Whose Are We?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
An elderly gentleman ran a curio and antique shop in a large city. A tourist once stepped in and got to talking with the old man about the many things that were stacked in that shop.
Said the tourist, “What would say is the strangest, the most mysterious thing you have here?”
The old man surveyed the hundreds of curios, antiques, stuffed animals, shrunken heads, mounted fish and birds, archeological finds, deer heads – then turned to the tourist and said, “The strangest thing in this shop is unquestionably myself.”
(DeMello, Anthony; Taking Flight, p131)
I don’t know if any of the rest of you resonate with such a story, but I certainly feel myself to be quite a mysterious curio at times – a mystery box of the same proportions as any great theological or philosophical mystery of life. It is said that “Who am I?” is the first of the great questions people ask themselves in the search for meaning. “Who am I?”
There is an activity I have done a few times at our annual 24-hour Spirituality Retreat held each spring. It involves pairing people up and having them take turns asking the question “Who are you?” We take turns, for five minutes my only task is to ask that question and wait for my partner to respond. I then say something like “Namaste” and ask again, “Who are you?” For five minutes. And then we switch roles and my partner asks the question of me again and again for five minutes. The pacing is determined by the answerer; if I run out of answers we sit in amiable silence until the five minutes is up. This activity often leads people into a deeper appreciation of their identity, but is not always easy.
In Anthony DeMello’s book Taking Flight, there is this story:
A woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.
“Who are you?” a Voice said to her.
“I am the wife of the mayor,” she replied.
“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a school teacher.”
“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I am a Christian.”
“I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.”
“I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.”
“I did not ask what you did but who you are.”
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.
(DeMello, Anthony; Taking Flight, p140)
But I don’t think this is necessarily an inaccurate or wrong way to answer the question. I understand the point of this small story – who we are in not what we do or who we spend our time with, there is something deeper – yet I still protest. Who I am is certainly caught up in my vocation, my faith, my relationships, and my behavior. Who am I? I am Douglas Taylor. But what does it mean to be Douglas Taylor? I am father, husband, minister, friend. The question “Who am I?” easily moves into the relational answers. I am connected to others, and who they are to me is part of who I am.
Another frame for this question is, “Whose am I?” This tugs at a slightly different set of answers. Instead of searching for individual identity, it seeks to uncover who has a piece of me. Whose am I? Who needs me, who loves me? To whom do I belong? To whom am I accountable? To whom do I answer? Who or what lays claim to my heart and my life?
This, now, is the question that I was asked to ponder at a minister’s training session I attended this past summer. The Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association hosted a theological conversation and invited about fifty ministers to be trained in leading this conversation among our colleagues and our congregations.
At the beginning of our time, one colleague (Rev. Sarah Lammert) shared this story.
In Seattle the interfaith clergy organization has a tradition of asking senior colleagues to share their life odysseys. On this particular occasion, a Roman Catholic priest was telling his story, and he said that his life had been in large measure a failure. He remembered the heady days of Vatican II and how hopeful he and his generation of liberal priests had been that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly. And yet: these many years later he felt that the church had if anything become hardened and deeply conservative, and his dreams had not been realized.
Now this priest was someone who was valued among his interfaith colleagues, and they were somewhat hurt and stunned by his revelation. And yet; one colleague noted, despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed quite peaceful and content. “How can you claim that your life was a failure, and yet appear so calm and serene?” “I know whose I am,” replied the priest. “I know whose I am.”
(from Rev. Sarah Lammert’s Whose Are We? Sermon, Feb 1, 2009)
My colleague then went on to describe how this question “Whose am I?” later became a spontaneous focus for a group of Unitarian Universalist clergy. “Whose am I?” As she and her colleagues tentatively approached the topic she heard herself saying “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that we belong to something beyond ourselves.” She heard someone else offer, “The language that we use to express some of the experiences and concepts can be frightening, trigger baggage, invoke reactivity in our congregations.” And yet another said, “We tend to have a spiritual don’t ask don’t tell policy.” (ibid)
Following that opening in which our colleague shared the story of the priest and some of the responses that she and her colleagues experienced, the trainers began the workshop. We broke into pairs and then following the format of the exercise I described earlier, we each had five minutes to answer the question “Whose are you?” We were told the pattern would be this: Person A would ask “Whose are you?” I, as person B, would respond to the question. My partner, person A, would say “God be merciful,” and then repeat her question, “Whose are you?”
