Michele Cushatt: So if we answer the ‘who am I?’ question based on our career, our roles, our talents, our appearance, the problem is, is that’s shifting sand. But I propose something different. [pause] If you can lose it, it’s not who you are.
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John Fuller: If you can lose it, that’s not who you are. That is a great statement, and we’re gonna be exploring how to find your true identity on today’s episode of Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, today’s guest is author and speaker, Michele Cushatt, and she has a lot to share so we’re gonna get right to her message which was given at one of our recent chapel gatherings for our staff.
John: Yeah, and so here’s Michele Cushatt on Focus on the Family.
Michele: It was a perfect fall evening, you know, those – those evenings that are neither too hot nor too cold, where you just want to be outside. About an hour and a half before, I had walked down a quaint picturesque downtown street with two of my dearest friends. We had slipped into a small sidewalk cafe and shared one of those dinners that are rich with honest heartfelt conversation – the kind of conversation that you only share with the closest of friends. It was perfect…..until once dinner was done, we walked back outside the cafe and made our way back down that same sidewalk when we ran into some friends. Now, running into friends was not a problem (laughter). We – I hadn’t seen these particular friends in a long time, and I was delighted to see them again. So we spent a few moments on that sidewalk and catching up and exchanging stories and sharing about family and work and life and ministry. And that’s when they introduced me to their 4-year-old girl.
They had this sweet 4-year-old girl. I have to tell you, she looked like an angel – the biggest brown eyes that I have ever seen. And that’s when that 4-year-old angel looked up at me and completely destroyed the night’s magic. In absolute innocence, she looked at me and asked this single question, “Why do you talk funny?”
And just that fast, I traveled back in time. You see, I had made my living – I had built a life for most of the decade before as a communicator. I had written several books. I had traveled around the world speaking. I trained speakers.
So you could say, at that point in my life, that communication – speaking – was core to my existence. And then I have this little 4-year-old girl who asked me, “Why do you talk funny?”
You see, at the height of my success and at the pinnacle of the time when it felt like everything was falling back in place, I received a phone call from a doctor who simply said, “Michele, I’m sorry, the cancer is back for the third time.” Yes, three. Cancer of the tongue – squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. I had been diagnosed a couple of times before in the years before. But in those earlier diagnoses, it had been ‘cancer caught early’ – a good-news diagnosis, one of those where you’re very optimistic about a full life until this third phone call, the third time. And all of a sudden, the doctors did not smile when they looked at me. There were no promises of a cure. There were no reassurances about my life. Instead, there was a nine-hour surgery to remove two-thirds of my tongue. There was an incision on my arm from wrist to elbow where they took out tissue and vessels to rebuild my tongue. There was another one on my neck from ear to throat. There was a graft on my leg about the size of an iPhone 6.
And after they gave me a very short time to recover from that, they started extreme external radiation and chemotherapy – the kind of radiation aimed at the face and the neck and the head and the neck in an attempt to burn the cancer away. I had a feeding tube for 5 months, a tracheostomy for almost two. I had burns from nose to chest. And then we had the hard long struggle to learn how to speak again.
There was a period of time where my vocal cords did not work and there was question about whether or not I’d ever speak. I had to learn how to drink again, learn how to eat again. And then, there were the long-term effects – the fact that I will have chronic dry mouth for the rest of my life. The fact that I lost 70 to 80 percent of my taste for the rest of my life, not to mention the PTSD and the emotional trauma and wounds that come from something so horrific. Literally – not an inch of my body was unaffected. I was completely scarred…. except for my right leg. And, you know, I finally decided there’s nothing more sexy than a right leg. I told my husband, knock yourself out. (LAUGHTER)
The doctors told me once it was all done, “We took you to the brink, Michele.” I agreed. So here I am a year later on the sidewalk of a sweet downtown with an angelic 4-year-old girl who’s looking up at me and asking, “Why do you talk funny?”
