I attended the opening meeting of the Black Seminarians Union the other day. It was wonderful. Far from feeling the outsider I found that I had many things in common with the table of folks with whom I sat.
The invited speaker was a man named Immanuel Katongole. He is a Catholic priest from Uganda. He proceeded to talk about his own process of forming his identity. The process for him started in Uganda and brought him to Belgium and then the US. He has taught at Duke for 11 years and after this semester will be accepting another position.
One of his opening lines was, “Identity is not a destiny. It is a starting point.”
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything that freeing with regard to identity. For some time my search has been one of trying (unsuccessfully) to find a neat definition to who I am. I seem to constantly be juggling labels that don’t entirely fit me or fit together: Sinner, Saint, Latino, White, Presbyterian, Mennonite…The list goes on.
Dr.Katongole went on to point out that “We all carry shards of who we are. Some often violently try to suppress the others…the point is not to grasp them, but to let go.”
In hearing his words I hit an insight. Perhaps the point isn’t that I try to determine which label fits best, perhaps I should learn to see each of these things as a thread that becomes part of the larger tapestry that God is making. The tapestry that bears my name.
I was struck by the fact that in each shard of my identity I was caught in a process of holding it up to the light attempting to discover if this would be the thing that defined me. That just maybe I could stop the dance of attempting to find myself. It was as though I was asking myself, “Is this who I am?” Yet, with each piece the answer always contained a yes and a no.
Somewhere in the midst of this meeting I had an image of God that floated in my head. Not anything that I would claim to be a vision, just a bit of an idea that reflected a bit of what I’d like to assume God feels. It was like receiving the look of someone much wiser than I smiling at my attempts to create a tidy space into which I could invite Him and others.
I suppose that the point isn’t which of these things can be the thing that I can cling to at the expense of others, but rather that all these messy things that swirl inside of who I am constitute me. I am actually received as such by God…with delight.
Dr.Katongole went on to say, “There are these wild spaces inside us that resist definition. It is in these spaces that God moves and can work. In the spaces that transcend boundaries.”
I am realizing that the vision we carry for our own humanity as well as as that of the body of Christ is often limited by our own desire to belong to something other than the God who accepts us as we are. We belong many places and no places. We feel welcomed and estranged in our homes, our churches, and our relationships.
God calls us to walk with Him in the midst of contexts that often go undefined. It seems that the best the guide-post by which we walk is not the crude signs that we scrawl on ourselves, but the letters of our names that are engraved on the very hands of the God who leads us. (Isaiah 49:16)