Person Looking for a People

I never knew I wanted a ‘people’ until a couple winters ago. I was preparing for a missions exposure trip to northern Manitoba. Part of that prep was a course that covered the history of the native people in Canada, as well as their culture in northern Manitoba. I was struck by the loyalty of the aboriginal people—loyalty to their people, to their ancestral lands, their languages, and their heritage, loyalty in the face of a hostile culture that was intent on wiping away their culture and practice. But in the face of this loyalty, I came to realize: I had no people.

Technically, I am a Mennonite. I have blood-ties to the Mennonites who emigrated from Russia in the late 1800’s. I know what warenke, kielke and farmer sausage are (even though I don’t really care for them). In my understanding, Mennonites don’t drink, don’t dance, are theologically conservative and emotionally non-demonstrative. And I appreciate that. I admire the Mennonite commitment to a holistic spirituality—taking care of the heart through a missions’ focus, the body through relief work, and the lifestyle through a simple way of life and hard work. I hold to Mennonite theology to the best of my understanding though, as most people, I have my difficult spots and doubts.

But I have a very difficult time seeing Mennonites as ‘my people’. My theology may be Mennonite but my ethnicity is only… sort of. I didn’t grow up in a Mennonite community, and though my church belongs to a Mennonite conference, it does not reflect a strong Mennonite culture. My father’s side of the family is not Mennonite. I don’t have the right last-name. I’ve sometimes called myself a ‘half-breed Mennonite’.

So, I suppose the Mennonites are not my people.

I’ve been studying 1 Peter for almost two months now. One of the key points of 1 Peter is that Christians are God’s people—once we were not a people, now we are His people (2:10). We are now ‘living stones’ being built up into God’s temple (2:5). Wherever we are from, whatever our ethnicity, whatever our ‘sect’, our macro identity is found in the church, the people of God. This crystalized for me this morning as I read McKnight. He said “find your identity in being part of God’s family, not in being part of a society that does not accept you”. The fragments of thought came together in my mind. I do have a people.

I recently joined a ‘cell’ group from a church in my community. I don’t attend that church, but I was looking for other women my age to connect with. On the whole this church believes as I do, but their practice and emphasis is quite different from what I am accustomed to. Still, when I met with these girls, prayed, worshiped and confessed with them, I felt at home. I felt connected, like I’d known these girls for a long time. And why not? They’re my family. Together we are God’s household, his people.

I do have a people. My people are the church. Locally, that means Mennonites, but on a broad scale, my people are all around the world, worshipping Jesus and living to please him. When they are oppressed, that is my people being oppressed. When they thrive, that is my people thriving.

The only question is, what am I going to do about it?

Identity Protection–And Daniel

This article was originally published in The Messenger, May 2013.  This is the original version.

Once in a while I have an out of body experience. It happens in the thick of a bitter rant, a crude joke, or a selfish decision. I see myself and wonder “who is that? And why is she in my body?” It’s like I’ve become someone else—whom I hate. It’s like someone kicked me out and took over, like someone stole my identity.

Identity theft is a big scare these days, and for good reason. I got suckered by a phone scam just the other day—I, who should know better. I usually keep a close eye on my personal information. I hide my pin number. I invent strong passwords.

But what about my true identity—who I am in Christ? What about the ‘new creation’ that I am? Is that being stolen under my nose?

In anyone would know about identity theft, Daniel would. He was a teenager when he was dragged from Israel to Babylon. Then his captors tried to force him into the mold of a Babylonian courtier. Yet even dressed in Babylonan robes, head filled with foreign languages and literature, Daniel never forgot who he was. He was a servant of God. Daniel refused to be lured away by the benefits of his new lifestyle. He stuck close with a group of like-minded friends and he clung tight to God, believing God was in control. He never lost his identity and God used him to do great things. I believe this is applicable to me.

A Captive in Babylon

Daniel wasn’t alone in his predicament. Upon the sack of Jerusalem, the brightest, most promising, handsome young Israelite men were taken to serve in the Babylonian court. Their captors’ first aim was to strip them of their Israelite identity and reprogram them as good little Babylonians. First, their Israelite names were taken away and replaced with new ones—symbols of Babylon’s culture and faith (Daniel1:7; Longman 50). Then, they learned the basics of Babylonian culture, the language and literature (Daniel 1:4). They even learned the arts of divination and omen interpretation—practices forbidden in the Law of Moses (Edlin 53; Leviticus 19:26).

