It used to be that people were drawn to be a part of faith communities for 3 reasons. They wanted something to believe in. They wanted a sense of belonging and or they hoped to find a better way to behave. What is interesting is that research shows that what is drawing people to church and religion today—the idea of becoming. According to a fellow Disciple Duane Bidwell in his book When one religion isn’t enough by Duane, the group that checks the NONE box when asked about their religious background are saying that Becoming is what they value most. There is something excited about this because they are longing for transformation. They intuitively know that they at their core they are love and compassion, peace and joy and yet they recognize that they would like to experience it more fully in this life. They desire to find a path to follow that works and they are looking for a guide. Much like Fred was looking to Nouwen to be his guide in our book Life of the Beloved.
In 2019, I shared Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved with a group of students, staff and professors at the University of Houston. This was a group composed of people who identified themselves from many different religious traditions, many of them identify with multiple religious traditions in their background and at least one who stated no religious tradition. This group and I got to know each other as I taught them yoga over the entire school year. I introduced this book in April of that year and I started our conversation by asking them if they had a special nickname that their parents, their partner or spouse, or extended family had for them. We had a fun time sharing sweet and silly names much like I did with the children a moment ago.
Then, we read a section of Nouwen’s book that talked about our being God’s beloved. I asked this group how they felt about Nouwen suggesting that we are The Beloved. I had some interesting answers! Some said that the words were sweet and kind. One person said that it felt inappropriate because only Jesus is the Beloved. Another person noted that they felt the energy of the words were loving. Then, a student took the conversation in a totally different direction. She shared that The Beloved felt exclusive because it sounds like it is talking about only 1 person, so she offered that My Beloved felt more inclusive which she felt was the intent of the author.
She made such a great point. Nouwen invites us to see that I am the Beloved as much as you are the beloved as much as we are all the beloved. There is a deeply felt understanding that God would speak these words in a way that included all people.
As much as Abram and Sarai’s new names signal a change and pulls them forward into a future reality, the truth of being the beloved is also a calling to become the beloved. We hear similar words In Philippians 3: 10-14. Paul writing to the church at Philippi writes about this idea that we as Christians are called forward into the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. When I think about being called forward it is something positive…it is the idea that God knows my full potential and is cheering me on to become my best self. For me, this is very energizing! The opposite of this view is that Jesus is behind us pushing us up a hill. I have pushed my son up a hill and it is not fun and it is clear that he did not feel energized and even became more frustrated. The spiritual life is not all effort or pushing you somewhere you don’t want to go. Instead, we are being called forward into being. We are loved into becoming. There is work to be done, but it’s done with an energetic ease. The idea of becoming the beloved is a high calling that is fleshed out in how we breath, love, think, speak, work and play.
And this shifts us away from the overly romanticized and lofty idea of being the Beloved that does not change anything and gets us down in the dirt of human existence.
We recognize that as humans we experience loss, sadness, guilt, pain and shame. We build layers of protection over these raw and tender places so that we do not have to suffer. These layers serve as protection so they have a good reason for being there. But left too long, these protective layers can harden our hearts. Becoming the beloved, is sometimes tough because it asks us to peel back the layers of protection like you would an onion, to thank those layers for what they have done for us, and to relieve them of their duties. This process of becoming reveals what was hidden beneath all of these layers—a treasure that we once knew was ours but that we buried deep within.
Nouwen writes, “If it is true that we not only are the Beloved, but also have to become the Beloved; if it is true that we not only are children of God, but also have to become children of God; if it is true that we not only are brothers and sisters, but also have to become brothers and sisters…if all that is true, how then can we get a grip on this process of becoming? Pg 45
Where do we begin?
And so we have to get really clear…we have to sharpen our focus..We began that last week by recognizing that our practice of the Christian faith is rooted in humility and that we approach our journey with a kind curiosity. Let’s add on this week.
So, this week I invite you to find your statement…the words that ground you in who you are and who God is calling you to become. But maybe this phrase doesn’t resonate with you. Maybe there is a short statement that a parent or grandparent, teacher or friend spoke over you.. a blessing that better speaks the truth deep within you. Maybe it is a few words from a song or poem or a piece of art that resonates with you. A teacher of mine once led a session on writing our statements and I love the direction she gave. She said that this statement was to come from the heart and express a way of being a vessel of grace in service to others.
When I was in junior high an Elder in our church approached me after a youth Sunday. This man was a large man in build and in the respect he was given in the church. He walked over to me and asked to see my hand. I was a little nervous but also knew that this man was held in high regard in our church. So I gave him my hand. He gently took my hand and traced his large pointer finger over my palm, looked up at me and said “You are a healer.” I believe this man’s words sharpened my focus and called me forward into becoming the beloved. I have not always thought of this statement, but as I look back over my life I can see how it guided me even during times when I was preoccupied and distracted by other things.
Here is how this statement helps me sharpen my focus. This short statement helps me know what is not my job and what is my job. And this clarifying statement sets me free to do what God has called me to do in this world. As a Beloved healer, I know my job as your pastor is not to be behind our church pushing it along to live the life of the Beloved. It is also not my job to stand in front of the church pulling you forward into your calling. My job is to walk alongside you, to listen, and to explore the tools you to live a resilient and robust life. These tools come from scripture, our long Christian history of people attempting to put words together and create practices for deepening our spiritual life, and experience.
What we didn’t read about Abraham and Sarah is that right after God gives them new names, they began to have all kinds of thoughts about how they would never live into their names because they were too old and did not have a child and what about Ishmael…the voices in their minds grew loud distracting them from allowing their names to become enfleshed in their bodies. And all of these thoughts built a frenzy of energy inside them and they laughed to disperse the energy.
Here is what to look for while you are spending time this week thinking about your statement. 1-in order to distinguish the voice of God or to sense that every cell of your being resonates with your statement, in order to really tune in, you have to spend time in silence. What is interesting is that when you begin to get silent all of those voices start screaming at you for attention. Your internal chatter grows loud and typically your outer world grows demanding as well: the phone rings, a child needs your attention, you realize you have not done X, Y Z. These things are to be noticed. You can even say, “well, hello distraction!” approaching the distractions with a light heart. Or you might find yourself laughing at all of the questions that arise when you write your statement and you can think, “well, I am just following in the footsteps of the ancestors in my faith tradition.”
There is a song called I am light by India Arie. I think her song captures the way she found her phrase. The song goes, I am light. I am not the things my family did. I am not the voices in my head. I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside. I am light. I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain. I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind. I am light. I am not the colour of my eyes. I am not the skin on the outside. I am not my age. I am not my race, my soul inside is all light. I am light.
Becoming the Beloved is a personal experience and it is the experience of a community of people who commit to following the ways of Jesus. Nouwen identifies what he calls 4 movements of the spirit that help us become the Beloved. They are taken, blessed, broken and given. What I love about these 4 movements is that they are lifted from our communion experience. This week I had the privledge of hearing stories about the Life of our church. In these stories, I heard the themes ebb and flow. Since 1912, we have been guided by wonderful leaders and supported by members and friends who felt that we as a community are called to be bread for the world and so we have experienced being taken, blessed, broken and given.
So, let us hear these words a little differently this morning by hearing them as movements of the spirit that guide us as a community to become the beloved.