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"It Would Be Good to Die Here"
The Sunday of the Cross and putting our false self to death.
(NOTE: This blog is a week late, and therefore a bit of a failure. That’s thematically appropriate, as you’ll see.)
2022 was an eventful year.
I won’t get into the details, but it led to me quitting my old job at the end of August.
While that was the right move, I should confess that it was a really difficult transition…
Well—and thanks for asking—I’d spent the past decade building and leading Y2AM: a ministry initiative that tried to push Orthodox Christians (often uncomfortably) into repentance.
You could see that in:
Be the Bee, a video series dedicated to helping people see Christ and His Kingdom in all things.
Pop Culture Coffee Hour, a podcast dedicated to finding Christ at work in popular media like movies and TV shows.
We Are Orthodoxy, a podcast dedicated to helping pastors lead difficult (yet honest) Christ-centered conversations.
And you could probably see this most clearly in Effective Christian Ministry, a ministry training course that clearly outlined where (and why) ministry was struggling…and what we could do about it.
(In fact, when students of Effective Christian Ministry describe how the course impacted them and their community, repentance is usually the word they choose.)
And that repentance is a form of death: it’s dying to our will, to our desires, to our plans as we reorient our lives in pursuit of Christ.
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
The death of repentance is something I experienced recently, and it was because of my old job.
As you can probably tell, I loved my time at Y2AM. Yet it often felt like more than a job.
It felt like the source of my very identity.
To many people, for example, I was the “Be the Bee guy.” To others, I was the “Voice of Steve.”
But that all came crashing down in August when I left it all behind—when, in a very real sense, I put a version of myself to death.
As September began, I found myself asking a question:
Without this job, who am I?
It’s the kind of question we’ve all asked…
The Secular3 Quest for Identity
Identity is a hot topic in our postmodern world.
On one level, the quest for identity is a natural part of growing up. When we were kids, we all experimented with different styles of clothes, different genres of music, different friend groups, etc.
(And we probably have a bunch of embarrassing old photos chronicling our blunder years.)
Because we were all trying on identities as we searched for one that “fit.”
But why is identity a thing we search for rather than something we can just take for granted? After all, we’re each born into a particular family in a particular neighborhood.
So shouldn’t identity just be a fact we accept about ourselves?
Well, as we’ve already seen, the quest for identity is a natural part of what it means to live in a Secular3 world. Because, when every individual gets to—in fact, has to—make meaning for himself, then every individual also gets to—in fact, has to—cultivate an identity.
In this Secular3 world, who I am is not a gift from God. Nor is it a fact dictated by natural law or the very nature of reality (a reality I can’t choose but simply is).
No, in a Secular3 world I am who I say that I am.
Does that language sound familiar? Well, it should, because it’s how God talks about Himself in the Scripture. For example:
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)
Of course, while God is able to define meaning and identity, we aren’t.
And that’s why our Secular3 quest for identity tends to lead us in unhealthy directions…
Property, Power, and Prestige
A few weeks ago, in a blog on Orthodox Christianity and (Pseudo) Manliness, we looked at Max Weber’s theory of social stratification and how it fits in with Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness. We summarized those temptations as the allure of three key things:
These three temptations can also help us understand the broken ways we’re tempted to define our identity.
For example, we can see property as the source of our identity: I am what I own or possess. We can see power as the source of our identity: I am what I do or what I control. We can see prestige as the source our identity: I am what people say about me.
Don’t believe me? Well, here’s a concrete example:
When meeting someone new, our first get-to-know-you question is always something like “what do you do?”
That’s because—as a culture—we’ve internalized this basis for identity. To understand someone, we ask for their job because it gives us an immediate sense of their income (property), impact (power), and influence (prestige).
And that basis for identity is no less internalized in the Church. After all, we’re shaped by the culture more than we’d like to admit…
Remember how hard it was for me to move on from my old job? Well, when you’re not just acquiring property, power, and prestige for yourself but doing it for a deeply held sense of religiosity, then this flawed feeling of identity can get even more intense.
(Though, here in Secular3, it’s a mistake to underestimate how much of this “deeply held sense of religiosity” is just about me and my self-actualization.)
But I digress…
Of course, as Christians, we know that neither property nor power nor prestige is the sources of identity. We know that who we are is a gift that we receive in the waters of baptism.
