Be bold: Living into our true identity

"When we put on our identity in Christ," the Rev. Rachel Billups teaches, "when we lean into the fact that God has called us beloved children, we’re unstoppable. We become these super people. Not because there’s an extra chromosome of faith.., but [because] we actually trust what God says about us."

Billups, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio, is the author of Be Bold, Finding Your Fierce a wonderful book about living into our true, Christian identity. In our conversation, she reminds us to let go of the false stories we may have heard about ourselves, and fiercely live into the promises of Christ. 

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This episode posted on March 17, 2020.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

Rachel Billups: When we put on our identity in Christ, when we lean into the fact that God has called us beloved children, we’re unstoppable. We become these super people. Not because there’s an extra chromosome of faith that we have. But rather, we actually trust what God says about us.

Joe: That’s Rachel Billups, the lead pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of Be Bold, Finding Your Fierce. In our conversation, she reminds us to let go of the false stories that we have heard about ourselves, and to live into our true identity as beloved children of God.

Conversation

Joe: Rachel Billups, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Rachel Billups: Well, hello and thank you, Joe. I’m so delighted to be here.

Joe: You’re the author of a recently released book titled Be Bold Finding Your Fierce. What do you mean by fierce? What does it mean to be fierce?

Rachel Billups: It’s so interesting to me, Joe, that a lot of people have asked that question because I think sometimes, we as church folk believe that we’re called to be meek. Scripture tells us ‘blessed are the meek.’ And so to hear that word be bold or even fierce it makes us a little anxious. But really I think fierce is the opposite of fear. I see a lot of fear in the church, and a lot of folks who, for whatever reason, are really held back by personal and public fears. And so this discovery of finding your fierce is allowing the work of the Holy Spirit to work in you and through you and to let go of some of that fear that’s holding you back and really to step into your fierce. So that’s what I mean by fierce.

Joe: When did you first discover this need to be more fierce and less fearful?

Rachel Billups: When I was born.

Laughter

It’s really fascinating. I kind of grew up in an isolated place. I grew up in what we call a two-point charge, where we had 50 people on a great Sunday. I grew up in the church. Certainly my parents weren’t necessarily pastors. In fact, my dad really didn’t even go…church wasn’t necessarily his priority as I was growing up. And what I found growing up in a bit of isolation, was that I was pretty much afraid of everything: afraid to drive too far away from home, afraid to be away from home, afraid to really step out into the plans and the purposes that God had for my life. So at a very young age I was face to face with a whole lot of fear about a lot of things.

What really stunk in my life is that I also within, felt this God-call erupting to do things that I was terrified of doing; i.e., public speaking. Right?

I can remember as young as being in high school and having to give a speech before the class—actually the French class that I was in—and just being in tears, not able to speak or talk in front of the class—and having a delightful French teacher, Miss Egbert, giving me the ability to wait until class was over and to do the speech just to her. I was just that petrified of public speaking.

I think all of us have these fears, these inherent fears that say, “I can’t. I won’t. I shouldn’t. I’m not going to do it.” All of those fears keep us from living the Jesus life that Jesus has called us to live.

Joe: You talk in the book about limitation prophecies. These things that are spoken over us that hold us back.

Rachel Billups: I believe all of us are face to face with what I call limitation prophecies—these kind of negative words that are spoken over us. Sometimes it’s as simple as, you know, like, our family or our folk don’t do that kind of thing. You know? We don’t get educated. We don’t go to college. We don’t get that job. Frankly, families are really good at saying limitation prophecies over us.

In my book, you’ll discover that I’m not just saying, “Hey, my grandma said this, my dad said this.” Rather, these limitations were spoken over them. Generationally sometimes we pass a limitation prophecy from one generation to the next. And so I extend quite a bit of grace to my family, because I realize it’s not their fault. It’s just what they know and what they have known.

