Some more questions around Identity

Thanks for all your feedback, phone calls and comments from a wide range of folk about my last blog post here. It appears our setting on this island resonates with many places in the world. I want to quickly respond to a few common questions that many asked, as a means by which to generate further conversation – please do keep chatting! As numerous people replied with these questions, having similar conversations with me, please don’t think I’m speaking about you specifically if you see ‘your’ question(s).

  • “Clearly no Christian says they have their full identity in their flag. Can we not have part of our identity in it – in the place God has us born?” (about a dozen people said this)

God has lavishly given us everything in life that we have (including our new identity in Him). The only question we have, is how we respond. Because I have been given everything, I hope to say I have everything to give, and God within me to empower me to do so, even when that’s hard. It is hard to read Philippians chapter 2, and still ask questions of “what can I keep speaking about loudly in my identity?”. We follow a Christ who thinks not of His own needs, but that of others as he lays down His life for His enemies, even to death, death on a cross. The Apostle Paul responds to the Corinthian church to say (1 Cor 9:20-22) that he would give up anything for the sake of the gospel, even across cultural divides. If you are British, how can you use that to God’s glory, and to love your enemy (or your neighbour as yourself)? If you are Irish, what about you? Yes be proudly British or Irish, but let’s realise:

  1. every culture is beautiful in some way (Gen 1 – do we celebrate others’ beauty?)
  2. every culture is fallen in some way (Gen 3 – do we repent and show humility?)
  3. the Kingdoms of this world in most ways are temporary and are NOTHING (stronger language could be used) compared to the glory of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8 – do we hold loosely to even what we are most precious about?)
  • I am not called to speak Irish, to play GAA or to live in a nationalist area. That does not make sectarian or make me responsible for the problems you write about.” (about 6 people messaged, though many more have similar feelings that I’ve chatted to)

In our individualistic western world, we speak a lot about “callings” and individual responsibility. Some of that is Biblical of course, but a lot of the Bible was written to groups of people. But our trouble is, that as The Church (capital C), we do not enjoy what our groom gives us to enjoy. If we all sit back and say “it’s not my responsibility”, we miss the fact that Christ thinks that for our good and His glory, we could enjoy his heartbeat for all peoples – most of all, His enemies (us all, at one time). We are not all called to “go” to the areas with less Christian presence, but we all should ask ourselves what part we are playing in showing Christ’s love to such places, and consider why we are not willing to go. (There are many gospel reasons to not go.) I’ve written about this a lot here. Ulster has generally shown great vigour in going to the ends of the earth (praise God!), but hasn’t figured yet how to go to Samaria.

GAA – the Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland, as exampled in this picture of a Gaelic Football (taken from here: all copyright)
  • “Sinn Fein/Westminster are blackmailing us. I will never give in, even if thousands of lives are at stake (through abortion). The blood is on their own hands.” (few were brave enough to express what two readers did, to this extent, but several agreed)

Politics is a messy game, for sure. But I would think twice about gambling with thousands of lives. If I was a hypothetical unionist supporter (which I’m not revealing here whether I am or not), and I could save thousands of lives for giving up an Irish Language Act Bill which I resented, then surely even if I felt I was being blackmailed to do it, I would? One is demanded by scripture, the other is not. In Biblical times, they were called to primarily serve God and flowing from that, to honour the King, regardless of who was on the throne, even when their tax money went to corrupt and evil men (c.f 1 Peter, Rom 13). God will be the final judge of who is responsible or not but I personally will do my best to stop them and be vocal about it, even if I’m blackmailed for it. But as I said before, perhaps we lost this one when we voted perpetually for sectarian division, year after year.

  • “Playing GAA has too many connotations with political things for me to touch it.”

Let’s go back to Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Firstly, as a Jew, He deliberately goes via Samaria (he didn’t have to). Choosing to go to Samaria, when war-like hatred was shown between the people, had its connotations. Secondly, as a male, he chose to sit with a lone, promiscuous woman in the heat of the day at a well (see here for the history of wells). That had its sexual connotations in middle eastern culture. Jesus didn’t seem too concerned with connotations. What He did seem concerned for was mission, flowing from a pure heart. For us, that might mean we choose not to go up to women in nightclubs and offer them a drink as a means to show Christ’s love (perhaps a parallel modern situation). But it will mean we cross borders (metaphorical ones and real ones) for the sake of the good news.

