There is no such thing as a self-made man. Or woman. Each person on Earth is a unique individual shaped by the culture, subculture, family and faith they live and breathe within.
As a Christian, I became aware that I was different at an early age. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, it was in my teens when I realised just how different. I went to a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school and had friends there who were not Christian. They were there to reform while I was there for the music. The Rio Lindo Academy choir and band visited my church a few times in my childhood and I knew I wanted to go there to play the saxophone in the band and sing in the choir.
While a student at Rio Lindo, along with music, I learned all kinds of things that weren’t on the school curriculum. I learned you didn’t need to be 21 to drink alcohol - you just needed alcohol. I learned cigarettes were not just something my Grandma kept in the top of her kitchen cupboard, they were available from a guy at the back door of the gym. I learned sometimes boys got girls pregnant and those girls left school while the boy got pats on the back and special privileges from the boys dean. And I learned, in all of the above and more, everything you become later in life starts with the choices you make now.
In the summer before my Senior year, I went to live and work in Maui, Hawaii. I found a job on Front Street in Lahaina encouraging people to get their photos taken with macaws. They were beautiful birds and tourists flocked to see them. The trick was getting people over their fear of the claws and beaks. Once they allowed the bird on their arm, they always wanted a Polaroid. That was the job and I loved it.
When my shift finished at 4pm, Mike’s shift would begin. During the transition time, we became friends. Mike came from a very different world than I did. He saw as normal and desirable all the things I was raised to avoid. And he quickly became more and more sure that I was from a different planet.
Mike had one primary goal in life and he kept a list. Mike was attempting to have sex with a woman from every country on Earth. He was serious about it. He’d been travelling for a few years, from country to country, ticking nations off his list. Until he arrived in Maui and realised it was a traveller's Mecca and if he stayed put the ladies of the world would come to him. One night, Mike asked me if I wanted to join him on a Catamaran with ‘some ladies’. I declined. After a few questions, Mike came to a startling realisation and asked what was to him a deeply troubling question, “You’re not a virgin, are you?” When I said I was, he promised, “We will change that!” I laughed and explained it wasn’t something I wanted to be changed.
A week or two later, Mike invited me to a bar for drinks after work. It was Friday night and the the entire staff from the bird stand would be there sharing laughs and liquor. I explained that I didn’t drink. He assumed this was due to my age and said he knew the bartender and it would be no problem. I explained my choice not to drink and he said, “Ok, well just have a glass of milk or something.” Then I explained the Sabbath to him. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I choose to give 24 hours - from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday - to God each week. I spend these hours with God, my church family and friends. Mike shook his head in wonder.
The next week the owner of the birds, Casey, happened to stop by while Mike and I were chatting. Casey was a hippie. He drove a combi-van, had long hair and talked in long drawn out syllables even for short words. Mike started teasing Casey about his hippie diet. “Dave, did you know Casey only eats rabbit food?” I smiled and said, “Mike, I’m a vegetarian, just like Casey!” Again, Mike shook his head.
A few days later, as we were chatting, Mike pointed out a friend walking on the beach. “Oh, I want to introduce you to someone.” The beach was across the busy street and past a wooden dividing fence. Mike stood on a chair, cupped his hands, and shouted over the crowd, “DUUUDE!” His friend blocked the sun from his eyes and squinting, looked at Mike - as did everyone else in the busy outdoor shopping area. “DUDE! This is the guy I was telling you about!” Mike gestured to me as he continued shouting, “THE VEGETARIAN VIRGIN WHO DOESN’T DRINK!!”
Time stopped. I looked for a hole to climb into or a tree to hide behind. Everyone was staring. At. Me.
Mike’s friend ran up the beach, jumped the fence, crossed the road and sprinted toward me. As he got close he raised a hand above his head like he was going to hit me. Instead, he brought it down, palm up, and said, “Put her there!” I warily slapped at his hand in the way cool guys do. He accepted my low-five, put his hands on his hips and rocked back on his heels. “Dude, is it true?”
“Um, is what true?”
“Do you really refuse alcohol, meat and the ladies?”
My eyes shifted around the courtyard to see who else was looking. Mercifully, people had moved on with their lives. I looked down at the ground, embarrassed, “Yeah, it’s true.”
The next words out of his mouth were completely unexpected. “Dude, how do you do it?”
All my life I’d had to explain why I don’t do these things. Never had anyone framed the question in the reverse. “Do what? I don’t do anything!”
He laughed. “No way, man. Respect! I could never be that strong. How can you be so strong?”
I told him about my family. “I’ve been raised this way. I’ve never thought of it as strength. It’s just the way we are.”
“Dude, it’s strength.” He put his hand out and I shook it, “I’ve got nothing but respect for you.”
Character and Resilience
Over the 30+ years since that perception altering conversation, I have been studying the development of character and resilience. Both are products of our culture and values. We are truly unique - each and every one of us - shaped by the environment we grew up in and the choices we made in our formative years. Most of what we are as adults was shaped and set-in-stone before we left home.
