Princeton University Religious Life

Fully Known

Brittany Longsdorf
Princeton University Chapel
February 3, 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-11

Jeremiah is called to be the prophet of the nations; no other prophet has been called to such an international expectation. Many prophets have been called to the north and south and to even a nearby village or two, even Amos enters another kingdom far from his home, but no prophet has ever been called to such an international dominion. Furthermore, God is has called Jeremiah from his birth, from the womb even, and God knows and trusts all of the gifts that Jeremiah can bring to the world. In short, this calling is a huge deal. And how does Jeremiah respond? With fear, Jeremiah states that he is under qualified, undeserving, and that he just plain doesn’t want to. His response of “Ah lord god!” in the original Hebrew grammar conveys a response of complaint and opposition towards Yahweh. Jeremiah is angry. He wonders, how could he be asked to take on such a task? Doesn’t God know that he couldn’t possibly do this?  But God knows Jeremiah better than Jeremiah knows himself. This ‘knowing’, is hard for us.  Both being fully known and letting others really know who we truly are is a constant challenge in our world.

We struggle to know ourselves, and we often don’t let others know who we are in turn. In this society, being fully authentic is not always our strong point. So often, we keep ourselves guarded. We safe-house our true selves so that we might not get hurt, or worse, rejected. When I meet up with a group of my friends at a restaurant and they brought a long a new person whom I had never met before, and this person turns to me and asked me “Who are you?” I would probably respond like this, “My name is Brittany Longsdorf, I am studying religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I am friends with so-and-so”. I would have covered the basics: who I am, what I do, and who I know. We all do this upon meeting someone new. This in itself is not necessarily bad, you should always be cautious when meeting a stranger. But how often do we let the relationship stop there? My friendship with this particular person develops and still we keep it at this polite place of formality where we spend time together but really know very little of each other’s hopes, dreams, ideals, and fears. Living authentically and being vulnerable can seem dangerous, and it is no easy task that we are called to when God challenges us to be fully known in Jeremiah and in Corinthians.  We think we know each other but really we hold each other at arm’s length. Have you ever found that even with people you know well and who you think know you well, that you hardly know each other at all?

I will be the first to admit that I have fallen into this societal trait of in-authenticity. I have been a part of this Princeton University Chapel congregation for 2 years, and still I usually present myself as “Brittany Longsdorf, I am studying religion at Princeton theological Seminary, and Dean Alison Boden is my intern supervisor here.” I give the basics of who I am, what I do, and who I know. But when I really look at it, if I really think about it: I know that I feel at home here, I feel deeply connected to many of you in this very room, I feel supported and encouraged, and yet I choose to live in this partial state of openness.  Jeremiah is addressed by God directly, and God says I have known you, even from the womb until this day; and I have called you and given you gifts that you haven’t even learned about yet. And how does Jeremiah respond? He replies with basics, “I am only a boy and I am not a great public speaker”. Who he is and what he does, or rather, what he can’t do. He gives no insights to his talents, his wishes, his hopes, his trust in God.  Why do we do this? Why do we live in a way that only lets us reveal ourselves in part? We never say too much. We never make ourselves to vulnerable and we are petrified of crossing a line into over-sharing. Why?

I believe that one reason for our cultural closed-ness is the ever-prevailing imposter syndrome. When I first came to Princeton Theological Seminary, the campus chaplain, Jan Ammon, sat down the entire freshmen class and told us all to get over our ‘imposter syndrome’. I had never heard this term before, but she went on to explain. Imposter syndrome is when you live in a constant state of fear that the people around you will find out that you aren’t as great as you say that you are. That you aren’t really smart enough to be at Princeton. That you are the Admissions big mistake. That you don’t really make enough money to live the lifestyle that you do. That you aren’t as nice as everyone thinks you are, or as thoughtful. That someone might find out that you aren’t as talented an athlete as your reputation leads them to believe. That you aren’t as faithful or disciplined in your bible reading as you lead others to believe. Or that you don’t work as hard or as fast as others in your office. Most of us deal with this fear each and every day of our lives. We are so afraid of being ‘found out’ for all of our faults and failures. Because of this fear, we feel inclined to present ourselves to others through a veil; never giving away too much in case we are discovered as inadequate.

Jeremiah is living with this very imposter syndrome, he is telling God that he is just a boy, and that he is not fully qualified to carry out this calling. Jeremiah is afraid that he will try and fail; that as he sets out into the world to prophesy that people will really know that he is just a kid from Judah, and that he doesn’t actually have the education required for this job, and even that he still gets tongue tied when speaking in public. He is struggling with living authentically, even before God. This is happens to everyone. Jeremiah does this, Moses does this as God calls him from the burning bush, Gideon does this, Ezekiel does this, and we all do this, because it seems easier to live life with only partial knowledge, with only showing part of ourselves to the world and also only being partially known by the world. We feel that this is safer than living authentically. We put up walls against each other and we make it difficult for others to know us and it is even more difficult for us to really know others. Living this way is tiresome, exhausting and unfulfilling.

This state of partial knowledge, of being inauthentic, is culturally developed. Most of the time we can’t help that we are doing it. When people ask us “how are you doing?” We give them the straightforward answer of ‘ok’ or ‘good’ without really thinking about it. We answer without even thinking to ourselves “how am I doing?” I have a good friend who shares a wall with me in our dorm rooms at the Seminary. Every time I ask her how she is doing she gives a big sigh and says “busy”. The dorm walls are very thin. Because I share a wall with her, I know that she actually watches cartoons for about 4 hours every day and laughs hysterically at Bugs, Daffy, Spongebob, and Peter Griffin. There is this pressure in our society to always appear ‘busy’ ‘productive’ ‘good’ and ‘ok’. We feel as though if we were authentic and told someone “Oh I am great, I just watched three hours of TV” that we would be judged or worse, un-friended on Facebook. We live this way from day to day, and I don’t think we even realize the difficulty it causes. When we are not authentic, it is hard to feel real, true love, to find deep friendships, and to create sustaining relationships.  