  • “You are secretly just promoting your [insert political thought here eg: nationalist, globalist] politics and forget that you yourself are highly political and are only asking those of a certain political view to pipe down.” (three people publicly, many more privately)

I will happily admit that nobody is neutral. I have my politics, and people may assume what they wish. Nationalists in the north think I’m Unionist because of my schooling and sport association. Unionists in the north assume I’m nationalist because I’ve lived in Cork and write blog posts like this.

But my argument does not lie on any political view. I argue neither to downplay national sovereignty, nor to advocate a nationalism of any sorts. Setting aside John 4 that we’ve already considered, let’s turn to Galatians. Paul (in chapter 1) sets our his stall that he has received this good news by revelation, and that He hasn’t spent time anywhere else to learn such an unusual gospel (chapter 2). It demands that righteousness comes freely from outside of human action – circumcision makes no difference! Titus is relieved – he sits in the corner of this debate, wondering whether he’ll need to be circumcised as a new follower of Jesus. The answer resounds clearly – no! Salvation is a free gift, needing no such thing added to it. But turn to Acts 16 and we suddenly see Paul circumcising Timothy! Why? Has Paul changed his mind?! No! It’s because they are going to a Jewish area to reach out.

Was Paul advocating a type of globalism that stuffs Jewish national identity when he dismissed the need to be circumcised? No! Was he advocating a nationalist perspective when he circumcised Timothy? No! He was doing all that he could to reach the people at hand, while sacrificing what was secondary importance. I’m sure Timothy minded – it’s painful! And it’s not even needed as a Greek – so why bother? Hardly as if many people check! But he was willing to lay down his identity to reach others. Nothing to do with politics. But at the same time, utterly political. And I could go onto other passages. Me advocating this has nothing to do with what politics I support. (But it is utterly political in action)

  • “By speaking of a mission organisation like that, you are doing something very unhelpful. They are not like that in general. You will put people off going on mission through writing such things.” (4 people)

May I suggest that the only people I’ll put off going on such teams, are the people looking for a perfect mission organisation or experience? But I hate to tell you, they don’t exist. But they don’t exist because the one true mission organisation that God has given the world, is The Church (from which flows these Acts 13-like mission teams). And it’s a bunch of messy (but both sanctified and being sanctified) people, who all make cultural mistakes and place their identity in many false places, all too often.

I lead teams year after year for that mission organisation and would flag-wave endlessly for them (not that kind of fleg). They have taught me so much of what I know about evangelism. And as I said in my first blog post, I LOVE that these mistakes are being made (if we learn from them). Like my colleague Izzy says, we must not be paralysed by thinking we must be perfect. And I am the first to have made, and still make MANY mistakes in my own culture, never mind in others. And I pray that my team members and others will forgive me my mistakes, will point them out to me, and help me change to have more of God’s heart too, as they have done even in this (I hope).

Finally, let me tell you about one of my friends.

She is my age, was brought up in a protestant, unionist home, and continues to live round the corner from me, under the shadow of Windsor Park, where the kerb-stones are painted red, white and blue and my car arriving with a Cork-registration plate gets the neighbours out to their windows. She works a normal job. She has never learnt a word of Irish, couldn’t tell you who is playing in the GAA All-Ireland final this Sunday, and attends a protestant church in the heart of east Belfast.

But she does this, whilst enjoying Jesus, dying to herself, and living for Him. She is still thoroughly British, but her friends (non-Christian) when asked about her all say “she is the only person who loved us when we moved house here”; “she loves different cultures like I’ve never seen before”; “she is one of us”.