Who we are is a gift we receive from our Heavenly Father as we are incorporated into the Body of His Son, Jesus Christ.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)
Who we are is something we put on sacramentally: the white robe of baptism.
And we say this, certainly. But do we really believe it?
Or, having internalized the flattened worldview of our postmodern world, do we no longer look to the white robe of baptism?
Maybe, instead of that sacramental garment, we see identity as being rooted in the masks we choose to wear (whether it’s the mask of our chosen profession or the jersey of our preferred sports team).
Because choice is a key factor in our Secular3 world…
The Chosen Persona
As Smith and Taylor both observe, identity has to feel authentic in our postmodern world.
And, to do so, it has to feel chosen.
Of course, commerce gives us virtually limitless options to choose from. That’s why, in our Secular3 world, identity is often wrapped up in the things we chose to buy or consume: clothing, music, video games, movies, etc.
These bits of property can, in turn, unlock their own power or prestige.
And this commercially-grounded identity, by virtue of the fact that it is chosen, feels authentic:
Indeed, this construction of a consumer identity—which has to feel like it’s chosen—trumps other identities, especially collective identities like citizenship or religious affiliation. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 86)
But there’s another piece to the puzzle. Because, even while we are disconnected from others and left to create meaning for ourselves in a Secular3 world, we still crave the affirmation we receive from others.
Sure, we don’t depend on others for direction or a shared sense of meaning—that would be old-fashioned and inauthentic. But, when we do broadcast our self-selected meaning into the world, we need others to see it and approve of it.
Smith describes it very pithily:
This is no longer a space of common action but rather a space of mutual display…In other words, we all behave now like thirteen-year-old girls. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 86)
And, as a result, we navigate the world less as persons and more as personae.
Rather than reveal ourselves (face-to-face or person-to-person) in a space of mutual honesty and vulnerability, we wear masks that allow us to present an artificial, curated identity (or persona) to the world.
It’s something we explored in the final episodes of Be the Bee episodes here:
What does the internet have to do with any of this?
That’s easy: the internet is perfectly designed to perpetuate the lie of postmodern identity.
Because not only can we effortlessly put on a new persona grounded in property or power or prestige, we can effortlessly broadcast that persona to strangers and receive their validation.
But it’s a one-way process: I get to broadcast a curated, artificial identity into the world on my own terms, and you don’t get to see the real person behind the persona.
Because it’s a one-way process it’s fundamentally dishonest.
And maybe, given enough time, it’s a lie I can be tempted to believe myself…
A Case Study in Identity
Last week, I wrote about why Christian apologetics miss the mark.
I received several private messages from one person who felt attacked by the blog. While he later apologized, his initial response was both vicious and immature.
In fact, it was so aggressive that it confused me.
I mean, why would anyone in the Church react so negatively to a blog arguing the need for canonical regularity, accountability, and formative preparation among those who publicly teach on behalf of the Church?
And then it finally dawned on me: the standards I outlined in the blog were a threat.
The person who messaged me presumably sees himself as a Christian apologist who does good work for the Church. And any standards which could call that perception into question would constitute an attack on his very sense of self.
Realizing that made me very sad…
Because, for a long while, I was no different.
I, too, saw my identity as wrapped up in the things I created (property), the influence I had over the direction of ministry (power), and the size of the audience that listened to me (prestige).
I put too much stock in the compliments of people who benefitted from that work. Those compliments weren’t just positive feedback—they were affirmations of my very sense of self.
And I had difficulty handling any challenges to that work—especially when those obstacles came from the very people and organizations who were supposed to support it. Those weren’t just roadblocks—they were attacks on my very sense of self.
And, unlike Christ, I wasn’t prepared to turn the other cheek.
Even after I grudgingly admitted that I needed to move on from my old job, it still hurt…for a long time. After all, who was I without that work?
So how did I finally get over all of that?
I realized that I need to put my ambitions and flawed sense of self to death…
My Month in a Monastery
After I left my job in August, I travelled a bit to catch up with good friends and then spent October in a monastery.
I’ve visited plenty of monasteries over the years—those experiences helped shape my understanding of the Church and my thoughts on healthy ministry.
But that October trip was different. Because I wasn’t simply visiting for a couple of weeks during a seminary break or while on vacation from work: I was visiting the monastery with a (to be frank) scary openness to God’s call.
