The first question we want to ask when we first meet someone is “Who are you?” Such a question sounds rather abrupt, so we usually ask something else. I suppose we’re not so much interested in their name as how they earn a living and where they live. So after asking their name, we come out with something like “What do you do?”
I’ve never been honest in my reply to this question. When I worked for Clarks, I didn’t admit to it because people then told me how uncomfortable their last pair of shoes was. I never said I was with John Lewis, or people sought my help with faulty washing machines or wanted to relate their last experience of customer service. Now, for the first time, I can admit to being what I am and see how people react.
Our desire to categorise folks in some way is all very well, but what do you say if you are have just been made redundant? What if you are retired? What if you are bringing up children? Do you say what you are, or what you used to be? The question, you see, is not just a request for information. It’s more than that. It’s so we can assess someone’s importance. It’s so we know how to treat others. Rightly or wrongly, it’s how we judge their worth.
I sometimes have to ask a person’s profession. When they get married, for example. When a child is baptised. When I have to sign official forms or fill in a register. That sort of thing. Occasionally people are reluctant to give ‘full time mother’ or ‘home maker’ instead of their previous profession, even though the job of rearing children is one of the most important anyone can have.
Christianity, on the other hand, is a great leveller. All are equal in the sight of God. This is especially true at times of crisis, which is after all when clergy tend to see people who otherwise don’t consider themselves religious or attend church. The Chairman of HSBC becomes just another Anglican priest. High court judges hand round biscuits. Distinguished careers are unknown to the person next to you in the pew. They’re just fellow seekers of the truth.
Yet there is importance in the Kingdom of God. Look for the words ‘you are…’ in scripture and you will quickly discover your true worth. You are a child of God, a friend of Jesus, a citizen of heaven, one of the saints, a child of the light, or a branch of the vine. Perhaps best of all ‘you are loved and forgiven.’
Isn’t that why Jesus gave such importance to the humble, the meek, those who mourn, the poor and hungry, and the pure in heart? There were no blessings for the well-to-do, for bankers or government ministers in the Beatitudes no matter how holy they might be. The words of Christ turn our worldly values upside down. Suddenly the number of people who love you becomes more important than what you earn.
The supreme example is God himself. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush and was sent to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, he asked for God’s credentials. “Who shall I say has sent me? What is his name?”
The answer came back “I am who I am.” That was all. No description of omnipotence or majesty. No everlasting creator, redeemer or sustainer. No proper title at all. God has no name. He is what he is. We have to encounter Him through a personal relationship. Whatever attributes God has are not displayed openly, but left for us to discover for ourselves.
I’m currently reading one of the oldest books in the English language. It’s called The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s short but written in Middle English by a contemplative monk. The book teaches that we can never encounter God through our intellect, through thought processes, or intense enquiry. We can only find God by setting aside all thought and encountering him by love, through the heart. Love is all, and God is love – that’s as good a name as any other.
It sounds hard, and it is. But we can also encounter God through love of each other. That’s easier – the self-sacrificing love of a mother for a child, or a married couple, or a long term partner – all are models of the love of God. Ask yourself – what would someone write on my epitaph? What would I want them to say in my obituary? “Who am I?” is so much more important a question than “what do I do?”