The Apostle Paul claims that “our citizenship” as Christians “is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). I preach on this identity all the time… and yet I wonder if I – or the members of my congregation – have truly owned and absorbed this identity. In our self-understanding, what is primary? Is it to be Christian or be American? What identity shapes the other?
I have a sense that what shapes us is mostly unexamined and not conscious. We may believe that our Christian convictions influence everything else in our lives and yet fail to recognize how our American identity shapes how we understand our faith. I could give many examples, most of them politically charged. But, instead, let’s explore a less threatening, but just as challenging, example from my own life.
I claim that, as a citizen of heaven, the “stuff” of this world is not important. Jesus promises to care for me (think of the “do not worry” passage in Matthew 6), but he doesn’t promise that I will feel secure or have everything I want (think of the parable of the rich man who hoarded his abundant harvest or Paul’s observation that he has learned to live “in plenty or in want” in Philippians 4). And so, as a pastor, I preach about generosity and admire saints like Francis of Assisi who chose poverty in response to Christ’s call.
Yet, I love to hoard my things. I worry about money and I struggle to live generously. My husband and I decided early in our marriage that we would practice generosity by always giving away a portion of gifts we received (especially large gifts). My infant son received two of the same gift this Christmas. My husband’s first inclination was to give away one of the duplicates. My first inclination was to return the gift to Amazon in order to get something else for my son (even though we are running out of room in our nicely sized home for all his toys). The narrative that has shaped my subconscious values is not Jesus’ “consider the lilies,” but Ben Franklin’s “God helps those who help themselves.” I want to say my Christian citizenship comes first, but, honestly, too often my American identity comes first.
What is the answer? How do we move from being Americans first (who happen to be Christian) to being Christians (who happen to be American)? Two suggestions come to mind, and both are easier to write about that to do:
- Examine our assumptions. When we get really upset about something, what is driving us? I had to notice that I preferred to keep my stuff than share it before I could choose the way of generosity.
- Practice our Christian citizenship. Even though my heart tugs me toward hoarding my things, I still choose to practice generosity… and I often do so dragging my feet. Still, I trust that practicing generosity over time will shape me into the Kingdom citizen I have already been made in Christ.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.