What it really comes down to is knowledge. Who can really knows us? And who do we really know in turn? Paul writes to the Corinthians in his letter that “ For now we see in a mirror, dimly, * but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” So much of our lives are spent in partial knowledge of the world around us. We look in a mirror dimly and our vision is skewed, we are not sure who are friends are, who we are, or even who our God is. Sometimes we may feel as though we are alone, and that no one can truly know us. We can be surrounded by people who love us and still we fell lonely and as though no one knows us at all. And yet, there is hope.  

I spent my summer, two years ago, in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. I lived in the chai tea valley of Coonoor on a remote campground style seminary. I studied and worked with both Christian and Hindu students from all over India and Sri Lanka. One day, a young Sri Lankan man told me this story:  There were once a set of twins living inside of a womb. One was a boy and one was a girl. They spent each day living in this womb, swimming in the abyss, and being nourished without any effort at all on their part. One day, the girl says to the boy, “do you think there is more to our universe than this?” and the boy responds, “of course not, we have been all over and we have seen everything that is here, there is just us. There is just this” The little girl thinks on this and asks the boy, “Are you sure? I really think that there might be something called a mother. And that she is carrying us.” the boy tells the girl, “Of course not, have you ever seen a mother? or heard a mother? Look we have all we need, we swim and we are nourished. There is nothing else. This is all we know” But the girl becomes convinced and feels deep within her heart that there is something else that she doesn’t know, that she doesn’t quite understand.

In the womb, the boy twin is comfortable with partial knowledge, with living a life that is veiled and guarded. He is comfortable only seeing in the mirror dimly. While the girl twin wants to know more fully the maker, and in turn wants to be more fully known. Her implicit desire to know God fully, is also the desire we all have to know each other more. This is a desire for relationship. Deep in our core, not only do we desire a deeper connection with God but we desire and are fulfilled by deeper connections with one another. We have a need to be in authentic relationship with humanity. In fact, I believe that this is what makes us human.

Karl Barth, Princeton Theological Seminary’s favorite theologian, defines humanity as this: “To be human is to be in relationships of openness with others. To be human is to need God and need each other. This two-sided openness is the first element of humanity.” Not only that, but Barth says where this openness lacks, when we close ourselves off from one another, humanity does not occur. It is our great privilege as human beings to know each other fully. We are blessed in our humanity that we have the opportunity to share authentically with others. Yes, this is scary. Yes, this requires vulnerability. We may feel that if anyone truly knew us they would no longer like us, or even love us. But the beauty of it is, we are already fully known by God and guess what? God fully loves us.  

We are living in the womb of God, friends, and we are so loved and cared for.  WE ARE FULLY KNOWN. There is no risk of imposter syndrome, there is no partial openness, the Sacred knows us so deeply and so profoundly that we cannot even imagine the extent of God’s knowledge for us. Jeremiah tries to tell God, “I am only a boy” and leave it there. But God knows that there is more to Jeremiah than just this one statement. God knows of Jeremiah’s passions as a minister, of his skills as a preacher, of his compassion towards the poor. Because God fully knows us, we are called to share this way of authenticity with others. We are called to live more authentic lives, to be in authentic and deep relationships with our friends, loved ones, and families. That we might be fully known by them too and know them better.

The Divine knows all of our faults, all of our failures, all of the things that we might have imposter syndrome about and still has a steadfast, understanding, and unending love for you just the way you are. When Paul is writing to the Corinthians about love, he is writing about God’s love for us. God’s love is patient. God’s love is kind. God’s love never ends. Because we are known and loved in this way; we are called to know and love others in this way. We must now live more authentic lives that will lead to deeper, more authentic love for one another. If the definition of humanity is openness with others (in the same way that God is open with us) we must practice this. Jeremiah is called to be a prophet of the nations and we are called to be prophets of relationships. We must practice living authentically daily. It will be difficult, it will make us vulnerable, but it will also be fruitful, rewarding, beautiful, and it will bring out a deeper sense of love, belonging, and knowledge of who we are and whose we are. Revealing ourselves to others in authentic ways will allows us to be fully known and to fully know each other.

Let us all start this practice of authenticity and let ourselves be more fully known. This doesn’t happen within a few sentences or all at once, but it is a long process that I propose we begin now. I’ll start. Hello. My name is Brittany Longsdorf, I am a senior at Princeton Theological Seminary, I am doing my internship here at Princeton University under the supervision of Dean Alison Boden. My favorite color is yellow, I put hot Texas Pete hot sauce on almost all of my food, I am a classically trained oil painter, I am a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan, as I child I wanted to be a paleontologist, I cry at most movies, even sometimes sappy commercials, I often feel insecure about how I look, I panic every time I get a B on a paper and feel insufficient, I have no idea where I will work and live 6 months from now and that terrifies me, I don’t really know how to pray and I have doubts in my faith, and I know that I am fully known and fully loved by God. But this isn’t just about me; this is about us, as a congregational family moving into conversation with each other and knowing each other better. Let us go out into the world deepening our relationships, living authentically, and knowing who we are. This is what it means to be human; this is what means to fully know and to fully love.

Amen.

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