But what’s fascinating to me is even at an early age I found Jesus and I discovered the Bible. When I opened up the pages of the Bible I heard stories about people like Deborah and David who, even though they had all of these cultural and even family limitations, because they trusted in God, God was able to use them to do some pretty incredible stuff. So even at a young age I began to say, “Okay, God, I may not trust myself, I may not believe in me; but I believe in you, and in your work in people’s lives.”

So I took some baby steps along the way to say, “Okay, I’m going do the next right thing that God is calling me to do,” and would step out in faith and then would either fail, or at the very least would have some degree of, “Oh, I can do this.”

I began to have, probably in high school, to feel a calling to pastoral ministry, preaching ministry. I remember this tiny—It wasn’t even a United Methodist Church—a tiny Christ in Christian Union Church that asked me to come and speak at a youth event they were doing.

So I did. I’d never preached before. I’m sure it was a terrible sermon. But it was something that I said, or something about the testimony that I gave that these more seasoned, older folks came to me and said, “Hey, God used you to speak to me tonight.” That’s really all I needed. I didn’t need affirmation, like, “Hey, you were good.” I needed to know that I was on the right God path, that God was using me not because it was me, but rather because God was choosing me to really do this thing that I was terrified of doing. I would take one step, and I would also… Still to this day I still use Scripture to remind myself, “Rachel, God’s going to show up. God’s going to use you. Suck it up, buttercup. I did not give you a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and a sound mind. Trust God even when you don’t trust yourself.”

Joe: Is that one of the tips that you would give to those who are struggling with fear? To just remember the promises of God and build those up in your heart?

Rachel Billups: Absolutely. Having a few go-to scriptures that really remind you of who you are and whose you are. A lot of times we focus on our own inability when we have an identity. We are beloved children of the living God. If we said ‘yes’ to Jesus, the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in us.

So often, even though of us who call ourselves Christians, even those of us who have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, we walk around as though we have no power. But I think it is claiming those promises, holding onto the power, and operating out of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives that really is important.

Joe: One of the sections in the book that I was really drawn to was this illustration you used of the Wonder Woman costume when you were a child. Do you mind sharing that story?

Rachel Billups: Sure. When I was a little girl I had one of these Wonder Woman costumes. I was like many kids in the ‘80s. I loved that costume and I just refused to really wear anything else. I put it on over and over and over again to the point where my mom would get so angry—it was so dingy and dirty. She was just infuriated that I refused to wear anything else. It’s amazing to me that when I put on that costume I really felt like I had power. I think we see this is children.

I have 4 kids of my own. Whether it’s my 5-year-old David who puts on a Batman mask, or—I have a 2 year old named Sarah, who when she puts on a Superman tee shirt or a Wonder Woman tee shirt herself, she just has this fierce that just kind of bubbles out.

When we put on our identity in Christ, when we lean into the fact that God has called us beloved children, we’re unstoppable. We become these super people. Not because there’s an extra chromosome of faith that we have. But rather, we actually trust what God says about us.

But there are a lot of things in our lives and that particular chapter in the book, I really talk about how we and others…. At 5 years old with that Wonder Woman costume on, I thought I was unstoppable, but over the years those limitation prophecies, those moments of bullying. That chapter is rightfully entitled, “Confessions of a Mean Girl.”

When I myself was, you know, in 7th grade, I just tore someone up. You’ll read about it in the book. I really limited their person, their potential, and their power with my words. And I think whether we like it or not, we in the community of faith can do the same.

When we see people emerging, when we see the power of God at work in people’s lives, we don’t know what to do with it. Sometimes we want to contain it or put it in a category. We’ve got to be careful because we can speak a bullying word or a limitation prophecy over a brother or a sister because we don’t understand what’s going on. So I think it’s really important for us to recognize that, we do have this kind of super power within. It’s called the Holy Spirit. WEecan operate out of that, if we’re willing to trust God.

Joe: I think a lot of us have those…or maybe it’s just me…but I have those negative tapes in my head sometimes that are always telling me, “I’m not enough.” Right? “I’m not good enough, prepared enough, thin enough, good looking…whatever that is, whatever is not enough. But you remind us that Christ in us is enough.

