Who Am I?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a haunting poem called “Who Am I?” from his jail cell in war-time Nazi Germany.  In it he considers the difference between others’ observations of him, as brave and confident throughout his imprisonment, and the way he felt inside, like “a contemptible woebegone weakling.”  His confusion is familiar to me in this season of Lent when we are encouraged to remember our abiding sinfulness and to repent of all its unseemliness before our Most Holy God.  In the process of doing that good work of repentance, I can sometimes get lost in my own shame, scrabbling like a squirrel in a box to find the way back to courage and confidence.  Who am I?  A worthless sinner who even in her best moments can never escape her own failures?  Or the beloved daughter of the King of Everything, a courageous and powerful extension of her Father’s purpose in the world? 

 

Scripture tells me that I am a sinner before I sin, that my humanness is confined by my fallenness, that I will never in this life do anything which is pure or worthy of the great attention which God pours upon me by His grace alone.  When I clothe myself in my most shining achievement, it is, in comparison to God’s beauty, as though I had covered my nakedness with excrement (Is. 64:6, Zec. 3:3). There is a deep and enduring truth here which is dangerous to ignore – I cannot forget my sin nature or the way it works itself out in practical, cunning and consistent corruption.  If I do forget that, it will overtake me.  Even worse, when I devalue my own sinfulness, I devalue the price which was paid to free me. 

 

However, alongside my very real need for repentance and the truth of my depravity, there is also a danger in claiming the name, “Worthless.”  I count myself among those who have taken that name early in life, and we spend much of our emotional capital repeating it to ourselves (Stupid!  Failure!  Worthless!).  We also spend much of our time and energy trying to climb out of that pit, to earn our own freedom, to change our own name, to fill the hole in our hearts with affirmation or accomplishments that we have garnered for ourselves.  I carry a psychic tennis racquet to bat away the compliments I cannot accept, and yet I will work harder and longer the next time around to make sure someone keeps lobbing them my way.  When I live out of my Worthless identity, I am trying to fix my own problem by myself. Real repentance doesn’t try to take its own punishment or repair its own brokenness.  Real repentance throws us passionately, even joyfully, back into the arms of God where we belong.

 

While we take needed time during Lent to recognize and repent of the sinfulness which infects our cells like a virus, it is another part of worship to rejoice in the fact that have already swallowed the cure.  In fact, God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ and seated with Him in heaven (Eph. 2:6) because that’s our truest nature.  It has been accomplished FOR us.  It is still being accomplished IN us.  Our sin nature is falling away, being conquered in slow motion.  Let us not define ourselves by the part of us which is dying.  Let us answer the question, “Who am I?” the way God answers it for us.  It doesn’t matter how much you or I feel that we are putrid pond scum.  God says that we are His bride, His friend, His child, His “Beloved.”  That is who we are and who we are becoming.  At the same time, Beloved could not be our identity or our destiny if Christ had not come to save us from ourselves.  That immense and glorious salvation is what we celebrate with the heartfelt offering of our repentance.


Beads on a String

It was an incongruous place to be stringing pearls. Her hair was a memory, and her face was puffy with swelling, but those beautiful, shapely fingers were quick and steady. One by one she picked out the beads, setting them aside to become an integral part of her latest creation. The others sitting nearby looked on curiously as a slow drip ran varicolored fluids into her chest beneath the collar bone. They, too, had bare metal trees flowing toxic sap, infusing hope. But they did not have the beads, the flashing silver spacers, the diamond-cut glass spheres, and the pearls that ran from her fingertips onto tiger-tail circlets.

 

Her smile was out-of-place, too, in the clinic. Most people tried to sleep the hours away while burning liquid invaded their tissues. But if a cocky beret and an inviting countenance were not enough to induce a conversation from her neighbors, there were always the beads. If you wanted to try, she would let you choose your colors from her box of surprises, show you how to handle the pliers, how to close the crimp beads to just the right tension. So that when you left you would have something to remember: a bracelet, a keepsake, a connection.