Interestingly, when we did this at the training last summer, my partner and I did not bat an eye at the language of the response. God be merciful. We were both theists and were willing to work within the instructions as given and just role with it. Later in the fall when I lead my district colleagues through the workshop there was a small uprising. I stopped the workshop and we spent half an hour sorting out what to do with that phrase “God be merciful.”
As it turned out, the majority of the reaction for my colleagues was not the word God. As one of my atheist colleagues said, “I can translate that in my head. I understand the concept of metaphor and symbol enough to be ok with using that word. It’s ‘merciful’ I’m having trouble with. As if there is something wrong with my answers for which God needs to be merciful.”
So we talked that through and we agreed that different responses, such as “Namaste” would serve as well. And we left it as “ask your partner what response he or she would like to hear,” and we jumped in. And that is just part one of six in the workshop. One interesting thing we discovered is the nuance heard in the phrase “God be merciful” by those who went ahead and used that response.
My colleague asked me “Whose are you?” I responded saying, “I am God’s.” And she said, “God be merciful. Whose are you?”
I belong to the universe. God be merciful.
I am Love’s. God be merciful.
I am my own. God be merciful.
I belong to my family. God be merciful.
I am my mother’s son. God be merciful.
I belong to my mother’s people. God be merciful.
My father has a corner of me, too. God be merciful.
I am of the earth, with a special call from the herons, the cattails,
and the rivers. God be merciful.
I am wholly of our Unitarian Universalist faith. God be merciful.
I serve and am called by this congregation. God be merciful.
I belong to my colleagues. God be merciful.
I am my children’s. God be merciful.
My brokenness calls me. God be merciful.
As does my sorrow and that certain darkness within. God be merciful.
But also my light. God be merciful.
I am called by joy. God be merciful.
I belong to life. God be merciful.
I serve God. God be merciful.
Step one of the workshop took me to a very deep place. We were then brought through further workshops about our calling and about the covenants we hold. Direction of the program is to move from “whose and I?” to “whose are we?” and it was not an easy shift. It is not an easy shift from the individual to the community because we as Unitarian Universalists do not have a shared doctrine of God. I can say “I am God’s,” no problem. But the words would not so easily fall from our lips to say we are God’s. It is not that we do not speak about our relationship with God here. It is not that God is not the answer to the question for some of us. Rather it is because we hold a commitment that belief cannot be coerced. It is because we hold a commitment that each person shall engage in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It is because we hold a commitment that every person is unique and will thus have their own experience of life and love and the holy. The reason it is difficult to shift from “whose am I?” to “whose are we?” is because we as Unitarian Universalists hold a commitment that every person will necessarily have their own theology.
My answers will not be your answers and that is part of the grace and beauty of our faith. We are theists and atheists and agnostics together in one room. We gather as seekers with ties to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, various forms of Paganism and Native traditions. We gather as skeptics and mystics, humanists and transcendentalists. What we hold in common is our covenant to walk together in the ways of truth and service, honoring both the individual worth of each among us and the ways we are interconnected in living on earth. Thus we do not necessarily have a common name for or even a common understanding of the holy, of the ultimate reality, of God, of the creative and transformative power in life. Thus we do not have a common answer in the obvious sense to the question “Whose are we?”
The obvious answer to this question – the answer we all implicitly knew to be the answer when the priest said it in that opening story told by my colleague – is God. “I know whose I am,” the priest said. We know who he meant: God. But that answer, even layered with the nuance of metaphor and symbol, is not wide enough to serve for the whole of us. I suspect we will have multiple answers in the end.
The workshop does not offer an answer during the last session. The program created by the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association is not driving toward a particular end point. Instead it is after the conversation. The point is to wrestle with the question. And I suspect we will have multiple answers. But I shall not leave you with only the vague assurance that it is complicated. Allow me to wade into this question and dare an answer or two.
Whose are we? Who needs us? To whom do we belong? To whom are we accountable? Framing the question in a few different ways opens up the nuances. We belong to all those who have gone before us and all who will follow after as the community of Unitarian Universalists in this town. We belong to each other and we are needed by those not yet here. We belong to the earth and yes we belong to God and we belong to love. This matters because we are held accountable by love and by God and by the earth and by each other.
May God be merciful, because there are real consequences to such connections; consequences concerning what we are to do as a community and how we are to be in this world. We are not only our own. We are not isolated beings, but connected. There are multiple answers but the demand and the consequences are as real as if we were the sort of congregation that produced one answer only. So let us seek to uncover whose we are together. And may God be merciful.
In a world without end
May it be so.