My pre-teen years were pretty icky. I felt ugly and awkward, and my school experiences confirmed that: I was a social outcast. I took to faking stomachaches so I could go home when it got to be more than I wanted to deal with.
(This was my first real acting experience. I instinctually knew that to pull that off, I had to be totally committed to the role -- facial expression, physical stance, weak voice . . . I had to be willing to turn down good food offered me, because sick people don't feel like eating . . . I had to be willing to miss activities I wanted to go to, because sick people don't feel like having fun . . . and I played my role well. Apparently, my parents were worried enough about all my stomachaches to take me to the doctor, concerned that I might be under too much pressure or something. Kinda feel bad about that now.)
In any case, this morning for some reason, I was remembering the jeans that suddenly became popular in my late elementary years. They had colorful embroidered designs on the back pockets -- hearts, rainbows, stars, that kind of thing (these were girls' jeans, obviously). The popular girls all had these jeans, and I so wanted them. My mom eventually made a deal with me where she would pay what a regular pair of jeans would cost and I had to make up the difference for these fancy jeans, which I did. Unfortunately, the fancy jeans didn't get me out of the outcast corner.
Those symbolic jeans are interesting to me now. The uniform of the in crowd. Like the colors that gang members flash. Like the jerseys a basketball team wears. We put things on our outsides to identify us with a group. And we all want to be identified with a group.
Now some of these groups are logical. It makes perfectly good sense why, say, all the mothers of young children in a congregation would group up. Or all the recent immigrants from Korea in a certain town. Or all the people interested in knitting or running marathons.
Popular groups at school seem to be a different phenomenon. Sometimes wealth brings them together, or athletic ability, but not always. It's always a mystery to me how the popular kids gets "popular", especially when many of them are not very nice or very well-liked by the rest of the school community. And even more a mystery why everyone else accedes this status to them. I'm sure there are psychological studies about this stuff; I'd love to read them.
I wondered this morning, as I remembered the rainbow-embroidered jeans, whether this cliquish behavior is part of our image-of-God DNA (God is a three-person entity, after all, always existing in community), or if it is a mark of our sinfulness. I suspect it is both, a sinful warping of how God made us. When you look at scripture, God is quite intentional about giving His people instructions for setting themselves apart from the rest of the world, through ritual, behavior, and appearances.
However, they are not to physically isolate themselves from the world. Even the ancient Israelites were to welcome the gentile stranger hospitably and offer them a clear path to join their ranks once they taste and see that the Lord is good. New Testament Christians are instructed to be salt and light to their communities, to be in the world but not of the world.
So, God made us to group up, to identify with a certain people, but not necessarily for protection or for comfort or for our own selfish purposes. We are, first and foremost, made to identify with Him -- and those who identify with Him will necessarily identify with each other (like the spokes on a wheel that are all lined up evenly once they are in right relationship to the center) -- and His people will then minister to the world and draw more folks into a relationship with Him.
It's a good system, when we don't muck it up with frivolous markers like expensive Sunday suits, tattoos (or a lack of), and rainbow-pocketed jeans.