Identity mixes

One metaphor that helped me understand God’s masterful orchestration of my life’s seasons

By Leslie Gates
Illustration by Leslie Gates

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens . . .” —Ecclesiastes 3:1

One spring day in 2006, a semester before I would graduate with my master’s degree, I found myself sitting in the office of the Dean of the Graduate School, who also happened to be my academic advisor. At his invitation, we were meeting to discuss what I might do with my life after I completed my degree. I told him of my hopes: to continue teaching art, to have children, to continue being meaningfully involved at church. He added that he had a further hope for me: to pursue a Ph.D.

I didn’t know what pursuing a Ph.D. would mean exactly, and I wondered how it would affect the other things I had hoped to do. I must have been thinking aloud. My advisor’s voice took on a fatherly tone as he interrupted me to say, “Leslie, you can have it all, but not all at once.”

I knew that my advisor was a busy man—teaching graduate and undergraduate courses, running the graduate program at the college, as well as instructing classes within the Church of Latter-day Saints. I’d also heard that he was in a difficult chapter of his home life. So when I looked at him, I realized that this observation wasn’t an insult to my commitment or work ethic but a truth spoken from someone who was currently in the throes of trying to find a balance between the things life was demanding of him.

“We listened. The silence was so vast, it had a life all its own. It was not the absence of sound. It was the presence of something very old, very still, very watchful.” —Mark Buchanan, The Sabbath Rest of God

In 2007, my husband had a growing conviction that God wanted him to become involved in church planting. I initially resisted this idea, realizing that it would mean having to leave Fairview Avenue, the BIC church in Waynesboro, Pa., we were attending . . . the one I had grown to love like no other. During our time at that church, had come to a new understanding of my gifts and how I should use them among the body, eventually serving as a leader in a small group and in our music ministry. In a way, I felt like I had found my place among this community, and I did not want to leave.

However, God has a better record than I do for making decisions, and I wanted to follow God’s call, even if I didn’t particularly like it. So, in September of that year, our church commissioned us to begin regularly attending Hollowell BIC (Waynesboro, Pa.), with the intention of being involved in a church planting initiative. At our new church, my husband began to thrive in many ways. He formed relationships quickly with church members of all ages. I saw God working to develop his speaking and mentoring skills, preparing him to pastor the next church plant.

I, on the other hand, felt a bit lost. I had just resigned from my full-time teaching job and enrolled in a doctoral program. My relationships with folks at our old church changed as we transitioned from one church to another. Our new church had a fantastic worship leader in place, and it did not have small groups, so the two gifts that I’d been able to practice and develop at our last church were not immediately of use.

The identities that I’d eagerly embraced in the last chapter of my life were fading, and there was no clear path leading forward. I was left wondering what God was up to. Why would God provide opportunities for me to identify and hone certain skills, only to then put me in a context where they were no longer needed? Was God calling me to something else? What if, in this silence, He was calling me to rest? Did I even know how to rest? Could one serve God by resting?

“I'm half Jewish, I'm half black, I look in-between. I dress funny. I play all these different styles of music on one record. It's like, What is he doing?”
—Lenny Kravitz

As it turns out, that Sabbath period was God’s wise design. For almost two years, I learned how to be still and permit God to use (or suspend) my gifts as He saw fit. Looking back, I see how that time of rest prepared me for the three brand new identities I now assume: mother, pastor’s wife, and college professor. Several roles have also been renewed, including that of worship leader, one of the main roles I have played in the church plant my husband leads, The Well BIC (Waynesboro, Pa.). At the same time, other titles and identities—such as small group leader—remain dormant.

My life has changed in many ways over the past five years. The conglomeration of items on our kitchen table—currently including Play-Doh, my laptop, an APA writing manual, extra church bulletins, and washable markers—evidence the ways in which these identities are all active and interwoven in this season of life.

At times, these seasons of my life have felt overwhelming. I think people might look at me and wonder, What is she doing? As I reflected on the changes to my identities and life, God provided me with a metaphor to help me better understand how carefully He has been orchestrating things behind the scenes.

Life as a soundboard

A soundboard is one of the tools that technicians use to control amplified audio signals. Unlike most televisions, which only transmit one channel at a time, soundboards allow multiple audio channels to be heard simultaneously and at different volume levels. This enables someone to combine and regulate the amplified sounds and volumes of drums, guitar, and voices when a band is playing, for example.

Imagine this: God sits behind a soundboard that represents my life. The soundboard has many different channels, each labeled with one of my identities: wife, mom, professor, artist, worship leader, friend, daughter, author, etc. Some of the channels have labels that I don’t yet recognize or that I can barely remember.

As I live, God sensitively, carefully, and masterfully sits and mixes channels. Certain seasons of life and specific situations that God ordains mean “turning up” some of my identities while leaving others unknown, unpracticed, or unused for a time. Other seasons require an entirely new mix.

Currently, the volume on the “mom channel” is very loud for me, as young children scurry around my feet. But the “artist channel” still plays softly in the background, as I delight in the temporary masterpiece my daughter creates with bathtub crayons. Sometimes, as my second vignette demonstrates, God orchestrates silence. He is wise.

Understanding my identities as soundboard channels that God masterfully controls releases me from lies I once accepted as true. I believed the lie that I can or should do all of these things excellently all of the time. I believed lies about which of these channels are most important and to whom. I believed the lie that I am actually the one in control of the mix.

But God has revealed that he is the one behind the ebb and flow of my life. This truth has helped me to believe that God has called me to different things at different times and with different intensities. Trying to be all things at all times would result in cacophonous noise. My current season of life attests to God’s careful mix of channels and my dependency on His orchestration.

Leslie Gates

Leslie Gates lives in Waynesboro, Pa., with her husband, Sam (pastor of The Well BIC), and daughter, Evelyn. She works as an arts education researcher and as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida.


Devin Manzullo-Thomas Posted on April 26, 2012

Beautiful! Thanks, Leslie, for this profound reflection on identity, trust, and Sabbath.

Judy Posted on April 25, 2012

Excellent article, Leslie. To everything there is a season...

Susan Posted on April 25, 2012

Once again you have eloquently articulated what so many of us need to hear. The metaphor of the soundboard resonates with me, as my techie daughter, queen of the soundboard, is about to relinquish that title for something new. I'm not sure either one of us is looking forward to that, as we both see safety and enjoyment in the present.

Prayers for you as you all move forward, and keep inspiring -- you certainly have the gift.

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