The Secret of Identity


by: Perry Penn Johnson


Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
--Mark 8:27-30

"There is a secret time during which God's rule has entered the world incognito, so to speak." --David L. Barr, New Testament Story: An Introduction


One afternoon when I was a sophomore in college, the chair of the English department called me into her office after class. She asked me if I was planning on attending the Awards Convocation the following week. When I said I wasn't sure yet, she closed her door, smiled, and told me that I would be awarded the prize for the best piece of writing in the sophomore class. She asked me not to tell anyone, and so, for five days I floated around campus, harboring my proud secret.

I was no stranger to secrets, but there was something about this experience which marked a turning point in my perception of them. For one thing, this secret was completely good and wonderful. If I did tell, all that would happen would be some disappointment on the part of my professor. And--perhaps most importantly to me--this secret would be revealed by someone else and, when that happened, three hundred people would applaud for me.

There was nothing I needed to figure out about this secret, there was nothing I needed to think about or talk about. There were no mixed feelings, no wondering if it should even be a secret at all. There was just the delicious fact of it: I had accomplished something I had worked very hard for, and I would be rewarded for it.

But a funny thing happened when the time came for that reward. I was sitting near the front of the auditorium, on the aisle. My professor had just awarded the freshman writing prize, and then picked up the certificate for the sophomore prize. She glanced at me, and anticipation prickled down my arms. But as she said my name into the microphone, as I rose and headed for the steps to the stage, as the audience began to applaud me, I realized that I felt no different in that split-second between the secret and the public declaration. I took my certificate, shook my professor's hand, and walked back to my seat. My friends high-fived me, and I carefully tucked the certificate into my backpack. And then a great epiphany washed over me: there was more joy in my own knowledge of my triumph than in the knowledge of the three hundred people in that auditorium. There was more joy in simply being the winner of the prize than in actually receiving the prize publicly.

My professor had given me the gift of comfortable secrecy, the joy of private knowledge, the luxury of fully absorbing something about myself before it was revealed to others. This gift couldn't have come at a better time in my life. At the age of 20, three powerful aspects of my identity, each with its own secret, were just beginning to pick up speed. And through these three challenges, God's rule began to enter my life incognito.

Why incognito? Because I was still much more focused on my relationship with the church than on my relationship with God, and God knew it. And so he began to approach me gently, slowly, with the most basic of overtures: "Look what I have made," he'd whisper in my ear as I stood before the mirror. "Look what I have given you," he would murmur as I lost myself in the joy of writing. "And look, my child," he would proclaim as I coasted through town on my ten-speed, my flannel shirttail flying behind me, "Look how beautifully it all fits together."

It was--and always will be, I imagine--this fitting together that is the most complicated aspect of my complicated identity. I feel sometimes like an old family recipe my mom used to make. Individually, the ingredients--lima beans, bacon, and marshmallows--were fine, but together? You've got to be kidding! But, like me, the recipe is wonderful only because it is not missing any of its contrasting ingredients.

And so, from his incognito entrance to his daily presence, God continued to work with me and my contrasting ingredients. He planted insight like a seed, watered it, cared for it, but left me to deal with the weeds on my own. The most pervasive weed--the creeping Charlie of my self-identity struggle--was the question that ultimately had no real answer: am I transgendered or am I gay?

A therapist once asked me when I first knew I was gay. My answer was, "I never really looked at it that way. What I realized was that most other people weren't gay." That wasn't completely the right answer, because it wasn't completely the right question. The truth was that sexual orientation was not the issue until adulthood. The issue was gender. The truth was that I felt--from birth, I think--that I was male. This knowledge did not come in a realization; it was inborn. What did come as a realization--and a shock--was that the world did not see me as male. Thus was born my first secret.

With adolescence came the second secret: in the eyes of the world, I was gay. I had two dreams in junior high: to fall in love with a woman who would never leave me and to be a minister. I had not yet tried out the words "gay" or "lesbian"; I was still working on "woman". But one afternoon, I picked up the newspaper, and my life changed. The denomination in which I dreamed of being ordained had officially declared that homosexuals could not be ordained unless they were celibate. I curled myself into a ball on our scratchy couch and cried and cried. Had someone walked in and asked me what was wrong, I don't think I could have articulated it. What I felt--what I knew--had no words; it was as visceral as love, as hunger, as fatigue.

