Delivered March 11, 2012 at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, sans microphone due to technical difficulties.
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I chose today's Time for All Ages reading “the Very Hungry Caterpillar” for a couple reasons. First, I see an underlying hunger in the common human spirit to know itself, to know its world, and to know the nature of divinity. And there is a hunger in the common human spirit to be or become itself, to aid the world in becoming its true self (whatever that is!), and to become one (or at least closer) with the divine nature.
To become. To be. The statement “I am!” resounds through sacred texts across time. The applied interpretation of “I am” remains somewhere between unanswered, and open to our own determination. Because genuine identity searching can be difficult and trying, I want to preface the rest of the sermon with some advice from a fellow minister: “If you feel uncomfortable, it doesn't necessarily mean anything's wrong. That's just how its supposed to feel sometimes.”
My second reason for sharing that story with the kids is because it's a caterpillar, in the process of becoming a butterfly. I can't think of much less comfortable than being closed into a cocoon after going through a transformation, impatiently waiting to break through the fibers, unfurl wings, and fly. That boxed-in uncomfortable feeling doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong.
Picture if you will, Lewis Carroll's Alice approaching the Caterpillar....
She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top, with his arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.
The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
Thankfully, Alice's intense day in this story is of a different nature than most of our day-to-day lives. But here's the thing--We change! And we forget who we are.
We are our grandmother's prayers. We are our grandfather's dreamings. A morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are. That helps set the record straight. Actually, does it? Or is that just a beautiful story? Is everything we tell about ourselves ALL just a beautiful story, or in some cases, a fearsome story?
One evening I was playing with my toddler son Henry and thinking about what he might be like at age 80. Hopefully not the same as his 2 and a half year old self! A few weeks ago when the Rev. Jay Abernathy was preaching here, I wondered what he might've been like as a toddler. Certainly he didn't begin his life as the upstanding orator we saw last month! [pause] Nor is this minister before you now an orator of that caliber—although I aspire to one day be, so I work to change in that direction. Our lives are constant gradations of change. If we step back and really look at our history and our hopes, we see our lives follow a great arc. But in the moment, people generally tend to forget who they are. This forgetting (and when we are mindful, remembering) occurs on many levels. The first is the simple level of applying names and descriptive words. This is especially so when we are told and tell ourselves many times a day who we are. Each time this happens, it works both toward empowerment and toward limitation. Naming is defining. It is a way of claiming who we are. Or alternately, it's a way of slapping a label onto somebody.
[slow] Speaking of labels and specifications, I need to mention something that's been troubling me. Here is the scenario. I walk into church on a Sunday or another day, and people come up to me and say, “Hi Joel.” You might be a long-time member, or here for just a few weeks, and if you don't have a nametag on, odds are good I'm not going to be able to address you by name, even if you've told me before, twice. Or three times. I'm a more visually-oriented person, so if I don't see a name, it will take many encounters to stick in my head. The feelings start to come, even though I have a practice of dealing with them. I feel a bit inadequate, and worry about how you perceive me. You know my name, and I don't know yours. Should I ask AGAIN? I wonder will you be offended if I ask, or if I don't ask and just address you as YOU? In this state of bafflement, I am a deer-in-the-headlights. Perhaps I should follow the practice of Zsa Zsa Gabor. She says, “I call everyone 'Darling' because I can't remember their names.” I don't know if I can get away with that, or if I would want to. Besides, she's an order of magnitude more glamourous than me.
I'm thinking to myself right now, you're probably thinking about your own nametag right now. There's likely a reason you're wearing it today, or not wearing it, and I won't attempt to guess the diversity of reasons for your choice. I will say that as a new member of the community, not knowing people's names, and not having my name recognized (were I not up here and known as a minister), I might feel less connected, like an outsider. And I doubt that's the impression we want newcomers to feel, if we get right down to it. I want you to know my name, and I want to be known on deeper levels as well, when the time is right.
Then again, maybe some of you here today DON'T want to be known, perhaps some brand new folks who just came in to investigate, and are hoping to scoot out the side door as soon as the service is over. I get that. I studied mathematics and psychology at the University of Minnesota for my undergraduate degree, with a student population of 50,000. One reason I chose that school was the anonymity. I wanted to reserve my time and space for myself and not have too many people calling on me, wanting to connect with me.
Fast forward twenty years later, and I've changed my tune. I believe that knowing each others' names helps with community, helps with being known, and eventually there is a need to be known. Some lyrics from English alternative rock band Love and Rockets have guided my thinking on this: My world is your world / People like to hear their names / I'm no exception / Please call my name.
Ahem. This causes me all the more internal consternation as I'm meeting someone again whose name I should know, because I want to call you by your name. I will do my best to learn it and use it, nametag or no.
But enough about names. I've said what I wanted to say about nametags, and really, our name, though important, is only the most superficial level of our being. The caterpillar would give Alice a quick tut-tut if she tries to answer “Who are you?” by offering her name.