I talk funny because life isn’t fair. I talk funny because sometimes you can do everything right and still end up with a life that’s wrong. I talk funny because a girl can spend so much of her days trying to be somebody, and it can all vanish in a moment. Of course, I didn’t say that to her. The truth is, is I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Now, what about you? That’s my story. But if you’re sitting there thinking that this is all about cancer, you’re missing the point. You see, we all have our cancers. We all have that thing that’s happened in our life that makes us feel flawed, that makes us feel damaged, broken or different. We call it by different names, but it’s the same. Maybe you’ve been rejected.
Maybe you’ve had good relationships that were so important to you, so precious to you, that have disappeared, gone away. Maybe you’re getting older and every time you look in the mirror, you realize you’re not the same that you were before. Maybe as much as you were struggling to hang on to your faith, there’s this part of you that isn’t entirely sure what you believe anymore. Whatever your cancer is, I’m guessing it eats away at you a little bit. And there are questions that you have, just like me. Maybe you don’t talk funny, but you don’t know who you are anymore.
This is only complicated by the culture we live in. Culture deems the solidity of who we are on four things – your career, what you do, your job, your aptitude, your intelligence, the money you make, the house you live in, your contribution, your ability to add something, to contribute something. Or culture measures your worth by your roles – who you are in relationship to other people – a wife, or a husband, a mom, or dad, a child, or a grandparent, a neighbor, or a friend. Or perhaps it’s about your talents – that thing that you do that nobody else can do, that skill that you have that’s better than everybody else. That’s a great way to get value.
Or should I talk about the appearance? Height, weight, hair color or presence of hair, skin color. To culturally determine the solidity of who you are based on only on those things, but there’s a problem – every single one of those things can change. Now, if I may say that different – every single one of those things will change – your job, your contributions, your appearance, your relationships. Guess what? If you didn’t know this, the kids are going to grow up and leave. Sometimes friends take off. Sometimes parents die. Sometimes spouses die or leave. Your talents – as talented as you are, some of those things diminish over time or just change. So if we answer the ‘who am I?’ question based on our career, our roles, our talents, our appearance, the problem is, is that’s shifting sand. But I propose something different. [pause] If you can lose it, it’s not who you are. If you can lose it, then it’s not who you are. And the reality is that everything in your life can be lost: even your own life. If you can lose it, it’s not who you are.
So where do we find a solid ground for our existence? How do we answer the “who am I” question? Perhaps this is why I’ve grown rather fond of an old guy in Exodus named Moses. It’s a long story, lots of drama. Born a slave, destined to die since he was a boy, taken from his biological family and plopped in a foreign family in a – in a palace as a prince, raised as an Egyptian but fully aware of the fact that he was in Israelite, caught for a crime, banished to another area where he had to be a shepherd of somebody else’s sheep. And then all of a sudden, we run into Moses again in Exodus 3, and he’s standing at a burning bush 80 years old, caring for his father-in-law’s smelly sheep. Do you think maybe he wasn’t entirely sure who he was? I’m guessing that there’s a good chance Moses said, “Man, I’m too messed up for a calling. I’m too damaged. I’m too different. I’m too flawed.” And yet, God was just getting started.
Exodus 3, verse 4 – Moses goes over to this burning bush. “And when the Lord saw that he had gone over to look at this burning bush, God said, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then He said, “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” But this Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. And then the Lord said – and listen. I know you’ve probably heard this story a thousand times. Listen to it 1,001. The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people. I’ve heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I’m concerned about their suffering, so I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I’ve seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them, so now go. I am sending you, to Pharaoh, to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “who am I that I should go?” “Who am I that I should go?”
John: Michele Cushatt on today’s episode of Focus on the Family , and you can get the devotional she wrote. It’s called I Am: A 60 Day Journey of Knowing Who You Are Because of Who He Is. We’ve got that, and we’ll send that to you when you make a generous donation of any amount to this ministry. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Or, you can donate and find that devotional at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Let’s go ahead and hear more now from Michele Cushatt.
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Michele: I believe God’s answer to Moses, in that moment, is God’s answer to us every time you and I ask the “Who am I?” question. This is God’s answer.
