We’ve been back in the US for about two months now. In the selling, packing, traveling, and unpacking, it’s clear that God is still helping us along. So many things worked out so perfectly the last few days in Honduras. I kind of blacked out with a house full of stuff and kids about three days before we had to fly, and then when I woke up, I was in Chicago with four suitcases, two kids, and a wife. It was nuts.
And even in the unpacking, God was there. I couldn’t find the screws to Sam’s bunkbeds anywhere, and I was anxious about it, because they’d be a real hassle to replace. As we unpacked and assembled other furniture, Stephanie found them at the exact moment I was finishing putting together the last other item to be assembled. I think there is a lesson in there that I’ll let speak for itself.
Also while unpacking, I thought I had lost a small collection of notes I had gotten over the last two years… notes of encouragement or thanks or things like that. I was very relieved to eventually find it, and when I did, I took a minute to go through it, and I noticed a pattern. “It was great to get to know you and your family….” “I really enjoyed spending time with your family…” “You have such a nice family…” Ok, I get it… I think they’re wonderful, too.
Now, our kids just started at a bilingual school and Stephanie is back at work and looking to start her own schooling at MSU very soon. We’re slipping back into real life in Michigan one step at a time. Externally, much is similar to the way things were a few years ago. Same house, same town, old neighbors, old friends. And it’s great. But this similarity seems eerie to me because of the incredible change that I know has taken place internally. So while I can tell stories or point to souvenirs, there’s no short way to communicate this change to others, and perhaps no great long way either.
In Honduras, I knew who I was. I was Mr. Joyce, science teacher. I knew exactly what I needed to do each day to be successful, although that definitely wasn’t the case at first and I need to remind myself that that went very poorly until I began accepting God’s help on a daily, even momentary, basis. In this way he forms our identities through our developing relationship with him. But what is the source of my identity now? Everything is so much like it was two years ago, but why is identity so much harder to find now?
Much of my time this summer was spent looking for a job. You know that feeling when you’re standing on stage or someone is taking your picture and you don’t know what to do with your hands? That was my life for about a month. That constant feeling of, “This? No. This? Yes… oh no? No. Ok, this? No.” But perhaps if I found a job, I could find identity there? Certainly God has a plan, yes? In this instance, I think he did indeed have a plan, but I sure would have liked him to let me know the plan earlier than he did. But that’s not the way he works. Eventually, and at just the right time, a position opened up at AJS (Association For A More Just Society), where I started working a few weeks ago. They are primarily a Honduran organization with a large work force in Tegucigalpa. A quick description will be lacking, but they conduct research and develop solutions to problems like corruption and violence in Honduras, which so disproportionately impact the poor and vulnerable. Then they work alongside the government, other institutions, communities, and individuals to implement these solutions and track their performance over time. There is so much more to their story, so I encourage you to check out their website and get involved if you feel led. They also have a US-based 501(c)(3) with an office in Grand Rapids, where I work, and I am personally just thrilled to be involved with people who are passionate about showing God’s love to the Honduran people… the same people for whom God put inside me an indescribable love just a couple years ago.
So is that my identity? Does that define who I am? While I think it does give me a tremendous sense of purpose and I do find contentedness there, I can only do so because I get my identity from Christ first.
That period of time between jobs allowed me to struggle with identity without the specters of purpose and contentedness to blur my vision. Am I valuable to God without a job? Can I find contentedness without accomplishing something humanly measurable each day? The answer to both questions, of course, is yes. But the path to accepting those answers is a much more difficult personal journey that is only possible when we accept the great love the Father has for us… a love not due to what we have done, but because of who we are… because of our true identity as his image bearers.
So while we do need a way to pay for homes and food and raising kids, if we conflate a job with our identities as humans, created in the image of God, then we’ve missed the point. Our jobs can offer purpose only after we’ve found our identity in Christ. If we think contentedness comes from being happy and static all the time, we’ll never find joy and we’ll miss what God is doing in the dynamism that is real life. Our lives can only be filled with contentedness after we accept Christ as the unique source of our identity. The 9-5 should be filled with purpose and meaning, but only because we get a tremendously overwhelming sense of our identity and value from the love Christ has bestowed upon us as his creation. Being made in him gives us an identity and a value and a purpose and a meaning and leads to a contentedness that nothing else in this world could even come close to offering us.
By now, it’s clear that I’m someone who struggles with mixing up my identity with my job… but there are many other false sources of identity we trust… our cars, our homes, our clothes, our phones, our material possessions, the expensive food and entertainment we can afford, how athletic we are, how good-looking we are, how smart we are, how funny we are, how much other people like us, etc. The list goes on and on, and it’s all superficial and fleeting. All those things can change dramatically in just a little bit of time. Our focus as humans is so narrow, and especially so with respect to time. We get so focused on our little definition of ourselves in our little day that we forget the fact that we can be eternally rooted in the one who sees all time at a glance. He is the one who allows seasons of all kinds in our life that we may come to trust him and rely on only him. Life itself doesn’t last forever, but our true identity – one who is loved by God – does. And we can use that true identity to understand everything around us… good or bad, easy or hard, joyful or upsetting, long-lasting or fleeting.
Time will continue to flow, and we will all continue to change to some extent, but our true identity need not. You are not who you were, you are not who you will be, you are who you are. You only have the choice to accept your identity now, at this moment, and true identity can only come from relationship with Christ. Who you were and who you will be will change. Who you are, as one who is loved by God, will always remain the same. And when we accept ourselves at each moment as one who is loved by God, everything else around us has a way of aligning itself with that truth.