The author Christopher Huertz tells an important story. It’s a story about his mentor, a priest at Creighton University who also happens to be blind. One day this priest, Father Gillick, was visiting some children at a local school when a student, maybe 3rd or 4th grade came up to talk with him. She came up, started chatting, and eventually realized that Father Gillick was blind. She was a bit startled by this revelation and so she said to Father Gillick, “Oh my goodness, you’re blind! Do you know you’re blind?” And Father Gillick responded humbly, telling the little girl that he did indeed know he was blind. He contracted a sickness and lost his sight at an early age. But the little girl was still quite startled. With an urgent tone she said to Father Gillick, “You don’t know what you look like.” Father Gillick hadn’t heard that before. He thought about what to say but before he had the chance the little girl said one more thing. She looked at Father Gillick and said, “You look beautiful.”
I read this story and I immediately choked up. It was innate. I didn’t have to think about choking up it just happened. Something in that story resonated deeply within me. As I continued to read past the story I recognized that the story did the same thing to the author who had this to say about the story.
When it comes to recognizing the truth of our own identities most of us experience a symbolic version of blindness that keeps us from seeing ourselves as we truly are.
And so my question for you today is this one, “Do you know what you look like? Do you know who you are? Who are you?” So who are you? What do you look like?
I think that for many of us we identify with our outer markers. These are important, especially after we just finished a series on how our outer selves often dictate our lot in life, the way that our country creates systems, and the way we are racist or experience racism. So who are we?
Are we a black man? A white cis gendered woman? Are we an American woman or a tall and somewhat awkward man? Are you an Asian Indian woman? Do we identify as LatinX or Irish? Are we a transgender man or woman? We have identities that come about simply by our outward appearance. And like we said, these are important identifiers as they do dictate the way that we operate in the world.
Perhaps we identify ourselves by our orientation. Do we identify as gay or queer or asexual or intersectional? Do we identify by the fact that we’re straight? That’s an important identifier and one that has important implications.
Perhaps we identify ourselves by where we come from. I’m a proud New Yorker. Once the Eagles won the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago my wife decide to remind everyone who asked (and didn’t ask) that she is from Philly. Ashley Putnam said in our panel a couple of weeks ago that she still identifies as a Texan. I know that there are some proud Southerners in the room and some prouder Floridians although I can’t really understand why. Do we identify based on where we’re from and what’s shaped us?
And then we identify ourselves as everything in between. I’m a student. I’m a supporter of this sports team. I’m a twenty something, thirty something, or a really great looking 40 something. I’m a cook, a singer, and an artist. I’m a Christian. We can go on all day.
But let me ask you how many of us in this room today would say that we identify as being beautiful?
And furthermore how many of us would say that we identify as someone who is loved?
And further, furthermore how many of us would say that our identity is that of someone made so beautifully that they are absolutely loved by God?
I can stand up here as the pastor of this church for the past five years and tell you with the utmost conviction that I rarely if ever wake up in the morning and say, “Jonathan, you’re beautiful and if nothing else you are God’s beloved.” I rarely if ever do that because I don’t believe it.
I don’t know what I look like because at the end of the day the way I identify myself has a bearing on this world. I am a straight, white, and cis gendered male from New York who loves sports, especially the Mets. Every way I identify myself matters but in no way gets to the heart of who I truly am.
“Who are you?” We are asked the question almost daily and yet like me, I think that most of us in this room struggle to get to the heart of who we are. And so like the 9 year old, we hear with great urgency and some bafflement the voice that says, “You have no idea what you look like.” And we don’t. And when that voice tells us that we’re beautiful, we certainly don’t believe it.
Welcome to our Lent series. We follow the Christian calendar at this church and believe that its rhythms bring about a true sense of what it means to live out the Christ following life. During Christmas season we walked through advent. It’s a time where we wait patiently for Jesus. We find hope in the promises of God and while we wait for Jesus incarnate we recognize that we are the hands and feet of Christ.
We just finished up Epiphany season. In this season we celebrate and reflect the life of Christ. So this past Epiphany we decided that the best way we could reflect the light of Christ was to talk about equity. We said plenty of times that Christ didn’t treat people equally he treated people equitably. In order to reflect the light of Christ that comes in Epiphany we began the hard work of talking about racism, privilege, and equity.
And now we’re in the season of Lent. Lent is generally a time of darkness. It corresponds with the darkness of winter. It aligns with the feeling of cold. It aligns with the seasonal affective disorder that many of us struggle through. It becomes a time to tackle some of the more difficult and dark parts of our selves. This year for Lent we’re going to do just that. We’re going to pursue the question we talked about above, ‘who are we and do we believe that our identity is rooted in the love of God?”
One more thing before we continue. Our church believes that the Gospel message is both personal and communal. We’ve spent most of our Advent and Epiphany time focused on the communal aspects of the Gospel. We want to challenge you to spend the season of Lent focused on the personal. How does your belief in God shape your identity? How do you see God? Is God someone that loves you? Let’s take time to explore the hard parts of our selves and I pray that as Lent gives way to light that we find peace in our selves and an identity rooted in love.