“I will be with you.” That’s the first footing that God wanted to give to Moses. Moses was asking, who am I? And God very simply, without saying the words, said “it’s not about you.” He simply said, “Moses, I will be with you.” That is the footing – that is the first footing of your “Who am I?” question.
From Genesis to Revelation, there is one consistent thread. And trust me, I have spent a lot of time wrestling with some pretty hard questions. But one thing I have discovered is from Genesis to Revelation – the one consistent thread is God’s deep desire to be with us. I don’t have time to exegete 66 books of the Bible, so I won’t do that to you, but I’m going to give you 60 seconds. You ready?
The Garden of Eden – God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. Then when sin entered the picture and they left, God cut a covenant with Abraham, a blood covenant that was a promise to all of God’s people that He would not be separate from us, uh, except at cost of His own death. That if He ever walked away from it, He would die. He would take the penalty – that blood covenant. Then we move forward into the tabernacle and the temple. These external structures that became symbols of God’s presence with His people – that God dwells there in the tabernacle, and He dwelled in the Temple,
and the people would go there to meet with God. And then the wood of the temple became the wood of the manger. A tiny little manger that held the incarnation – God in flesh, who is called Emanuel – God with us. And then that same wood turned into a cross that became the bridge between earth to heaven, where we would no longer have to worry about gaining access to the Almighty. That because of Christ that we will always be able to be in His presence – that there would be no division, no more divider between us and the Divine. And that turned into an empty tomb, proving that not even death can separate us from the presence of God. And in Jesus, upon His ascension, His last words were, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” And then He left and He told His disciples, “I have to leave because if I don’t leave, the Spirit won’t come to you,” which God’s presence in us.
The Spirit of God that is in us until the day we go to heaven, and we enter heaven, and we sit in the literal presence of God. And where Revelation says that there will be no sun, no moon, because God, Himself, will be its light. OK, that was longer than 60 seconds, but are you convinced? Do you see it? – the presence of God is our footing.
But God gave another answer to Moses because Moses was still not convinced. So after God says, “um, I will be with you,” Moses says, “OK, sounds good. Uh, I need more.” OK, he didn’t say it exactly that way, but close. He went on to say, “suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them ‘the God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me what’s His name? Then what shall I tell them?” And basically, Moses is looking, “OK, I need – great, you’re with me – I need a recommendation. I need, basically, some really solid references so who do I say?”
And God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites. I Am has sent me to you.” And this is your second footing – the purposes of God. The presence of God is first, the second is the purposes of God. You see, Moses’ mistake, and my mistake, on that downtown street that day, is Moses was looking for greatness within. Moses was looking for what he had to offer, what he had to bring to the table.
Now let’s put this to the side for a second, go back to the burning bush. The funny thing about fire – fire can either burn or warm; it can either kill and consume, or it can give life. The difference is who’s wielding it. As long as Moses and you and I walk in our own purposes, we will be consumed. But the burning bush was full of fire and not consumed. And the reason is because God was IN it. If you and I try to walk out our own purposes, we will be consumed by them. The only way – the only way for you and I to walk out this life without being consumed by this often-hard life is to be dogged in our determination to only walk in the purposes of God.
These are the two footings that God gave Moses, and these are the two footings that God gave us. Now I want you to think about the word footing for a minute. My husband, Troy, is in construction; he builds. And I talked to him about this, and I also looked up the definition: a footing – by nature, by definition, is something that, a concrete support, under a foundation that rests in solid ground. But the key for a good footing is that it has to be wider than the structure it supports. The key to a good footing is it has to be wider than the structure it supports. When you and I try to look for greatness within, guess what – the footing is ourselves. It won’t hold up.
