My new single, “I Am New”, was released to radio last week, and I find myself thinking about our sense of identity and it’s consequences…
Today I sat by an angry man. I was in seat 7C on a small commuter flight to Chicago, and I could feel his anger the moment he came to my row to take his place in seat 7D. Though I got up, smiled as I made room for him to take his seat, this man only glowered as he took his place and, leaving his sunglasses on, turned to the side to apparently go to sleep.
No problem, I thought, all the better for me to get some work done.
He was an older man – maybe early 60’s – dressed in casual business style with black pants, nice though non-descript black shoes, and a powder blue button up shirt. He was tan and fit with well-groomed, spikey white hair. He looked like a confident and powerful man in the world of business, and yet he was wound pretty tight.
Once we were airborne, I got out my computer and went to work on some writing I needed to get done, quickly getting lost in it – so lost, in fact, that an hour later I didn’t hear the lone flight attendant of our small plane ask us to put away our electronic devices. Not only that, but I didn’t even hear the man in 7D talking to me at first, until his words reached some distant region in my brain, and, shaking off a focus induced kind of stupor, I looked at him and said, “oh… uh, I’m sorry… are you talking to me?”
The first thing I noticed was that he had finally taken his sunglasses off and that he was glaring at me with cold, blue, and watery eyes. His face was flushed, his blood was obviously up, and he was actually cursing me with a string of profanities – both adjectives and nouns.
I quickly tried to get my bearings and figure out what I had done wrong and realized that he was unhappy that I was on my computer. It was then that I discovered how close we were to landing and that I must have missed the announcement to turn off and stow all electronic devices! Had she really asked and I didn’t hear it? My first reaction was subconsciously defensive: I quickly looked around me to see if other people were still on their computers or listening to their iPods, etc.
Shoot! She must have announced it – no electronics in sight. “Oh man, I’m so sorry…” I started to say and immediately closed my laptop to stow it under my seat, though I doubt he heard me because he was clearly on a roll. He was taking my oversight personally and he intended to shame me with a verbal whipping.
Having closed my laptop and stowed it under my seat, I was surprised to find that this infuriated the man even more as he kicked the intensity of his tirade up a notch. People started looking at us – including the flight attendant – and once again I felt like I was at a loss, looking around trying to take stock of the situation, desperately wanting to figure out what I was doing wrong. I genuinely wanted to make things right.
“That (insert colorful adjective followed by colorful noun here) isn’t cool. They said to power it off! Power that (colorful… adjective maybe?) thing off! I don’t appreciate (colorful pronoun, plural) like you endangering my life.”
Oh… okay… it’s coming to me now. He’s upset that I only closed my laptop, putting it in sleep mode. Which puts me in a complicated position. What should I do? Take it out again? He must not realize how long it will take to power my computer down… We’d be on the ground by the time I did all that. Besides, I can’t really power it down, because…
“I’m sorry sir, I have information I need for my layover that I won’t be able to retrieve if I power down,” I tried to explain to him. You see, my itinerary was on a webpage that I had to leave open on my desktop. Without wi-fi at the airport, I wouldn’t have any of the info I needed for the rest of my trip. But as I tried to explain myself, it was clear that he was not interested in my story. He was angry and seemed invigorated to have found a place to spend his wrath.
Technically he was right – I guess I could have tried earlier that day to save the web page as a document so I could power down as would be requested of me, but doing all that at 5:30 that morning was low on my priority list, partly for this reason:
A couple of years ago I asked the flight attendant why we’re always asked to turn everything off at take off and landing – “does it really interfere with the cockpit instruments?” I asked, trying to reconcile the logic of their request with the fact that my iPod doesn’t have transmission capabilities.
“No, not at all. It’s more because If anything is going to go wrong on a flight, it is most likely to happen during take off or landing and it’s just a precaution we take in order to have everyone’s attention, so they aren’t tuned out with their iPods during the critical moments of our flight.”
Ah, the truth at last! God bless you, Mrs. Flight Attendant, for your truth telling! How many times had I heard the company line that my iPod might interfere with the cockpit instruments?! Oh the little lies we are told to invoke fear and force our compliance! It was obviously an illogical assertion and I was grateful for her honesty. From then on out, I have interpreted “please turn off all electronic devices” as them saying, “please give me your attention during this part of your flight, we want you to be alert and ready if anything should happen.” And ever since, I’ve been happy to give them my attention.
Now skip ahead a couple years to my current predicament. My first thought is that I’m surprised that a man of his age and education is still buying this old lie about cockpit interference. I feel my adrenaline start to rise as my fight or flight instinct is triggered and I have to decide how I should respond. Part of me feels genuine regret. Lost in my own thoughts, I simply didn’t hear the flight attendant’s direction. And in this man’s defense, I can imagine how it might have looked like I was brazenly ignoring the rules. Maybe he assumed I’m one of those people who feels entitled to do whatever they please, or that I’m a disrespectful punk who cavalierly ignores safety procedures. I genuinely wished to apologize – if he would’ve let me – for my ignorant disrespect that was offensive to him. He was right after all, I should have stowed my computer.
