Mid-Homework Timeout: Thoughts on Identity

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)

Shoutout to Ariel

I was in Cuba once.

My friend Ariel is still there…as far as I know. I didn’t get to spend much more than 10 days with him, but in that space of time it felt that I was in the presence of someone particularly impressive. He desired to be a carpenter, to work with his hands as did the Lord Jesus prior to a rambling three years in the dusty roads and small towns of the Judean countryside. His eyes held contempt for expressions of spirituality which reflected a god that did not have compassion for the suffering of the Cuban people. In all of this, He really loved people. It was stamped on his words and actions the way one might notice a brand. I suppose that real love might be a bit of a branding…

There was a day when Ariel and I were walking along the road. He was the lone Cuban safely leading the ragtag group of privileged, middle-class Americans down the dusty street of a country that is in part as it is due to decades of antiquated American foreign policy. As we walked he noted someone dressed all in white.

“Look,” He said to me with something of contempt bordering anger. “A Santero.”

I asked him about this. He told me in response that the religion known as Santeria had flourished in Cuba during the early years of the revolution. It was considered a cultural practice, whereas Christianity was directly ostracized. Cuban Christians were not allowed to be teachers for fear that they would spread the faith. To my limited knowledge things actually got worse than that. All the same Ariel informed me that people in Santeria are required to wear white for an entire year.

Being a new-comer to all things Cuban I asked, “Isn’t that expensive?”

He replied, “Yes. Very.” Then he went on to say one of the most profound statements that I’ve heard in life. The theme of which has echoed loudly for years.

No god who truly sees the suffering of the Cuban people would ever ask any of us to do this. This is why I will never be a santero.”

I have pondered over the years on why I happen to be a Christian. There are a multitude of reasons, but as I have dwelt on the subject I have realized that I will never been able to comprehend more love from anything else than I do from the reality of a God who became one of us to suffer as we do.

The problems of our life do not disappear simply because we believe in God. Jesus dying on the cross does not solve all of our existential questions and issues. The incarnation of God, however, does echo a very Cuban idea. (Or perhaps vice versa)  The Cuban people have since the revolution emphasized the idea of Solidarity. Being one with others where they are, especially others who suffer.

As I reflect on Jesus suffering as a human (the human) I see in a reflection on Ariel’s thought and culture that:

A loving God who truly sees the suffering of humanity would come to find us in the midst of it and suffer with us.

There is a mysterious part of the Eucharistic celebrations that my friend Jordan told me about once. In the celebration of the Lord’s supper when Jesus is done breaking the bread and pouring the wine, he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The “this” is the part that my friend Jordan expanded for me. It’s necessary when taking communion to emphasize the literal this the idea that we are to break bread and pour wine, but there’s something more there as well. There’s the idea that the this means that we are also to become the broken bread and poured out wine. That the church, as the body of Christ is meant to live as He lived…broken and poured out for others.

It is the Solidarity of God in Christ with suffering and broken humanity that calls the church into the same. We love because He loved/loves.

The in-breaking reality of God in human flesh gives us a foundation for action. Action that sees the suffering of the world and has compassion on it. Compassion meaning literally “suffer with”.

The wonderful, lovely, beautiful thing about this idea that the Cuban people have grasped (to an extent) is that out of this solidarity springs forth redemption. The Christian faith does not end with a God who dies, but it lives in and through a God who passed through suffering and death on our behalf to bring us in to unshakable life.

May we be known by the manner in which we embody this loving solidarity of Christ that brings life to the dying world and light into the darkness.