This afternoon, the cottony gray clouds that had been collecting in billowy heaps finally poured streams of rain on Kampala. And because most of the students at our local refugee center slog through muddy streets and alleys to their English, career, and Bible classes, only five from my class showed up. So class was cancelled on account of rain. One who did attend, Ahmad*, snagged me as I repacked my backpack. “I think perhaps,” he said gently in his halting English, “you have time to help me read?”
Sounded good to me. We settled at a table, and since I teach Bible, selected one of his favorite stories from the Easy-to-Read version—the Genesis account of Joseph. I was amused by his small comments of understanding, a soft “Oh!” or “Ah, yes!” Together, we slowly but successfully pushed through the story during the remaining class period and discussed a few of its comprehension-related, intriguing points like, “Who do you think the sun and the moon were in his dream?”
That’s when I tilted my head. “Ahmad, what was your job when you left your country?”
“I had my master’s degree,” he explained. “I was a secondary school teacher of history and geography. But that was in Arabic. I am not so good with English.”
Conversations like these have amazed me more than once. Similar to the occasional encounter I’ve had with the immigrated doctor-or-professor-turned-NYC taxi driver—I am fascinated and humbled by those with the courage to leave so much of their identity behind. Some sit alongside others of lower economic status to learn a language. Many say farewell to a job they have loved to take whatever job puts food on the table—or allows peaceful living in place of fear or deprivation.
Those of us who have endured a layoff or other unemployment may comprehend that “what we do” has become our identity. Even when we are unpaid, perhaps as a volunteer, parent, or homemaker, we might find ourselves wondering who exactly we are.
Recently I read the words of an author who likened Jesus’ first temptation—turning stones into bread—to a question that so many of us face in our humanity: “What have you achieved? How have you demonstrated your usefulness?”** The author points out that Jesus, in His preceding baptism, received the ultimate accolade from God: “This is my Son, whom I love.” Yet this was completely before any record of miracles or Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; up to this point, He’s simply been a Nazareth carpenter. Satan, then, tempts Him not only to relieve His hunger, but to prove Himself. Who are you, really? Have you done anything that matters for the last 30 years?
Truthfully, I find myself facing that temptation daily. As the author puts it, I am tempted “to find [my] worth and value outside of God’s inexhaustible, free love for [me] in Christ.”*** Now, I do believe that God nestled within us that longing for valuable work—for those “good works He prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). But when I am no longer “rooted and established in love” (Ephesians 3:17) but in my contributions, I’m experiencing a subtle, corrosive transfer of value from God’s love to what I am able to offer. Unlike Ahmad, my fingers clench around my accomplishments, my successes, my productivity.
And that’s what I learned on a rainy afternoon from my African friend: that there is freedom in the humility of holding our achievements loosely, and finding our identity elsewhere. Perhaps there is even new life.
* Name changed to protect his identity.
** Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson (2006), p. 75.
** Ibid, p. 75.