And technically, yes – they do ask us to power down our electronic devices. But for the reasons I mentioned above, I just hadn’t prepared for this, nor could I get it done before landing even if I had. And since I know that the real objective is our undivided attention, I knew that strict compliance to the rule, at this point, defeated the purpose of the rule.
But then another part of me was aware of the fact that this man obviously had anger issues. Is he a father I wondered? Does he shame his children like he’s shaming me? Do I fight back? I’m good with words, they are my specialty – I think I could have outgunned him… My anger was welling up in me, eager to come to my rescue. Ah… and yet I know that’s not the right thing to do. But what should I do? As I weighed what the proper Christ like response would be, I began to suspect that the inner drama within me mattered more than the outer drama, and so I turned my attention there.
Last week I was at a retreat where author John Sheasby told us of our Heavenly Father’s love for us, his children, and how so much of our heartache and trouble comes from our misunderstanding of our identity in Christ. The story of the prodigal son is the story of us all, John said. There is the son who ran away because of his self-hatred and the one who stayed because of his self-righteousness and neither of them knew their father’s heart nor their place in it.
The thoughts and insights John shared are worthy of their own post, and I hope to share his beautiful insights here soon. But suffice it to say that their effect on my heart was profound. He proposed that most if not all of us only know how to come to God as a servant, and so lurking in our minds and hearts is the servant identity – the identity of one who desperately and dutifully wants to please their Master, our value tied up in what we do rather than who we are.
Think of the scene of the prodigal son returning home. In Luke 15 it says that, “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father…”
Even in the moment of repentance this son reveals his servant mindset: he thinks of returning as a hired man! He thinks to repent for what he’s done when in fact the real sin is that he forgot who he was!And so he prepares his speech – the repentant speech of a servant – but barely gets a word out when his father runs to him and says, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate!”
The father will not hear of the speech – it’s irrelevant because of course the boy is not a servant, he is a son. John Sheasby would propose that it was a case of mistaken identity all along and that it was the son’s perception of who he was that drove him to run away in the first place.
I’m a people pleaser, full of shame and self-loathing, with an identity firmly rooted in the servant’s mindset. If I am living victoriously over my various vices then I’m at peace, confident of God’s love for me. But if I’ve sinned in any way, then I’m plagued with shame and doubt. I feel God’s pleasure to the degree that I feel like I’ve gotten passing grades on my righteousness report card (a grade, by the way, that I give myself). And so I’m often tempted to feel like I can never do enough to please my heavenly Father, afraid that I fail him too often. Because of this, I rarely feel like I can do or be enough for others either!
You see, this is how it works for all of us: our relationship with Father God colors our every other relationship.In my case, my servant mindset sets me up to succumb to shame pretty easily.I don’t know who I am, and therefore I don’t know where I stand, and that’s why I desperately want the approval of others. And when I don’t get it, I get defensive, and defensiveness, of course, is the posture of a servant who has to constantly prove himself.
But sons and daughters don’t have to prove themselves – because there’s nothing to prove! Their identity rests in who their Father is! I’m trying to learn what this means and I find myself as defenseless as the prodigal son, my servant speech silenced as my Father embraces me.
These were my thoughts as I sat next to this angry man in seat 7D, fighting my desire to fight fire with fire and trying to restrain my usual instincts of shame and defensiveness (wanting to prove to him that it was an honest mistake, and that really, I’m a pretty great guy if he could get to know me. Please like me! Pretty please?).
And then I finally remembered who I was.
I am a son of the Most High God, an heir according to His promise. I am chosen, holy, without blemish and free from accusation. I am no longer a servant, and my Father celebrates me. He knows my name and has carved it in the palm of His hand.
I made a mistake, I did – I should have been paying more attention to the flight attendant and stowed my computer.Heck, maybe I should have even powered it down.But my Father knows my heart, he knows I never meant disrespect or harm.He knows I desire to do the right thing, even when I miss opportunities to do so.He loves me as a son and is daily setting me free from the shame and fear of a servant.
A remarkable thing happened: all of a sudden, the angry man’s words didn’t mean anything anymore – they could find no purchase in my soul. He didn’t know me like my Father does (nor did he even wish to know me, if the truth be told). Chances are he’s angry because he’s bound to a kind of servant mindset of his own – a slave to his work, his ego, his ambitions and ideals, perhaps – and he is crushed under the burden of constantly trying to be enough, to prove his worth. No wonder he’s so angry.
I relaxed in my seat, answering his accusations with a humble “I’m sorry” repeatedly until I answered no more and stopped cowering (which seemed to make him even more angry). The adrenaline receded, the blood that had rushed to my face in embarrassed humiliation began to find its way back to my other extremities, and my heart settled. He continued to rage at me for several minutes even after we landed, but I sat untouched in my identity as a son. Not gloating, mind you. Just at rest.
In a way, I became grateful for the episode and how it so dramatically forced me to see the difference I experience between living as a servant and as a son – not just in my relationship to God, but in my every encounter. It was a swift and certain confirmation of what the Lord had ministered to my heart just that week about my sonship. This man would not accept my apology, but my Father does.
I am writing this from some thousands of feet in the air during the second leg of my flight home, and wouldn’t you know it? They’ve just announced that it’s time to turn off and stow all personal electronic devices. I think I’ll do just that.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".