Was I going to continue working in ministry after I left the monastery? Would I leave the monastery at all, or spend my life there?
I didn’t have answers to those questions…
And so, still greatly embittered after all that I’d lost, I stepped into the unknown.
A week or so into my visit, I was working with some of the Fathers outside. We sat in a circle under a great tree, scrubbing the beets we had recently gathered from the monastery’s garden. We were silent except for one of the Fathers, who mumbled the words of the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
As we worked in the cold, it seemed as if everything suddenly became warm and golden—as if a light that cast no shadow illumined everything. And a distinct yet wordless voice spoke:
“It would be good to die here.”
For a long while, I struggled to understand what these words meant. Because, try as I might, I could perceive no calling to stay in the monastery. So I wasn’t going to literally die there…
But then, one day, it finally dawned on me: the person who left the monastery could not be the person who entered.
The false “Steve” that had dominated my life for so long—the Steve that was so dedicated to his own plans and goals; so dedicated to the projection of his carefully curated persona; so dedicated to the acquisition of property, power, and prestige (even if there was a “religious” motivation behind it all)…
That “Steve” needed to die.
The Cross and the Death of the “Old Man”
There’s an ascetic expression that’s sometimes used in the Church:
“If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”
In others words, if we can truly die to ourselves so that, as Saint Paul writes, “it is not longer I who live but Christ that lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), then we’ve truly taken a step into real Life in Christ.
It’s actually something we explored in an episode of Be the Bee after my grandmother passed away:
But recollecting that episode is profoundly embarrassing…
Because, I made that video almost seven years ago.
Looking back, I had no idea what I was talking about. I mean, sure, I understood the concept in an abstract way, on an intellectual level—but the truth had not yet pierced my heart.
I spoke about dying to my old self, but that old self was still very much alive.
(It still is, mind you. Repentance is a lifelong struggle.)
I spent nine years in ministry, planning and working and struggling so hard to do what I thought was best. And my intentions were (I think) generally good.
But, just like faith in a Secular3 world runs the risk of being self-directed and self-serving, my work was subject to the posturing and self-creating that’s so prevalent in a Secular3 world. Being a Christian doesn’t make you immune to the shared assumptions of our postmodern age—and neither does being employed by the Church.
I don’t mean to say that I regret that chapter. Nor do I think I said or wrote things that were wrong. But I have more faith in that work in retrospect precisely because I was willing to let it go.
Because I was willing to place myself in God’s hands—even if that meant the end of all I’d worked for.
Does that make sense?
I can look back on Be the Bee, for example, and be reassured that it was more than a vanity project because I was willing to walk away from it for the sake of the Gospel. There’s a reason I quoted Saint John the Forerunner in the last episode: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
And I think it’s no accident that this path of self-emptying led me to FOCUS North America and the Lord’s call to see see and serve Him in our neighbor. Nor is it an accident that the Assembly of Bishops recently welcomed FOCUS as an Affiliate Ministry. These are bigger plans than I could have devised on my own.
So why is this on my mind now?
Because, as we pass through the Sunday of the Cross, I can’t help but see squabbles and conflicts throughout the Church: from diocesan offices to the dregs of the internet, from ambitious clerics to self-insistent influencers.
The Church has, in so many ways, been reduced to a means of self-actualization: to the acquisition of property, power, and prestige for our own sake—even as we mask those ambitions under the pretense of religiosity.
So, to all of those struggling with ambition and acquisition; to all those struggling with the inherent self-regard of our Secular3 age; to all those struggling with the allure of property, power, and prestige—I share the word I received:
“It would be good to die here.”
Because only then can we embrace true Life in Christ.
One Last Thing
Before we go, I’ve leave you with the words of Father John Behr, who captures the mystery of death far more eloquently than I ever could:
Death will finally reveal in which direction my heart is oriented.
However, until that point, it is still I who am doing this, dying to myself.
When, on the other hand, I am finally returned to the dust, then I stop working.
Then, and only then, do I finally experience my complete and utter frailty and weakness.
Then, and only then, do I become clay (for I never was this), clay fashioned by the Hands of God into living flesh.
And so, it is also only then that the God whose strength is made perfect in weakness can finally be the Creator:
taking dust from the earth which I now am and mixing in his power, He now, finally fashions a true, living, human being—“the glory of God.” (Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image, pp. 68-69)