Relevance, Popularity Power – what more could you want?

I recall chatting with someone about what they did for a living. It was all very interesting but I still recall wincing inside as they went on to say; “Well, you see, at the end of the day it`s who I AM”.

Perhaps, like me you will be aware of the difficult place that person was in, identifying themselves so closely with their job; and one just thinks ahead to the transition to retirement and how they will cope when the task simply isn`t there anymore. But this illustrates for me something which I sense a lot of people are wrestling with these days…. I`m talking about the issue of identity.

It`s there, as I`ve often pointed out in the title of that TV programme about what I call ancestry worship: “Who do you think you are?”. It`s there in the debates about nationality, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the frankly wearisome controversies about sexual orientation. We know these kind of things can matter deeply to some people but it`s all given a particular edge when, as I say these aspects of life are where people making a pitch for their identity; they say “This is who I am”. Really….?

Like the `celebrity` who gets caught out believing too closely in their own press cuttings the German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected from his Nazi prison cell on the challenges of personal identity. He wrote a long poem in which he sifted through the various things people said about him…. really not knowing how much of it to believe. He wrote about the inner turmoil he felt about not living up to peoples` image of him and he concluded with the memorable line… “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!` In other words, he found his sense of who he was in God.

And so what Bonhoeffer gives us is an invitation to see all the labels we cling to or acquire as subsidiary to this far more significant notion that in the end what matters is who God says we are. This is one of the things which is going on when we renew our Baptism Vows on Easter day. All of these other definitions, descriptions and identities we may desire or acquire or cling to are given their proper perspective when placed alongside that of “You are my son, you are my daughter- the beloved”. And what`s true of us individually is also true of us as a Church. In one of the Eucharistic Prayers we use during Lent there is, as I am fond of saying a most helpful little phrase. It describes Lent as a time in when we quote: “Learn to be (God`s) people once again”. These few words invite us to see Lent as a time in which we recognise that far too often and in too many ways we betray our identity as the People of God. We have become adept at giving ourselves different and shall we say, `lesser` identities.

Now the place to explore this particular Temptation of course is there in our Gospel Reading where the repeated refrain used in that dialogue between Christ and the Devil is indeed all about identity: “IF you are the Son of God….” And as a kind of short-hand I want to suggest that these Temptations are about three things…. Relevance (make some bread to eat- do something useful); Popularity (do something attractive and crowd pleasing); and Power (be seen to be in control).

Now Christ knows that his sense of who he is, is `given` irrespective of whether he complies with any expectations placed upon him. But here in this passage he wrestles with the very ways in which we as a Church compromise our identity as the People of God. Relevance, Popularity and Power are three things our society covets and they are three things we seem able to pursue with consummate ease.

So for example, we want to be seen to be doing something useful and productive in the world`s terms don`t we? And as I`m always saying; the culture of getting, achieving and experiencing has so coloured our understanding and expectation of worship that its focus has turned away from God onto us. In some places we shape and go on to market our common life in terms which promise to meet the desires and expectations of those we may as well call our `customers`; or `clients`. This, as I say is a betrayal of our identity and a long way from anything resembling a call them to conversion of life. Many years ago the writer Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: “The Medium is the Message”. And this describes very clearly how buying into the mores of our culture has re-shaped and re-framed the content of what we offer.

Relevance, Popularity and then……Power – and how threatened we are (as the Church of England) that our place at the top table is under question these days when for generations, if we are honest, we have all too often again betrayed our identity as the People of God, been arrogant and unprincipled in our all too cosy relationship with power. And what`s true of the Church of course is also true of its leadership. Now, I hesitate to use that word `leadership`- because it has become such a fetish these days but more importantly that word betrays and does violence to the identity of the Christian minister because it so often results in a capitulation to the Temptations of Relevance, Popularity and Power.

We know how it works in the world of business and politics. So called leaders fall for `Relevance` in becoming obsessed with statistics and targets. Popularity leaves them defensively cultivating their image and fearful of admitting mistakes and Power is the invitation to the Messiah complex; of being a real mover and shaker.

And this is now mirrored in the content of the Clergy job adverts in the Church Times. How anyone with any sense of proportion or sanity has the nerve to apply for posts where people are asking for a combination of Superman and the Archangel Gabriel is beyond me. But of course we`ve simply jumped on the world`s bandwagon that deifies the leader. We can`t quite match the obscene and absurd salaries but we do load them down with impossible expectations, because we belong to a Church that doesn’t really believe in God. When we feel insecure we act like anyone else; we become desperate for someone who will turn things around; bring salvation and all the rest… and it`s a fantasy. The `great leader` is forced into a denial of their humanity: their true identity.

And what`s true of the Church and its leadership is true of us as well. It`s we who need to spend this Lenten season recognising and addressing the multitude of ways in which we deny our identity by the choices we make and the attachments we form.

`Relevance` for Christ was about his physical hunger and so we could reflect on the proper place of the physical and indeed the sensual in our life. Now, it might be that we want to turn Lent into an opportunity to lose a few pounds; that might be a useful enough exercise but I have to say that actually misses the point. Because it does nothing to address the ways we identify with and (here`s the point) how we find our security and identity in the physical: the things we possess or consume. Again despite Christ telling us, “Woe to you when all speak well of you” it is remarkable how Popularity or shall we say the opinion of others is such a significant thing for us. Where do we continue to give way for the sake of an easy life, I wonder? And the Temptation to Power invites us to ask how we face the challenges of not being in control of our circumstances or destiny as the years go by. And on a more intimate level – exactly what are the tactics we use for getting our own way with our nearest and dearest? What do they say about our sense of who we think we are?

It`s curious to me that when someone behaves in a perhaps startling way we don`t say, “Why did you do that?” More often than not we`ll say, “Who do you think you are?” And I think this is because our actions – the shape our life takes in the world -are an illustration of who we believe ourselves to be and I`m suggesting that for much of the time, many us live out of what we might call `lesser` identities.

The indication that we have capitulated is usually seen in these areas where Christ himself was tempted: Relevance, Popularity and Power; in how we relate to the physical and sensual; in our relationships with others and how we deal with our often vulnerable humanity; our created-ness. In our baptism we are given our name. This is no accident: Baptism is about our true identity as one of the People of God. May the Lord give us the grace to rigorously set aside those habits of life, heart and mind which are a denial of his goodness at work within us.


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