Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4.24-25)
Standards and Variations
The jazz subculture has fascinated me for years. It’s a nocturnal world that welcomes visitors from the dayside with warm hospitality, yet adamantly keeps to itself. When it’s my treat to enter its sphere—the cracker-box clubs and all-night diners where musicians unwind after their gigs—I’m always struck by how differently what I see and hear looks and sounds to the regulars who graciously let me tag along. The music has much to do with this, I think. It shines brightest in its comfort with standards and variations, as artists display their imagination and range by reshaping melodies from a fairly limited repertoire of classics. The same impulse slips into everyday life. Every jazz musician I know makes ordinary language, fashion, and living distinctively his/her own. Being is an art unto itself; it frames all that they think, say, and do. So when I heard the story of Billy Tipton—a jazzman in the 1940’s and ‘50’s—although it shocked me at first, the more I thought about it the less surprising it seemed.
Billy Tipton started life in 1914 as Dorothy, the daughter of Oklahoma parents. After the couple divorced, she lived with an aunt in Missouri, where her musical gifts blossomed, despite the local school’s policy barring girls from its band. She returned to Oklahoma, looking for work with jazz bands, which was scarce for women at the time. In 1933, she invented a male alter ego, Billy, whose talent placed him in high demand. The strains of a double life rapidly mounted until Dorothy vanished altogether in 1940 so Billy could grow and succeed. Switching sexes was a pragmatic decision rather than a psychological imperative. If her ruse came to light, her peers might reject her. Her gifts would have no expressive outlet. To be herself—her highest self—Dorothy took on a new self. It was a feat of self-denial unlike any other. After Billy’s death in 1989 revealed his origins, Dorothy reemerged as a cult heroine among jazz artists and aficionados. They disputed tabloid accusations of “lifelong deception” by insisting Dorothy went to such extremes in order to tell the truth of who she was—an artist of extraordinary imagination and range whose whole life was a variation on a standard. How they saw it, the lengths she went to in joining their community confirmed her membership in it.
Our True Selves
Stories like this, about people whose determination to honor their calling gives rise to incredible courage and commitment, remind us our true selves—the beings created in God’s image for God’s purpose—can’t be defined by objective criteria and generalizations. At some point, who we’ve been told (and assumed) we are bumps into the reality of who we’re made to be. As we learn to appreciate the singularity of our making, we understand our lives are meant to be variations on standards. In addition to gifts and traits God instills us, where God places us, and when God puts us there, God also endows us with imagination and range to create something novel and unique from familiar, frequently reinterpreted material. Gratefully, few of us confront challenges requiring extreme measures like those Dorothy Tipton took. Still, I believe each of us arrives at a moment when our beings beckon us to witness their creation through God-given talents we possess. Though some may experience this as epiphany, it’s a pragmatic decision for most. Confessing the truthfulness of who we are secures our means to express all that we are. It rids self-perception of objective definitions to see ourselves like God sees us, as individually crafted and empowered reflections of God’s nature and creativity.
In Ephesians 4, Paul coins a marvelous nomenclature for this transformation, explained in verses 22-24: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self… to be made new in the attitudes of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Newness begins by embracing new attitudes about who we are. It asks great courage and commitment, because thinking differently inevitably leads to swimming against the tide. From an early age, we’re surrounded by assumptions that inhibit and infect our true selves. We live in a world of vast structures and systems that reward conformity and discourage uniqueness. Years of hearing “that’s how it is” dulls our imaginations to all we’re meant to be. Sooner than we’re aware, we’re estranged from the beings God made. We lose touch with God’s purpose and adopt human pursuits that promise fulfillment, security, and success. Thus, exchanging the old self for a new one is basically reclaiming the true self buried by conformity’s pretenses.
Need for Our Gifts
Such an undertaking seems so enormous, after we embrace new attitudes about ourselves, we don’t know what’s next. Paul’s got some sound advice on this, too. In verse 25, he writes, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” The true confession that starts with us expands to true confessions to others. By living and speaking truthfully, we invite them to witness our beings’ creation. We take stock of every talent and trait we possess and express them all to our fullest capability. For instance, if God placed in us a gift for kindness, our words and actions honor that gift without fear or reservation. And it’s essential we remember the reason we do this immunizes us from others’ responses or opinions. As Dorothy Tipton’s story clearly points out, human favor is fickle. People and communities that won’t tolerate our variations one day may celebrate them the next. On the other hand, praise and acceptance we received yesterday isn't guaranteed to last through today. Staying true to ourselves—our highest selves—is its own reward.
When the new self confesses its existence to others, it rejects conformity’s pretenses and barriers. Negativity becomes a positive by broadening our imaginations and range as we seek opportunities where the need for our gifts will make us welcome. That’s how we discover God’s place for us. That’s how we fulfill God’s purpose. “We are all members of one body,” Paul says. As with our physical bodies, everything God gives us is designed for use. We’re created to contribute to a greater whole. Burying our true selves beneath fears and reservations makes us useless to the Body of Christ. We cripple its potential to restore compassion, peace, and justice to a world enthralled by hatred, conflict, and oppression. Here’s a variation on an old standard: True confessions are good for the whole.
God instilled unique talents and traits in us and placed us here for a unique purpose. Exchanging our old selves for new ones reclaims our true selves buried under conformity’s pretenses.
Postscript: A Chance to Revisit
Business and family obligations call me away for the next 12 days, which gives us a chance to revisit a few posts you may not have caught the first time around. With over 700 to choose from, I hope to find ones that either directly tie to the daily readings or contribute to their themes. As always, I’ll check for your comments and respond as quickly as I can. Hold me in your thoughts and prayers while I’m away. I’ll do likewise for you.