When I was a new Christian, at the time when “modern worship” was still fairly new (for UK readers, Songs of Fellowship very much dominated the market), we used to sing a worship song called Pierce My Ear. The lyrics of the chorus went like this:
Pierce my ear, O Lord my God
Take me to Your throne this day
I will serve no other god
Lord, I’m here to stay
The song was an allusion to the ancient Hebrew practice whereby a slave owner would pierce a slave’s ear to mark the slave’s willing, lifelong allegiance (you’ll find the origin of this practice in Exodus 21:6).
Ten years or so ago (can it be that long?), I did something very uncharacteristic. Without telling anyone I was going to do it, I went out one afternoon and had my left ear pierced.
It was uncharacteristic partly because it didn’t fit the image of the kind of person I appeared to be. First, I was in my early thirties, old enough to be past the age of youthful indiscretion and rebellion. Second, I had a wife and two young kids and lived in a nice, detached suburban house – very much the aspiring middle-class family. Third, I was a middle manager in a major high street bank, and doing such a thing was bound to provoke at least a few raised eyebrows at work. Fourth, I was a respected member of the worship team in my church who probably had a reputation for being very solid and straight.
But the main reason it was uncharacteristic was that it just wasn’t the type of thing I’d ever do.
I was never one of the “popular” kids at school. I mean, I had friends, but they were mostly part of the same small, relatively uncool crowd that I belonged to.
I tried so very hard to be interested in the things the popular boys were into – you know, girls, soccer, that kind of thing. But my heart wasn’t in it, and when it came to soccer, my feet certainly weren’t. I would frequently be among the last to be chosen when teams were picked for a school yard soccer game. Most of the time it didn’t bother me, but sometimes it did. After all, few people would volunteer to be excluded or selected only as a last resort.
I took refuge instead in the things I enjoyed: school work and music. I was fascinated by a whole range of academic and scientific subjects, and would read all manner of books, from encyclopaedias to astronomy guides to books about God and religion. And several nights a week would be devoted to music lessons and rehearsals with various bands and orchestras.
I was mostly happy, but I always knew I was not one of the “in” crowd. And however much I enjoyed my own interests, this knowledge bothered me and made me feel uncomfortable at some level I couldn’t explain but was painfully aware of.
Things didn’t really change after I came to faith at age fourteen. Yes, I became part of a broadly welcoming church community; but when all is said and done, kids are kids, and I still found myself not really fitting the mould and feeling like something of an outsider looking in, especially when it came to social or sporting activities.
The years rolled by, I went to university, met and married my wife, had kids, settled into a career and found a ministry vocation at church. To all intents and purposes I was successful and respected. And I was happy. Mostly.
But still, somewhere deep down, there was that nagging sense that somehow I didn’t “fit in”. And oh, how I longed to fit in.
Then came the crucial turning point. It was a time when I was very busy at church, involved in a number of different ministries and activities. One day, out of the blue, I began to feel in my spirit that I should ask to be relieved of all involvement for three months. Not really knowing why, I followed this inner “leading” and temporarily laid everything down.
There followed a period of what I can only really describe as depression. All purpose seemed to have evaporated from my life. Here I was with a beautiful family, a nice house, an enviable job… yet I felt like I was going nowhere and my life was a waste of time.
It was during this period that I first came across a writer named Brennan Manning and read his book “Abba’s Child”. To say it affected me deeply is an understatement. There was one chapter in particular that leapt off the pages at me. It was titled “The Impostor”, and it was about the many and various masks we wear – in short, the different people we try to be – in our attempts to obtain approval from others. Amid much anguished soul-searching and tears, I began to realise how much of everything I did, in work, family and church, was part of a desperate attempt to meet someone’s approval, to be worth something in someone’s eyes, to be admired.
When I returned to active ministry three months later, it was with much greater awareness of why I was doing what I was doing, and also why I wasn’t doing it. I had been awakened to my own motivations. Funny how it can take a crisis to do that.
In the months that followed, I knew that something had shifted deep inside me, that my feet had been nudged onto a different path. I knew that somewhere along that path lay freedom – freedom from that enduring sense of otherness, of not fitting in, of not quite measuring up. I knew then as I know now that I had not arrived anywhere – this was merely the beginning of another journey that would require courage and perseverance. And I had a deep conviction that I needed to do something to stake my claim, to mark that freedom for my own, whatever the cost.
So I went out and had my ear pierced.
It was a conscious, deliberate act of both rejection and acceptance. Rejection of the tyranny of people-pleasing and mask-wearing, and acceptance of the truth that it is better to be unnoticed while being truly and fully yourself than to be hailed and applauded by thousands while all the time striving and straining to be someone you think others want you to be. And, as I wore my new gold stud in my left ear, I was reminded of that old worship song. It was a symbol of allegiance to God, and a sign of trust that my identity was secure in him.
The ear-piercing did raise some eyebrows and questions both at work and at church. I sidestepped them without going into my real reasons, which were far more personal than I cared to divulge. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve tried to explain those reasons.
I don’t wear my gold stud all the time, but when I do, I remember my commitment to God and to myself: to always seek to be me, and not some mask-wearing impostor, whether or not people approve. I can’t say I’ve got it nailed yet; at times I’m still far too bound up by what I think others think of me. But I know I’m no longer where I was. And I know that, if I keep heeding the reminders, greater freedom lies ahead.
I’m deeply convinced that committing to the journey of discovering our authentic selves, whatever the cost, is one of the greatest acts of worship we can engage in.
[ Image: Alan ]