Rachel Billups: That’s right. You know, I think it’s the devil’s greatest tool to get us to think that our identity is something other than in Jesus. That we are less than.

Joe: You ask this great question, too: Which story are you going to believe? God’s story about who you are, or what these other voices are telling you? People get stuck there quite a bit, I imagine.

Rachel Billups: Well, I mean, frankly, Joe. We get stuck there every day. Laughter

Think about it. You wake up one morning, particularly as a pastor. I wake up one morning and I get an email or a “love letter” on Facebook or something else, and people are being a little bit nasty. I have a choice to make. Either I can take all that personally, put it on myself, get angry, frustrated, all those kinds of things. Or I can take a deep breath and say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” This person is a beloved child of God and they’re hurting, and they’re frustrated. What’s this really about? But if I don’t take that moment to declare my identity and that person’s identity, I’m typing some stuff that’s less than Christ-like. It’s just true.

I think we’re tempted to operate out of an identity that is not our own. It’s rooted in fear. It’s rooted in this fear that like, “I can’t believe that this person is…” You fill in the blank.

Joe: Right. Sometimes for me when I hear those things it’s like, “Oh, they found me out. I’m really not good enough.”

Rachel Billups: You just said something that I think is really, really important. We believe in grace. And we believe in sanctifying grace.

So often we have this expectation like, I said ‘yes’ to Jesus, therefore there’s this magic Holy Spirit around and everything in my life is perfect and I’ve got to be perfect. I can’t make mistakes. I can’t be growing. And I can’t show that I’m growing. And certainly I’m going to put on the Jesus mask and just pretend that everything’s okay.

Actually, I think that’s an absolute disservice to the entirety of the community of faith. You’ll see in my book that I try to be as honest…not brutal…but as honest as I possibly can be, because I think vulnerability and authenticity and honesty are part of the sanctification process. It’s part of me working toward perfection. Because I’m not going to get there by pretending I’m something that I’m not.

I’m a big ol’ work in progress. I’m a sinner saved by grace. And I’m still working out some of the pretty ugly pieces of my soul because sometimes in my life I continue to not believe the truth about what Jesus says about me. When I operate out of that untruth, when I operate out of the ugliness, things can get a little ugly.

Joe: I like your thought about admitting that we’re not there yet or being vulnerable and being open with the places in our life where we’re not all that we could be… is a way of leading on to that sanctification. It allows us to continue to grow when we can admit we’re not there yet. Is that what you were saying?

Rachel Billups: That’s exactly right. I think, Joe, sometimes where we get ourselves off track is we see those places of like, you know, flaws or those places of like, need to grow up and those kind of messy places in our lives. And we point to those and we say, “See, that’s my identity.” No! That’s not your identity. You’re a work in progress. Your identity—God’s clear—you’re a beloved child of the living God.

You were talking about that fear when someone points something out, like, “Oh my gosh, they’re right; I’m a horrible human being. Yeah, my motives are terrible. I was just trying to be famous not faithful.” All those kinds of things.

Honestly, I think it’s that fear because we’re like, “That’s kind of true.” But it’s only kind of true. It’s only a half-truth. It does. We begin to like uncover our motives and say, “You know what? There might be some pride in there, or fear in there, or a desire for manipulation in there, or a desire to be affirmed in there.” But recognizing the motives, that’s what I love about our United Methodist faith.

John Wesley was really good at asking questions that weren’t just about behaviors, they were about the motives behind the behaviors. How is it with your soul? isn’t, “What are you doing today that’s going to give you trouble?” It’s no, no, no. What’s the thing behind the thing, behind the thing, because it’s that that’s killing you.

Joe: Wow. Well said. I like that a lot. I could spend a lot of time here, but I want to go in other directions.

You touched on this a little bit. Let’s talk about the vulnerability that you share in the book, because one of the things that I think is wonderful about this book—and now we’re talking about Rachel Billups’ new book Be Bold Finding Your Fierce—is that it’s part Bible study, part sermon-esque.

