On my last birthday, a friend sent me a card. She said some kind things, but two simple words sunk deep: Be you. I’ve heard it before, haven’t we all? But this time I found my heart grabbing at the words, clinging to them, knowing they were more true now for me than perhaps they’ve been before.
I live in a city with a load of history, an inspiring narrative – but a narrative that also lends itself to some degree of pretense and self-importance. Like any city, we have gatekeepers and elites and those who are “in” and those who are “out.” I want to be “in.” But I know the truth: Be you. And come what may.
Also, my writing – it’s been stuck for a while. The books I have published have been read by a few, but only a few. If I allow myself (and I do sometimes), I take measure by other writers I respect, other writers who seem to me far better at our craft. Then I start to scratch and claw to assert myself as a serious writer, so people will, you know, take me seriously. But I know the truth: Be you. And come what may.
A couple weeks ago, I heard civil rights icon John Perkins speak. This seventy-eight year old man has vigor and wisdom – I could listen to him for days. His passion and his life’s work raise vital questions of how the message of Jesus radically alters our views of justice, particularly the rejuvenation of forgotten neighborhoods. This topic pushes theological buttons for me, such as my firm conviction that Christian faith has embedded implications many of us have chosen to ignore. In good ways, this conversation pushes into other places – asking me what my responsibility is to my neighbors and to justice, asking me how my resources and skill will join God’s work of making all things new.
But these conversation also go someplace else, someplace hard to describe in words – but a place I know well. Most of my life, I’ve had an independent streak; sometimes good, sometimes not so much. But I’ve also had a strong impulse to meet expectations, to “get it right,” to not be dismissed by another because I don’t live up to whatever it is I presume they want me to live up to. Exhausting.
So, I hear stories of heroic lifestyle choices and noble justice work and radical communal life/integration; and I notice how my life is more vanilla, more middle class. And I feel guilty. Not open or curious or (healthily) wondering if God might be pushing me somewhere new. Just guilty.
My heart must have been moving toward that guilty place as I heard Perkins because of how I responded when, in one moment, he grew emphatic: “This is a call. You have to ask God what your call is. And then live it, whatever it is. Don’t live my call. And have some common sense – don’t be stupid about all this.” And I felt tears. I felt hope. Again, in my soul, I heard these words: Be you.
Not John Perkins. You.
For me, a whole host of names could follow the “Not” and come before the “you,” names from my story, from my profession, women and men I respect:
Not Frederick Buechner. You.
Not John Collier, Sr. You.
I’ll stop with specifics here because the list could go on and it could get embarrassing.
Truth is, though, God already made a Buechner and a Perkins and a Collier, Sr. They have their story, their path, their gifts (and their demons). The world doesn’t need another them. The world needs one (and only one) of me.
Here I pause, shrinking back from my word choice, typing “needs” in the sentence previous. Needs? Perhaps I’ve gotten carried away. Perhaps a backspace for a few strokes could clear up the damage. No. Needs does just fine. Of course, the world would survive without me. The sun would still shine and the rain would still fall. But (and I’m going to type it loud, if there is a way to do such a thing): without me, the world would miss something particular, something unique that God intended to be here.
And without you (typing loud again) the world would be an uglier place, a hollower place. I’m glad you’re here, just like you are – why don’t you be glad too?
So, let’s make a pact together, what do you say? No more comparing. No more self-cannibalization as we wonder if we are good enough, beautiful enough, generous enough, green enough, witty enough, smart enough, artistic enough, kind enough. Enough.
Let’s Live from our heart. Be curious about what God might be up to around us. Step with courage into those places that God and our heart tells us are true. And live.