By Thomas Kincaid
One night, when I was a good deal younger, I had the privilege of sitting at the head table for a dinner and lecture that was scheduled to be headlined by Ann Richards, the former Governor of Texas. I wasn’t married at the time, and to my surprise, the round table consisted of three older couples, me, and, seated to my right, Ann Richards.
Shortly after someone said the invocation and salads were coming out, the governor turns to me and says, “Hi, I’m Ann. So what the hell’s your story?” It was the beginning of an evening when her trademark wit didn’t disappoint.
What’s my story? Who am I? It’s a big question that’s hard for a lot of us to deal with.
A place to start with how hard this question is comes in how we all feel about pictures of ourselves or recordings of our own voice. As for the latter, one of the great ways to torture preachers is to make them listen to their own sermons. Or if you ever hear your own voicemail recording.
Just the sound of one’s own voice can be unsettling. We all swear we don’t sound like that!
And as for pictures, well, I know a number of folks who say, “I just don’t photograph well.” Of course that sentence makes no sense — the camera doesn’t lie, it doesn’t mess things up. What we really mean is something like: When I see a picture of myself — when I grab a selfie — it doesn’t come close to capturing who I imagine myself to be.
Both of those responses are based upon one core assumption: That I know who I am. Fair enough — to a point. But so often, we only define ourselves in comparison. If I say I’m an athlete, I plainly don’t mean I’m paid to play sports—I mean I’m more athletic than other people. When you say you’re intellectual, you mean compared to lots of other people you are smarter and more intellectually curious. When you say you’re funny, you mean other people tend to laugh at your jokes.
It’s a brutal reality that we really are only defined in context — by someone or something else. And when we face that arbitrary rendering of ourselves — a recording of our own voice or our own appearance — we tend to insist, “That’s not quite who I am.”
Like a lot of us humans, Moses had a difficult time answering “Who am I?” in any substantial way. Sure, he — again like most of us — could put up a well-functioning front, but alone, in the quiet, it had to be hard for this guy to answer this question.
After all, consider his life story: Moses was abandoned as a baby and then adopted by a family who was oppressing the people of his natural birth. Growing up in the palace as a son obviously adopted (by what means few likely knew—surely gossip abounded), growing up in the palace as a son obviously taken from the enslaved folks out in the desert, had to be difficult at times. Psychologists might tell us that it is no surprise teenage Moses lashed out and killed an Egyptian soldier. And, famously, Moses ends up with a stutter.
The murder, unsurprisingly, led to a riff with Moses’ adopted family, so he flees to a far-off land out of Pharaoh’s immediate reach. There he meets a girl, and, well, with nothing better to do, he ends up working for his new father-in-law.
If Moses ever asked himself “Who am I?,” it seems unlikely he enjoyed the answer.
But in our Old Testament story today, Moses asks this question, not of himself, but of God. It’s the famous story of the burning bush, and of God’s call to Moses to go back to Egypt and lead his birth people out from under the tyranny of his adoptive family. Moses thinks this calling is a terrible idea. You can imagine his history is running through his mind as he sees the burning bush and hears the voice of God: You want me to go? I was abandoned, then adopted, then killed a man, then fled. Now the only job I can get is with my wife’s father, and I still stutter. I’m not your guy. So Moses says, “You want me to go?” Then God, you answer this basic question: Who am I?
God doesn’t miss a beat. In a radical display of love, God speaks with thunder right into the deepest parts of Moses — those parts where all that mess of his life make him feel so weak — and God says: “I will be with you; I have sent you.” Moses wants to know: Who am I? God says you are because you are in relationship with me. You want self-definition, Moses? — you want to know who you are? —you are mine.
Okay. Moses isn’t done. Moses says, well, then who are you? And God’s answer is another one of encouragement and love for Moses. God says, I am who I am. In other words, you, Moses — like all humans, are only who you are in relation to something else. God, however, is God all by himself. Who are you, God? I am the one who simply is.
God is the one being who needs no reference point. God is no one’s son or daughter, he is no one’s creation. He has no comparison, there is no one else but him. As creatures who only can be defined by what we are not or what we are better or worse than, God simply is. He is the only one who is complete in himself. He is the only one who can answer the question “Who am I?” with the simple “I am who I am.”
And who is Moses? Who are we? We are the ones that I am has said he is always with and for.
It is impossible in life to answer who we are on our own. It simply cannot be done. Our development as children makes it so that our parents are supposed to help us learn this answer — surely some parents complete this years-long task better than others. But none of them do it anything close to perfectly — because they can’t. We are never going to be able to answer the question “Who am I?” on our own.
Some of us try to avoid that question altogether, using drugs, alcohol, sex, television, or any number of other things to numb ourselves and keep our minds occupied just long enough to keep the question at bay.
Others of us will go on the never-ending quest to answer it by comparison with others — by success. Money, fitness, accomplishment, job title, perfect spouse with perfect kids, and the rest of it line this path as shiny objects trying to help us answer the question. This answer can work for a while — but it doesn’t amount to much in the end. No matter how long we keep this up — even if it lasts till our last breath — our final thought will be one of “who am I?” and we will have no good answer.
Or we can follow young, broken, beat up, fleeing-from-the-law-while-working-for-his-wife’s-dad Moses. We can ask God: Who am I? And we can hear God say: “I am with you — I have chosen you.” In other words, who are we? We are the ones who are with God and who God has committed to always stay with.
Lent is about the journey home to be with God. It is about confessing our sins that have taken us off that path—those things we use to distract ourselves. It is about avoiding the shiny objects that we use as lousy placeholders for identity. It is about redoubling our relationship with him. It is about us saying to God, “I want to be with you because I know you are always with me.”
Lenten joy, therefore, is not exuberant or even happy — it is simply the bedrock confidence that whatever baggage we bring to the question “Who am I?,” God’s answer is sure: “You are the one who I want with me. So come home, my child.”
The Rev. Thomas Kincaid is vice rector of the Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas.