In the documentary my octopus Teacher, a diver sees an octopus while spending time in a kelp forest off the coast of south Africa. The diver delighted in this strange creature. She was a wonder to behold. And he was drawn to her recognizing that there was something to learn from this creature. And so He wondered what would happen if he came to that same spot everyday. Well, at first the octopus would hide and run away when he came near. Then after time, the octopus began to trust that he was safe. His continued presence in the water day after day earned the trust of the octopus until finally the octopus stretched out one tentacle and placed it in the diver’s hand.
The diver said the blessing he received is that he no longer felt that he was a visitor but a part of this place we call home. In his experience with the octopus, he began to realize that humans are similar in many ways to this alien looking creature.. and this realization changed him and began changing his relationships with the people in his life. In his words, I hear that the octopus touched a truth deep within him; it was what author Henri Nouwen says, “A blessing touches the original goodness of the other and calls forth his or her belovedness.”
Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to write a book for people who are disconnected from any particular religious tradition. Fred says, “Speak to us about the deepest yearning of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope; not about the many strategies for survival, but about trust; not about new methods of satisfying our emotional needs, but about love. Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a voice deeper than the clamorings of our mass media. Yes, speak to us about something or someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about…God.” Pg 23
As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & given.
Last week, we explored the challenges we have with the word taken or chosen which can feel exclusive and competitive. And Nouwen invited us to understand Chosen in a new way. Chosen means that God sees us in our uniqueness, is captivated by our differences, and chooses each person as God’s beloved.
Today, we are focusing on the word blessed. Nouwen writes, “The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go they always speak words of blessing.” Pg 82 yikes!! Wherever they go, they speak words of blessing. If I were to think back over this week, would I be able to say that wherever I went I spoke words of blessing? I’m pretty sure not. So Let’s turn to 1 Peter 3:8-15 for words of wisdom regarding our speech
Peter names 5 characteristics of the life that brings blessing and Edmund Clowney writes that they are like 5 fingers that radiate from one center and work together. 1 Peter 3:15 ends by saying “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” This is the center point. In these words, I hear the author of 1 Peter saying, “get back to the blessing that is in your heart. The truth that you hold most dear.” In the Disciples of Christ tradition, our one unifying statement is that Jesus Christ is the son of God, Lord and savior of the world. And then we add to that the statement that each of us feels most resonates with the truth of who we are in Christ Jesus. For me, that is I am a Beloved Healer. For one of our members, he said that his statement is I am a blessing.
When this truth is settled in our hearts and we sit with that sensation and let it soak into every cell of our body, then all of these characteristics that 1 Peters talks about radiate from this center and work together.
so before we look at the 5 attributes, we first need to understand how we might hear our blessing so that we are quick to offer a word of blessing?
Nouwen suggests 2 ways:
1-Through prayer. And today we practiced the style of prayer that Nouwen invites us to explore. 1-petition- we take the time to voice our concerns, our struggles, and the challenge we find to see God in our world and then we embrace silence so that we can hear the voice that blesses us and that calls us forward to be a blessing in this world. Nouwen writes, “The movement of Gods spirit is very gentle, very soft—and hidden. It does not seek attention. But that movement is also very persistent, strong and deep. It changes our hearts radically. The faithful discipline of prayer reveals to you that you are the blessed one and gives you the power to bless others.” (pg 78)
Prayer is about speaking to God things that are on our hearts so that when we are finished speaking, we shift into a time of silence where we are able to pay attention. This moment right now. While listening for that soft and tender nudge, that gentle whisper, that deep knowing for how we can respond in a way that we are the beloved and that we are called to bless others. I will tell you that my prayer life has changed dramatically over the years. My prayers used to be filled with petition and then end with Amen. There was not a moment of silence or a thought to listen for God’s gentle whisper. I never even considered sitting in silence. Now, through my study of yoga and meditation, my practice of prayer has shifted. Now, I express a confidence in God’s presence and wait in silence. Getting quiet and shifting into a calm and steady state opens my being to sense a connection to my blessing so that I can be a blessing to others.
We have so much busyness in our minds that sometimes it is filled like a where’s waldo image. I can’t even look at a where’s waldo image without feeling anxiety of all the stuff everywhere, people, animals, toys, things everywhere. Isn’t our mind sometimes too busy and too full? and so our act of prayer is a time to lift our burdens so that we can clear it out, get quiet, and listen. We lift our burdens to clear and cleanse the mind. We listen to sense the sacred and to know how to respond.
2-The second way Nouwen suggests is through the cultivation of presence. Our lives are so busy that it is hard to see and hear the blessings all around us.
