March 2019 is a good month, because it brings us a post by Tyler Brinkman. Tyler is a current student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary pursuing an M.Div with a concentration in History, Theology, and Ethics; he enjoys teaching all the Anabaptists about Nazarene polity, and he tries to bring up the ‘real presence’ of the Eucharist as much as possible. His intellectual interests include theological anthropology, eschatology, neurobiological effects of trauma, and, well, pretty much anything in the humanities–and some of the sciences. He continues to be proud of his illustrious athletic career on his high school’s walking team until his career ended when he failed the requisite sports physical. Mostly, he’s just thankful for his wife, Crystal, who helps him to not lose his wallet, keys, books, and sanity.
I am excited that Steve asked me to write the blog post this month. I think I offered it to him early last year, and he said he had my name written down already. So I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to write something. Occasionally, I would think about what I would write when given the opportunity. And even now when I am writing this post (and when I’m supposed to have it done two days from now), I am unsure what I should write about.
But I am Nazarene. I’m one of those 5th-generation Nazarene types whose whole extended family are Nazarene. It is the spiritual soil in which I was nurtured, and I am forever thankful. It gave me tools to survive. I struggled a lot as a teenager; things were… difficult. Way too difficult. I had too much stress and responsibility, and I was constantly afraid that I was going to fail and the people around me would get hurt. And even if I were to fail others and they DIDN’T get hurt – well, I was still a bad person who deserved to be punished. This was my belief for a very, very long time. But thanks be to God – God called me to ministry.
I know it sounds weird to say – particularly for someone who has never actually been paid staff at a church. I’ve been a lay leader, and I’ve been a leader with a local ministry license. But I’ve been called; it’s just taking a seemingly too long time to get there. See, I was first called to ministry when I was 16; I was at a summer camp– TiP (Talent Identification Program) which was a 3 week program for “gifted students” (whatever that means) at Duke University. I do not think it is merely coincidental that I was called to ministry at a place of higher education; I have always grown the most spiritually from my participation in communities of learning. But it was there that God spoke to me saying “Go give hope to people who don’t have it.” Immediately, I was enthralled by that calling, but I had no idea where it would lead me. I still have no idea where that calling will lead me, and I am exceptionally glad about that. That calling – to give hope – helped keep me alive in times when I didn’t think I was going to make it. Times of despair when relationships were exploding, imploding, and just generally being broken. But that vision of hope is what gave me the hope I needed to keep fighting.
I often defined myself by what I was fighting – fighting depression, anxiety, mental health stigma, and just being a contrarian in general. This was how I saw myself, and that’s still true. But there is more stability. I’m still pretty fight-y, but I am not nearly as angry. NazToo helped teach me that I can be good even if I’m not great. It helped teach me that I am really kinda good at all this theology stuff I love to study, and it helped teach me how utterly ignorant of so, so many things I am – of how much there is still to learn. It helped give me confidence in the midst of some rough depression after I lost my job. The two times I’ve been able to get to hang out with a number of NazToo people – once at General Assembly and once at the 2018 Wesleyan Theological Society conference – I’ve gotten to meet so many good and wonderful friends for the first time. I remember telling some people before I even left to go to that conference “I’m going to meet them for the very first time, but it’s going to be a reunion.” And that’s what it was.
I have always found I have learned about myself in and through my relationships with others. That is still true today, and I have learned so much about myself through this wonderful band of freaks, weirdos, and ragamuffins. Even though I learned a lot about gut bacteria and microbiomes, church iconography, what movies have the best Christ figures, democratic socialism, and so many other topics – knowing myself is what I have learned most of all. I have learned, and I am continuing to learn how to understand what it means that I am loved by God. How do I make sense theologically, spiritually, intellectually, existentially that I, Tyler Brinkman, am loved by God? These are not the abstract questions of a seminary student; they are the most profound questions which have haunted and shaped the whole course of human history. I am not deluded to think my answers are unique or really encapsulate the totality of how we find our identity in God.
I was chatting with a dear friend just a few weeks ago about this very topic. She teaches me about grace and kindness every time we meet and interact through her words and actions, and we were talking about how we find our identity totally in being a beloved child of God. Can we even really claim any other kind of identity? I wanted to end by sharing what I said in response to that question. I was only able to come to these tentative, seeking, questioning conclusions through this little community on-the-outskirts. So this is a “Thank You” to NazToo for helping me to believe what I have always proclaimed. This is what I said:
“I agree with you that we are all God’s beloved, and God’s unconditional love is constantly poured out on all people – individually and corporately. What I would encourage you to think is how God’s love is constant, but not static, and that God never loves us abstractly.
