Lenten reflections from Tanzania

In this Lenten season, I have been pondering IDENTITY: how people find and form identity—just how we figure out who we are. Identity is about what it means to be me, or you, or us, and just what happens so that we, or you, or I came to our/your/my sense of self.

The news in this Lenten season is chock-full of identity stories. There are stories of identities formed around hate of the other: the massacre at two mosques in New Zealand, the defacing of headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts, moves to remove the citizenship of all non-Jews in Israel. For many—or most—involved in these activities, hate—the desire to destroy—forms a significant, and sometimes consuming, part of their identity.

There are those whose identities are formed through fear. Fear of those coming over the border, or fear of people who are different, or fear of people whose faith is unlike their own—these fears are very powerful, and often, contagious. All human beings are at risk of infectious fear impacting their identities.

And there are stories of identities formed through living through disasters: horrific loss of life in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, loss and transformation of life through flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri, and obliteration of whole communities in Mozambique. No matter what happens to those who are left behind after these disasters happen, their lives, and their understandings of life, will have gone through a process of involuntary reformulation. Their identities will change—indeed, they are changing even as you read this.

And sometimes, we see people forming identity through disagreement with others. I communicated with one of my legislators, encouraging a vote on a particular issue. My mistake—I communicated on the legislator’s social media page, which gave some people who disagree with me the chance to respond. I was called stupid, ignorant, unthinking, and irresponsible. And then, a couple days later, I received word from one who communicated his “hope that your family would be violently attacked.” At least one person so disagreed with me that part of his identity was a burning desire that I and those I love the best would be personally harmed.

Identity is a key part of the journey of faith. A couple stories illustrate.

We serve in a context that is unapologetically patriarchal. We are grateful that the church we serve here, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT), voted some years ago to ordain women. Some of our students have shared that the decision to ordain women only came after pressure from northern partner churches, including the church that appointed us, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Since then, some partners, including the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have pressured some dioceses to stop ordaining women. Both the first decision, for ordination, and the second, against ordination, have been backed up with funding support. Women’s ordination is very much a contended issue in the church and among our students. Our women students carry this contentious issue in their bodies, their spirits, and their identities. Many of our women students are quiet in class, not volunteering answers nor asking questions. Many of them will come to the teacher on a class break and say, in a very low, nearly inaudible voice, “I’m sorry, Dr., I have a question.” To have to be sorry to have a question—to know that one’s vocation is an issue about which faith leaders disagree—this is formational for the identity of our women students. It is formational, as well, for the men—who either grieve and protest the patriarchy, or quietly—and sometimes more outwardly—support it as a principle of faith.
Last month, leaders of the United Methodist Church from across the globe gathered to discuss their common identity, and what role sexual identity and orientation play in that identity. Living in Africa, we were not disinterested observers, although neither of us is United Methodist. The votes taken did not settle the identity issues on the table, although some may have hoped for consensus. Some commentary since the meeting about the impact of “the Africans” taking part has been significantly short of the nuance and complexity required. When disciples from richer countries and disciples from poorer countries gather with the implicit/explicit agreement that their identity includes equality in discussion and decision-making, a great deal of care is needed. This is particularly true when the gathering includes former colonists and formerly-colonized folk, gathering both at decision-making tables and the table where Jesus is our host. So many issues of identity fly around the room at such meetings! There are no easy ways to discern identity or form common identity. So, we can see energy put to answer questions of who is to blame—who is identified as wrong—which in these contexts, we often see labelled not just as “wrong”, but, more strongly and punitively, as “unfaithful”. When we see people deciding that they are able to define the identities of others in the community of disciples, we need to pay attention, slow down, and take particular care.

I’m preaching in a couple weeks, and the scriptures for the Sunday are all over this question of identity. The people of Israel eat of the produce of the land and their own labor, and at that moment the gift of manna ceases to fall upon them. Their identity changes, in the providence of God, from receiver to producer (Joshua 5). Members of the church at Corinth are encouraged to understand that in Jesus, their identity has changed. This change is so thorough-going that they will see everyone else differently, and that their own identity has become one of ambassadors for Christ (II Corinthians 5). And Jesus shares parables of the lost (Luke 15)—sheep, coins, and a son. The son, in particular, goes through a process of identity formation, and reformation, and reformation yet again. Finally, he who identified as lost, as slave, as not worthy is identified as worthy, as beloved, as found.

 

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Every year during Lent, we travel the road of identity formation, of discerning what it means to find our identity in our Savior, of thinking through questions of who Jesus is, and so, who we are. We struggle, truth be told, to find our identity in Christ. Much too often, we find our identity in hate—in disagreement—in how we are more faithful than others, who we label unfaithful or much more awful names. Much too often, we attack others on the basis of their gender, their race, their orientation, their lifestyle, or how many diplomas they have on their wall or how many dollars are in their accounts. Every Lent, faced with the reality of our own sin in identifying with everything but Jesus, we wonder where hope can be found. Every Lent, we despair, we agonize, and we struggle, asking with Paul: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

And then, without fail, the One who sought the lost sheep, who sees God in the woman who found the lost coin, who ran to greet the lost son—this very One comes to greet us, and to kiss us, and to adorn us with festal garments. This One is not asking who we are or what we have done—because this One KNOWS US better than we know ourselves. This One, even Jesus, knows that we ARE WORTHY, we ARE VALUABLE, and because we are dearly loved, we can share this with all who are lost, and lonely, and afraid.

Disciples are given this holy season for many reasons. Here are just two. We receive the season of Lent so we can think about our identity, and how we have formed our identity through emotions, thoughts and values that do not reflect Christ—that are, in fact, part of how we sin. And, we also receive this season so that we have at least one time a year when Jesus can remind us of how he sees us. May we all take this precious time as the gift that it is and come to Holy Week ready to recommit ourselves to seeing ourselves, and others, as Jesus sees us all.

Cynthia Holder Rich

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