Because every morning she wakes (when she remembers), she asks Jesus, in light of what He’s done, to help her lay her life down to love some of the most unreached people in the world on her doorstep. She abandons some of her clothing choices, to fit in with them. She eats differently, so that she can share meals with them. She changes hobbies, to enjoy what they like to do. When asked about Israel and Palestine, she side-steps questions or asks good questions back again, even though she has views of exactly what’s right and wrong. She finds they don’t find her sense of humour funny the same way her close friends growing up did – she suffers it. She finds a church community, who will welcome outsiders, or learn how to do so with her help. She even learns their language and takes all her annual leave visiting their country, to do so. Yes, I’m not talking about nationalists. I’m talking about Arab neighbours.

Arabs in Belfast welcomed, as reported by the Irish Times (here). Photo credit IT.

Somehow that makes sense for her. But if it makes sense for her, why doesn’t it make sense for us, even in our normal jobs and normal lives to support and have such a heartbeat, even when we can’t be the ones “going”?

Sadly my non-Christian friends (the ones who I’ve been close enough to give them opportunity to speak into my life) have seen all too clearly where my identity has seemed to lie, at times:

  • You’re so busy rushing around doing Christian things, we never see you. (My identity was perhaps in missional activity rather than Jesus)
  • You never come on nights out with us. (In first year of uni, my identity was so busy trying to be holy by abstaining, I forgot to love people well, perhaps by staying up to help them when they came home drunk, or in other ways)
  • You get far more passionate about [insert topic] when we talk, than anything else – is that what you value? (Caveat: let’s remember some cultures are more direct than others – let’s not try to “out-Jesus” each other in our speech)

But ultimately it’s God’s Word, applied to God’s World well, that will expose our hearts and convince us that finding our identity and worth in who Christ is, and what He has done, will be ultimately satisfying. Though sometimes God even uses our non-Christian friends to do that through His common grace!

A little booklet written to counter the common claims of “For God and for [insert political identity here]….”

So my prayer for both you and I today, in light of this whole discussion about British identity and culture, is that God will help us travel this earth, in tandem with His heart. And that it will radically alter how we live here on this island. None of us can pretend we’re not enculturated (/bathed in a culture). There are no people who see everything and act neutrally. But there are those who pray that the Spirit would illumine and show them what is their culture and what is the gospel, and seek to live in light of that distinction, deliberately amongst many who are “not like us”.


I merely echo words of many who have more succinctly and beautifully said things before me on this topic. The work of ECONI summarised by a QUB researcher and respected cultural analyst, comes to mind, even if ECONI broadened its views later. I will happily send anyone a copy of “For God and His Glory Alone” who wishes, in the post.

Identity theft!

(The original story here was changed at the request of one of the characters in it, who had previously identified himself to others by telling the same story to them. I would never willingly/knowingly share a public story of someone identifiable, unless they were willing to be identified in it. The story now here is a conglomeration of several real stories of a similar nature which happened a few years ago.)

The sun was blazing and in County Kerry our Christian summer volunteer team were back running our program for all the family. This afternoon, we were running a kid’s club, as their parents watched on. As we started into learning our Bible memory challenge (a verse from the Bible), I suddenly was aware that I might need to intervene. As many teachers do, we were using a “pointer” to point at each word as the kids were saying it and keep them on track. Only our pointer this time round was a huge blow-up red hand of Ulster such as the one pictured below on the Northern Irish flag.

And for those of you who didn’t know, the red hand of Ulster is a political sign not warmly welcomed in County Kerry (to put it mildly). What was I as team leader to do? The team members largely identified as Ulster people. But it would have completely alienated them from the locals, nevermind taking away from whatever was said later by the team. But then again, making a scene about it would also draw attention to this. I sat back and waited for a subtle moment I could move it, and breathed a sigh of relief. Until…

(I have made many cross-cultural mistakes in the past before! That’s the joy of cross-cultural learning and teams – I would love everyone to have cross-cultural experiences on well-led teams, that allow them the chance to blunder in safe environments!)

Until the story. We often tell stories to teach spiritual truths to the families listening, and as many in (previously) Catholic Ireland, knew all the Bible stories (or thought they did), we sometimes taught other stories with a spiritual meaning. But this one had me nervously twitching again. The fictional story had opened with 2 characters, and one of them was King William riding on a white horse!

