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As Sevenoaks Unitarians, we reflected this week on the need to understand 'who we are'. With a reading from the Bible (Mark 8:27-30), and a poem by Alexander Pope (Know Thyself), we considered the differing approaches to identify, to personality, and to the truth. An MP3 of the address is available through the link above (it may take a minute or so), and the text is below:
We live in a world of hidden identities, of double, triple, quadruple lives.
In a world where social media brings more and more of our lives into a public arena – Facebook, Google +, Twitter, and many more – it could be said there is less and less privacy. Our friends know what we’re up to. They always did – but not necessarily on a day-by-day update system. I now know what all my friends are up to. With excrutiating details in some instances. Almost in real-time.
I know more about some of my friends than I perhaps wish to. But I have also been able to stay in touch with friends and colleagues I now longer live near but, if I did, I would certainly have remained in regular contact.
It doesn’t stop there however. Vast databases are built up by the supermarkets and others on our shopping preferences. What food you like. What newspapers you read. Which colour toilet paper you have a preference for. Whether you buy cat food. And how often you appear to buy cleaning products.
And I’ve been amazed recently at how clever some of these internet trackers seem to be. I will be travelling to Amsterdam next year, and I have been looking online at ticket prices. Just looking at these has clearly left a trail – I think the technical term is a cookie – and now, when I look at other completely unrelated pages, the usual random adverts down the side are now showing me ticket prices of flights to Amsterdam and other European destinations. It knows what I have been looking at. It knows more about me than I sometimes manage to remember myself some days.
So, is the real me so easy to identify? If you brought all these things together – my dietary habits, my occasional train tickets, my cinema visits, the colour of the socks I have recently bought from M&S – if you had all these things would you really find out much of true interest about me? Or you?
Can you truly describe someone by these things?
Of course, the internet has provided a wealth of opportunities for people. It was invented by a Unitarian – Sir Tim Berners-Lee – but even so, amazingly, it can be used as a front for hidden things.
There are numerous tales of how people use the internet to deceive others. I am sure all of you with e-mail have received an e-mail from Nigeria at some time, letting you know that you are the lucky recipient of the proceeds of some long forgotten aunt. If you could just send your bank account details, and your PIN, then they’ll kindly arrange a transfer.
I don’t think they really are from a solicitor in Nigeria, you know!
The notion of identity is so very confused. Who are we? And who do others think we are? Is it the same? And does it matter?
In the first reading this morning, from the stories recorded, we think, by a man named Mark, we heard a fairly well known story of Jesus. It happens some time after Jesus has started his ministry, and after he has started to make a name for himself. Jesus is being followed by crowds. Crowds who can see something special in this man.
In the passage I read, Jesus, surrounded by his friends, asks who the crowds are saying Jesus is. ‘Who do the people say I am?’
And the answer is interesting. The people are saying he is John the Baptist. They are saying he is Elijah.
They are, in effect, identifying Jesus with other well known holy men. John the Baptist was a contemporary of Jesus – a holy man who was seen as someone to follow by people of this time. The Bible records that John himself baptised Jesus.
Elijah, on the other hand, was a prophet from many hundreds of years before. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets from the Hebrew Bible. Elijah was the prophet that heard the still, small voice of God. A man seen to be close to God, a man who was at one with God.
So, Jesus’ followers told him that others saw him as someone special, someone holy, someone who could lead them to God.
This was a perception.
‘Who do the people say I am’.
The question is perhaps also
‘Who do people judge me to be, on the basis of what they have seen of me’.
It’s all about perception.
On the basis of what could be seen. On the basis of his actions, and the way in which he lead his very public life, Jesus was perceived to be a holy man, a man of God.
Not because he told them this. But because his actions led to that conclusion.
I often wonder who Jesus thought he was at that time in his life. Did he think of himself as a holy man. Did he believe he was, at this early stage in his ministry, any closer to God than others were or could be?
I really don’t know.
The question could even have been a genuine attempt by Jesus to try and understand what it was that seemed to be driving him on. Many theologians and Christian historians will claim that Jesus was tormented by his apparent holy character – that he would have been wrestling with his own mind to try and understand who he truly was.
If only Jesus had a Tesco clubcard and some internet cookies, it would have been so much easier.
Except, of course, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t because those things that think they are building up a picture of you as a person are doing no such thing. They are working from external views only.
Jesus was not John the Baptist. Nor was he Elijah. He was Jesus.
The perceptions gave an indication to the type of person he was, but did not reveal the whole truth about a unique human being. Just as the external perceptions of our credit card purchases do not reveal the whole truth about each of us as unique human beings.
