How I Define Myself

About two months ago at the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) general member meeting, we played a very interesting social game. The leader assigned different names to each part of the room: class, race, religion, sex, and gender. We were told to stand in the part of the room that we identify with the most. I really enjoyed the premise of the game, which really made me think, and I especially liked the opportunity to talk as a group about why we identify with one over the other.

Being LASO, the LATIN AMERICAN Student Organization, you can guess which part of the room was most populated… the race one. But I noticed a unique pattern for why people identified with class, race, sex, and gender: they usually identified themselves with the one that they were most discriminated against for. The people who came from the lower class talked about how they didn’t have the same opportunities as their peers from middle or upper class families. Women talked about how because of their sex they have been treated as objects and haven’t had the same respect as men. The story goes on similarly for race and gender.

Interestingly enough, I was the only one to stand at the “religion” section. I’m the white guy in the group, and a missionary on top of that, so yea… I stood out like a sore thumb as always. Because of the awkwardness of being the only one in my group, they didn’t ask me to share why I was standing there. But I think I’d like to share now, in case anyone is curious. It really made me think, that’s for sure.

I identify with religion more than the others not simply because I am a “normal” American. Middle class, white, male. So what. There’s plenty of reasons for me to be proud to be from a middle class family of immigrants that “made it.” The ancestors that I identify with the most is my mom’s side, German farmers who immigrated to America because of religious persecution in 1841. They founded the town that I was blessed to grow up in. (Big honking beautiful Catholic church right in the center. Take that, religious persecution.)

My home parish: St. John the Baptist

My home parish: St. John the Baptist

Note: I very much resonate with and respect the students who identify with their Hispanic heritage above all else. These students are mostly first or second generation Americans, faced with difficulties in their homelands and searching for a better life in America. I bet that many of their parents have trouble speaking English because of that and many other factors school has always been more of a personal struggle for them. I bet that most of their families have been through times of living paycheck to paycheck. I also resonate with and respect the students who identified most with sex, gender, and class. This post is not to bash those students at all in any way. My goal is just to point out that while those are great things to identify with, I believe that religion – properly understood – takes the cake hands down in this one.

I identify with my Catholic Christian religion the most because I do not define myself by what other people think of me, instead I define myself by God’s love for me. I was created out of love for love. People might make fun of me and tear me down, but I try not to be bothered too much by what they try to do or say to me, because no matter what, I know that God loves me exactly the way that I am. God loves each of us exactly the way that we are, no matter our background, skin color, sex, gender, religion, age, etc. This gives me hope at all times and is a relationship to cherish. God is my rock and my foundation, so the rest of my life is at least set on firm ground.

If I were to define myself according to what others think of me, wouldn’t that leave me vulnerable to being hurt by them? I absolutely love this line by Lecrae:

“If you live for their acceptance, you’ll die from their rejection.” – Lecrae

Our true hope in both good times and bad is God’s love for us. He has a great plan for us, even despite the struggles that we will surely go through, and He reminds the prophet Jeremiah:

“I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

I think that most of the students identified with a certain thing because that’s a struggle that they have to deal with from their background. I’d say that that’s okay! We all have struggles, there is no shame in that. But I would encourage us all to turn what we identify with from a negative to a positive. Why dwell on your struggles if you could look forward to the future?

There are also those who identify with something because they genuinely like or treasure it, like their heritage for example. Even this pales in comparison to our relationship with God, our ultimate heritage. At the end of the day, though race, class (that you grew up from), sex, and gender are permanent things, they are just earthly things. The only thing that lasts through eternity is our relationship with Jesus.

“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we are being slain all the day;

we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:35-39

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Hip Hop and The New Evangelization: What We Can Learn from Lecrae

I recently wrote a blog post for FOCUS Blog, check it out!

Hip Hop and The New Evangelization: What We Can Learn from Lecrae

It’s fun to see that since I wrote the post, Lecrae’s latest album Anamoly was released to stunning success, topping the Billboard chart and in the process becoming the first Christian Hip Hop artist to do so.

Salvation, Jesus, and Works

As I’ve been gearing up for my first year as a missionary this summer, I’ve had a unique revelation with regards to evangelization and the aspect that “works” play in salvation. I suppose a big part of this is from a Peter Kreeft (and Ronald Tacelli) book that I’m reading, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

First off, I’d like to share an awesome piece from that book on the importance of salvation:

“The Church also seems to be in the social service business, the counseling business, the fundraising business, the daycare business- dozens of the same worthy businesses the secular world is also in. Why? What justifies these things? The Church’s ultimate end for all these things is different from the world’s end; it is salvation. This is her distinctive “product.” Why put out a product that is just the same as other companies’ products already on the market? Why would anyone expect such a product to sell? That’s why modernist or liberal Christianity, charitable as its services are, is simply not selling. The only reason for the very existence of the Church at all, is exactly the same as the reason Jesus came to earth: to save poor and lost humanity. The Church, after all, is in the same business as her Head. When a body runs in a different direction from its head, it is like a chicken with its head cut off: it goes nowhere and quickly dies. Jesus did not come to be a philosopher or a doctor. If he did that, he failed. He didn’t solve most of the philosophers’ problems. He healed some people but left most of the world just as sick as before. He healed some bodies to show that he could heal all souls. Not only is salvation the reason for the Church’s existence; it is also the ultimate reason for your existence: your goal, point, purpose, hope, final cause, summum bonum, meaning. The difference between success and failure at life’s first task- becoming who you were meant to be- is not the difference between riches and poverty, fame and obscurity, health and sickness, pleasure and pain, even niceness and nastiness, but between salvation and damnation. Leon Bloy wrote, “There is only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.”