But there’s another part of it that’s memoir. You tell a lot of stories about your life. In fact, every chapter, I noticed there was a Bible story and there was a Rachel story. Is that part of what it looks like to be fierce, to be able to be vulnerable and share these stories?

Rachel Billups: Oh, absolutely. I think in my book you’re gonna discover that the listener, the reader, to really look at the good, the bad and the in-between of your life. And to not just throw it all away because I think we’re really good at that. But to say how can these moments in my life actually be the fuel for my fierce? How can I take all of this and say, “You know what? It was useful.”

Some of the most trying moments in my life…frankly, some of my biggest failures have really helped me be a better preacher, be a better pastor, be a better mom, be a better spouse. Have shaped my future in such a way that if I ignored them or stuffed them or pretended they didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.

So I’m encouraging everybody to… This whole book-writing process really was a spiritual experience for me, that kind of faith memoir, if you will. How does the Bible in my own faith narrative and the work of the Holy Spirit…how do those 3 things combine to really help me understand how God has been present and at work in my life? And how God is wanting me to continue to grow and to find htose moments of fierce?

Because, Joe, I’m in the thick of it right now. It’s kind of ironic to me, about the time that this book came out, Be Bold: Finding Your Fierce, I have been recently named the new lead pastor at Ginghamsburg Church. And so it’s been a little bit hilarious, every time that I’ve been like, hey, this is hard; I’m not sure I want to do this, someone sends me a quote from my book that has helped them. It happens to be exactly what I need for today. I think to myself, God, you’re hilarious. Seriously. I would say it this way: Fear has a regular return policy.

The book has really been an opportunity for me to find that in myself, but for me to also encourage other folk to do that kind of spiritual evaluation of your life and to see how God has been so present in it all—the good, the bad and the in-between.

Joe: Would you recommend people take the time to write down some of those… a “spiritual autobiography” as some people have called it.

Rachel Billups: Oh, absolutely. At the end of each chapter of my book I give people some questions to wrestle with. Every author has expectations, but I’d love for people to not only wrestle with those questions, but to send me stuff.

I’ve already started hearing people’s personal stories about how my book encouraged them in particular area of their lives or even encouraged them to share their story in a way that they’d never felt the freedom to share it before. I think that’s good stuff.

Joe: Was any part of the book difficult to write? Any stories hard to share?

Rachel Billups: It’s kind of interesting. I don’t think that this is true of very many authors, but with the help of other persons, I outlined what ended up being like 20 possible chapters and then narrowed that down to ten, and then started writing on a timeline and I really did just wake up and say, “Okay, God, what are we doing here?” And I really felt led by the Spirit to write chapter after chapter. I kinda went with Jesus on that.

I started with chapter 8 which is probably the most emotional and difficult chapter that I’ve ever written in my life, but frankly my favorite chapter.

This is a story about my uncle Nick. It’s a family story that I’ve never shared in this kind of way—this honestly and publicly. So I prepped my family for this chapter as well. But it was the most powerful chapter for me to write.

Some of the other chapters, like, I get really gut honest about my marriage in chapter 5, and I happened to write that one on my anniversary. And my mother-in-law was doing some editing ahead of time on some of these chapters, and I totally forgot to warn her. She doesn’t know some of the stories in that chapter. It was really cool because she was like, “I didn’t know this stuff. But this is really, really powerful and I’m so glad that you’re sharing this with me and with the world.”

And some of this stuff was hard to write because some things that happen to you, you’re not necessarily mad at the people that were a part of that experience. So you try your best to share your story in a way that’s authentic to you and isn’t mean to other people.

Joe: One of the places of emphases in the book is about how fierce is not a one-time decision, but it’s something that we do…it’s a bunch of little decisions.

Rachel Billups: I really believe, like I said earlier, fear definitely has a regular return policy. And every single day when we wake up we are face to face with… whether it’s fear or just a feeling of being totally overwhelmed and not knowing the next decision that we need to make. I think we can live our lives pretty scared, and live a very limited life.