And for any who know their history and the Battle of the Boyne, you’ll know who King Billy and his white horse was, and know that he wouldn’t have been all that welcome in Kerry!

A mural in Donaghadee

Two small slips that could perhaps have been not noticed, or could have built a culture that meant the volunteer team was regarded as foreign, and rejected because of their insensitive use of politics, language and culture.

Well, thankfully (given the team was a Christian one) we’d been studying John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life that morning, and in chapter four we encounter a situation even more radical than these. A Samaritan woman meets Jesus (a Jewish man) and a show-down ensues. Jews vs Samaritans. The Northern Irish troubles would have perhaps seemed minor in comparison to what was going on between rivals then. Perhaps current day Israel and Palestine moves us closer towards the old scene.

But the thing is, a show-down doesn’t ensue. Jesus, side-stepping controversial issue after controversial issue, takes the woman by the hand (metaphorically) and leads her towards where she can find a true, satisfying identity – in Him. Whatever he says (and he doesn’t completely avoid the issue), helps her get over any confrontation, shame or difference, and makes her run off to the town to tell everyone that He’s the best thing ever to happen.

And so, what did I do when the 2 things above happened? Well the Red Hand, nor King William were necessary to the event, nor was it wise to have them, even if it was publicly permitted and deeply cherished by some team members. In an attempt to follow Jesus’ example, at laying down what is dear to us for the sake of the good news, I quietly slipped the the Red Hand away for the rest of the week, and amongst much positive feedback to the story-teller, suggested that they don’t ever use King Billy and his white horse in a story again.

Sadly though, it was not appreciated.

“We have every right to celebrate our culture. This is part of who I am. It’s hardly as if we’re forcing them to believe our politics by simply using these things.” was the rebuke of one team member.

Similar scenarios have happened with Northern Irish flags on volunteer teams. Here’s the famous video that mocks the ludicrous nature of the “fleg” but never actually says why it is ludicrous.

“This is part of who I am!”

What had I done? Had I really just denied someone their very being? What they felt was at the heart of who it was to be them?

Well, no, because as Christians we have our primary identity in someone who is not of these Kingdoms – in Jesus Christ. All other senses of identity come radically far short of that one, whether national identity, sexual identity, race, language etc. Everything else (important as they are,) flows from the beauty and purpose we were created for. Had I taken their identity? No! Not even the devil himself can take away our identity in Christ and all we were made for.

But these happening in County Kerry really just echo a far bigger problem for Northern Irish (evangelical) Christians. Let me explain…

A more complex identity problem…

I was at a prayer meeting tonight about the liberal abortion legislation about to be forced (undemocratically) upon Northern Ireland. For those not in the know, the devolved government has not met in Northern Ireland now for several years, and so Westminster parliament was putting together some emergency legislation to deal with this, when radical abortion amendments (more than the rest of the UK currently has) got included into it.

Suddenly the pro-life Christians are crying, and rightly so. If correct in our views, we are talking about mass slaughter of innocent life. And there appears no way to stop the ending of thousands of voiceless lives in the womb, unless the NI government reconvenes by October 21st of this year. Highly unlikely.

But what one lead campaigner said to me recently revealed an awful lot of why 20,000 signatures, 75,000 postcards to MLAs, and hundreds of thousands of emails will never work.

“Peter, 2 years ago I would never have traded the Irish Language Act for an abortion-free NI, but now I think I would.”

The evangelical Christian identity is too caught up in protestant politics.

What do I mean?

Well for years, many evangelical Christians were more vocal about their British political viewpoints than they were about being heard and seen to live out the values that Jesus would have us live out – loving our enemies, laying down our rights for the sake of loving others, and seeking to best understand and cherish those who strongly disagree with us. Being Christian for some, was, certainly in the eyes of their colleagues or close friends, inseparable from being British. Or at least there were as many passionate arguments about each of them! They would say their identity was firmly in being “protestant” or following Jesus. But to anyone else looking on, it was a muddle of religion and politics all thrown in together, and often a vitriolic or ugly one at that.