Salvation matters, a lot. So what does it take to be saved? When people with a Christian background talk a little about salvation, they often only mention whether or not you are a “good” person. This is nice, but is it enough? Is it enough to just be a good person to go to heaven?

The Catholic Church has a nice little clause that it seems like I’m always reminding people about (because the Church is so horrible and restricting! haha). This clause is that if someone by no fault of their own doesn’t hear the Gospel or know who Jesus is, they can still be saved by striving their very best during their life to live an upright, charitable, and selfless life, which is common sense whatever background you come from. God is merciful, much more than you and I.

Yes, that’s good and generous of God, isn’t it? The problem is that everyone who reads this blog obviously doesn’t live in a remote area and has had contact with Christians in some way, shape, or form. For people who have heard the Gospel, the nice clause of just being a good person isn’t enough to earn salvation, according to Jesus. Salvation is only possible through Jesus:

“There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – Acts 4:12

Again, Jesus was clear Himself in this teaching:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6

In Lecrae’s song Truth, he gives a great analogy for why we need Jesus. In one of the verses (around 3 minutes in) he discusses the issue of why an all  powerful loving God would allow evil to happen. He points out that though God allows evil natural disasters to happen, He also allows people to have free will and murder. Well, we all agree that stuff like that is evil, but here’s the brilliant part: Lecrae asks if lying and cheating are evil too. They are. And things like that are evil even if we just think them. So he turned around the argument: why does God allow us to live, as we all sin? Thanks be to God that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sin, otherwise we’d all be going straight to hell. Only God can forgive sin, that’s why Jesus and the incarnation are such a big deal! No one other than Jesus can forgive us, that’s what St. Peter was saying to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:12!

Please note that there’s a very important sacramental side with regards to salvation, centering on baptism (1 Peter 3:21 and Mark 16:16), confession (John 20:23), and the Eucharist (John 6:52). Salvation requires faith and works. Gotta offer this life for Jesus and live it out. But for this post I’m staying high level.

With all this in mind, I figure that most Christians- and Catholics are especially susceptible (not by bad teachings but misunderstandings of the teachings)- don’t seek to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ as much as they can because they unfortunately don’t believe that Jesus Christ specifically is very important in the economy of salvation.

Most people seem to believe that it is most important to be a good person, and if you believe in Jesus that’s a cherry on top. Actually, we see something that is quite the opposite in terms of Dismas the good thief: he was a thief and pretty bad person all his life, but when the time came, he repented and turned to Jesus in faith. Jesus promised him salvation. Jesus Himself stressed that people believe in Him and repent. He wanted their hearts to be converted not to niceness but to Him.

So is being a good person important? Yes! We ought to follow Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life! We ought to love God and love our neighbors as our self. But good works explicitly without Jesus will do nothing with regards to the economy of salvation. Takeaway: we must be more courageous in actually sharing Jesus with others instead of just assuming that they believe and are faithful.

Beauty Will Change the World

15 years.

That’s how long it’s been since a Christian artist has topped the Billboard top 200. Tobymac is there right now.

It only gets better. The groundbreaking leader in Christian Hip Hop, Lecrae, saw his album Gravity top the itunes charts this week. Will the two artists swap the #1 spot on Billboard next week? It could be another first, in probably more than 15 years. (Edit 9/14/12: Gravity ended up #3 on Billboard overall, #1 for rap)

The significance? The message of the Gospel is being proclaimed anew to the masses through these two talented artists. Lecrae and Tobymac don’t hold back, they rep Jesus in their music.

So that’s got me pumped. But why are they having success? Despite their great message, most people don’t buy music strictly for the message. If so, America’s waiting on Cardinal Dolan and Rick Warren‘s new albums..

People buy music for the MUSIC. That’s how Lecrae and Tobymac got their names out there, by producing amazing music. They are using their talents to the best of their ability, and they aren’t leaving their faith back at home, either. Their music is the full package.

For some reason, Christians seem to have shied away from the public eye. There’s wayyy too many Christians for this to be acceptable. God calls us all to be light in the world. Let’s renew the culture! This generation right now is an “anointed generation” because our culture has lost the faith and we are the remnant left to show the rest of the world that the Gospel is true and Jesus is still King. We are called to do more than just survive: we are called to thrive.

“I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter” – Matthew 25:26

A taste of what I’m talking about, from Lecrae’s new ablum: “Walk with Me (ft. Novel)”

We have to take St. Paul’s advice to heart, as he gave to the Corinthians:

“Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law- though I myself am not under the law- to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law- though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ- to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in in.” – 1 Corinthians 10:19-23

See his point? He’s saying that we should reach out to others to share the gospel with them on their own terms. They’re the home team, we’re the away team. And do it in an attractive matter. Be good at what they like (as long as it’s not sinful), be interested in them, connect with them.

That’s what I love about Lecrae’s ministry and message so much. He’s taking the message straight to the mainstream Hip Hop culture. You can’t do that with lame beats and cheesy rhymes. You have to authentically be Hip Hop to reach them. You have to make beautiful music.

Apply this to yourself. Most of us aren’t going to be topping the Billboards anytime soon, but we can spread the message by using whatever talents we have to make the Gospel a beautiful truth and lifestyle. Beauty is attractive. Love is attractive. Authenticity is attractive. Share it with the world, because merely staying around in “Christian circles” isn’t going to make the impact that God wants us to make.