My parents raised me to think of myself as a leader. They pointed out that I was good at listening to people and breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more easily accomplished steps (and then making colored-coded flow charts and to do lists to map the work to be done). They also called attention to the fact that I was good at negotiating and compromising—which was their way of putting a positive spin on the fact that by the time she was three and I was five, my younger sister could pin me in a wrestling match, thus forcing me to find non-physical means of getting what I wanted.
Throughout grade school, I found ways to exercise this leadership ability. I served on student council and was elected its president my eighth grade year; I was an altar server at church and eventually trained in new altar servers; and I was captain of my club gymnastics team.
But then adolescence hit, and everything changed. My class in high school was what the educational experts call “a bad class.” The ring leaders, the students with power who everyone seemed to look up to, were the students who were good at partying, not those who were good at academics, sports, the arts, music, service… or any other thing that might be valued at school. In this environment, being a leader seemed too risky. So I decided on a tactic for survival that was the complete opposite of being a leader: I strove for invisibility. My thought process was that if people did not know you were there, then they could not tease, harass, or reject you, and this seemed my safest option.
Our junior year, the administration sat our entire class down in the school’s theater over lunch one day, and their message was simple: “You are a bad class. We do not know where we went wrong with you. We simply do not know what to do with you. Please find it in your hearts not to ruin this school before you graduate next year and we can say good riddance.” (I am sure that their message was much more nuanced and delicately put than this, and there may even have been a positive action plan thrown in at the end, but this is what I remember from that odd occasion.) I felt bad that day; I hated the idea that anyone thought I was a problem, even if only by association with this bad apple of a class. And of course, I could hear my parents’ voices in my head, insisting, “You could do something about this. You are a leader.” But I quickly shushed them, rationalizing that no one would listen to me anyway and resolving just to last out my time in high school as quietly as I had started it.
A few weeks later, as I was minding my own business at my locker one morning, Kate, someone I knew only from classes we had taken together, told me she was running for president of student council and wanted to know if I would run as her VP. While not popular by the standards of high school, everyone knew Kate because she was that person who found a way to be nice to everyone in the school—the custodians, the lunch ladies, the freshmen who looked lost and forlorn, the stars of the basketball team. Skeptical, I asked Kate, “Why me?” She replied, “Because you would be good at it and because together we can win.”
The immediate conclusion to this story is not the stuff of fairy tales. Kate and l lost the election to two good looking, popular boys in our class. When the results were announced over the PA at the end of the school day, I hid in the bathroom for half an hour so that the school would be empty by the time I dragged my tear-stained self to my locker to get my things. But Kate’s invitation and the whole process of running for student council got me to stop hiding. My senior year I assumed leadership of the National Honors Society, worked as the sports’ editor for the school newspaper, and loved the opportunity to make colored-coded spread sheets again. And perhaps even more importantly, I started to really get to know people and to let them get to know me. (Turns out my whole invisible strategy had not worked as I had intended. People noticed me but assumed I was completely stuck up since I never said anything!)
In this week’s gospel reading from John, Jesus and his mother are at a wedding in Cana, and the wine runs out, which was as horrible a faux pas back then as it would be now. Mary shares this information with Jesus, likely already knowing that her son is special and thinking he may be able to do something about it. Jesus replies, “Mother, what is this to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” For whatever reason, Jesus does not yet want to bring attention to himself or to make his identity or ministry public. Maybe he knew once he started he would no longer be able to be invisible, that people would expect and want things from him, that his relationships with people would change. Maybe he was afraid that he was not up to the task. Maybe he still doubted God’s plan for his life.
It seems that Mary has having none of this. Instead of arguing with Jesus, she simply says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After this, Jesus tells the servants to fill six large stone jars with water and to bring them to the steward in charge of the feast. When the steward tastes the contents of the jar, he imbibes the finest wine, and Jesus’ public ministry has begun.
Being truly who we are and who we are called to be by God can be a scary prospect. We might worry that people will not like us, that we will not be able to live up to people’s expectations for us, that too much may be demanded of us. Sometimes it takes important others in our lives to see our gifts, our best selves, and to gently encourage us to use them, instead of hiding ourselves and our gifts away. Sometimes we need to be called out of hiding, like Kate (and the ever-present voices of my parents in my head) did for me and like Mary did for Jesus.
Who in your life knows who you truly are? Who can you turn to in order to see your best self reflected?
When have you been afraid or hesitant to live as your true self? When have you been hesitant to answer God’s call for your life? Has anyone been able to call you out of hiding on these occasions?