After college, I moved for a summer to live with some friends in Tennessee. Chattanooga to be precise, which is a lovely city, if I do say so myself. This was back when we were getting ready for the Atlanta Olympics and it just so happened that the kayaking competition was going to be held on the Ocoee River not far from where I was living.
My friend, Jason, was an avid kayaker, and sometime during that summer we planned a trip, not on the actual Olympic course, but close by. I thought it sounded very cool, and even though I had never been kayaking before, I thought, “How hard can it be?”
My cavalier attitude, was borne out of, I think, a self-image that may or may not have been entirely accurate. I was a pretty good athlete in high school and college. I considered myself to be better than average in most things, one of those things being balance.
My hubris was quickly revealed and it is safe to say what followed was one of the most embarrassing episodes of my life.
Jason got me all geared up: life jacket, little neoprene booties, paddle, boat and a skirt, which, come on, how can they call it a skirt and expect us to take this whole thing very seriously? Well, it was serious, and as soon as I sat my arrogant keester in that boat I knew I was in trouble.
I am prone to hyperbole from time to time, but let me just say this is not one of those times. That afternoon, I found myself literally under the water, more than I was on top of it. I have never been in such an unstable watercraft. It was terrible. I could not stay upright, try as I might, and it was with much shame and humiliation I just eventually had to give up.
Jason was very cool about it, but I am pretty sure he thought I was a schmuck, too.
I think my humiliation from that day taught me something: my abilities and talents were a very shaky foundation for my identity. I thought I was pretty athletic, but I found out I was more unstable than a toddler in an earthquake. Sure, sometimes I was pretty successful, but my world was rocked on the river that day, and I realized pretty painfully I wasn’t all that I thought I was.
And there have been plenty of other days like that: when I tanked at an important cross-country meet, when my marriage fell apart. My own talents and abilities have let me down time and time again, and were it not for some simple truths I found in one of the apostle Paul’s letters (with the help of others) I don’t know where my sense of self would be today.
In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul gives his readers a much, much more stable foundation upon which to build their identity. There is a lot in this chapter, but let me highlight a few things he says:
For he chose us in him (Christ) before the creation of the world…. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sin…. You were marked in him, with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…. I pray…you may know…his incomparably great power for us who believe… (Ephesians 1:4, 7, 13-14, 18-19)
What does all this mean? Well, this is what I think: when Paul writes that I am chosen and adopted, that tells me that I am wanted. When he says that I am forgiven, I hear, “You are free, unburdened, unencumbered by your past.” When Paul tells me I am sealed, that I have a guarantee, that makes me feel very secure. When I am told I have incredible power, that communicates that I am capable. I can do it.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I look over all that, I realize that’s a pretty good foundation for me to build upon. When I understand I am chosen, forgiven, sealed, and empowered, there’s not a lot that’s going to shake me or upend me. I can take a lot of chances, risk a lot of failure because who I am is rooted in a rock-solid identity given to me by Jesus.
God knew I was going to be a fool on that river that day. It didn’t change the fact that he loved me, chose me, that he still wanted me as his kid, that I still had incomparably great power. And a foundation like that makes it lot easier to get back in the boat and to keep trying.