I am a CH
I am a CHRISTIAN
I have CHRIST
in my HEART
and I will
It’s the season of Vacation Bible School here in Columbia, South Carolina, and I, for one, learned most of what I know about God through the songs and memory verses taught to me by my friends’ mothers at VBS during comparatively mild summers in Northwest Ohio.
It took more courage than you might imagine, though, to sing that child’s ditty just now; because you see—you know—that “Christian” is an identity with a lot of baggage in the 21st century. After some two thousand years of use, the title has been more than a little abused, to the point that I sometimes wonder if it’s even worth using anymore.
It lumps me in with the Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages, with Westboro Baptist Church who pickets funerals, and with the crusaders of a different sort who populated my college campus armed with pamphlets and camouflage-covered Bibles.
There are other identities that are troubling to me, too: I’m a Duke graduate, but not the kind who’s pursued a doctorate or made it on Wall Street. I’m a Saab owner, but not the sort who snowboards or has a roof rack. I’m a yogi, but not the kind who only believes in Eastern medicine.
These identities—these labels—aren’t particularly helpful in getting to know me.
But there’s one big difference between the Saab-owning-yogi who graduated from Duke and the Christian: one speaks of relationship, the other does not.
I’m also a Hylden—but outside of one 1500-person town in northeastern North Dakota, that doesn’t mean much of anything. I possess a house in the 29205 zip code, but it’s south of Rosewood Drive. I’m a wife, though not the sort who is subservient to her husband, and I’m a daughter, though not the sort who calls her mother as often as she should. I’m a Christian, but not a perfect example of Jesus.
The ways these identifiers fall just a little short of things that people might expect or assume about me doesn’t mean that I’m no longer a Hylden or a homeowner or a wife or a daughter. They mean that I’m a vital part of a powerful relationship—relationships that are so powerful as to shape me, transform me, make me.
So what can represent my true identity? What can accurately describe who “Emily Hylden” is? This morning, I suggest to you that only our relationships can be so influential as to wield that kind of defining power in our lives.
The very word “God” means “supreme being,” which could be rephrased as “being above all other beings.” You see–even the word used the world over to describe this ultimate being only makes sense in relationship to others. In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, we often use words like “Father” and “Son” to address God; these are names that come only from a relationship to someone else. My friend Jessica wasn’t a mother until her daughter came to be. I wasn’t a wife before my husband exchanged vows with me. Our relationships make us.
In today’s Scripture reading from the Psalms, the writer refers to God’s “name” several times; allusions to names and identities litter this psalm, shooting it through with elevated, figurative, strange language. But if we look more closely at some of those names, I think we can learn something more about this God who chooses to be known only through her relationships with human beings.
Reading the psalms is a little bit like reading a diary, which is probably why it’s my favorite book of the Bible; we get to look over the shoulder of people from thousands of years ago, people who describe, at least for me, my life circumstances much better than I myself could hope to do. Psalm 20 is a prayer offered on behalf of a king, maybe David, maybe someone else, but what’s interesting to me is how the author returns again and again to “the name of God;” in this prayer, that’s clearly where the power is coming from, not the king himself, which would be the usual order of things in the ancient world. Claiming that strength and prowess, victory and security are coming from something other than the king’s own resources is super counter-cultural. Then again, it’s not so different for us—trying to shore up the power within ourselves or seeking willpower from our own guts. Frankly, I’ve found that I don’t have much willpower on my own; the things that motivate me most aren’t my own voice cheering me on inside, but what my work might do to help other people—in short, it’s my relationships that motivate me.
It’s easy to get up early and go to a crack-of-dawn yoga class when I know my friend will be there too. It’s easy for me to jump out of bed on a Saturday when I’ve told a new family that I’ll bring them breakfast.
So, what kind of God is being addressed in this prayer? Is this the kind of God that I want to have a relationship with? Does this prayer seem trustworthy? It’s a little disingenuous to ask such huge questions of such a small passage of Scripture, but let’s dive in and see what we can find, even with such a scant sample.