That afternoon, the week before the end of eighth grade, was the first time that the three strands of my identity--gender, sexual orientation, and faith--first began to move toward one another. For the first time, I began to ask myself, "Who do I say that I am?"

Once that dam had been opened, the waves that washed over it contained a million other questions: "Who does the world say that I am?"; "Who does my closest friend say that I am?"; "Who does my family say that I am?";"Who does my church say that I am?"; "Who does God say that I am?" And, perhaps the most vulnerable question of all: "How do I reconcile all of the conflicting answers?"

The world, my friends, my family, my church, says that I am female. Are they wrong? Yes and no. The world and everyone in it says that I am gay. Are they wrong? Yes and no.

And somewhere along the journey that followed, somewhere between 14 and 20, between the devastating newspaper article and the delicious secret of the writing award, I began to realize: ambiguous does not have to mean conflicting.

And with this realization the third strand of my identity--my faith in God, my acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior--began to emerge. Conflicts I had felt in the past--between God and the church, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels, between God's expectations and the world1s intolerance--began to slowly morph into ambiguities.

With those ambiguities came great freedom. The freedom, first of all, not to see ambiguity as vague or confused, but as open, unobstructed, free of baggage, and rooted in God's truth and knowledge, not my own. The freedom to hold two apparently opposing viewpoints at the same time, without a desire to commit to one or the other. The freedom to find love and the hand of God in anyone who crosses my path, regardless of their feelings about me. And, perhaps the greatest freedom of all, the freedom to question. The freedom to question the very origins of the ideas which seem to argue with one another in the pages of the Bible, to question the motives of those who feel that they have more of a right than God to create and to declare my identity. And then the final question: how do I reveal my identity to the world? This is the ultimate question, I believe, of all identity, and, specifically, Christian identity: how do I show the world that I am indeed a Christian? Not just "Who am I?", but "How will I live out who I am?"

We don't know much about the journey taken by Jesus to answer this question. His parents knew he was the Messiah at his conception; did they ever tell him? He knew as a boy that he had abilities not easily explained in a child his age. Did he make the connection then? He was taught the Hebrew Scriptures; surely he was familiar with Isaiah. Did he feel a prickle of recognition when he read the prophecy about him? When John baptized him and the Holy Spirit descended upon him, did he fully comprehend? And when Peter declared him as the Messiah, what did he feel?

Jesus' identity and the way he lived it out ultimately became his downfall. In the Christian tradition, as Messiah, Jesus had to die and rise again to pay for the sins of all of his followers. In the cultural context of the time, his message of love beyond limits and his practice of speaking the truth to the powerful guaranteed his death. At what point did he realize this, at what point did he realize that he was not in control any longer? When Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray, once his death had been set in motion by his friends, he asked God to take the cup--his destiny, his identity--away from him. What a conflict this seems to be!

The reality of Jesus' identity does indeed seem to be rooted in a conflicting, perhaps even irreconcilable message: to die is to live. And, indeed, Jesus' teachings contained innumerable conflicting messages for the future of the kingdom: down is up, the poor are rich, outsiders are insiders, and enemies are lovable. But when these messages are seen not as conflict but as ambiguity, when they are seen not as something to be figured out but something to be lived, then we have truly understood the identity that matters the most.

And so, I think, the secret of identity is this: It is, ultimately, a delicious secret. Not necessarily the type of secret that no one else knows, but the type of secret with nooks and crannies that only God can get to because only God created them. And it is an evolving secret as well. Those things that we are--male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, people of faith--are facts that will not change. But we also must be careful not to leave them alone, because God does not. God works with each strand of our identities daily, helping us to not just accept and celebrate, but also to find meaning.

Identifying myself has been a huge accomplishment, but one for which I do not need any sort of reward, reinforcement, or even recognition of others. The facts, whether secreted away or shouted from the mountaintops, ultimately matter only in the ways in which I thank God for them. And learning to do so has finally brought my three strands of identity--my gender, my sexual orientation and my faith--together to dance with one another.

Who do I say that Jesus is? My brother, my Savior, my light. Who does Jesus say that I am? His brother, his sister, his disciple, his servant. Who do I say that I am? God's beloved child, blessed with a quadruple gift: both male and female, both straight and gay. Blessed be to God.

Copyright © 2002 by the author
All Rights Reserved


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