I was at the mall last week when a woman I didn’t know pretended that my kids were her grandkids. I know. Who does that, right?
Here’s how it went down:
My two kids and I were walking through the department store toward the blue atmosphere of the mall ahead, weaving past display cases like fast-moving cells in a bloodstream. We were passing a cosmetic counter just as a well-dressed woman was telling the makeup lady about how she was going to shop the kids clothing sale for her granddaughter’s birthday. At that very moment, another makeup lady appeared behind the counter. She arrived just in time to hear the well-dressed woman’s shopping plans at the same instant we were passing by. She assumed we were all together. For a moment, I admit, we did look like a little family unit.
“Are those your grandkids?” asked the makeup lady of the well-dressed woman, pointing to Drew and Madeline as they skipped ahead. “They’re beautiful.”
And without missing a beat, the well-dressed woman replied, “Thank you.”
With a simple “thank you,” I had become involved. Should I now pretend to be her daughter? Daughter-in-law? If asked, how should my children address her? “Grandma” would be generic enough. Perhaps we could work in a back-story of a shared trip to Hyannis Port or Martha’s Vineyard, where people are also well- dressed. Oh, and maybe something about a family history of asthma, or fibromyalgia. Something specific.
By the time the deception had taken place, the kids and I were too far beyond the makeup counter to provide any kind of acknowledgement or rebuke. I shrugged and kept walking, struggling with how to feel. Should I be proud that the well-dressed woman would claim my kids? That she would claim me, who had either married her son or sprung from her body?
It’s rare that you’re just walking around life one day, minding your own business, and someone ropes you in to a false identity. I’ve never been mistaken, for instance, for a supermodel, a beekeeper, or a Kardashian. No one has ever begged me to play along in an episode of “Punk’d.” It’s comforting to know who you are and what you should be about. That’s why I love the story in Mark when Jesus changes Peter’s name to, well, Peter. It’s a story of a can’t-miss identity because it comes from the identity-maker himself. In Matthew 16:13-19 Jesus is asking his disciples what the word on the street is about his ministry and purpose. Then he asks them point-blank:
“But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
That’s when Peter — well, Simon — pipes up. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Something important has happened here, we can tell, because in a rush of enthusiasm, Jesus blesses Simon, gives God the Father glory for revealing Jesus’ true nature to Simon, and then does something that only big-G god from the Old Testament does: he re-names Simon. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
When Peter gets Jesus’ identity right, Jesus clarifies Peter’s identity. Could there be a direct relationship between God-recognizing and self-recognizing for us today? When Jesus asked the big question, Peter didn’t try to put his thumb on the speculations of the crowds or the popular opinion of the Jewish establishment. He answered out of a conviction deep within his own heart, a conviction that was elegantly simple and forever life-changing. Jesus is Messiah. Son of the living God. Peter acknowledged who Jesus was. And then Jesus returned the favor. “Who am I?” is not something to ask regularly if you’ve already answered the question, “Who is Jesus?”
So the next time you feel lost or out of touch with who you are or what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, start asking a better question. Not, “Who am I?” but “Who is Jesus?” Not “What’s my real name?” but “What’s Jesus’ real name?” Start with Jesus and you’ll end with both him and a name that’s all your own. A name like Peter. Like Jacob/Israel. Like Sarai/Sarah. Like Abram/Abraham. Like Jolie-Pitt. Just kidding.
The atheist Nietzsche observed, “One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self; of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.” Spoken as one who hasn’t been asking — and answering — the biggest question of all.
Advent is a season of preparation for the coming arrival of the Christ child at Christmas and for Jesus’s second coming.