‘Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God.’ ~Henri Nouwen
My first cross-cultural experience was not overseas, but rather when I spent the summer in inner-city Kensington, Philadelphia. With a 90 percent Latino and African-American population combined, I was easily noticeable with my blonde hair and fair complexion. As I walked the streets, only in daylight, the burnt out cars and chain link fences seemed an infinite distance from the dairy farm where I lived as a child.
Yet my desire was strong to connect with the people, and especially the children, with whom I worked. I took on a ‘gregarious fun girl’ persona that summer. Although I left far too quickly, my insular identity of a white girl from the country forever shifted as my heart melded to the plight of urban youth.
Now, 26 years later, that restless identity from a summer of immersion in another culture still remains. I want to be known, accepted, trusted by all races, especially the children. I want them to almost instinctively know I am for them. This identity came on quickly and fiercely, and determined to stay.
Freshly changed by that summer, I went to Barcelona, Spain for a study abroad program. Still working through my first major shift of cultural thinking, I didn’t know what to do with the gorgeous architecture, and rich Spanish and Catalan heritage which many people dream to see and experience. I hiked the hills of the city and marveled at the compelling vista. Then I would pray for the precious children who had changed me forever. I’d feel the angst of the ‘here’ and ‘there’, as the world of my summer and fall seemed infinitely distant from one another.
Yet, I let Barcelona change me too. It was much harder to find a place in the hearts of those around me with their material, metropolitan lives. But, I did. And with it, as I returned home, I found myself in the tempest of yet another identity shift.
Each opportunity I had in the subsequent years, whether Mexico, Honduras, or a small, predominantly Dutch town in Massachusetts, whirled my various experiential identities a little more. There was no stopping it. Either I remained separate from the people, which was never a possibility for me, or I fully, deeply identified with them. Halfway was not an option.
If you’ve spent any significant time in another culture, you know it is impossible to maintain this level of identification. It is a quick recipe for burnout. Not to mention, the identity we are intended to have, is something that must go beyond all of the cultures and callings of the world, to the very heart of God.
The term ‘identity’ is used so often and in many different contexts that it can lose its meaning. But the overarching truth is we all have many layers of identity, or facets of who we are, which form over time. They are personal, cultural, and missional, just to name a few. Our journey is to learn how to walk out our identity with integrity, landing ultimately in the only place, or way of being, we are made to fit forever.
What I have shared of my own identity-shifting is from my single years. For me, these years screamed loudly, ‘You must save them all! Who else do you have to pour into? Give it all to them!’
Then, my Mom died and some of my heart went forever to Heaven. I had prayed earnestly for her healing. Now, I didn’t know who I could save. I felt withered of spirit. And yes, it was another tempest of changing identities.
Just one year after my mama died, I got married. Two years after this, my husband and I went to Hungary for a year internship. It was a beautiful year, but it was also confusing. I loved the Hungarian students we worked with, but not like those first kids in Philadelphia. And, now I was a wife, a newlywed. What on earth was my identity?
It is telling how I remember saying often at the end of our internship, as we pursued long-term staff with Cru: ‘Before God, I cannot let my husband get off this path!’ It was the passionate loyalty of a wife speaking, but it also showed how lost I was to my own calling. All I could acknowledge was his.
And this was a type of identity wilderness–the swirling about of all I had thought to be and now none of it fit. I wandered in this desert for many years. I became a Mom and was able to engage less and less in ministry. There was grace for this, as home is so very important. Yet, I had stopped seeking a robust identity–a soulful purpose for which I was made to live. I could have told you all of the right answers about my identity being in Christ, the importance of my role as a wife and mother, but the tempest raged.
When we moved overseas long-term, I was three months pregnant with our third child. I knew, even though we were going back to Hungary, it would be like we’d never been before. The skills I needed to be a successful mom were far different from those needed to reach high school students. There were victories, for sure, but, there was also much fumbling and gasping for air. My already nearly non-existent identity–or confidence and sense of self– whipped around me with much insecurity and striving grasping for it.
I couldn’t have predicted what would come next. I went crazy three years into our time. I spent two weeks in the mental ward of a Hungarian hospital. My lack of true identity, my burnt out heart, and a hereditary strain of mental illness all caught up with me.
As I have fought hard to put the pieces of myself back together, I am learning my true identity all over again. But somehow, now, it is in a much deeper way. I don’t want to discount my life before my mental breakdown, it is a large and significant part of my forever story. But, this time, after the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I am finding a whole new way of being, one I never really had before.
It’s an identity anchored fully in the love of God.
It’s easier for me to surrender plans and dreams because I have found the embrace of God, the one thing I can’t live without, on the other side of losing nearly everything. So, it’s easier to come to that place where only God can hold me. It’s easier to gut out the insides, with their junky false identity pieces that remain, because of their stark contrast to the unconditional acceptance of God. And as I rest in God, it’s easier to feel the freedom to keep exploring the things God may have for me to do and be in this life.
So, I offer this encouragement. If you have struggled with the tempest of shifting identities, you are not alone. As you are stretched and looking for things to hold onto, hear my testimony.
At the beginning of all things is God, at the end of all things is God, in the midst of all things is God.
Crawl into his Abba Daddy lap, receive the embrace of the Son and let the Spirit envelop you. No matter how many swirling, hovering identities you have had in your life, this is the only true forever one. Find this place often and become truly identified, known, as the beloved of God.