So how do we answer the question about who we are? How do we take away our blindness? How do we find security in our identity?
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalms 8:3-8
This is beautiful scripture most likely from King David. If I were going to do a bit of modern translating David might say something like this.
“God you are so great that I look up and what I see is unfathomable. There are universes upon universes. There are multiverses and we could spend a lifetime in space travel and not even get out of the far corner of our own universe. I look around and I see that which I can’t even imagine. And then I look at humanity. Humanity is an absolute miracle. The babies that babble are basically praising the fact that they are miracles. We are walking living breathing miracles. In order for us to wake up this morning there were billions upon billions of atoms moving around in our body that had to act in one accord always just a fraction of a second from spontaneously combusting and you made us God! You made us in such a way that roughly every 7 years we’re a new body made up of new cells, parts, particles, we’re miracles! You made us just a little lower than you. You made us to have dominion. God, You’ve made us your beloved! How majestic is your name. That’s pretty cool.
And here’s the thing about David. David could identify himself in any number of ways based on what we know in scripture.
David was an underdog.
David was a hero.
David was hunted and lonely.
David was a king.
David was a murderer and rapist.
David was a father, a husband, a dancer, a wealthy man, and I can go on just by reading scripture. But David writes this Psalm and says, yeah I’ve been those things and they shape my life, but first and foremost I’m an absolute miracle that is made in your image and loved by you to the point that you give me authority over creation.
I think this is why they call David a man after God’s own heart. We look at all of the ways that David can be identified and David continues to call himself God’s beloved. David sees himself first and foremost as an absolute miracle.
So back to us and how we identify. Why is it so hard for us to do the same? Why is it hard for me to wake up in the morning and say, “Jonathan, you’re an absolute miracle so loved by God that you are given dominion over how you choose the day.” I’ll tell you why.
I think when it comes to identity we believe three lies. And I’d say here in New York these three lies hold greater weight.
We believe that our identity rests in these three lies.
I am what I have.
I am what I do.
I am what other people say or think about me.
Let’s think about this for a minute.
I am what I have – This one is easy. It’s the belief that dignity is created based on what we have. I go to therapy. It’s a good thing. If you can go then I recommend giving it a shot. Anyway the therapist asked me what are the best parts of me. I told him it was the fact that I had a wife, kids, and I could pay my bills. I told him that I was able to do normal things like take trips and have experiences.
My therapy told me to tell him about the best parts of me. I listed the things that I had and was able to afford…. Conversely just about everyday my wife and I lament the fact that we have a small kitchen. Daily! We judge ourselves by our small kitchen and lament the fact that we weren’t smart enough to buy an apartment with a big kitchen 7 years ago when we could probably afford it. Something so small affects us so greatly. Our identity is wrapped up in what we have.
I am what I do – What’s the first thing we get asked when we meet anyone here in this city. “Where do you live? What do you do?” What we do defines us greatly. For those of us who are doing exactly what we want to be doing, amazing. You’re probably pretty secure. More often than not the people of our church community tell me that they aren’t happy with what they’re doing. They want to do more. They want to do something greater. They want to do something more meaningful.
I talked with a friend the other day who said, what I do and who I am are indistinguishable. What do I do?
This one makes or breaks us. For those of us who are parents we look at our kids and spend so much time raising them. When our kids get sick, get into fights, become difficult, whatever it may be, it reflects on our identity because raising kids is what we do. When we struggle to get out of the house because one kid is melting down and another just spilled cereal we believe our selves to be failures because raising kids is what we do.
What about those of us who are new to this city? We just got a new job. We moved here to pursue a passion and we work at a coffee shop trying to pursue that passion. We started a new business but it’s going slowly. We’re simply stuck in the malaise of a job we’ve had for a few years. It feels like failure because we’re not doing the thing that brings us meaning. We’re barking up the wrong tree if we want the thing that we do to be the whole of our identity.
If you’re like me then you struggle with all of the things that you’ve failed to do. What I have failed to do? I have no idea? I guess I wanted to paly Major League Baseball. But seriously, I can’t even tell you what I failed to do but I do know that the specter of failure follows me around constantly. I define myself by what I’ve failed to do. Can anyone resonate?
We are what others think and say about us – One of my favorite authors and theologians is the late Henri Nouwen. His insight into Christianity is second to none. He taught at Ivy League schools, wrote books, and was well respected. Eventually he felt lost. He quit what he did. He no longer taught. He quit what he had. He got rid of everything and he moved into a home for people with severe mental disabilities. He started taking care of people who would never in a million years attend one of the schools where he taught. They’d never be able to buy let alone read one of his books. In his reflection on giving up parts of himself, Nouwen reflected that the most difficult part wasn’t giving up what he had or what he did; it was that the people he cared for couldn’t validate him. They couldn’t tell him he was great. They couldn’t compliment his mind or insight. That was the biggest struggle for Nouwen.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re deeply affected by what others think. Popular statistics will tell you that we need to hear 9 affirmations just to rid ourselves of the one critique or ridicule. That’s exhausting! With social media it gets even more exhausting as we can’t post something without quantifying what people think of us!
