Jesus asks his followers this question when he wants them to acknowledge who he is – not to any large group, not as some grand public declaration, but to him. Just between us, who do you say that I am?
This strikes me as a great way to enter a conversation about identity. In recent weeks I’ve had a number of occasions that have led me to ponder on how my identity is perceived and used.
Admittedly, we all have a number of aspects that articulate who we are. We all have many ministries, we all wear a number of hats within our families, our communities, our workplaces, etc. To my godson I’m Auntie; to my neighbours I’m “the dog walker!” to my friends I’m a friend; to my parishioners I’m their priest. There are others, obviously, and they are all parts of who makes me who I am. One of the challenges I think we all experience is to not be seen as only one thing, to the exclusion of all others.
An example: this weekend I helped out in the canteen at the seniors’ bonspiel in a small town I serve. Some of the folks from that town only know me as the Anglican priest, so were a tad confused to see me in a different context – without the collar, and behind the till at the rink (admittedly a place I’ve never been before!), they at first didn’t recognize who I was. This got laughs from everyone, and a few apologies – some of those folks only see me as the position.
Another example: In what should have been a personal conversation last week, the interaction started with specific, loaded questions and comments about my various ministries – which changed the context of that conversation. It threw me off my game; I fumbled and bumbled and felt that I was unable to adequately express my personal thoughts as a result of the other identities that had been put upon me. It wasn’t until after the conversation was over that I realized that I felt my self-identity had been removed.
A final example, from an old episode of the ‘Vicar of Dibley’ where the vicar is on a first date with a handsome stranger, just getting to know one another. He asks her what she does for a living, but before she can answer, he stops her: “No. Terrible chat-up question. I must get to know you first before I find out what you do.” He continues that he doesn’t want a preconceived notion about a career to influence his impression of the person he’s having supper with.
Identity is important. Self-identity is also important. How we see ourselves is just as important as how others see us. I’ve recently heard, in clergy circles, of folks feeling that they are losing their sense of self-identity – and that’s scary. (Undoubtedly this happens in any profession – but as clergy, taking part in clergy chats, this is my context). The blog site Ex-Pastors suggests that maintaining a non-church identity is essential to avoid burnout for new clergy.
I’m not suggesting that at all times should we be able to keep our identities unique and separate from one another – I’m more of a realist than that. We all see the lines shift and bleed into one another – taking a personal call at the office, talking church when we run into a parishioner at the grocery store, being simultaneously child/sibling/spouse/parent at a family meal. I am suggesting, however, that we be aware of the identities we are presenting at any given time, and that we protect and preserve those of our choosing; that we don’t become restricted by our titles but instead live out the joy of being our own, loved, unique selves.
Maybe one day, in a perfect world, we can just enter into conversations with one another like the TV vicar’s date: encouraged to self-identify and become known without the trappings of worldly labels. Maybe we could then ask and answer Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” not as a means of orienting the conversation, but with the same answer: I am a beloved child of God – and that’s the only title that matters.