Life of the Beloved: Where is the Sacred?

We have spent the past 6 weeks exploring themes from Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. And now it is time for me to tell you the hard truth. Henri’s book was deemed a failure by Fred and his friends and he wondered if he should even publish the book. But there is a twist to this story…What is interesting is that Nouwen’s admission of failure was the opening the participants in my doctoral project needed.  At the initial meeting where I gathered everyone interested in participating in my project, I shared the story of Fred and Henri. Fred, a man who identified as a secular Jew commissioned his dear friend Henri a catholic priest to write a book about the spiritual life for his friends who were disconnected from any faith tradition. When Henri finished the book, he sent it to Fred and although Fred had many good things to say about the book, it was clear to Henri that he had not touched the hearts and minds of Fred and his friends. This story intrigued my participants because it leveled the playing field and created a need for dialogue.

When I began my journey with Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved as the sacred text for my doctoral project, I imagined that I would gather yoga students who  were disconnected from any religious tradition. I hoped to recreate Nouwen’s intended audience and provide a safe space to dialogue about the spiritual life. But what I discovered was another group of people that Dr. Duane Bidwell calls Spiritually Fluid. Spiritually fluid people identify with 2 or more different religious traditions because of being raised in a home with more than 1 religious tradition represented or by choice or by experience.

What makes this group unique is that because they do not identify with only one religious tradition, this group is rarely included or invited to share their experience of the Divine. I met with a friend of mine months before the project to talk to her about participating and she replied that she would love to participate because and these are her words “I was attempting to include people that are usually excluded from religious conversation.”

Today, we conclude our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. During this season of Lent, we have followed the words that Nouwen suggested is the journey of the Beloved. And as Disciples of Christ, we are very familiar with these words because hear them every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. Nouwen says that as the Beloved we are Taken, Blessed, Broken & Given. Today, we arrive at The Living Beloved and Nouwen asks us one final question, “If Fred is right in saying that the sacred has disappeared from our world, then where and how can we rediscover the sacred and give it the central place in our lives?” (145-146)

So let us return to our sacred text to see if it can give us any clue about how to rediscover the sacred….

The story goes that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that it was empty so she ran to tell the disciples. I love how it talks about how Peter and an unnamed disciple raced each other to the tomb and the unnamed disciple got there first. This unnamed disciple did not dare go into the tomb first so he waited for Peter who was apparently not as fast a runner! Peter went inside and saw the wrappings that should have been on Jesus’ body were lying there and the towel that would have been on Jesus’ face was rolled up and in a different spot. The unnamed disciple then entered the tomb and the scripture says, “He saw and believed.”

While this is going on Mary Magdalene had made her way back to the tomb and is outside weeping. The sacred text says she saw two angels and has a conversation with them. But the text seems to imply that she didn’t really see them. Then the narrator tells us that Jesus appears and asks Mary why she is weeping. It says that Mary sees Jesus, but she didn’t really see him because she thought he was a gardener. Then Jesus said her name in a way that must have been very familiar, and immediately her eyes were cleansed, the stone on the tomb of her heart was rolled away and she saw Jesus. As any human would do, she clings to Jesus, but he tells her not to hold on to him, but instead to go and tell his brothers. So Mary runs to tell the disciples that she has seen Jesus. 

1) In this story there is a lot of activity that heralds the coming of someone important. You read that Mary and the disciples run to the tomb, Mary goes back to tell the disciples, and back to the tomb to weep. Along with all of this activity, we read that Mary and the Disciples See Things.

What touched the hearts and minds of the participants in my project was that the form of dialogue we employed to discuss Nouwen’s book helped them feel seen and heard. They described be seen as feeling connected to each other as human beings who are both blessed & broken while also celebrating the uniqueness of each person.

