“If I can’t come to the office each day, then who am I?”
A lesser-known character in the TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) spoke those sobering words after the Madison Avenue ad agency for whom he worked fired him for drunkenness. During the series’ nine seasons, the show or its actors garnered 116 award nominations and 16 wins. Parade magazine recently included Mad Men on its list of the top 20 TV shows of all time. Set in the 1960s, during the burgeoning growth of television and mass advertising, the show depicts characters who based their significance on money, power, reputation, and sexual conquests. When pressures mounted or the agency lost a client to a competitor, the executives typically scurried to the minibar in their lavish offices, swallowing hard drink to take the edge off the stress.
The agency executives and salespersons were how many clients they brought in, and how renowned those clients were in the marketplace.
They were the luxury cars they drove, or the upper-class houses they lived in.
They were the recognition and respect of peers in the business.
They were how many ad campaign awards they won.
Yet the characters seldom appeared happy or satisfied. They vividly illustrated the emptiness, or poverty of spirit, that describes whoever values achievement, accumulations, attractiveness, or pleasure over character or eternal realities. As Proverbs 12:11 puts it, “He who pursues vain things lacks sense.” Another verse puts an exclamation point on the plight of Mad Men characters: “He who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty” (Prov. 28:19).
I came across reruns of this show after its nine-year stint had ended. I saw a number of episodes. Then, due to the convicting nudge of God’s Spirit, I stopped watching. No one can keep watching the show’s salacious sex scenes and guard his or her heart at the same time (Prov. 4:23).
Who Am I?
I’ve been thinking of the identity issues in the Mad Men TV show, and wondering how different I really am from its characters.
The spring semester of 2019 ended my 38-year stint as a faculty member at Columbia International University. Though 2019 has been my most depression-free year in over a decade, I had a setback for a few weeks preceding my retirement at the semester’s end. A few months of respite from despondency ended. A dark mood enveloped me once again. A high humidity in the heart smothered my spirit and initiative in the days leading up to year-end graduation.
I’m no psychologist, nor have I played one on TV, yet I don’t think the timing of this emotional setback was a coincidence. In a discussion with a friend who knows me well, he agreed with my assessment. I was in mourning.
Mourning the loss of a faculty position I had held for 38 years at a prestigious university.
Mourning the loss of the “professor” label.
Mourning the loss of opportunity to teach each weekday.
Mourning aspects of public ministry on which I based my identity as a person.
Oh, I realize that some degree of such mourning is inevitable after a long career. It is merely an indicator of my humanness. Yet I know myself well enough to admit that I, too, often rely on things like achievement, reputation, and position for my sense of significance. If we aren’t careful, we who serve in a ministry vocation base our identity and worth on the wrong things, just as the characters in Mad Men did, even if those things we’re devoted to are connected to our ministries.
When I preach, how do the people respond to my sermon? Do I feel good about it only if folks go out of their way to compliment me?
How many folks subscribe to my blog?
What kinds of responses do I receive from my writing?
What are the sales figures for the last book I published?
How many speaking engagements or teacher-training opportunities does my calendar show for the months ahead?
During my final CIU semester, I became acutely aware of something everybody else already knew: CIU will grow and excel without me. In fact, it gradually dawned on me that God will exist after I die! (Wonder of wonders!)
So obvious it is sobering. Yet I ponder:
If it isn’t necessary to go to my CIU office every weekday, who am I?
If no eager students are signing up for my classes, who am I?
If I never teach or preach off campus again, or never write another blog or book, who am I?
Who I Am
If God put me on the shelf for health reasons, or He merely ordered me to cease all public ministry, how would I respond? Could I enjoy Him without serving Him in the spotlight? Could I relax in the fact that my identity as a person is rooted not in what I do for Him, but in what He has done for me on the cross? Am I in love with Him personally, or with the things I have been doing for Him throughout my professional life?
If He sidelined me, I know I’d protest:
“But God, You called me to teach. You can’t take all such opportunities away from me! Teaching is who I am.”
“But God, You gave me writing ability. That’s part of my calling, too. You can’t take that away from me! Writing is who I am.”
And His response would whack me on the side of my head: “Terry, I’m not God until I can!”
The cross is where He redeemed me, exchanging His righteousness, credited to me, for the penalty for sin that I deserve. I am God’s property, having been purchased for a lofty price, the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:18-20 and 1 Peter 1:18-19). As a result, here are aspects of my real identity, conveying who I really am:
I am “Abba’s child.” The instant I put my faith in Christ, God adopted me into His family (John 1:12; Romans 8:15-17). When I pray, I enjoy the privilege of employing a warm Jewish term that a first-century child used when addressing his father: Abba. It’s the descriptor that Jesus used when He addressed God the Father (Mark 14:36). The term connotes intimacy, love, security, and a sense of belonging that no human relationship matches.
I am Jesus’ brother! According to Hebrews 2:11, “Both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” (Due to what happened to Him on the cross, I consider Him my blood brother!)
I am Tate’s Papaw! (You didn’t see this one coming, did you?!) When my eight-year-old grandson was five, when I wasn’t home one day, Dolly sat Tate in her lap and showed him a book I had written. She pointed out the photo of me on the back cover. Then she bragged to him about me.
“Tate, do you realize that your Papaw is a writer of many books? Did you know that he has a doctor’s degree and is a college teacher? Did you know he is a preacher who often speaks in front of hundreds of people in churches? Did you know…”
Tate abruptly shook his head sideways, looking agitated. He said, “No, no. Papaw is not a writer! Papaw is not a teacher! Papaw is not a preacher! He is just my Papaw!”
Who are you?