, I thought I would find my identity. There was the added layer of complexity that now we were raising our funds, so I felt a pressure to produce something tangible that was worthy of the financial sacrifices of my friends and family.

In the midst of feeling fragile, lost and frustrated, God graciously revealed His stunning truth to me once more: I didn't need to 'do' anything to be his beloved, I simply was. He gently reminded me of His great love and His unending grace, which I am still trying to comprehend and wholeheartedly believe.

Before entering into our second year in Tanzania, I felt very strongly that God was asking me to limit myself to three things: family, worship and Swahili. I vowed to say 'no' to anything that didn't fall into one of those categories. I was asked to things that year that were good, yet I said no. It was challenging. I feared letting people down, or not proving my worth to supporters. I wondered if people would understand. The Lord patiently used that time to untangle my mess of an identity and draw me closer to Him. In saying 'no' to doing a lot of things, I was saying 'yes' to just being.

I'm still learning what it means to be a beloved child of God. I struggle yet with fully living in God's grace for me. There are days when I just don't buy it, days where I find myself foolishly trying to earn points with God because I fear my depravity is too much. There are other days when my pride gets in the way and I waver into thinking I've somehow earned my "beloved" status because of my "good works". As the Heidelberg Catechism so articulately states, however, "even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin." (Q&A 62 - see below)

There are a lot of labels I can and do wear on a daily basis: wife, mom, worship leader, student, missionary, fund-raiser, friend, daughter...but my true identity, the thing that defines me above anything else is this: I am Beloved By God. I might be a slow learner and need constant reminders of this fact, but I follow a Savior who is incredibly patient with me as He shapes me more into His likeness.

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us,
that we should be called children of God!
And that is what we are!"
1 John 3:1

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -
it is by grace you have been saved.
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him
in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
in order that in the coming ages he might show
the incomparable riches of his grace,
expressed in his kindness to use in Christ Jesus.
For it is by grace you have been saved,
through faith - and this is not from yourselves,
is it the gift of God -
not by works,
so that no one can boast.
For we are God's handiwork,
created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which God prepared in advance for us to do."
Ephesians 2:4-10

Heidelberg Catechism Question & Answer 62 & 63


But why can our good works not be
our righteousness before God,
or at least a part of it?

Because the righteousness
which can stand before God's judgment
must be absolutely perfect
and in complete agreement
with the law of God, 1
whereas even our best works in this life
are all imperfect and defiled with sin. 2

But do our good works earn nothing,
even though God promises to reward them
in this life and the next? 1

This reward is not earned;
it is a gift of grace. 2

"He's asking us, 
'Will you take what you think defines you, 
leave it behind, 
and let Me define who you are instead?'

The cool thing about taking Jesus up on His offer is that whatever controls you doesn't anymore. People who used to be obsessed about becoming famous no longer care whether anybody knows their name. People who used to want power are willing to serve. People who used to chase money freely give it away. People who used to beg others for acceptance are now strong enough to give love. 

When we get our security from Christ, we no longer have to look for it in the world, and that's a pretty good trade." 

- Bob Goff, Love Does

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