When We’re Not Who We Thought We Were
I was at the public library in Fort Wayne this week, which has the second largest genealogy collection in the United States, and they presented me with a leather bound book of my family’s genealogy dating back to a Joseph Gulley who was born at the tail end of the 1600’s in Wiltshire, England, whose son Thomas Gulley moved to America in 1755, where he was given 400 acres in Orange County, Virginia, near Stoney Bridge Run. The government failed to mention the land was already inhabited by the Manahoac tribe, but apparently some accommodation was reached when the Manahoac people thoughtfully expired from smallpox so my ancestor could have their land.
When I was a kid I asked my father if we were related to any famous people. We were in the living room watching The Sonny and Cher Show and my father casually replied that we were related to Cher, which I believed until Thursday night when I was reading our genealogy and found no mention of Cher, whose name is actually Cherilyn Sarkisian, and whose father was from Armenia. But my father has never been one to let facts stand in the way of a good story. What is true is that Thomas Gulley had four sons, two of whom stayed in Virginia, one of whom moved to Kentucky, another to Tennessee. A hundred plus years went by, the Civil War began, some of the Gulleys fought for the Union, while the other Gulleys fought for the Confederacy, and tried their best to kill each other at Antietam.
I knew nothing about this, because I had been taught that the Gulleys were Union supporters, Yankees through and through, brave defenders of liberty and justice for all, so to discover some of our number had aligned themselves with the Rebel cause was disconcerting. Even more troubling, I’ve discovered Randy Horton and I might be related.
So I’ve been thinking this week about those moments we discover we’re not who we thought we were. We’ve been seeing a lot of ugliness in our nation, and people have been saying, “That’s not who America is,” but apparently it is, or it wouldn’t be happening. We’re not who we thought we were.
One of the times we discover our true selves is when our character is tested. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all people can stand adversity, but if you want to test a person’s character, give them power.” Have you ever known someone who got a little power and it went straight to their head? I remember in 1990, when I interviewed to serve as the pastor of Irvington Friends Meeting. They were down to a handful of people and were so desperate to grow they told me if I agreed to be their pastor, they would do anything I asked of them without question for two years. So naturally I took the job, because who wouldn’t like that. Bwahahaha! And of course I was an idiot about it, because who except maybe Pope Francis or the Dali Lama wouldn’t be?
So we have these moments when we discover who we truly are. Abraham Lincoln said give someone power, and you’ll discover their true character. Jesus said if you wanted to know someone’s character, take a close look at what they treasure, look at what they chase after—“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…” Jesus believed our passions, our desires, revealed our character. If I were to tell you the desire of my heart, I would simultaneously be revealing the condition of my heart. This is one way, perhaps the best way, to discover who we really are, when we ask ourselves the question, “What do I want more than anything?” Just sit quietly and live with that question for a moment. What do I want more than anything?
If we were to ask two people what they wanted more than anything, and the first person said they wanted to be rich, and the second person said they wanted everyone in the world to be loved and valued, wouldn’t that tell us a great deal about those two people? What do you want more than anything? Our answers reveal a lot about us. And sometimes what it reveals is that you and I aren’t who we thought we were.
I had an interesting experience this week. Just a little something, but somewhat revealing. Last month I got a new leaf blower and it stopped working after just a few weeks, so I called the hardware store and they ordered me a new one and I went to pick it up. I asked them if they wanted the broken leaf blower, and the manager said No, just throw it away.
The next day I got ready to put the broken leaf blower in the trash and got to fiddling around with it and it started working. Guess what my first thought was? My very first thought, right out of the gate. I thought Great, now I can have a leaf blower up here and a leaf blower at the farm. That was my very first thought. What does that reveal? I’ve always thought of myself as someone with integrity, but it turns out my integrity had a sale price of $120.
It took me 24 long hours to be honest, an entire day before I phoned the hardware store and told the manager the first leaf blower worked after all and I’d be in that afternoon to pay for it, because I needed one for the farm. He said it was okay and not to worry about it and just keep it, which kind of makes me feel like I got away with something, so now I owe the universe $120. You might say, “Oh, it was just a leaf blower.” Well, maybe, but perhaps it was also an insight into my identity. I’m ethical, but it takes me a while to get there.
Here’s the thing: the Christian life, this life of reflection, is an invitation to always be discovering who we are, to always be discerning the desires of our hearts, thereby discovering the condition of our hearts and the shape of our character. What does your heart treasure? Because the desire of your heart reveals the condition of your heart. We don’t need to trace our genealogy to find out who we are. We need only to consider the desires of our hearts. What does your heart treasure?