PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “IDENTITY-YOU CAN’T GO BACK HOME TO FIND IT!”
By: Ron Woodrum
In 1975, two years before his death, Charlie Chaplin was visiting France. He visited nearby Monaco, and while there he entered “Charlie-Chaplin Look-Alike Contest”. He thought he was a shoe-in to win the prize money, and everyone would have a good laugh. Charlie came in third! Most thought it was due to the fact that most of his movies were in black and white, and in real life his genuine baby blues may have made him look less like Chaplin than at least two others in the contest. Coming in third in your own contest might just cause you to suffer an “identity crisis”! Identity crisis-i.e. “knowing who we really are”, can be devastating. Arthur Miller, in his book Death of A Salesman, brings that out in relation to his main character Willy Loman. In one excerpt Miller describes the precarious position of his character by saying, “He’s a man out there in the blue, riding a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back-that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished!” The identity crisis was too much for Willy to handle, and he ended up “taking his own life”. At the funeral, with just a hand-full of people there, Bif, his oldest son remarks, “Willy had all the wrong dreams…he never knew who he was!”
Miller was quite adept at describing not only Willy Loman’s predicament, but the one that the entire human race faces every day. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Is there any meaning to all of this? What is my mission for being here? Do I even have one? G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, points out that this is the condition of all human-kind apart from their relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. He writes, “We have all read in scientific books, and indeed in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything: only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have forgotten our names. We have all forgotten who we really are…we all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it…Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story we are certain to misunderstand”. Frederick Buechner points out that we lose our true identity, our “true shimmering self” that God intended for us to be by letting this world force us to become who they think we should be. In his book Telling Secrets he illustrates this: “Starting with the rather too pretty young woman and the charming but rather unstable young man, who together know no more about being parents than they do the far side of the moon, the world sets in to making us what the world would like us to be, and because we have to survive after all we try to make ourselves into something that we hope the world will like better than it apparently did the selves that we originally were. That is the story of all our lives, needless to say, and in the process of living out that story, the original shimmering self, (that God intended us to be through Him), gets buried so deep that most of us hardly end up living out of it at all. Instead, we live out all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather!’ Buechner, in a later book Now and Then, went on to explain that we can recover the buried shimmering self though listening to God’s Word, listening to fellow Christian’s that God puts in our lives through His Church, but also by seeking His face in the experiences of life. He writes, “God speaks to us…through official channels as the Bible and the Church,…but I think He speaks to us largely through what happens to us…if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear Him, He is indeed speaking to us, and that however little we may understand of it, at the time, His Word to each of us…is precious beyond telling”.
Most people live their life with that Willey Loman identity crisis. David Letterman, in an interview not long before he retired, basically said that his sense of himself was only grounded in the twenty-four-hour period between shows. If the last show was good, he felt good about himself. If the audience didn’t respond, he felt horrible instead. Women often share the same identity crisis when society tells them their only value is in their external beauty. Marilyn Monroe, after becoming famously the most beautiful woman in the world, went to nightclubs disguised in a black wig to see if she could still attract a man as Norma Jean. When she got so much less response the emptiness of her Hollywood identity turned into a crisis that left her with the same fate as Willy Loman! That is why God comes to us, desires us to know Him, and find our true identity in who He intended us to be. Simon Tugwell writes, “So long as we imagine that it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart. But it is the other way about; He is looking for us. And so we can afford to recognize that very often we are not looking for God; far from it, we are in full flight from him, in high rebellion against Him. And He knows that and has taken it into account. He has followed us into our own darkness; there where we thought we finally escaped Him, we run straight into His arms. So we do not have to erect false piety for ourselves, to give us hope for salvation. Our hope is in His determination to save us, (see the Cross), and He will not give up!” Finding our identity in Christ, through the salvation that God provides through His grace, is the only way to be completely at peace with who we are and what God is making us to be. Gerald May, a dynamic Christian counselor who deals with battles that Christians struggle with all the time says: “There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves which we call heart. We are born with it, it is never completely satisfied and it never dies. We are often unaware of it, but it is always awake…Our true identity, our reason for being, is found in this desire”.
Peter had found this identity in Christ. Jesus had called him to follow Him, and to become a fisher of men. After Calvary, and even after the resurrection, Peter was still languishing with an “identity crisis”. He decided that he would go back home, take up the fishing for fish business, and walk away from what he had been called to do. He found out what Thomas Wolfe found out, and expressed in his great novel-You Can’t Go Home Again. After Jesus…Peter’s identity was never to be on the old shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was going to take him on a mission…with His Master still by his side. He would become even more than he ever dreamed on that first day he forsook the boats and the nets to follow Jesus! But before he can set off to discover his true destiny he must ask and answer the question Jesus asked him about MISSION-OR MISSING? Which would it be? So must we! It’s our identity!