I spend a lot of time talking to kids and parents about how to define and develop both character and resilience. Here’s my take, in a nutshell:
Resilience comes from relationships. Every child needs a minimum of five significant adults with whom they have experiences and share stories. Believed stories are stored in the same part of the mind as personal experiences. So, the more stories our children hear from significant adults, the more resilience material they have for life’s difficult patches.
Character - a combination of our thoughts and feelings - is formed by boundaries and routines. Like the wall around a building, our character is stable when we know and trust the boundaries. Everyone is comfortable leaning against a solid wall, no matter how far the fall is on the other side of it. Likewise, we trust ourselves when we have well-tested boundaries. Those boundaries are designed and defined by our routines and rituals. Every time an athlete runs around a track, they increase their ability and belief to succeed in their sport. When they ritualise that run around the track - doing it day in and day out - they create permanence of strength and character. Every time a person of faith practices their faith - every prayer, every time of worship - they increase their trust and reliance in the foundation of their faith. Every time a child lifts their arms up to their parent and is lifted up, their trust and reliance on that parent is encouraged and empowered. Our boundaries and routines provide the foundations and building blocks for our character.
Our identity is formed by three boundaries we live with and within every day of our lives. These boundaries are shaped in our childhood and never questioned by most people. They form our identity. Imagine a target with three rings. The bullseye is your identity. It is encompassed by three rings. The first ring has “person” written in it. The next ring has “world” written in it. And the final ring has “universe” written in it.
Because we are all aware of the concept of “worldview” let’s start with the middle ring. Our worldview is shaped by the world in which we grow up. In the west, success is reached by the person who aspires, focuses, trains and achieves their goals. To someone embedded in a western worldview, it may come as a shock to hear that in the past all of humanity and still today, most of the world, live by a different rule of success.
Community, to those outside the western worldview, is where success is decided and defined. A community rises or falls based on the interactivity of the people within. One person’s success or failure means little overall as long as the family, the village, the culture is maintained. I call these two worldviews: Me vs We.
“Me” says “I made this. It’s mine.” Selfishness is ingrained. Sharing is praised as an act of personal altruism.
“We” says “We made this. It’s ours.” Sharing is ingrained. Selfishness demeans the community and is shunned.
“Me” says “I am created in God’s Image.” Being like God means self-control and self-esteem.
“We” says “We are created in God’s Image.” Being like God means working together to empower others and create a better world.
The Biblical worldview, the one to which Christians are called, is contrary to the self-focused western worldview. Community is more important than the individual. Our purpose in “image-bearing” God to the world is accomplished in and through relationships rather than personal achievement.
Your worldview creates a boundary within which your identity and character form.
If you live within the “Me” boundary, your routines and rituals will focus on your need to achieve, improve, acquire and increase wealth and experience. You will find meaning in owning more than you need and using your worth to build more worth, even negative-gearing it to allow you to wrap your tail around an even bigger pile of treasure. You will feel completely justified behaving in selfish and self-righteous ways because you’ve earned it yourself and clearly, you know best!
If you build your life within the “We” boundary, you will seek first to build relationships. Your time and energy will focus on giving and accepting love. You will see others as your investment portfolio. As you mentor people your community will strengthen and mature. As you focus on your relationship with God - growing to love and treasure Him as you are loved and treasured by Him - you will become more loving and lovable. God’s Kingdom is a place of family, future-proofed through meaningful conversation, friendships and acts of compassion.
Resilience, which comes through relationships and shared story, can be developed in both worldviews. In the “We” worldview, resilience is a natural byproduct of spending time in community. In the “Me” worldview, resilience is a gained through family, team sports, the educational system and paid mentoring.
What does it mean to be human? What is a person?
The modern world has sold us a concept of human nature that is broken and incomplete. We are taught by the media, movies, superstars and science books that we are, at our very foundation, sexual beings. Our identity is built on our physical attractiveness. We are valued by others and thus value ourselves if we are sexy. We spend our lives building bodies that are sexually attractive or layering ourselves with flattering clothing - or both. We find our place in life, where we belong, with people like ourselves. The law of fitness governs our survival as individuals and as a species.
The truest and purest view of the person is that we are spiritual beings. The Bible starts by saying we were created in the Image of God. A person is a spiritual being. God is Love. You are designed to be loved and to give love. I say this is the truest and purest person-view because as those who have been truly loved know, at its foundation, love is not a sexual thing. Humans who have experienced true love know there is no greater joy than being unconditionally loved. When we love and are loved with a heart love - in our spirit - we are truly living as we were created to live. We are spiritual beings.
If your person-view boundary is of humans as sexual beings, you will have routines and rituals which focus on beautifying and perfecting your body, objectifying yourself to earn respect as a worthwhile person. You will spend time and energy participating in pursuits that value others for their success at sexualising themselves. Your children will learn from your words and actions that they are most valuable when they are physically attractive.