I said earlier that, perhaps, we have numerous identities.
I’m not sure however that this is possible. We can have only one identity. There is only one person within each of us. Different people may see us in different ways, yet these are facets of our single identities.
The big news story of the moment, as it has been for some time, is the continual stream of revelations about the broadcaster Jimmy Savile. Savile, there is now very little doubt, was a man with an extremely complex and varied life. The entrepreneur, the inventor of the discotheque, the first disc jockey, the crazy marathon runner, raising millions and millions for charity. They lined the streets of Leeds to say goodbye to Jimmy Savile just twelve months ago.
Yet was now know there was another Savile. Not a different person. Not a different identity. The same man, but a different facet. The stories are dreadful, and the scores of lives he has affected and tormented too numerous for us to truly contemplate.
Yet this was a terrible part of the man who did so much good. An ugly facet. Yet a hidden one. Savile must have known that what he was doing was wrong. Not just wrong. But terrible.
Many others, it seems, knew this was happening too – or at least suspected it. Yet, for whatever reasons, no-one said anything.
So how do we see Jimmy Savile now. Do his good deeds mitigate in any way the bad ones? I don’t believe they do.
Who are you? Who am I?
It is one thing to not know someone else – to be unaware of a hidden facet, a little known or well-hidden part of someone elses life.
However, how well do we know, or believe we know, our true selves?
In our second reading, the poem by Alexander Pope, we are challenged to ‘know thyself’.
And do we? Do you really know yourself? Or do you sometimes wish and hope you knew a different you? When you look deeply at yourself, are there hidden facets you would rather were not there?
Do we know ourselves?
This perhaps takes us back to the reading from Mark. Perhaps, as others have suggested, Jesus was in fact asking how others saw him as a way of filtering in his own mind who he truly was.
Perhaps, this was a way of trying to identify traits in himself. A way of see how he was perceived and, thus, who has was.
For me, though, that is not enough. How I am perceived by others, the person other people believe I am, is not the whole story. Only by truly searching the very depths of my being can I truly know myself.
And that, as they say, is a complicated process.
From a personal, and a spiritual, perspective, I wonder whether there are, or should be, any differences between our known and unknown lives.
This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily swan around telling everyone about every piece of our lives.
But, and this is a genuine question, should we be happy with any part of our ‘unknown’ lives that we would be ashamed or embarrassed to be revealed?
Are we happy with our deeper selves? Are we aware of our deeper selves. Do we know, and do we accept, who we really are?
There are, perhaps, two questions here. One follows the other. Do we know who we are? And, if we do, are we happy with it? And, if we’re not, what might we do about it? OK, that’s three questions.
I doubt there are any easy answers to finding out the questions about ourselves. There are no shortcuts to a simple version of a complex human soul. Each of us unique, and each knowable only to our deepest selves.
But perhaps this is where our spiritual natures can play a key role. It is through our spiritual practices – through prayer, through meditation, through shared experiences – that we surely start to truly know ourselves.
As a spiritual and religious community, we do, as Unitarians, believe in the unique nature of each individual, yet we also recognise and value the help and strength that a congregation might provide to us in our personal life journeys. This does not mean we are expected to share every foible or every personal fault with one another.
Rather we might recognise, and take comfort, from the likelihood that we are not alone in our attempts to understand ourselves – to know thyselves – and that we are, all of us, at different times and in different ways, grappling with aspects of our lives we find hard or confusing. We all do it.
And meeting here each week, or how ever often you are able to come, provides that opportunity to simply be. To make a connection to God, to the wider Universe, to this body of similarly-minded souls. Whatever it is about this place that gives you strength, you can be assured you are accepted as you are, for the person you truly are.
In this world of light and dark, hidden and seen, we need to be able to understand how we are perceived and, more importantly, know who we really are.
In that first reading, Jesus concluded by asking his disciples who they thought he was. They said they believed he was the Messiah. And Jesus told them sternly not to repeat it to anyone.
We are never told why Jesus was so concerned about this. But perhaps it was because he wanted people to form their own judgements based on the life he was leading. He wanted people to determine who he was as a result of his actions, not because the disciples said so.
And this lesson holds good for me. I can only hope and try to ensure I live as good, and honest, and truthful a life as possible. I know it’s not easy. I know I am not perfect. But I can try.
To live a life of honesty and love must surely be the aim of all he seek to live life in the glory of their God, or of this interconnected Universe of which we are all part.
In a world where others can try to determine who we are by our habits, let us know instead who we are by the message in our hearts, and the loving actions in the world