In the very first verse, at the outset of this prayer, “May the name of the God of Jacob protect you.” Jacob was the younger twin son of Isaac; Jacob, whose name means “trickster” is one who stole his brother’s inheritance and went on to have a dozen sons by four different wives. He’s the one who God re-named “Israel” in his old age, and according to the book of Genesis, his sons became the famous “twelve tribes” who inherited the land we know as Israel today. So by calling on the name of the God of Jacob, we’re recognizing something about this God’s enduring presence, and our own place in history. We’re aligning ourselves with people like Jacob who have a history—which I don’t mean in any kind of positive sense—who God chooses and loves and knows and uses anyway. By calling on the name of the God of Jacob, we’re climbing into a long stream of people going back millennia who have called on this God of tricksters, underdogs, and power-hungry oligarchs seeking reform. By using Jacob’s old name—before God re-named him “Israel”—we’re assured that while we are still sinners, while we are still broken and in error, God protects and defends us. It is not our own change of heart that activates God’s force field of love. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The second mention of God’s name in this psalm comes in the middle section; “in the name of our God will we set up our banners.” Back at Trinity Cathedral, we’ve got banners that hoist high and process down the aisle at the beginning of some services—Trinity would have actual banners, wouldn’t we? On the battlefield, the standard-bearer carries the army’s emblem into the fray, a visual reminder to those fighting what it is they’re fighting for and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It’s a shorthand way of communicating protection and identity. As the soldiers identify themselves through their uniforms as parts of a larger whole, the banner that flies above them is a symbol of the protection offered by the group.
The closest thing to an army that I’ve ever participated in is the Cameron Crazies—that’s the student section at Duke basketball games. We’d paint our faces and make enormous posters, chanting cheers together, sort of like a badly organized military installation of geeks gone wild. In the midst of that crowd, though, I was identified with something much bigger than myself. I was one of a movement of royal blue, wearing my team’s colors, committed to the common cause of victory on that wood floor.
This is a God who is not just about an individual relationship with each person—though those are important, we see from the beginning of this prayer, but this God is also about the way that people relate to each other. For God’s sake, we’re invested in relationships and living life’s messiness together. This God is one who chose to communicate who he is by becoming a human. Clearly, he’s very interested in human relationships, and even more so in how God can help us to know God better through those relationships. I can point to the relationships throughout my life that have helped me to learn who God is better; the people who took time to sit with me when I was struggling, the friend who drags me along on adventures to take me out of my own head, the in-laws who don’t believe women should be in ministry but they show up for my church services anyway. It’s not often the most pious people in my life, but more than any experience—in nature, or reading heady doctrine, or even contemplation and prayer—I have gotten to know God through the messy, close, uncomfortable relationships that have pushed their way into my life.
Finally, in the last part of the prayer, we read “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.” It’s in this verse that translations proliferate: the one in front of you uses the word “pride,” which I think gets at our identity question. What kind of person am I? What do other people think when they see me? What makes me who I am? Is it chariots or horses?
Continuing the military metaphor, the author refers to tools that put one army in better position for victory over another. So what kind of things might make us think we’re in a better position than those around us?
Some take pride in edgy zip codes,
Or some take pride in being on the right invite list.
Some take pride in eating ethical meat,
Or some take pride in the street where they live.
Some take pride in which beach they frequent,
Or some take pride in how busy their calendar is.
But this is our call, brothers and sisters: to take pride in the name of the Lord our God. That when people see us, they think of Jesus; when people spend time with us, they come to know God better.
Another translation puts it this way, “some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” The implication is that we’ll remember the history of our relationship with God and in remembering, place trust in God rather than in safety-feature-filled chariots or well-heeled and well-behaved horses. There’s another deeper implication at play even in that statement: that no matter what your life experience or where you are, that you’ve got a relationship with God to have memories of. Well, that’s presumptuous. Or it’s pious; isn’t it sweet that the psalmist has such faith in God? Must have been introduced to God as a young child, suckled on God as some of the prophets put it; but that’s not everyone’s story. Not everyone is raised in a perfect Christian home with VBS every summer and a veritable arsenal of Bible memory verses to pull out at a moment’s notice.
Do you remember the film “You’ve Got Mail?” At the bottom, this film is about identity. Meg Ryan’s character has to close the bookshop that her mother had opened, and when she died, willed to her daughter; her entire life had been spent at that bookshop, and her character reports feeling as if a piece of herself died when she turned the key for the last time. During all the time she has on her hands before she finds a new gig, she starts an online correspondence with AOL screen name NY152, as well as continually running into her professional nemesis, Joe Fox, of Fox Books—a mythical Barnes & Noble. As her nemesis gradually turns into a friend, and her online relationship with NY152 heats up, she feels torn, suddenly, between the two men. In the last scene of the movie—I hope I’m not spoiling this 17-year-old Rom-Com for anyone—Meg Ryan waits in a public garden for NY152, and when he’s revealed to be none other than Joe Fox, she tears up, stomps her foot, and says, “I hoped it was you.”
Just as Meg Ryan finds in that 90’s flick that she knew Tom Hanks’ character well before she knew it was him, I think we’ll find that the God this prayer exposes to us is the same God who is Jesus Christ and the same ultimate being who is behind the orchestration of each of our lives. They’re all the same person.
Being a wife or a sister doesn’t mean that I’m a walking textbook definition. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that I can explain God with perfect clarity. Being a Christian means that God has introduced himself to me in the person of Jesus Christ, and I want to spend the rest of my life getting to know that God better.