Know Thyself

Who are you? When I went to pre-kindergarten my teacher would greet me saying, “Good morning, Joseph.” My response was “I’m not Joseph. I’m Obitron.” I imagine this was from many times watching Transformers on Saturday morning cartoons. I am not sure how long this went on, but it was definitely a story that was retold to me many times by my mother. When you’re that age you have the confidence that adults always seem to be seeking, but, like me, you may not have everything down right. Surely you are more than a name.

Who are you? By the time you move into junior high and high school then you may be seriously lacking in confidence. When I reached sixth grade I had a hard time speaking up even when the subject was important to me. I gave a biographical speech on Patrick Stewart who was my favorite actor and I could barely lift my chin up from my chest to speak out. I was the heart, but not the voice. I was a mouse. I saw other kids who had so much confidence and owned their bodies. They were swans.

It turns out that answering “Who are you?” is a lot more difficult than you might think. There is no end to the question. As Quakers we might see this as a useful query? It is the sort of question you can come to again and again. Still, it can lead you down an endless rabbit hole.

Who are you? One of the difficulties with this is what Paul remarks on in our scripture passage for today.  It’s easy to look at other people and to desire to be like them. We cannot always feel our own usefulness and importance. As Paul says, “ If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” It can be harder to know who we are than who we’re not. Envy of who others are is a serious temptation. We can grow by learning from exemplary people, but we still need to embrace our own gifts and not hunger after ones we do not have. 

 Who are you? We each have purpose and meaning through what we are to society. The rich and the powerful have special recognition. Their role is honored. In the US, we admire the rare individuals that go from simple beginnings to riches. Horatio Alger stories are beloved. During the COVID epidemic, we learned that people we had not previously honored were essential workers. The trash man and the grocery store clerk really did make a difference. There are many different roles in our society from teachers to doctors to lawyers to the dog catcher.

There is an outer edge to this sort of assessment, particularly in a capitalistic society. People are not merely what role they do or not have. We must see people as more than they contribute to the economy. Not everyone has a position. The Nazis spoke of such people as “useless eaters.” This was particularly true of those the Nazis selected for genocide. The Nazis discounted people with disabilities, unable to see what they offered society. We know better. Even without a role in the economy or with a devalued role, we must realize that people have intrinsic worth.You don’t have to “do” anything.

Who are you? Those who have little significance in society still carry purpose within the church. Members of our body have many gifts to offer. There are those who are loud and direct. They can call our attention to an issue when nothing else gets through. There are those that speak rarely and offer us a few pithy words. We may listen to them especially closely because they speak out so infrequently. There are people we can rely on to be present week after week even if they remain silent. Their steadfastness itself is a witness. Those that pray for the others have their own special ministry that should be honored. Regardless of what role you play, you too are important. Do not cast about to find a different role believing that yours does not matter. Yet wait on the Spirit to see what you may be led to do. Your role may not be what you expect.

Who are you? When I was in high school, I bemoaned the fact that I was not a mystic. I was envious of the role and experiences of others. I was religious but not spiritual. I didn’t know what a leading was even if I had felt one. My fellow retreat team members discerned that my role was to give a witness talk. My focus for the talk was on service. I spoke of how I hadn’t heard a booming voice from the mountain top. I was not the ear. I had not received visions. I was not the eyes. All that I had was a constant drum in my head reminding me to serve others. My drive to serve turned out to be my deepest, most driving force. The calling to serve was the enduring part of my identity. What I didn’t see was that I was the hands and feet. In my role, I put feet to the effort of making the world a better place. I served others but I did not feel the importance of that role.I did not value who I was. 

Who are you? Beyond your name and even your roles are beliefs that help define you. What morals stick with you when everything else is wiped away? What do you stand for? What do you believe in? While there are many aspects of who we are, there are core principles at our center that remain when others pass away. As I aged, I found my ego getting in the way. I wanted to be the person that received special honor. I wanted to have a job in an organization that made the biggest difference. I did not get hired by any of the nonprofits I applied to after college.

Who are you? Again and again, I found that way opened for me in what I saw, at the time, as lesser jobs. I worked as a draftsperson. It wasn’t what I hoped for.  Way opened for me to go to seminary but for years afterwards no one wanted to hire me as a pastor. I did not want the roles I got.  I worked as a church secretary formatting and editing bulletins. I worked at JCPenny selling clothes. I worked in a meat department stocking shelves. I ran a boarding house. 

Who are you? What I realized, over time, was that in each of these roles I could find meaning and a way to serve. I helped church services go smoothly. I helped men find the perfect suit for an occasion. I helped find the perfect suit for one man’s daughter’s wedding. I helped a man find a suit to bury his friend in. I helped people find the food that would feed their families at celebrations. I made people’s worst days easier by taking a worry off of their plate when I helped them find the one item they were looking for. I kept people safe by the time and effort I put into cleaning the meat cutting area. I spent time in conflict resolution between the residents of my boarding house. I guided the many seminary students that lived there when they were lost or uncertain.

Once my ego was not such an obstacle, way opened for me to be a pastor. Maybe Spirit was waiting for me to be ready. I finally am a pastor and while there is still no booming voice I do listen to leadings. Over time I have found that I have more gifts than I knew and I have grown into the gifts that were once only seeds.

To quote a hymn that has been on my heart a lot these past few weeks:

“There are many gifts but the same spirit.

There are many works, but the same God, and the Spirit gives each as it chooses.”

I leave you with these queries.

  • When have you found yourself wishing you were someone else or had another role?
  • When has admiring others been fruitful for you and when has it been a stumbling block?
  • When have you found yourself deeply knowing who you are?


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