Posts Tagged ‘identity


R is for Redemption

(This post will be the first in a series. Recently, my mentor/counselor/friend suggested I create an acrostic from my name as a way of claiming my God-given identity.)

I love the table in our breakfast room. In fact, it is the table where I now sit and write these words you are reading.

Besides being a great writing surface and just the right size and shape for Sunday dinners with the family, I discovered a whole new trick this table can perform – it can serve as an illustration of a theological principle that resides deep in the core of my identity.

Here’s what I mean: while the legs and frame of this table are new, the tabletop is made out of reclaimed barn wood. Here is a picture of the table… complete with the Table top picinappropriately colored table runner I bought one day from a street vendor in Guatemala.

If you look hard at the surface of this table you can see nail marks, cracks, scratches and a wide range of other kinds of imperfections.

The barn that gave birth to our tabletop (located, we were told, somewhere in central Missouri) had been abandoned long ago. The wood was exposed to the blistering sun, pouring rain, and dramatic temperature swings as the barn just sat there, ignored… unappreciated… unused.

No one knew what its original color was as all of its paint had long since peeled and fallen off.

One day the owners decided it was time to tear that old barn down to make way for something else. Fortunately, a furniture builder came by just then and offered to buy all of the wood planking from the barn.


That which had been cast aside and labeled as useless was suddenly given a new purpose. Yes, it did take a little work to transform those weathered planks into a serviceable table, but here they are: living a new life as a vital element of our breakfast room… making vital, daily contributions to our family’s well-being.

Most of the time we see redemption as only about being saved. As Psalm 34:22 saysThe Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Psalm 72:14 makes a similar appeal when it says, “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.”

The barn wood variety of redemption, however, has two components: salvation and rebirth. That barn wood did not simply avoid being turned into kindling. While retaining its essential identity, that wood was transformed into something else completely!

I see Jesus as an agent of “barn wood redemption.” He not only set people free from lives that were seen as discarded, useless, and unproductive. He set them on new paths, gave them new identities, and – most importantly – RECLAIMED their original identities as beloved children of God.

I know that God has begun a huge redemption project in my life. I can’t wait to see where it is headed!


Necktie Truth

Burning bushQ: When is a burning bush NOT a burning bush?

A: When it is a collapsing tie rack.


Let me explain: Sunday night when I came home I was tired.

Earlier in the day, I woke up at 5:00 a.m., preached sermons at two different churches, driven an hour back to the city, and then went immediately to speak at my friend’s pre-funeral funeral event. (Which, when you think about it, is a really good idea. I would love the chance to be there in the flesh to listen to all the lovely eulogies and memories people normally don’t speak about you until your actual funeral.)

When I got home I went through the bedroom and into my closet. I was eagerly looking forward to taking off my suit and tie, slipping into a baggy sweatshirt and slippers, putting my feet up and just RELAXING.

And then suddenly – unprovoked by anything but the winds of cosmic mischief – my battery-powered, revolving tie rack crashed to the closet floor… spilling ties EVERYWHERE.

Granted, I’ve had that rack for a long time… probably long enough to explain why two of the five little plastic hooks holding it up were broken off.

But still…

For the next 30 minutes there I was – halfway undressed, trying to put the accursed device back together while digging myself out from under the tie avalanche in the middle of the closet floor.

Somewhere there in the middle of my cursing and scooping and flailing attempts to fix what was broken, a thought entered my mind. And that thought went something like this; “Well, looks like it is time to get a new tie rack. And maybe – JUST MAYBE – it doesn’t need to be a rotating tie rack capable of holding 64 different ties. MAYBE it is time to come to grips with the fact that you are in a different phase of your life where you don’t actually NEED 60-70 different ties to choose from. MAYBE you could take at least half of those and give them away!”

Yes, I had to face a hard truth: I had been hoarding neckties.

Which is a weird thing, actually, since I am not really a big fan of ties in the first place.

I finally realized that right there, in my tired, half-dressed, frustrated state of mind standing there in the closet; I had received an invitation.

I was being invited to face the music.

I was being invited to embrace the reality of the new phase my life had entered… I am not sure exactly what to call this phase, but it is definitely a phase that does not require 64 different tie choices.

Who knows, it might be time to just be totally wild, throw caution to the wind, and face the world with just 30 ties!

In all seriousness, I found that the act of sitting in the middle of that pile of ties, sorting through them and putting some in a “toss or donate” bag was an exercise that was at once sobering and liberating.