For years, many Christians have voted for certain parties that they thought held to “Christian values”. But in doing so, we’ve ended up endorsing political segregation, with no government. No-one really seems to have minded though, given the impasse in talks. Most seemingly would rather have no Irish Language Act and no government, and watch the province spiral down and suffer economically and otherwise, than to concede and give way to an Irish Language Act and other suggested things. According to them, there are many hills to die on, and most of them are painted red, white and blue.

The old impression that many still cling to, thinking this is a “Christian” nation, which they should be able to enforce Christian values on, is a false one. It is not just this building that lies in ruins. I hope that any perceived notions of Christendom also lie in ruins. God’s Kingdom will flourish when it is not in control.

And now we eat our fruit from our tree of bitter divides. Having voted for parties that would never sit down together and didn’t seem to make a big deal of ending sectarian divides in NI, we have ended up with no government. And in ending up with no government, we have ended up with this abortion fiasco, imposed from outside.

Let me be straight – yes, there are some deluded (and perhaps, evil) people to blame for this, thinking they are acting honourably to free women. But instead of just pointing fingers at “them over there”, could it be that in voting for constant segregation (or people who didn’t consider it top priority to end such attitudes), we are reaping the fruit of our voting?

Or will those in government who claim to be pro-life, finally see that if they are consistent in their beliefs, that conceding Language Acts and other such things, will be NOTHING compared to the loss of life that would occur through abortion?

But I fear the battle was lost long ago, and humanly speaking can’t be won now. Sinn Fein won’t be forced last minute into talks, no matter how many emails or postcards people in the country send.

And so how did we get from a beach in Kerry to here? Well, it’s a more complex version of the identity question. And sadly one that many in the country will learn the hard way. That if you speak up as passionately for your politics as you do about Jesus and His Words/views, then your identity will soon become a blur as well, and tragedies like the one that’s unfolding may occur.

The sun is setting on our chance to repent of our segregated society.

Sadly, there may be an even greater tragedy than thousands of unborn lives being lost too. The type of Jesus that is often held out in Northern Ireland, is dressed up in a British flag, and will be so repulsive to any nationalist that few churches will ever form in such areas and eternal consequences will need to be wept over. It’s why one of the most-reached English speaking people groups (Northern Ireland) sits directly beside the least-reached English-speaking people group (Ireland) in the world. If that isn’t a tragedy largely produced by this identity confusion, I don’t know what is.

But lest I be seen to point fingers here, may I sit with everyone reading and say that politics is no easy game. Just because I have been vocal about segregation in society, and never voted for those who endorsed violence or sectarian behaviour, doesn’t mean I have clean hands. There are no easy options of who to vote for, and I don’t come endorsing one way and condemning others. But as Christians, we must keep our identity firmly in place before letting our secondary views flow in light of it. And that, will mean giving up things that are costly to us elsewhere in life. It’ll hurt. But it’ll lead to our flourishing and the growth of His Church.

And for now, I weep. I pray. And we see what the next month holds…

Travelling to find yourself

8am and I’m currently sitting in the Glendalough International Hostel in the Wicklow “Mountains” in Ireland.  Staying here as a cheap night away from travelling round Ireland with work but also because I’ve heard some of the trail runs at the top of the hills round the lakes are stunning.  Little did I know that I’d be out running at 5am, and arrive back in at 7am to find my room-mates still sleeping.  They probably thought such a tranquil hostel didn’t have these late night party-ers and early morning flight-get-ers that so often ruin the hostel night’s sleep.

But getting up for 5am runs doesn’t really feel like who I am.  There are “runners” who do that every day or regularly, like the person I went out running with.  But I’m definitely not one of them.

But equally who am I?  It’s a misty, murky question.

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Walking Glendalough lakes, with a friend wrestling about His identity (C)  03/07/17

I’ve many friends and I meet people all the time on their travels who are trying to find this out.  Generally you can tell either from what they post on facebook, or from where they invest their time, money and life.  Particularly among the travelling community, such questions are huge, because traditional ties to family or nationality/region are so often rejected (though in some cases nationality becomes a big outward identity, even if the person is in crisis and no longer feels like that inwardly when they’re back home).  The traveller, to some extent, will have to journey alone in finding their identity, as so often their experiences will be unique.