It was not just knowledge that these men were immersed in. It was also lifestyle.

It was the privilege of the young men to eat the fine food and wine from the King’s table. At this point Daniel stood up to protect his identity. He asked for vegetables and water instead.

Why did the King’s food threaten his identity? Calvin explains: “We know how far enticements prevail to deceive us; especially when we are treated daintily; and experience [shows] us how difficult it is to be moderate when all is affluence around us” (97). Daniel realized that the decadent, courtly lifestyle threatened to make him “fall away from piety and the worship of God” (Calvin 99). A meager diet, on the other hand, kept him mentally sharp. It may have also been his way of remembering that he was a captive, far from home (Calvin 106).

Furthermore, Daniel had three friends with him who believed as he did. Together they rejected the Babylonian delicacies. When he needed God’s wisdom he “[sought] out like-minded companions to join him in prayer for a revelation” (Daniel 11:1-13; 2:17-18; Baldwin 89). Later, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego demonstrated their faith and strength of character by refusing to worship the King’s statue. The friends stood together and were true to their identity.

But in the end, it was Daniel’s hardy relationship with God that kept his identity unscathed. Throughout the book he is seen praying, fasting and reading Scripture (2:18-19; 9:2-3). Even when praying to Yahweh was outlawed by King Darius, Daniel still kept up his custom of prayer (6:10). “He preferred meeting [death] fearlessly rather than ceasing from the duty of piety” (Calvin 358). He knew that God was in control of his life (Longman 19).

In hindsight we can see how God orchestrated events. Daniel could not see ahead. Still, he remained faithful. God caused Daniel and his friends to excel at their schooling so that at the end of three years there was none equal to them (1:19-20). God granted them wisdom and understanding. He gave Daniel the ability to interpret dreams (1:17). Together these abilities were the ticket that allowed them to influence kings. Their legacy outlasted them through the book of Daniel: a book that showed a struggling Israel that God was in control of their history and destiny. It continues to teach us this today.

Maintaining our Identity

I know that I am God’s workmanship, created to do the good works he has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). I have written out my identity: Christian first, then sister, daughter, friend, citizen, artist and scholar. That’s who I am. I even have it on my fridge. But I forget. There are “delicacies” that lure me away from this God-given purpose. I am enticed by time-wasting activities. I get consumed by my to-do list. I listen to my negative self and the negative people around me. I do not discipline myself to pray and study as Daniel did. Then I step back, see myself, and wonder what happened.

It helps to be a part of a community of believers—kindred spirits. My busyness, self-interest and self-absorption can get in the way, yet I realize this community is a vital “identity maintenance program”. As Daniel’s friends stood for the same values and helped him in his critical moments, so my fellow believers support me and I can support them.

And, unless God “prop us up by his special aid, we know how entirely we should be reduced to nothing” (Calvin 359). Prayer, praise and the reading of Scripture reminds me who is in charge. It keeps my eyes and ears on my God. My efforts—the to-do list, the entertainment, the looking out for number one—aren’t what propel my life. My plan isn’t who I am. My identity lies with God’s plan.

And so, I must cling to that identity. I live in a hostile culture. Yes, my faith is often looked down upon as intellectually deficient. Yes, Christians are viewed as hypocrites. But worse, North American culture is full of delicacies. It’s easy to scurry from one activity to the next without direction. It’s fine—expected, actually—to fill time with empty entertainment. It’s acceptable not to be excellent at what I do. People even say “don’t work too hard” instead of goodbye. I can’t afford to think like that. If God has given me an identity and a plan for my life, then I must cling to this and work it out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). If not, it will be stolen from me and I will bear no fruit. And face it, our country needs fruit.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Joyce G. Daniel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1978.

Calvin, John. Daniel. Trans. Thomas Myers. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1966.

Edlin, Jim. Daniel: a Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2009.

Longman III, Tremper. The NIV Application Commentary: Daniel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. International Bible Society, 1984.