If your person-view boundary is of humans as spiritual beings, you will have routines and rituals which are internal. You will practice and participate in reading books, spending time in prayer and meditation, attend religious services, and do acts of service. Your time and energy will be spent on heartfelt activities. Your children will learn from your words and actions that they are most whole when they are growing in spirit and involved in service to others.
Resilience, which comes through relationships and shared story, can be developed in both person-views. Other people and their stories will be taken on board, reinforcing your particular view. These mentors and their stories will lead you deeper into this way of thinking.
What is the Universe? Where did it come from? How did it get here?
The question of origins has interested us for as long as recorded history goes back. Religions formed around the question. Science attempts to answer it. It is the primary human question. Starting with the middle-ground in which we live, the world we can see and experience, the focus of the question zooms out and in, both approaching infinity. The bigger questions start with our solar system, reach beyond our galaxy and grasp at the edges of the known universe. The smaller questions zoom in and parse us - our cells, atoms, protons, quarks and quirks. But, overall, the question remains: What is it all and where did it come from?
The modern scientific world we live in has thrown a red herring into the approach we use in explaining the universe. This red herring swims not just in secular camps but religious ones as well. It is a product of modernity and in this sense, universal. Our ever-present passionate interest in nature has become an impassioned plea toward the saving of nature. Just as in days-of-old, our society has turned it’s universal question into a religion. Save the planet. Our nature to love and be loved draws us inexplicable toward loving the planet. If you ask most people caught up in saving the world why they think this way, they will argue that they are not in it for themselves. Saying things like, “We don’t need to save the planet just for our own needs, it’s just the right thing to do. We’ve done this damage and we should undo it.” They are expressing their inbuilt unexplainable desire to love that which is greater than themselves.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with caring for our planet. It is a good thing to clean up our mess. But, the red herring remains. And Christians are just as guilty of it as the scientific world. We preach green sermons. We organise outreach programs for our youth in which we better and beautify nature. And we argue about the Earth like it’s the end of the world. We even call it science, Creation Science. Many Christians feel they need to defend the planet - it’s age and birth - from those with different origin beliefs. So much so that many Christians make a passion of it and some make a living at it. Arguing about creation.
And here is the universal problem. The red herring is the focus on the created rather than the Creator. I believe we have a God who created everything, created us in His Image and then called us to love and be loved. At the foundation of this belief is God - our Loving Creator. I worship Him. Not the stars. Not the Earth. Never does the Bible try to prove God’s existence. It assumes it. Never does the Bible try to prove God’s creative power or process. It assumes it. When we take our mission or method from anywhere other than our Creator and His Love, we become part of the problem rather than the solution.
If your universe-view comes from creation, you will have routines and rituals focused on the wellbeing of planet Earth. You will spend your time and energy discussing and defending a theory of origins or saving the planet. You will be passionate about saving the planet. You may also be driven to decry those who believe differently.
If your universe-view is based on the Creator, you will have routines and rituals which lift Him up in worship and draw yourself and others toward Him. You will spend your time and energy glorifying and glorying in his presence and purpose for life - to love and be loved. Your views of God and his Word will inform your desire to care for others and the planet. You will, like your loving Creator, engage and embrace others in compassionate conversation.
Resilience, which comes through relationships and shared story, can be developed in both worldviews. There are many groups of creation-focused people who are deeply engaged in common purpose and meaning. They are not, however, necessarily connecting to God or through God to others in Love. Shared experiences and stories are present within both universe-view boundaries. One ensures God alone is worshipped - lifted up as the Creator of life and love.
Thinking back on that handshake and passionate plea, “How do you do it? Where do you get your strength?” I now have some answers. I was right that my family was the source of my views. But, now I am able to explain it.
A follower of Jesus lives and breathes within a different reality than someone who doesn’t know Him. Not because their reality is inherently different but because it is perceived differently.
God is love. His love compels his followers to love those around them. Not because its our job but because it's our response to His love. Being loved by our Creator in whose image we are created we connect as spiritual beings in loving, creative relationships with the rest of humanity. All in the desire to see God fully known for all that He is.
God’s people are those who recognise where they have come from. Or, more importantly, Who they have come from. Created lovingly in the Image of God by the God of Love, we are formed by Him to be in relationship with Him and those He created. When we show love to Him it is called worship. When we show love to each other it is called compassion.
Building our character within boundaries that speak of His love will shape us more rightly in His image. Viewing the person as spiritual, the world as relational, and the universe as a gift from the Creator we can build routines and rituals that embed these truths more deeply within us. Spending time with like-minded people in community and worship will give both us and our children resilience that relies on the experiences and stories which grew out of God’s love.
That is how we do it.
By building on the firm foundation of the God of Love.
By flourishing within boundaries created by His Love.
That is where we get our strength.
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