The presence of God, the purposes of God – the only two footings that will not change, fail or disappear. It’s it. Trust me, I was on the brink. I know how little of anything that I built I could take with me – zero. It’s now been almost three years since that initial, or that third diagnosis – three years. I’ve spent much of the last three years coming back to life physically, emotionally and spiritually. I’m now cancer-free at the moment, however. That is good news. We always celebrate that. (APPLAUSE)
But my packaging is flawed. I’m scarred all over my body. I no longer talk with the clarity that I once spoke with on podcasts, and on tours and speaking engagements. Things don’t work quite the same as they did before, physically. And that’s hard. Can I just say, it’s hard to live in a broken body? However, who I am is absolutely intact. Who I am has not been compromised in the least. What I thought would be my devastation – really, I thought this whole thing – what I thought would be my devastation has instead become, quite frankly, my salvation.
Why do I talk funny? I can answer the girl now. If she would ask me again, I know. I talk funny because it forces me, day in and day out, to stand on solid ground. There’s no fooling myself anymore. I’m gonna ask you to do something. Where you’re sitting right now, I want you to take off your shoes.. And now I want you to stand up. This is not a game. Some of you in here, I know you’ve – you’ve faced some life-and-death moments. This life worth living is not a game. It’s real. And it’s for keeps. And how you and I walk out this journey – the thing is, is you and I can choose to be consumed by this life or to thrive in it. But if you’re going to thrive in it – if you’re going to be the kind of person who knows how to have solid ground for an unshakeable life – you have to get your footings. So this is what I want you to do. First, I want you to touch that right leg. You walk in the presence of God. You walk in the presence of God every single day. You walk in the presence of God when you get up in the morning and have bed head, and when you go to sleep at night and you are, like, done. You are in the presence of God while you sleep ’cause he does not sleep. And the reason I’m choosing your right leg – Psalm 16:8 – David says, “because he is at my right hand, I will not be moved.” You have the presence of God at your right hand. Feel it. Know it. And when you put your shoes on tomorrow, you slip into the presence of God as a reality in your life. Repeat after me – I walk in the presence of God.
Audience: I walk in the presence of God.
Michele: Better. Left leg – purposes of God. This is gonna be an ongoing challenge because we all have our own agendas. But every day, I wanna slip on my shoes, and remind myself, this left leg – I’m walking in the purposes of God. His purposes will not consume you. Only His purposes will last. Say it with me. “I walk in the purposes of God.”
Audience: I walk in the purposes of God.
Michele: The presence of God, the purposes of God – you can sum this all up in one statement: You and I were never meant to build an identity. We were meant to receive it. You and I, when we leave here today, let’s live differently. Let’s take back holy ground. Jesus said it simply: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me. For what would it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet, lose his very self?” So if anyone wants to find his life, he will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it, even if she talks funny. Amen, thank you, Jesus.
John: Michele Cushatt, speaking to our staff recently on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
Jim: Michele is such a delight and we enjoyed having her here that day. It always amazes me to meet people who have been through some real hardship like Michele’s cancer battle, and yet they have the joy of the Lord just bubbling out of them. People like that are a walking testament to His goodness. Michele has been cancer free for four years now, and we are praising The Lord for that. Of course, Michele’s story also brought up some hard questions like why does God allow suffering? And if you’re in a place like that right now, please give us a call. We have a highly trained staff of caring, Christian counselors who could spend some time on the phone with you, pray with you, and refer you to a counselor in your area if that’s what you need. We would be honored to help you. And let me also say thank you to those of you who support the ministry. You are making it possible for us to have these counselors here every day. Every month, we receive over 2,000 requests from people who want to consult one of our counselors regarding a marriage, a parenting, or family issue. That’s a lot of people who need some help, and if you can make a donation of any amount today, I would like to send you a devotional book that Michele wrote during those brutal months after her third bout with cancer. It’s called I Am: A 60 Day Journey to Knowing Who You Are Because of Who He Is, and it will walk you through the concepts Michele shared in greater depth to provide that hope that you heard from her today. I’m sure you can think of someone in your life who needs this, and it might be you! So get in touch with us today.
John: And you can do that by calling 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Or, donate online and request that book at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And of course, you can always get this message on CD or as an audio download when you get in touch. I might encourage you as well to get our mobile app so you can listen on the go. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.