Let me explain through this story….My yoga teacher once told me that she wished we could all just appreciate our connectedness as human beings without being concerned about our different religious traditions. In her words, I heard a longing to move away from our natural tendency to divide and exclude. Which is something I really appreciate. At the same time, I felt something lacking in her statement. Upon reflection, I realized that her statement embraced our similarities while discounting our differences. If I am only seen as a human being, then I am not fully seen as Amber. I am fully seen when a person embraces what makes me unique: my physical appearance, my interests, my dislikes, my politics, my health, and even my religious tradition as it influences how I live my life.

Nouwen says to us that we must see ourselves as God sees us which is to understand that God calls us The beloved as a general term of endearment given to all living beings and as a particular love language unique to the individual. When we let the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed everything we think, say and do then our eyes will be open to see that the risen Christ is with us.

And so we read in our sacred text today that the stranger who appeared to Mary turned out to be the Christ who the Gospel of John said was here at the beginning of Creation. Out of a Christ-soaked world, Jesus came, put on flesh, and dwelled among us. Jesus suffered and died on the cross and was raised to new life that he might reveal himself again in a Christ-soaked world.

Let us return to Nouwen’s question “If Fred is right that the Sacred has disappeared from our world Where and how can we rediscover the sacred?” It is the journey of becoming the Beloved and of daily saying yes to the one who first loved us…reveals that the sacred has not disappeared but is everywhere if you have eyes to see.

Richard Rohr Writes, “People of the Light will quite simply reveal a high level of seeing, both in depth and in breadth, which allows them to include more and more and exclude less and less.” (Universal Christ, 178)

2) In our sacred text, Mary hears a familiar voice and turns to see that it isn’t a gardener, but it is Jesus who is beside her. So she clings to Jesus, but he tells her that she must not. Instead he redirects her to go and tell the disciples what she has seen.

A very human Mary Magdalene clings to the shape and form of Jesus, but Jesus gently reminds her that she can’t cling to him being here on this earth like a scarce and rare commodity, but that now as the risen Christ there is an abundance of Christ to go around.

During a time of inner turmoil, Nouwen had the pleasure of meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In a conversation with her, he began pouring out all his problems and difficulties. When he had finished Mother Teresa looked at him and said, “Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord and never do anything which you know is wrong…you will be fine!” He said that her words were like a flash of lightening in his darkness. He realized that he had been clinging to the Jesus of his youth which had to die, so that a new awareness of God’s covenant that includes everyone could live!. It was only Then that he was able to see the greatness of God everywhere. (Spiritual Direction, pg 5, 20, 48) A friend of mine said the same thing that he had to leave the Jesus of religion/church in order to find the risen Jesus.

And don’t we see the resurrection story playing over and over again. I see it in my relationship with my spouse and our children. I know for me, Chad and my first 2 years of marriage was terrible. Looking back, I can see that pieces of me had to die so that something new…the oneness we now experience could live!  I can look back and see this story playing out when I was a new mom.  There were days that I wept in the middle of the kitchen floor while holding 2 crying babies because I felt totally lost, exhausted, and utterly useless…but I wiped my tears, looked into my children’s eyes and saw that as controlling/perfectionist parts of me were dying, I was a part of new life taking shape and form right in front of me!

See the resurrection narrative in Nouwen’s writing. Nouwen’s failure at touching the hearts and minds of Fred and his friends gave new life to the people in my project. Resurrection is suffering transformed.

The season of Lent asks us to take a hard look at the ways we are taken, blessed, broken, and given, but lent is not what defines a Christian community. For We are an Easter people. We can see the suffering of Mother Earth and the agony of human suffering and know that when something dies, it means something is being reborn. It doesn’t justify us doing nothing to prevent unjust suffering or aid in the healing of our planet…. For we are called to do that daily!

Living as the Beloved is to see God at work in our mess.  It is to have new ears to hear the Good news being spoken here and there and everywhere that the wind blows. It is for our minds to dwell on beauty and goodness and all the many expressions of love. It is to be crying like Mary and to still have a Alleluhia on our tongues.