And perhaps that has to be key: we are unique.  Perhaps not as unique as we’d like to think in our shared humanity, but unique none-the-less.  We have to be more than the sum of our parts, and we desperately hope that is true.  As humans we are sexual beings, but we’re more than our sexuality, important as it is.  As humans we’re connected beings, but we’re more than our connections and relationships.  And as humans we’re creative beings in our jobs, hobbies and elsewhere, but we’re more than just “a painter” or “a hurling player”.

And the trouble with all of these things, that if we let them define us, we’ll be ruined.  We’ll sell ourselves short of who we really are or even worse, end up mentally unstable.  And yet it’s what we constantly do in a bid to make ourselves seem something.  So what’s the solution?

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Walking Glendalough lakes, with a friend wrestling about His identity (C)  03/07/17

Well, perhaps just to invest our identity in so many things that even if they go wrong, we’ll have a well balanced life still.  Risky, but it normally pays off, unless you get some catastrophe in life.  That’s largely the secular response (with variations on a theme).

Or what if we could have an identity that lay outside of ourselves?  Many would immediately think that it’s demeaning – a denial of our uniqueness and everything that we are.  And what would it even look like?  Most worldviews that promise such, end up being nonsense claims, as that religion or worldview just becomes a part of an inner struggle to achieve in life.  If you do badly at the worldview or religion, you’re back down doubting your identity as that, or struggling mentally.  It’s just one more part of life.  But someone once showed me one identity different to that.

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It was an identity outside of myself that freed me to truly start to get to know myself over time.  An identity that had nothing to do with my performance in life or whether something was removed from me.

And if you’ll hold off your initial scepticism long enough to read on a paragraph or two, I’d claim that identity was Jesus and being found in Him.  Not in my performance following him, or my religiosity.  But in Him, Himself.  And I’ve found that because He claims to have made everything (including me, by whatever long, earthy processes that involved), and He therefore knows me better than I know myself, that I can find myself more and more, as I delve deeper into knowing and experiencing my identity in Him.

  • I can face serious hockey injuries, without fearing my identity will be taken from me.
  • I can sit beside Republican and Loyalist alike, in my home city, and chat to them both and concede some things to both politically, because my identity is not in my politics (even if I am still passionate about it).
  • I can face being given the diagnosis of a long term medical condition a few years ago, that will shape my life, largely because my identity is not in my health or working capabilities.
  • I can face and even enjoy singleness (without porn, sex or even masturbation), because much as I am a sexual being, I am not defined by it.  I am freed to enjoy sex as my creator intended it.
  • I can face the times that I severely doubt the evidence for Jesus, because ultimately, the truth (or lack of) it doesn’t rely on my reasoning alone but on things outside of myself (which I would say give us good grounds for belief).

Because my identity in Him, is a “loved child of God”; a gift from the Father to the Son; one who is sitting reigning with Christ in the heavenly realms; one who is destined for a better world to come.

And it’s freeing!

I’m free to stop travelling the world (metaphorically and physically) to find myself (and now just to do it to enjoy Him and His world).  I’m free to try to love others better who are radically different to me, because if my identity is secure in Christ, I need not fear anything else and can focus all my time and energy on looking outwards to others, even if they’re hard to love.  And in fact, I’d argue it’s the only legitimate philosophical reason that we “ought” to care about others – because we were made for it – our identity as children of God will lead us to love God, and love others at its heart.

Give me a bunch of people who believe this radical truth deeply from the core of their being, and you’ll have an army of servant-hearted foot-washers, freed to change the world for the better. Sadly, my own heart so quickly forgets it and needs reminded of it again.

So fellow traveller, don’t let “Christian” or “Jesus” just become another word on your list of identities.  Lose yourself in Him!   And truly find yourself again in light of it.

[For more resources on this topic, read John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life, the ancient letter to the Colossian church from the Apostle Paul, or anything on here: www.bethinking.org (search: identity)]

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Easy to lose the woods for the trees in the identity question!  Glendalough, 03/07/17