Rather than saying God’s love is unchanging, I want to say that the love of God is always perfectly changing. This is not to say that God loves us in different degrees or in different ways. But rather than there is within the love of God an inherent movement, a dynamism. I think of the Trinity and perichoretic union of the three persons: God in Godself gives Godself to Godself – eternally. It is a divine dance, and it is this dance which constitutes the love which God is. But it isn’t static. There is genuine movement, but the love of God is so vast and so deep that in all that eternal pouring out God’s love will ever be diminished or depleted. In the same way, God’s love (which is God) is poured out in an infinite number ways to meet whatever our needs are in the moment. The identity of God is found in God’s love – God is Love. God’s identity is grounded in that Trinitarian union, and, in Christ, God identifies with us. We are taken up into the identity of God.
In the same way, we demonstrate the love of God by continuing to pour out our love for God, God’s people, and God’s creation. So we too find our identity in what we love. We aren’t defined by our actions, experiences, beliefs or words. In reality, I don’t think humans are ever ‘defined’ at all, at least not totally. But I think we can say that we are, in part, constituted by what we love and how we love. I think this works because, in the act of love, we open ourselves up to God, God’s people, and God’s creation. In loving, we take these people into our hearts and into our lives. I think of Crystal; I am who I am today because of Crystal. Not to say she’s responsible for everything I think, do, say (I would never wish to lay such a curse on her!), but rather that she opens herself up to me so I can become a part of her and she is a part of me. I think this is what it means when it says ‘the two will become one flesh’ (Which I don’t think is solely limited to marriage).
With this, I think we can find our identity primarily in the Love of God while also saying that what and how we love shapes who we are.
Because God’s love is never abstract. I think turning identity and/or humanity into an abstraction is an act of violence to human personhood. In the end, it tends to be oppressive for marginalized communities – just look at the denial of racism under the guise of ‘colorblindness.’ You said, ” I think of myself as a daughter, a sister, a mom, a wife. I think I’m somewhat creative. I try to be kind. However, all of that could be taken away”. I think you’re right in that those identities are provisional. But I also want to say that you will always be a daughter, a mother, and a sister as long as you are alive. Even the death of those beloved ones cannot rob you from being a daughter, sister, and mother. But what if instead of saying God unconditionally loves you regardless of who you are, we say God loves you exactly as you are? God loves you as a mother. God loves you as a daughter. God loves you as a sister. God loves you as a pastor. God loves you as an American (clearly God’s love is undeserved!) God loves you as a friend, a woman, your personality, your sense of humor, your kindness, your peacemaking, your hair, body, and eyes. God loves those things specifically about you. God takes joy in those things. So rather than diminishing your identity as you are actually in the world, God’s love affirms who you are in the concrete – the person found in the every-day drudgeries of life: The frustrated pastor, the exasperated mother; the one who can only do eyeliner on one eye a time.
I think this matters because of this: I am not an abstraction. God loves me in my whiteness, in my ignorance, in my Americanism, in my marriage, in my familial relationships (in which I include close friends). God loves me not because of those things nor in spite of those things, but God does love me as I am those things. But the concrete reality of my existence oftentimes turns me into an abstraction. Sometimes I feel that in reality that I, as myself, cannot connect with people. Instead I have to play the role of somebody else for the sake of affection and familiarity. This is exhausting.
I feel most comfortable in myself and my relationships when I am embracing the concrete identity of who I am. And I feel most secure and loved in my relationships when I am loved as myself – the unabridged, sometimes insightful, typically frustrating, occasionally angering person. I cling to those relationships because they are life-giving to me. But I do have a couple of relationships where I can do that. It is in those where I find myself best able to open myself up to others and wherein I find myself in others. This doesn’t mean we are defined by others; it means that we find our identity in God in the world.
These relationships are where I experience the greatest joy, the greatest contentment. It is where I feel like I best embody the embracing and love of God towards myself and others. As I’ve continued this journey – the less I’ve come to hate myself, be disgusted with myself, and generally been more at peace.
In short, it’s where I experience the greatest belovedness.”