So every day we have choices to make. Am I going to be courageous or am I going to let fear win today? And so I think finding your fierce is daily; it’s weekly; it’s monthly. I think every year we look back and we say, “Wow, I’ve gotten better at this. I’ve gotten better at this.”

Joe: Yeah, I imagine it gets easier.

Rachel Billups: It does get easier because you trust…you trust God more often and say, “Ah, just get over yourself.”

Joe: You talk about how our fierce is intended to be lived out in community. This isn’t a solo endeavor, but it’s meant to benefit…it’s meant to be a gift, I think you say, to the human community.

Rachel Billups: A lot of times when we think about being bold, finding our fierce, we have this Lone Ranger picture in our mind, as if it’s all about me versus the world. But we, as a Christian community, we have an identity in Christ that isn’t just about me and Jesus; it’s me and Jesus and everybody else. So, I think sometimes if we think that fierce is about me standing up against other people in the community, you’ve got the wrong deal.

When we’re living fierce, courageous lives, it, number one, encourages the people around us to live a fierce, courageous life, too. But I also believe that it’s passed generation to generation. We should be teaching, encouraging, cultivating the courage and the fierceness and the boldness in our community of faith in the next generation. And when I say next generation I’m not just talking about young people. I’m talking about no matter what age of a disciple you are, you should be stepping into that God-call, that God-job, that God-nudge for the day that God has for you.

Frankly, I would never have found my fierce if it wasn’t for the community of faith who is giving me a space and place and language and all of that to really find it.

Joe: So the last question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is simply this: How do you keep your spirit in shape?

Rachel Billups: I have a kind of fun story about one of the things that I do because certainly there…I have kind of multiple practices. I believe discipline breeds discipline. And so I have multiple practices in my life that really help keep in shape mind, body and spirit. I can go into that later.

But one of the most profound practices for me: I actually have a 7 a.m. Facebook Prayer Time that I do every single day. Now, how they started doing this is last year during Holy Week, I always have kind of used the Book of Common Prayer, or even… right now I’ve been using Common Prayer, A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I did that in my regular prayer time, and every once in a while I pop that up on Facebook. And people would be like, what are you using? You have prayer beads. What are those? All this kind of stuff, right?

So Holy Week last year I thought, I’m gonna do this this entire week. Well, I started it and by Day Three I was like, “Snap, this is really something.” Bunches of people who were popping on there throughout the day, people who are with me every day. It’s been over a year that I’ve been doing Facebook Live Prayer Time every single day.

Joe: Oh, wow!

Rachel Billups: I have people from all over the world and people throughout the country. I have folks in…. You know, we’re a mega church. And it makes a mega church feel a lot smaller when your pastor is on Prayer Time every day praying for you and the many concerns that you might have.

What it’s really done for me, Joe, is kept me very centered. So I start the day in a very centered place. And when you’re centered it’s really tough to be grumbly. Right? It’s like when you’re centered I feel fueled for the day. I really believe that God was urging me to start that practice, both as care for the big church because I feel like God knew that we were going to be going through some stuff, you know. And I’ve got folks all over the theological gamut who are popping onto my prayer time. Prayer is a unifying force. It’s just been really life-giving to me.

Yes, there are some mornings that I’m like, “Oh snap. I have to get on Prayer Time.” Because there are some little ladies who are gonna get on Facebook and say, “Pastor Rachel, are you alive? Is everything ok?” If I’m not on there in a timely manner. So, that’s been a really life-giving practice for me.

Joe: You just hinted at. It’s a discipline, right? It’s something you do even on the days when you might be less than excited to get it started. What a wonderful conversation. I enjoyed your book. And I’ve so loved this conversation that we’ve had together. Thank you so much for this time.

Rachel Billups: Thank you.

Epilogue

That was Rachel Billups, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio. To learn more about Rachel and to order her book Be Bold: Finding Your Fierce go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this conversation.

Along with some helpful links about Rachel, there is a link to my email address for you to share your thoughts with me, a transcript of this talk, and a place to subscribe to our podcast and others you may find interesting.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.