When I entered the Doctor of Ministry program at Claremont school of theology 4 years ago, I had this burning question to explore. You see I had started teaching yoga and students were coming up to me after class saying that they no longer went to church, but that my yoga class was better than their past experience of church. This intrigued me and I wanted to know what they meant. So in my doctor of ministry project entitled From the Pew to the Mat invited yoga students from any or no religious background to share their experience of the Divine. But how would I create a practice that would help them shift into a calm and steady states so that they could be more present to the truth they hold most dear? How would I structure a practice that would feel safe enough for a diverse group of people to participate? So, I used the spiritual practice of meditation and yoga to give them time to release tension and stress so that would feel more open to sensing the sacred. Then, I invited them into dialogue about the spiritual life. I structured the dialogue with agreements and commitments that we held for the way we would speak and the way we would listen to each other.
In the end, I learned that this experience felt more like church for them because it is an embodied practice where instead of telling them about god or the spiritual life, I was inviting them to explore their connection to the Divine through their senses. What I learned is that the benefit of yoga and meditation is practicing being present to ourselves that in turn allowed the students to be more present to each other. I also learned that we are a lot like the Octopus because it was my consistent presence and my strict adherence to the rules we agreed to that made the space feel safe enough for even the most timid student to participate.
In the book What we say matters: Practicing Nonviolent communication, Judith and Ike Lasater write that the gift of any spiritual practice is that it brings us into the present moment. That is when we are able to hear the blessing and call forth the blessing in others.
Each of us has a need to receive a blessing especially during this time where our media and our news are spouting how cursed we are, how divided we are, how I am right and you are wrong….we need something bigger than ourselves, something that reaches deeper…we need a blessing. So Nouwen takes us right to the heart of the matter.. to connect to our inner blessing, to sit in prayer everyday long enough to allow the blessing to infuse every cell of our being, and to be more present in our lives. Our world is in desparate need of a people who are quick to speak a blessing to others. And it goes deeper than our words. Judith Lasater and Ike Lasater talk about how people sense how we feel about them even before we speak.. they know whether we are blessing them or cursing them in our minds. (pg 41) They feel whether we have room for them in our hearts. So the impact of prayer and presence is immediately felt all around us before we even address our words.
Now, that we know how to connect to the truth we hold most dear and the personal blessing we sense from God. Let’s unpack the message in 1 Peter 3. The author gives us 5 attributes of a life that brings blessing: unity of spirit, sympathy, love, compassion, and humility. Edmund Clowney connects the first attribute with the final attribute. Clowney writes that to have unity of the spirit we have to have a humble mind. If you remember with me, a few weeks ago we explored the idea that being the beloved is a humble position and not an exclusive elitist club. Humble means low to the ground, earthy, and considers other people equal to or better than ourselves. This helps us understand how we arrive at unity for if each of us views the other as equal to or better than ourselves then we are always open to learning from each other and never cling to our way as the right way. If we set our intention for unity, then we have to cloak ourselves in humility.
The other 3 attributes have to do with the way we relate to people: Sympathy, brotherly love, and compassion. Sympathy is being ready to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. It is recognizing that when one part of the body of christ suffers the entire body suffers. We are not isolated but part of the whole. Brotherly love is our familial bond through Christ Jesus. We are no longer estranged, but we are brothers and sisters, children of God. Compassion which is a movement in the womb of God. We are moved to respond to each other with kindness, solidarity, and wisdom. In all three of these words, I hear relationship..I hear connection..I hear interconnection. And so our words have the power to enhance connection by expressing sympathy, seasoned with familial love, with the hope of relieving suffering.
The attributes that 1 Peter calls us to embody are words that enhance relationship and isn’t that what Jesus was all about. He boiled down all the laws into love for God, for self, and others. And then he said, but don’t just love the ones that are easy to love. Love your enemies. It’s about relationships. It goes beyond right and wrong..your way or my way…which break apart relationship. Instead it asks us to see God in every person we meet. It asks us to make room in our hearts for the challenging person. It’s like tuning our eyes to look for waldo but instead of 1 waldo in the sea of images…it is finding the small waldo within each image. And this is the journey of the Beloved. It is the idea that our blessing calls us forward into who we are becoming and our words of blessing also speak a truth that calls others forward into becoming the beloved. Our words become a powerful message of hope!
Unity, humility, sympathy, familial love and compassion are the hallmarks of a life of blessing…a way to walk the path of peace in our relationships with each other.
Nouwen reminds us that there are very practical ways that we continue on the journey of becoming the beloved. Being the beloved is not a lofty idea but it has real earthy, tangible, practical impact. He writes that becoming the beloved means letting the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do. And so as we prepare to come to the communion table, let us take a moment to consider the power of our words.