As I finish my time with the Marin Foundation, I’ll be writing posts based on chapters from Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz, a friend of mine and of the foundation.
Sometimes we cling to false versions of ourself as sincere and earnest attempts to understand who we are
In January of 2009, I went to my first ever Gay Christian Network conference in Anaheim. The keynote speaker that warm Saturday morning was the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes from Harvard Divinity School. I had never heard of him before. Here was this man, dark-skinned, short in stature, wearing a bow-tie (this should have been a clue of how cool he was). He was articulate, yet also soft-spoken. His gaze was gentle but carried with it a hint of fire. His voice was low, rumbling like thunder before the start of a storm.
I'll never forget what had to have been the highlight of his lecture. The topic: identity. Gomes shared with us how journalists and reporters would often ask him to describe or define himself. His response was simple: I am a child of God. They would press further, asking about his race, his faith, his accomplishments, his sexuality, his professorship, and so on. His answer did not change, although he offered one further clarification
I am a child of God. Anything else is either incidental or accidental
After the session was over, I rushed up to meet this giant of a man. He had put on his hat, a feathered fedora—further increasing his coolness factor. Up closes, I could see the thickness of his glasses. He shook my hand as I introduced myself. I thanked him for his words, for his vulnerability, telling him how desperately I needed to hear what he had to say. He smiled and welcomed me in for a hug. Little did I know that would be my only time meeting the man. Sadly, he passed away just over two years later.
At the time I heard Gomes speak, I was still unchurched. He was the first openly gay man I heard embrace his role as a child of God, especially so unabashedly, without wavering. He was sure and steadfast in this conviction. I envied him. I wished I could believe this about myself. At the time I couldn't.
...The truth is I still can't at times
Enter the chapter I'm reading from Unexpected Gifts—the Unknown Self. Pulling from much of Henri Nouwen's writing, Chris writes about the ever important idea of identity as it pertains to community. True community doesn't cause one to get lost in the whole. It frees a person to be him or herself wholly and authentically. This also necessitates that a person have a deep level of self-awareness in order to truly engage community. Yet for many of us the temptation to cling to false versions of ourselves is too compelling to ignore.
Chris brings up the three lies that Nouwen feels many of us often accept as truth:
I am what I have
I am what I do
I am what other people think about me
During various stages of life, I've bought into one or more of these lies. In fact, it's hard to recall a time where they all did not simultaneously play a part in my own sense of identity. At times my sense of self has been wrapped up in the books on my shelf, the clothes in my closet, the gadgets and toys I own. It's been impacted by the words I say and by my actions towards others. It's been affected deeply by how people react to my words, how they've spoken to and about me. Yet when I think about it more deeply, I realize that none of these things are me. They are identifiers. They are details. They are not the sum of my whole personhood. They aren't even really a strong majority. Only mere pieces. My core identity is as a child of God. I am Beloved. We all are.
Rather than resting in my belovedness and the truth that I bear, the imprint of the divine within me, I have tried my best to become someone, something significant. And herein lies the greatest irony: I have been reaching for significance, when the greatest significance of all was already present in my soul.
Chris speaks about the conundrum of addressing the interaction between Christ's divinity and Christ's humanity. Theological history has often overemphasized one or the other. Rarely has the theological cloud of witnesses been able to fully, or even partly, understand how Jesus as God interacts with Jesus as human. What does it mean for the man from Nazareth to be both God and one of us at the same time? Furthermore, what can we learn from the life of Christ about not only our humanity but also our divinity?
These are questions with which we could wrestle for a lifetime. Some of us will. More than anything, we need to give ourselves the freedom and permission to recognize the limitations of our answers, even of our questions. Jesus is the ultimate mystery, yet at the same time, maybe he's the only one we can ever really know, for it's in the moment where we recognize and accept Christ's love for us that we can more fully know who we are and whose we are. Face to face with the Human One, we see ourselves. As Chris says, "...the incarnation of Christ was a restoration of creation." By coming down in human form, God didn't just lower Godself. God lifted us up (please don't break out in that old Southern Baptist hymn... it's already stuck in my head).
Knowing ourselves takes time. Some of the work happens in solitude, on our own. But some of it must happen in community. In knowing the other, we learn more about ourselves. There is beauty in diversity, in particularity. We see this in the relationships between God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Yes they share unity. But they do not necessarily lose themselves in each other—not completely. The same goes for us. When I look at you, I might see a piece of me. But you do not contain the whole of me... if you did, we'd have a problem.
Each of us is God's Beloved. This is the most important identity for any of us to embrace. Like Gomes says, anything else is incidental or accidental. This is what matters: we are loved wholly and completely without condition or requirement. Accept it and embrace it.