Who do you think you are?

December 8, 2008

My wife and I recently went to see William Inge's play Picnic,
which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. It was a riveting performance. I
was moved by how deeply the characters struggle to figure out who they
are in their corner of the world, a small town in Kansas.

A young
beauty queen grows weary of being pretty, while her younger and smarter
sister yearns to leave her sister's shadow. A mysterious and handsome
stranger comes to town oozing rebellion while looking for a new start,
and a single schoolteacher begs a local businessman to marry her so she
can move on from her empty life. All of these characters constantly
measure themselves against the expectations of their neighbors, their
community and themselves.

We are eager these days for ways to
measure who we are and how we might fit with other, "better" vocations
and relationships. We pull up a personality test, fill in the circles or
click on the boxes and poof—we have answers. I have nothing
against these tests; I've taken a few myself and found them helpful. But
sometimes they cloud my self-perception—which is one reason that I'm
drawn to this man sent from God in this week's gospel.

The
authorities ask John a question: Who are you? It's not a new question. A
bewildered Isaac asks this of Esau. Boaz inquires it of Ruth. Saul
cries it out when the Lord comes to him on the road to Damascus.

John
knows the answer, simply and deeply. He first knows who he isn't: the
Messiah, Elijah, the prophet. Instead he is the voice, the witness. He
is the one who will testify to the light, and nothing will deter him
from this mission.

During Advent, I struggle to keep track of who
I am. I get waylaid by secular shininess and burdened by my own
expectations. It's a saving grace to read about a man who probably
didn't spend hours figuring out his mission, vision, core values or
purpose. Or maybe he did—but whatever he discovered in the desert, he
knew it to his core and wasn't afraid to express it.

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Now
here's a list that we all need to read (and check twice). Paul's series
of exhortations in 1 Thessalonians is a powerful reminder that those
who wait need not do so with heavy hearts or by engaging in idle
busywork. Carl Holladay offers this commentary:

The
church's role, even as it faces the 'not yet,' is one of confident hope
balanced with vigilance in prayer and thanksgiving, as well as the
exercise of an active role in discharging its prophetic ministry. Taken
seriously, Paul's advice here keeps us from adopting an attitude of
discouragement as the church faces the realities of life and the world,
even as it looks to Christ's coming.