Earlier today I was able to speak at “church lunch” in Independence. This is a weekly meal for high school students during their lunch hour (or 30 minutes). Usually 140 students trek across the street for a $2 lunch, quick devotional and fellowship. I was able to share the devotional today and here is what I shared:
Today I want to talk to you about identity and how you define yourself. There are many different ways to describe people. Some are in terms of relationships- brother, son, mom, friend, enemy, and mentor. Other definitions are based on characteristics- gentle, hyperactive, nice, angry, laid-back. And still others are based on skills and activities- athlete, student, teacher, garbage man. Every one of us are a combination of all of these: relations, character, and abilities.
The crazy thing about identity is that they change. Sometimes willingly- when I got married, I willingly changed my identity from girlfriend to fiancé to wife. Other ways we change willingly is working on our character. By traveling so much I have gained a flexible attitude by choosing to do so. Sometimes however, identities change without our approval. This recently happened to me and I wasn’t happy about it at all.
Up until 2 months ago I was living in Mali, West Africa and filled my days teaching missionary children in third and fourth grade. I woke up early in the morning, went to school, taught all day, went home and did is all over again. It was something in which I have great satisfaction. I loved the predictability of the school routine. I loved the 100 degree heat and the mix of French, English and gibberish in my class. I felt happy, fulfilled, and knew I was doing what God had asked of me.
Two months ago everything changed. Military leaders took over the stable national government in a coup. It started as a usual Wednesday- my kids were antsy and excited since I had just assigned roles for the spring play and they were looking forward to working on the production. We spent our days learning about inventions, commas and multiplication. Wednesday afternoon I received a text from the embassy notifying us of gunshots in a nearby city- a fairly normal warning but one still to take caution- and so we decided to close school the following day in case things got crazy. I canceled Bible study with the high schoolers that night and we all left school Wednesday afternoon thinking our normal lives would resume on Friday.
About 5 o’clock that night we started hearing multiple bursts of automatic weapons firing in the distance. My husband locked up the house and we continued our evening as normal as we could. At 6 the next morning I woke up and checked the news. Apparently the gunfire was from soldiers successfully completing a coup- and low ranking military leaders have taken over the country. I woke up my husband and we both stormed our computers trying to gather as much information as possible. A 5 day 24 hour curfew was issued- meaning we were locked in the house. We called some friends to let them know we were ok, and waited.
The waiting was the hardest part. We could hear gunshots out our windows. We knew that things were crazy outside. The days passed slowly. The school closed and took an early spring break. Eventually curfews were lifted and we felt safe enough to go to friends houses within walking distances.
A little over a week after the coup we got a phone call from our mission leader suggesting we evacuate the country. Things were too unstable for them to feel comfortable having us stay. That afternoon we met together with parents from the school to decide what we should do. As we met together and prayed it became clear the school could not remain open. Everyone was under a great deal of stress and living day-to-day is not healthy. My husband and I made plans to leave two days later and began to pack our bags.
In this time I was a mess. My life was in Africa and I was being pulled away unwillingly. My heart was taken by my students and I would not see most of them ever again. I was already dreading saying goodbye in June- and now I didn’t even get the chance. My identity as teacher and African missionary were washed out from under my feet. It didn’t make sense why I had to end the school year so early- I was in the middle of everything!
I started grieving. No, nobody died. It wasn’t a loss in that way. Rather, the whole world that I loved disappeared and I felt displaced. I had pride in my teaching. I take joy in living in the “hard places” doing what God has called me to do. I was confused, emotional and numb.
It didn’t stay that way. Slowly I have thawed. Spending time in beautiful Europe reminded me that life doesn’t have to be ugly. Taking time off to process has taught me that grieving is a long journey. And being reminded that God never changes- even if my circumstances do- has allowed me to get through this time.
I realized that during my time in Mali I had built my identity on things of this world- my job, the people I love, and what I take pride in. All of this is temporary. It is good for a time, but it can go away in a flash.
I need to build my identity on Jesus- he is the only one that will never change, even in eternity. Hebrews 13:8 says Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. I am his daughter. I am forgiven because of him. I am alive because of him. When I focus on anything else- even good things, I am setting myself up for failure and heartache. I need to fix my hope, my dreams and most importantly identity on him alone.
Here is what I want to leave you with today. No matter who you are it is not forever. Time goes by, skills increase and decrease, people come and go. Don’t place your faith on things of the earth, rather focus on what is eternal God wants you to be his child and that will never change. Who you are to him will never alter- no matter what you can or cannot do. God alone is never changing.