Those ties – along with many other material artifacts that populate my home I’m sure – represented a bridge to the past. They helped me say, “See… nothing has changed. I am still the same guy I was 25 years ago when I started buying those ties. I can postpone any effort to recalculate my bearings in life FOREVER! I really don’t have to face the honest-to-gosh facts of who I am and where I am.”

The best burning bushes in our lives are the ones that bring us face to face with the truth. The truth God revealed to Moses in the burning bush there on Mt. Sinai was the truth of his unique call to liberate his people (Exodus 3:7-10).

The truth Jesus revealed to the apostle Simon when he changed his name to Peter (Luke 6:14) was the truth of his rock-solid character… albeit a character buried deeply under some really shaky stuff on the surface.

Jesus hit the nail on the head when he said, “… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV). What he omitted from his statement was that after coming to KNOW the truth, we have to LIVE that truth.

Because sometimes truths are hard to come to grips with… just like my truth about neckties.

And so we avoid them.

Right now we are living in a time when the world is being presented with a whole bunch of truth… truth about the prevalence of sexual violence in the workplace… truth about the epidemic levels of chemical addiction… truth about the importance of character in our political leaders… truth about the alteration of the planet’s climate patterns caused by man-made pollution… and so on and so on.

These truths WILL, in fact, set us free.

But only if we embrace these truths and live them out.

Will you help me?


The Real Deal

“To thine own self be true.”
– Polonius, in Hamlet

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,
and that is what we are.”
– 1 John 3:1, NRSV

“Authentic” is a word that has been crossing my radar screen with increased frequency lately.

Naturally, authenticity would be a theme that would come to mind on that annual holiday we spend dressing up as someone – or something – else.

It also popped up this morning on a local radio talk show. The guest was the owner of a restaurant in town that specializes in Ramen noodles. Yes… that is apparently a thing. During the show, many syllables and much air were employed in identifying the difference between authentic Ramen and… I guess the inauthentic variety.

Over the weekend I had the honor of officiating at the memorial service of a friend of my son’s who died of pancreatic cancer. He and many friends in attendance had spent most of their lives outside the institutional church. However, in the last months of his life, this young man experienced something powerful and convicting that led him to ask me to baptize him a month before his death.

I found myself wrestling deeply with the question of what an “authentic” celebration of his life might look like…. And then not being terribly sure I even understood the question.

Often we give very high “authenticity” marks to people in the public eye who don’t really take the time to weigh and carefully consider their words before speaking. We applaud them as “genuine”… “unfiltered” and “authentic.” We say that those folks are a breath of fresh air in comparison with the carefully crafted words of professional “spin doctors.”

And then it makes me scratch my head and ask, “So then what does the word authentic actually mean?” And then I follow up with myself and ask, “And how has authenticity become such a paramount virtue today?”

One answer I hear is that the word authentic must mean something like “core,” or “essential,” or “foundational.” It’s what is left over when you strip away all of the mystical window dressing.

hotfudge_sundaeBut then I have to ask, “Does that mean all of our efforts to enhance or improve something are fraudulent because they take us away from its ESSENCE? Should I just leave my vanilla ice cream alone and not add the chocolate syrup, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and a cherry… in the name of authenticity?”

I also hear authenticity being defined more along the lines of “raw” and “unprocessed” or that other phrase currently in fashion, “… like it is.” The implication here is that the more spontaneous and unplanned something is, the more authentic it is.

I am not going to lie… as a guy who writes and re-writes and tries to think carefully about words and what they mean, this definition offends me. I am sure it offends me because it seems to assign a higher virtue to unplannedness and spur-of-the-momentness than to thoughtfulness.

And personally, I think that is one messed up set of virtues.

MYRIAD are the examples I can give of times when my ill-considered, spontaneous words caused hurt and complication in a situation.

MYRIAD+ are the examples of times when slow, deliberate, thoughtful consideration of words brought light and healing.

Think about it: what would it look like if we all really followed Polonius’ advice to be “true” to our own selves?

The next, natural question is: which self are we talking about?

  • Is it the self that feels like punching a hole in the wall when the home team fumbles the opening kick-off?
  • Is it the self that can’t resist taking a second helping of apple pie?
  • Is it the self that has deep doubts about its talent or worth?

And are we really the ones to be trusted to choose which of these “selves” we are supposed to be true to?