 

She gave them to all her friends in those days, a little bit of herself that sprang from the dark hours. A little bit of herself that glittered with life. She let me make my own one day, but I’ve never been very inventive, and she had to help me choose the colors. We picked a handful of blue beads in turquoise, powder and midnight, pearls in white and silver-gray. Some of them looked nearly black to me, dull and uninviting. Others were unusual, with bits of contrasting glass stuck on at odd angles. And several of them were my favorites. I would have made the whole circle of just those beautiful beads: creamy white with soft blue accents and elegant gold trim.

 

She knew better than I, however. Because when I had inexpertly strung all of them together and she had helped me finish off my bracelet, it was a little work of art. I stare at it now, examining each bead and the way they all meld into one eclectic whole. That was her wisdom. Each bead is unique, some dull, others wild, a few lovely. But when the artist has finished, they blend into a satisfying creation that can never be duplicated, a song from the heart of its maker.

 

As day upon day is strung on the cord that becomes a life, it is a gift to hold each one in our hands and notice without rancor whether they are troubling or luminous or ordinary, dull or wild or lovely. The uniqueness and delight of God’s work comes not from a bland sameness of beauty, but from His blending of the light and the dark in a pattern which can only be fully appreciated from afar. And thus the Creator is glorified, taking pleasure in each story which reflects His sovereign artistry. Year upon year, life upon life, like pearls on a string, our days are meant to reflect the heart of God – just as surely as my sparkling bracelet still reflects her love in a world she has long transcended.

 


I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doings; I muse on the work of Thy hands.  Ps. 143:5

Reimagining Mary

The Nativity scene.

Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:30)

Sweet Mary. Beatific, maternal, pale and serene, she appears quite other-worldly in our Christmas nativities. An angel proclaimed that she would be called “blessed,” and so she has been. From time to time she has even been elevated beyond her human state, a sort of demi-goddess, interceding between earth and heaven, the perfect mother of a perfect Son.

 

At the risk of shocking your sensibilities, I want to suggest a different portrait altogether. Mary is a well-known celebrity today, but she began as a nobody. Before God approached her through the Angel Gabriel, she counted for very little. She was probably an adolescent, probably poor, possibly an orphan, but we really don’t know. Like thousands of young Jewish girls of her time and place, she walked unnoticed through the world, valuable largely as an extra pair of hands. Her life was measured by her utility, and she was nothing special in that regard. Picture her in your mind as not particularly beautiful, not particularly bright, not particularly talented. Pockmarks, acne, missing teeth, a bit clumsy, too talkative, her laugh annoying, her gait ungainly, all these are possible. Perhaps it feels blasphemous to see her that way, but it is probably closer to the truth than the enhanced, marbleized and haloed versions we typically imagine. Her son, fashioned from only one set of human genes, “had no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is. 53:2)

 

Mary found inexplicable favor with God. This she was told when she received the gift of the Christ, placed inside her body by the singular action of the Holy Spirit. He approached her, chose her, implanted divinity inside her, that she might bear God’s only Son into the world. She was nothing, and then she was amazing – fertile, lovely, loved, important, meaningful, glorious and blessed – not because she stood out from the crowd but because God chose her, acted upon her and lived within her.

 

Astonishing and alarming as it may seem, this is also God’s work in you. We were born as Mary was, ordinary, broken people, chosen by God to be changed. As Christians, we now carry the Christ within our hearts as she carried Him in her womb, that we might bear God’s only Son into the world. Our mission, like Mary’s, comes through pain and struggle. It is a commission to be accepted rather than an honor to be earned. The Divine inside transforms the ordinary. No matter who or where you are, you began as nothing, but now you are amazing – fertile, lovely, loved, important, meaningful, glorious and blessed – because God chose you, acted upon you and lives within you. Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God. Rejoice, as Mary did, and bear Jesus into the world, your world, with peace and joy this Christmas.

 

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. (Luke 1:46-48)

 


I am indebted to Pastor John Haralson of Seattle, Washington for the idea for this devotion.  http://www.graceseattle.org/resources/sermon/3268/mary-filled-with-christ