Who are we?
I’ve been thinking about identity a lot lately. It has occurred to me that it is the focus, and perhaps the obsession, of my generation. A couple of months ago, at a meeting with the Oklahoma Young Adult Council of which I am a part, we were asked by a program director at the Board of Discipleship to create a T-shirt that spoke to or about young adults. I designed a trendy “message shirt” you know the kind—they have some simple statement in bold letters on a shirt. Something like “Princess” or “Spoiled” or “Loves His Mama.” The t-shirt I created simply said, “Who Am I?”
It seems that our current consumer market is aggressively oriented toward giving us the answer to just that question—or perhaps more positively, creating an opportunity for us to answer that question for ourselves. Hours on a website called “Myspace” gives me the opportunity to tailor a website to my specifications. What is the website about? Well, quite simply, it is about “ME!” My friends are arranged together (perhaps in order of preference,) my favorite bands are catalogued and displayed. (One of my friends –actually he’s only an acquaintance that I met by surfing around to see what the Wesley Mattoxes of the world were like.) This guy and I are so similar that I’m sure we have to be related. His ancestors are from Georgia and South Carolina, just like mine—we seem to share the same quirky sense of humor, and he is an archaeologist—who hunts for Pirate ships--my boyhood dream job.) Anyway, Wesley Mattox has in his music column. “I used to have a bunch of bands here that you’ve never heard of to show you how cool I am—now I have nothing here, and I’m still cooler than you are.”
I believe that obsession with identity is my generation’s collective response to the age of information. A couple weeks ago, I found in my mailbox that I was named Time’s “Person of the Year!” Were you aware of this?! Instead of actually choosing someone to give this distinction to this year, Time’s editors decided that we all deserved a shot, with all the youtubing and blogging and internet evolving that we’ve all been up to over the past year. Several of the stars of the second wave internet revolution are profiled in the magazine, including Tila Tequila, who has been quite successful at “selling herself” to a friend network of over 2 million people, is quoted as saying, “This is my job, That’s how you maintain your popularity and keep it alive.”
In this special issue of Time, Joel Stein explores the freedom and fun of creating an alter-ego on the website “Second Life” where you appear custom made by you in a virtual world of parties, dating, and whatever else comes to mind.
Now, before I begin sounding judgmental about various computer programs that I myself spend time on, I want to point out that these internet tools are indicative of a deep desire to be someone—to say to the world, “this is who I am!” Unfortunately, many in our midst have become so dissatisfied with real existence and uninterested in the world around them that they choose the “cyber” world over their actual flesh and blood identity.
Into all this self-obsession with identity, Jeremiah inserts a word or two—You heard it this morning… So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
It seems to me that God is the one that gives us our ultimate identity. All this dwelling on the self may in fact be distracting us from the new creation that God is making out of me! I think I know who I am, but God proclaims to Jeremiah and us— "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
God lets Jeremiah in on this as he struggles with his own identity. He thinks he is too young to live the life toward which God is calling him. In the narrative that surrounds the prophetic words of Jeremiah, we learn that he submits his own identity to that which God has given him.
We need to make ourselves soft clay, so that the potter’s hands have a chance to mold us so that we can be filled with the fountain of the Holy Spirit. “Melt me, Mold me, Fill me, use me!” is the phrase that we sang last week when installing our church leaders.
Into the world that tries to sell us the idea that our identity can be bought and sold, God lays claim to us. We heard it said in the story of Jesus’ baptism—“This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
How do we know what we believe if we don’t practice saying it? Words are something that have the power to form us. If we are told over and over again that we are loved—we might just begin to actually believe it. But how do we hear the voice of God today? At Jesus’ baptism, we are told that a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” John the evangelist tells us that through Christ, God makes the same claim on us—but how do we hear it? Not many of us have heard disembodied voice from heaven or the presence of God descending like a dove.
Lawrence Wood, a UM pastor in Michigan, related the following story about a friend of his who struggled to hear and believe God’s word. He writes, “A medical doctor once told me how he had fought against the idea of a personal God who intervened in human life. HE sought refuge instead in music; Bach particularly appealed to him because of the mathematical precision of the fugues. Meanwhile, his life was falling apart. His first wife left him; he started drinking too much. One day as he was driving, he pounded the steering wheel with his open palms and cried out, “God, if you’re really there, you’re going to have to say something! And you know what kind of man I am! No screwing around! You’re going to have to talk my language!” Just then on the radio came Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” My friend sobbed, and laughed at what an idiotic but wonderful word this was to him. And just in case he might try to explain away the moment, saying that Bach was often played on the radio station (actually a nonclassical music station), the next song to come was “The Girl from Ipanema.”
God does speak to us in uncanny moments, telling us we are beloved children and using our own names. Perhaps we’re not used to recognizing that voice in a sacramental world. Our radios seem to be on a wavelength different from God’s kind of broadcasting. And if we cannot hear God, then we will not trust God to do anything of consequence. We will believe only in a remote, ineffectual, impersonal process, rather than a powerful, demanding, loving force. If we want to hear something more direct, we need to come to the baptismal waters, dip our hands in and awaken our senses.
So this morning when we are few in number, I would invite you to come and place your hands in the Baptismal waters. This is our sacred symbol of God’s claim on our life—the claim that is nurtured by being part of a community of believers. If you have not been baptized, please let me know that. Not so I can rank us according to “saved” and “unsaved,” but instead so I as your pastor can be more aware of your own spiritual journey. Our new system of membership record asks that we keep this information on record so that our journey, and not just our name, birth, and death date might be preserved in the collective memory of this church.God gives us a special identity. God has and continues to lay claim to our lives, and we celebrate this in the powerful sacrament of Baptism. God wants us to know who we are, so that we can awaken others to the light of love and acceptance and conscious living.