I believe personal authenticity is all about being the fullest, most complete version of ME that I can be.

And so for me, that includes being every bit of the goofy, thoughtful, impulsive, tender-hearted, self-centered, creative, emotional, dim-witted, spiritual, energetic, joyful, deep, shallow, inconsiderate Russell Brown God made me to be.

But mostly, it means going back to the Source and reclaiming my identity as a Child of God; infinitely beloved by the One who created the whole Universe.

THAT is really who I am.

And it is really – authentically – who you are, too.



License Plates


I am pretty sure – had he lived today in this post-modern, American culture – the Apostle Paul would have included my unique skill among the spiritual gifts he lists in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

Yes… had he written that marvelous epistle in the 21st century instead of the first, I believe that right there alongside miracle working, healing, prophesy, discernment of spirits and wisdom we would find, “Personalized license plate deciphering.”

Call it a gift… call it a sixth sense… call it a silly waste of time, but unless the license plate is intentionally obscure, I seem to have an innate knack for quickly figuring out what these jumbled collections of letters are trying to communicate.

This one, however, took me a couple of extra minutes. UBUIBME. Initially I thought it might be a Swahili word of some kind, known only to speakers of that language. But then in a flash of inspiration it came to me: And it was a great message, too – “You be you; I be me.”

YES! Perfect! Great idea! Why doesn’t each of us just be fully who we are… no pretense, no façade, no phoniness, no personas invented for the purpose of public display. I mean, if we really take the words of scripture seriously we each know that, “… I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” just like it tells us there in Psalm 139:14.

Then maybe we wouldn’t have to spend so much time taking those silly Facebook quizzes that invite us to “discover your ideal pet,” or “figure out which decade you should have been born in” and all the others.

But then I stop and wonder: is that really a good idea? Can I really be all of the honest-to-goodness ME that I am when we are together? Can I… or even SHOULD I… let all of that loose on you? I mean, there are probably some parts that should stay “under the radar” just to prevent you from screaming and running in the opposite direction at top speed.

There also exists the distinct possibility that I might not be completely in touch with all of who I am… a seemingly important prerequisite to “being me.”

It is also true that for some certain percentage of us, the invitation to “go ahead and be the real you” is a tantalizing call to a level of authenticity we find truly liberating. At the same time we need to remember that for a significant portion of the population, the revelation of their authentic identity can bring suspicion and condemnation in some cases and genuine danger in others.

I am referring, of course, to those whose authentic identity is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, or sexually inquiring. For these there is often great risk associated with standing up and being who they genuinely are. They have repeatedly encountered a world where some would require that the UBUIBME license plate be revised to include an asterisk and the caveat, “… unless you are LGBTQI.”

For the last six months it has been my great pleasure to sing with the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) in Kansas City. In case you don’t know about them, HMC is Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus, this year celebrating its 31st year of existence. The chorus is approximately 150 male voices strong and generally performs three concert cycles each year, beginning in December with the Christmas concert. Prospective singers must audition in order to join HMC.

Of the 150 chorus members, there are about 10 of us who are not gay. And yet, from Day 1 I have felt nothing but a warm and open welcome there. And as long as I hit my notes and do the necessary memorization work, I am sure I always will be.

This warm and open welcome, of course, is exactly the opposite of the reception that most HMC members have received from straight society throughout their lives; condemnation, shame, rejection, isolation, discouragement, and disapproval has more been the norm.

And because of this sadly still-prevalent reality of our world, I have come to appreciate the incredible courage required for my LGBTQI brothers and sisters to stand up, speak out clearly and say, “THIS is exactly who I am!” Yes… they know that their declaration will inspire, give hope and courage, and solidarity with people still living in the dark closet. But they also know that this same declaration might well make their own lives a living hell.

On more than one occasion I have been asked if I would please adjust my identity so as to fit in better with my environment; however, I have never been bullied, teased, beaten, or killed because of who I am. Sadly this is not the case for millions of our brothers and sisters of the LGBTQI community.

I will end today on an upbeat, promotional note. If the issue of authentic identity is one that resonates with you on ANY level, please make plans to attend the Heartland Men’s Chorus spring concert: IDENTIFY. It will be March 25 at 8:00 p.m. at the Folly Theater, and March 26 at 4:00 p.m., also at the Folly. Tickets range in price and can be purchased at

You be you. No matter who you are. And I – God willing – will be me. And together we will reach out to those who live in fear.

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