// my name is…

Last night a friend of mine returned from a service attended by a large number of Oxford students, fellows and choristers and commented on how “out of place” he felt. He’d thought he could blend in, pass as one of them, but on being there he found himself being instinctively deferential, feeling like he didn’t belong. He’s an educated, passionate, extremely literate guy, and yet something in him cried out that he wasn’t right for this place. How does that happen? Where does that perspective come from?

I kind of understand, though. I feel like for quite a while I’ve been trying to shift the label “Oxford student” that has been attached to me, and I feel like I might be trying for a while yet, too. See, when people find out, they automatically have some kind of reaction – some set of preconceptions about who you are or what an “Oxford student” looks like, some of which are more accurate than others. For a while, I suppose I sort of embraced it, too – it’s a simple enough identity to have, and it’s not a bad one, sometimes…

But the truth is, I’m not sure I want this to be the thing that defines me anymore. Our teaching this week, one session of which was directly addressed to the subject of “identity”, brought us back to an old and well-known story in the gospel of Luke – that is, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. If you’re looking for it, by the way, it’s in Luke 16:19-31 – and reading it again at this point might be useful.

Did you ever notice that the rich man doesn’t even have a name?

Look again.

There’s Lazarus, and there’s Abraham, and then there’s “the rich man”.

Lazarus, by contrast, is unique in that he is the only character in any of Jesus’s parables to be given an actual name.

The rich man, for eternity – even after death – is just “the rich man”. And why? Because that’s who he is: that’s his ‘thing’. He’s the rich guy, and that’s his defining characteristic.

If we’re honest, a lot of us have a ‘thing’. We’re the funny one, or the cool one, or the literate one, or the one who plays in a band, or the indie one, or the one who cares about justice, or the one who contends for truth, or whatever. But it all has to beg a question – is there enough of you left for God to call by name?

Not your stuff, not your issues, but you?

See, a lot of that stuff is good stuff; it’s productive, and it’s what makes society and community so exciting, provided it’s not all there is to who we are. Yet the question that I ask a lot – ask myself, as well as others – is this: what is it that we’re building?

As if we’re building a faith, a culture, where all we have are labels, then somewhere down the line we’ve got our perspective wrong – not massively wrong, maybe, but subtly wrong, at least.

As evidence for this, I could quote you Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he reminded them that “as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28) Could remind you that Christ is our identity first and foremost – but then I suspect you know that already.

Yes, Christ is our identity first, and that’s a vital truth – but before we can embrace that, we need to start by breaking down the old ways of defining ourselves. That’s why Paul talks about us dying to ourselves when he writes to the Galatians, and why he spends much of his letter to the Ephesians telling them what not to do and then offering something proactive in its place.

We can’t have it both ways. Christ is not an add-on.

Sooner or later we have to decide – who are we?

So the next time you deferentially step out of the way for an Oxford student dressed in a black robe, ask yourself why you did so.

Because God knows what He thinks of you.

Question is, do you?

[Suggested further reading: check out http://player.flannel.org/map, click “get a free ticket” and watch the short film “name” – it’s about 12 minutes long and it’s well worth a look on this same topic]

    • mark simpson
    • February 10th, 2010

    Next time you are in Newcastle, look at the top dome of the Laing Art Gallery – there are about six or seven plants growing from it, looking out of place in such a harsh, stony, windswept location.

    Perhaps it is not in church congregations that our defining experiences should be? Perhaps it is out in the open, where conditions are a little more trying, but we feel a little less out of place?


  1. February 21st, 2010

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