Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Identity: You Are the Gifts You Are Given by God

Dean Gary Hall, center with hat,
and Rev. Canon Jan Cope, right,
walk in the Capital Pride Parade.
(photo by Tim1965)
In the two weeks since the Capital Pride Parade, I have found myself repeatedly returning in thought and prayer to the question of identity -- how do others identify us; how do we identify ourselves; and how does God identify us? Who gets to decide? The question of identity and who gets to decide remains at the forefront of a national conversation as we await the rulings of the Supreme Court on marriage equality.

On June 8, 2013, I participated in my first Capital Pride Parade, as did my church, Washington National Cathedral. Along with Dean Gary Hall, the Rev. Kim Baker, members of the Cathedral community and other churches in the diocese, we carried our church banners as an affirmation of our identity as beloved children of God. I will be the first to say that other Episcopal churches have been participating in the Capital Pride Parade for years, and Washington National Cathedral just joined "the parade," -- but we are there now. Carrying our purple Cathedral banner, I was enormously moved by the repeated cheers and tears that ensued from the crowds when they saw our banner and our embrace of who they are as beloved children of God. I was not prepared for how much that simple affirmation would mean to so many. 

I believe the question of identity is one with which we all struggle, and some of the most revered theologians have written both painfully and eloquently about their own struggles and the struggles of society in their time and context. In his landmark book, Jesus and the Disinherited, African American theologian Howard Thurman said that he had written the book for "those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity." He was addressing the sin of racism in his day, but the tenets of his book transcend his time and offer a way forward for all who struggle with "isms" and the world's attempt to identify us in any way other than our truest selves. In the book, Thurman illustrates how Jesus overcame what he characterizes as the three hounds of hell - fear, deception, and hate. He makes the point that Jesus "recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny."

Beloved author, lecturer, and pastor Henri Nouwen also struggled with identity. In a collection of his writings, Turn my Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times, Nouwen also addresses how to hold fast to one's true identity.
The deepest joys come not from the money we earn, the friends we surround ourselves with, or the results we achieve; we are rather whom God made us to be in his infinite love. We are the gifts we are given, not just the conquests we wrest. As long as we keep running around, anxiously trying to affirm ourselves or be affirmed by others, we remain blind to One who has loved us first, dwells in our heart, and has formed our truest self.
If you find yourself struggling with the world's attempt to define you, to characterize you as anything other than who God created you to be, then take succor and strength from the life of Jesus, who struggled with identity in his time and context. In the words of Thurman, may you look into Jesus' face and see etched there the glory of your own possibilities and hear your heart whisper, "Thank you and thank God!"

Jan Cope is vicar of Washington National Cathedral. Share your thoughts and responses on Facebook.
Find Rev. Canon Jan Cope on Facebook.