And so these lies, what we have, what we do, and what other people think, they contribute to both our personality and feed our addictions.
Both are interesting words.
Personality -Comes from the Latin word for mask. Super interesting right? Our personalities are simply masks that we put on in order to maintain, handle, and deal with, the three lies that we constantly tell ourselves.
That second word, addiction. That comes from the Latin word for “given to devotion.” That’s not a bad thing until we realize that to give devotion to something ultimately makes it something to which we’re in debt. No longer is it devotion but instead it becomes a form of enslavement.
I believe that we’ve come to such a place that we’re enslaved by the lies. We’ve come to a place that we can’t see our true selves. We continue to wear our masks. And so again, I ask the question, “Who are you?” And again we come to a place where we can’t even imagine writing anything close to what David wrote because we’re addicted to the lies. We’re addicted to false self.
In this Lenten season my prayer is that we pull off the masks. My prayer is that we begin to understand that we are indeed made in the image of a God who sees us as being an absolute miracle and absolutely beloved. Practically speaking how do we make that happen?
I want to introduce to you today the Enneagram. Has anyone heard of this before? I think when we hear about the enneagram we believe it to be another personality test. It’s like the Meyers Briggs or the DISC test. It shows us all of our little quirks. The reason we want to talk about the enneagram is because we believe that it does so much more.
The first thing we should know about enneagram is that its roots aren’t in western psychology and western Christianity. The Enneagram has been used in some capacity by a variety of cultures all over the world. In the 1990’s the enneagram was given some psychological and western language through which we now work. Regardless, as we work with the enneagram we know that it’s helped a large swath of people and is rooted in the unifying of cultures, traditions, and ethnicities. This makes it completely different from other personality tests rooted in western psychology. It also is profoundly powerful in the sense that there is a common thread among humanity to be blind to which we truly are. Take heart in knowing that this isn’t just your problem or my problem. This is a problem that affects all of humanity!
There are 9 parts to the Enneagram. The Enneagram is adept at showing us the 9 ways we lose our true selves. It shows us 9 different ways we lose grasp of who we really are. It gives language to our blindness. The good news of the Enneagram is it gives us a pathway back to finding our rest in God.
Here’s the thing about the Enneagram. It’s going to speak to why we believe the lies we believe. It’s going to give us hope that we can truly rest in God, and lastly, much of it will feel monotonous. Much of it comes from discipline, centering prayer, contemplative practices. That’s right. During this Lenten season we’re going to spend a lot of time being quiet, exploring our truest selves and creating disciplines for contemplative practices.
We’re going to take time to work with the enneagram and I hope we understand why this is something we want to do as a church. We believe that in order for us to live out restorative justice and for us to be a generous expression of Christ, we must accept the fact that we are deeply loved and rooted in God. We believe that the Christ following life is rooted in prayer, in centering, and in listening to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, as a church we’ve spent so much of the past couple of years opening our eyes to new ways of seeing the Bible, new ways of seeing our siblings in Christ, finding new and radical ways to show the inclusive love of Christ, and now it’s time that we open our eyes to truly finding ourselves and no longer living the lies.
Here’s what’s going to happen practically.
-This week we’re going to send out a mass email that will give you the option to take a free enneagram test or a paid one. The paid one costs as much as the vodka tonic you bought last night but it is way better for you. If you’re trying to save money then it’s find taking the free one. It doesn’t have as much insight. We encourage you to start the process of finding your true selves. You can sign up to be on our mailing list at the back computer.
-This week we’re going to give our small groups guides that will help us start to make sense of our selves in relation to the enneagram. You can join a small group by talking to someone on staff or by signing up in the back. If you can’t join a small group we’ll send out resources to you and let you start making sense of yourself in your own time
-Lastly for this week we’re going to end this service with a bit of quiet. We’re going to end with some contemplative prayer; a practice so to speak for what we hope will become a regular discipline.
As we fumble through this my prayer is that we open our eyes to the fact that we’re loved. My prayer is that we read David’s Psalm and identify and praise our God because of the sheer miracle that we’re wonderfully loved and made. Amen.
Prayer from the Sacred Enneagram book.
"1. Sit in an upright, attentive posture that allows for an erect spine and open heart. Place your hands on your lap.
2. Gently close your eyes and bring to mind a word, image, or breath as your symbol to consent to the presence and action of God within you. Your sacred symbol is intended to be the same every time you pray. It helps to ground you in the present moment, allowing you to give your undivided, loving, yielded attention to God. You may want to choose a name for God or a characteristic of God, such as Love, Peace, etc.
3. Silently, with eyes closed, notice your thoughts. Who are you? Your identity is that of beloved. You are loved by God. Say that. Do this however many times you notice your thoughts. Don’t forget, this is not about “getting" it. There is no judgment.
4. Slowly open your eyes and come back to the room.