On a deeper level, we forget and remember ourselves by our activities. I am a minister, I minister to, for, and with people. I used to play volleyball and hope to again sometime soon. I recently crossed dog-walker off my list of avocations on my resume, because our beloved dog Maggie passed away. I used to work in software. I love playing guitar and listening to all sorts of music. I like to listen to Gene Autry when I'm writing because it's mellow and not too engaging. As for my social location, I'm a heterosexually-identified, white-appearing Scandinavian American, with male appearance. I'm fortunate to be married to a woman I consider lovely, and that our love is sanctioned by the state. I'm a father to a toddler, a son to senior citizens, and a brother to two sisters. I drink too much soda, though I avoid caffeine like the plague. Is that me? Not completely. I've done massage work for the poorest people of San Francisco. I am a peacemonger. I also have something going on with my rotator cuff in my left shoulder. I identify as our family's primary grocery shopper.
Perhaps you identify with some of these labels as well, and we have something in common. One thing we all do have in common is that any list of identities is going to be incomplete. We are so much more. We limit ourselves and each other when we focus only on superficial labels such as “woman,” “man,” “straight,” “gay,” “person of color,” “white person,” “client,” “barrista,” “plumber,” “crime survivor,” “wealthy,” “homeless,” or any other category.
I believe that beyond these,... in each of us is an astounding amount of nameless potential. Within myself, I imagine there are hundreds of thousands of angels waiting to get out. These angels are messages. I imagine they are in you too. In my view, we wouldn't be human if we lacked the capacity to deliver and receive each others' angels—to and from wherever they are needed.
Let's take a moment and revisit the question. I invite you to step into Alice's shoes, and let the caterpillar ask, [slow and pausey] “Who are you... at this moment?” “Who have you been?” and “Who are you aiming to be?” While you're considering that, I want to share a meme that's been going around the Internet.
View your life with kindsight. Stop beating yourself up about things from the past. Instead of slapping yourself on the forehead and asking “What was I thinking?” Breathe, and ask the kinder question, “What was I learning?”
Now, one more time... [quick, quiet] Who are you? [30 second pause]
I encourage you to remember well the parts of yourselves that resonate best, the parts that warm you. The parts that hold you down, the parts that bring grief, hold them too, and know they may be teaching something.
To a large part, we get to determine our own identities. However, we have identities put upon us daily. I feel that all too often, we are categorically referred to as citizens, or unfortunately, simply as consumers. These words include us into a context we might not choose. But I want something more for us all, because the title “consumer” deletes most of the story and distorts the rest. We are people who need certain things to live, who choose certain things according to our passions, and who are persuaded into desiring much more than that. From the advertising alone, I often feel like the hungry caterpillar after that big Saturday binge. The advertisements, the culture of commercialism, the shiny neon and conveniences make us forget our deepest selves.
At our root, we are life. We are the universe witnessing itself making music. We are creation creating. In Thursday's recent adult faith development class session, we discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson's divinity school address, in which he excoriates ministers for missing the point of life, working from the words of the book, and not the heart. He says “If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.” [pause] I believe what Emerson was trying to drive home was the risk of carelessly deceiving ourselves about who we are and living according to that deceit.
I see in this age of too much information, not enough space, so much alienation, and a loss of place, the people of the world are largely out of acquaintance with their underlying being. I hope we can change that in our communities by putting our roots down deeper. We're in the midst of a flood of information, and a hurricane of false winds in the media. Only by knowing ourselves truly, can we steel ourselves, and transcendentally fix ourselves to the ground our truest being.
And what is that? It starts with a rejection of the stories put upon us, and a search for our determined spiritual selves. As I was writing this, I was reminded of a quote from Jesuit priest (Peeyer Tayard d' Shardeh) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I've remembered and forgotten this quote MANY times since I learned it about five years ago. We are from the Sun, we are made of stars. The matter that each of us are composed of could have been rocks, trees, clouds, a circuit board, gas in the upper atmosphere, anything. But that matter became us, and we are self-aware—sometimes more aware than others around us, and more aware at some times than other times, and never are we anywhere near omniscient. Even our greatest awareness barely touches the surface of all that happens--even in our immediate vicinity. And yet still we are here, now, and capable of determining ourselves and our world. As Marianne Williamson reminds us, “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Underneath this facade of separateness, we know we are all connected. When we remember how deeply connected we are, we remember our power, no longer deceived about who we are, no longer—as Emerson says—out of acquaintance with our own being. As we become acquainted with our being, we come into our power, a power beyond measure.
I used to be afraid of that power. I was afraid that I would use it as “power-over” others. Just over a year ago, during my chaplain residency at a downtown San Francisco hospital, my supervisor explained to me that I needed to step into my six-foot-five tall self, and be that powerful presence. He told me that there are more kinds of power than “power-over”—specifically, there is “power-with” or “power-for” others who need us to claim it. People need us to be our powerful selves. May we overcome the fear of that power, and KNOW that our power used rightly can be for good. And may we be ever mindful that power used rightly begins and ends with love.
Overcoming that fear means learning who we are, and claiming that identity at every level. Then we must find a balanced authentic relationship with others, and let our little lights shine like the stars we come from. If all else fails,... share your name, love your neighbor, and smile knowing you are loved as well. Amen.
May we remember each day that change is essential for life. May we be willing to surrender what we are for what we are capable of becoming. Go forth today ready to be transformed, carrying with you each day an invitation for the infinite soul butterfly of your innermost being to open and fly free. Blessed be.