That You Are Here That Life Exists
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan – Maya Angelou, “Alone” (fragment)
The mystery of identity is something we humans have struggled with for as long as we have first seen our reflections staring back at us from a stream or lake. Is that image all there is? What am I? Who am I? Who decides what that “I” is or means?
I sometimes think the Buddha was on to something when he realized that all the wisdom, all the sage advice, all the lessons from all the gods, led to the ineluctable conclusion not only that all that is, is a dream; more important, that “I” is an illusion we foster in pain and suffering, preventing us from realizing the beauty of what is. When the “I” disappears, the “I” appears as the one with the deepest compassion for those who continue to suffer. This is identity through non-identity, the promise that, in the words of Jesus Christ, the one who loses her life, shall find life.
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend who is a Unitarian Universalist minister. He was discussing the excellent, age-appropriate sexual education materials the UU Association provides its members. I have been saying since Seminary that, in order to create the kind of sexually ethical and moral people we wish, the churches should take the lead in teaching human sexuality. I had to admit to my friend that, in fact, we should borrow the material from the UU’s, because we United Methodists have yet to answer the question of sexual identity. We are, in fact, in the midst of trying to determine what it means to be a human being, a created child of God, called and saved and sent by our Triune God to work for the transformation of human lives and the world.
From many of our fellow United Methodists, who seem so eager to elevate words of confession and human teaching to the status of defining our existence as, first, Christian, then second, as United Methodists, what I read so often is the desire for clarity about the matter of identity. Particularly in the Christian West, we have for so long been taught that for each question, there is one and only one correct answer. With the growth of notions of individualism has come the notion that, at some level, “identity” is irreducible beyond any particular individual’s decision. The answer, then, to the question of identity becomes clear enough: I am who I say I am.
Except, of course, this just isn’t the case. Identity, like everything else in this transitory, time-bound existence, is never fixed, certainly never static, and there is no single set of words that can or do sum up who we are, even at any particular moment in time. Our whole life is an open-ended, never completely bound movement through and among a variety of interpretations, answers, restatements of the question, and only ever partial and incomplete answers.
These are themes I have rehearsed before. They are lessons we need to hear again and again. Just as yesterday I noted that we must always remain living within the tensions that abound due to our self-affirmation as followers of Christ, so, too, do I note that identity does not – indeed, cannot – ever be static. For as much as the desire to rest our identity in a particular set of definitions, circumstances, or adjectives brings comfort, reality teaches us, each day, this just isn’t the case. Even the call of our God differs each day, because we no longer inhabit the same space or time. We must always be ready to listen, hear, and obey something new each day, as we offer our confession of sins, seek forgiveness, and ask for guidance and direction. Time-bound, sometimes hide-bound, words of confession cannot ever replace the Living Word of our God. Teachings and principles, no matter how lofty and important, perhaps even decisive, can never replace the need to be ready for that new thing that is always breaking through, yet never complete in its incarnation.
Our identity as Christians, then, does not and cannot stand still. When we look in the mirror this morning, we do not see the same person staring back at us that we did yesterday. Why should be believe it at all possible that God’s call, God’s all-embracing offer of life, would remain the same in all its details? That it is, well, we rest our faith that it is so, and will be so. What it is, however, well, that must change. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the Living Word.
We should, at the very least, perhaps remember that the search for identity, particularly as the people called Methodist in the early 21st century, is a never-ending, always changing life of faith. It is not, nor can nor should it be, a question with a single answer. Ours is a God who already lives as a Community of Persons of mutual, interpenetrating Love; why is it we continue to pretend such a Living Three-In-One reality would offer us only a single answer to what is, in fact, not a question at all?