“Who are you?”
It was 1973. I was a 19-year old student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, eating lunch with friends. Stephanie—serious, inquisitive, known for deeply diving into matters of the heart—was sitting to my right in the dining hall. As I munched on my dry hamburger I could tell she was staring at me. I glanced over at the eyes that were looking into me. She asked again, “Who are you?”
I thought: What do I say? Friends are around, waiting to hear. Do I say something funny or wax profound? What’s she expecting me to say? Is she in love with me, or getting ready to attack?
I didn’t know. So I looked at her, smiled, swallowed my bite of burger, said my full name, and hoped she’d either go away or give me a hug. Stephanie did neither. She kept staring, and asked again. “Who are you?”
It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, hippies, psychedelia, and campus unrest. Self-discovery was all the rage. We were the “Me generation.” So no wonder she asked. It was a good question. Who am I?
I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know.
Do I know now?
Stephanie’s question has haunted me since that day in the Furman dining hall.
For the last thirty-three years, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve had a challenging and happy career as a preacher, leader, and shepherd of four different congregations. I’ve baptized, married, nurtured, and buried hundreds of God’s people. Had you asked me a few months ago who I am, I would have told you about the children I’ve raised, the friends I’ve loved, the places I’ve traveled, the sermons I’ve preached, and the people who say I did them some good. All good things.
But do those good things answer the question, Who am I? Isn’t it possible to have done all those things and still not known my true self? Yes indeed.
And what do I say now? I am no longer “Pastor Mike.” In February, 2019, I stepped down from church leadership. I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to do something different.
So I semi-retired. I took a job at a theological seminary as the Dean of Students. It’s part-time. I’ll do some teaching, mentoring, and a bit of preaching here and there. I’ll be free on weekends to travel with my wife and visit our kids and grandkids. But I won’t be wearing my pastor hat anymore. People won’t thank me for a good sermon or a helpful counseling session. I will no longer tell folks that I pastor a healthy, healing church. My email inbox will no longer be filled with questions, meeting requests, and forwards from well-meaning church members.
So if Stephanie were to ask me today, “Who are you?” how would I answer? How would you?
In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor and author Peter Scazzero writes, “The vast majority of us go to our graves without knowing who we are. We unconsciously live someone else’s life, or at least someone else’s expectations for us.”
I agree with that. Most of us get our identity from what we do. And that’s not entirely bad. But when you no longer do what you’ve done for most of your life, you need to know that you are more than the sum of your contributions to society. The world around us measures us by what we achieve, own, or look like. But all those things are fleeting and unsatisfying. The truth is that identity and value are intrinsic to our being as the people of God. This is why the invalid in the nursing home is just as valuable, just as glorious, as the cancer researcher or the best-selling author or the homeschool mom.
When someone asked Thomas Merton who he was, he said simply, “I am the loved one.”
That’s who I am too. I am God’s beloved. I’m his child, the object of his affection. To me (and you!) God says, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
So here’s the place I find myself: I’m discovering that my identity is not rooted in me and what I do, but in Christ. Pretty basic, right? I’ve stopped trying to be somebody. I don’t care that I don’t tweet. I’ve given up on trying to make a name for myself in my Presbyterian denomination. What would that have accomplished anyway? I’m trying to heed Jeremiah’s word of warning to his scribe Baruch: “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not….” (Jeremiah 45:5).
After years of trying to be a good, successful pastor, I’m now trying to enjoy being God’s son.
I’m not there yet. Like unraveling a knot, it takes time to undo a lifetime of seeking reputation and honor. But “I press on,” as Paul says in Philippians 3, to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).