Nouwen asked, “Where is the sacred?” My spiritually fluid friend said it best, “It is when I smell the coffee brewing in the morning and it is when I play with my dog.” The sacred isn’t gone…It has risen to new life and can be found everywhere if our eyes are cleansed and the stone on the tomb of our heart is rolled away.

Life of the Beloved: Given

This summer I attended a virtual conference called Womanist Dialogue #Say her Name: Preaching and teaching for Freedom hosted by Rev. Dr. Mitzi J Smith.

(Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith is a teacher, preacher, biblical scholar, author and founder/president of living in full empowerment. She is the first African American female to earn the PhD in New testament from Harvard. )  If someone asks

The Say Her Name campaign, is a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality. It was created by the combined efforts of the African American Policy Forum and the Center for intersectionality and policy studies in 2014. It is meant to include women in the national conversation about race and policing. While the killing of black men brought us names and stories, the killing of black women and their stories have not been heard –women such as Elenaor Bumpers, Martina Brown and Kayla Moore and many more.

In the womanist dialogue #SayHerName: preaching and teaching for freedom ,

I heard amazing women of color put flesh and bones around the big idea that Rev. Dr. Smith said, “We must read differently so that we can preach differently.” Dr. Teresa L Fry Brown a womanist scholar at Emory University spoke about how your name is the essence of your being and if your name is not said its like you don’t exist. This is true for how the women feel today and it is true for how we read our sacred text. She asked, “What about the unnamed women in the bible who were in the background who go unnoticed?”  She challenged us to #SayHerName in order to humanize the characters.

In our scripture today, the narrator says that wherever the gospel is told, her story will be told…she will be remembered. But let’s think for a moment…In the planning of Holy Week, do we tell her story? Do we say her name. Nope. We do palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. So today, we are going to #Say Her Name. Because as important as the Last Supper is, we must remember that there was a First Supper initiated by a woman.

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 who identified as a secular Jew and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to step away from writing to insiders in his Christian tradition and instead write a book for people who are outside of feeling that they belong to any particular religious tradition. Fred said, “If you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” (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.

Today, we arrive at the word Given. Nouwen writes, “Don’t you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don’t we sometimes say: “That was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time?” I think that our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Isn’t a baby at its mother’s breast one of the most moving signs of human love? Isn’t tasting the best word to express the experience of intimacy? As the beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.” (Pg 112)

Nouwen says that we are called to give ourselves in life and to give ourselves in death.

Let’s explore what it means to give ourselves in life.

The woman’s story in our sacred text today is a story about the gift of her life and her story comes to us in many forms throughout the gospels. In three out of the four stories, she is the woman who has no name. For our purposes today, we are going to #SayHerName so I will borrow the name that John gives her knowing full well that John’s gospel was written much later and the story set in a very different situation. John tells us her name is Mary. In Mary’s story, we receive very little information about her. If you read the four accounts closely, each account has a different message that the author was trying to tell and so details are changed and shifted. But in Matthew’s gospel, the one that we read today, Mary is a women with an alabaster jar who walks into a dinner at Simon the Leper’s house to anoint the head of Jesus. She does not state why and the disciples are angry at the amount of money she wasted. But Jesus scolds the disciples and says that Mary did a good thing to prepare him for burial.

So, let’s talk about this dinner party where food and wine were tasted, where those gathered saw each other and heard each other, where a laugh prompted the touch of a hand to the other’s shoulder in a gesture of good will. Dinner is a very intimate and sensory rich experience. And here comes Mary. Mary, a woman and an outsider, enters the door of the home of simon the leper. She is not invited and so she takes a risk to come to Jesus. Mary is courageous and she has planned this moment perfectly. She brought with her an alabaster jar of a very costly ointment that was fragrant in its smell. And she anoints Jesus’ head with oil.

Now, there are two words when the authors of the gospel wrote about the type of anointing she gave Jesus. In some of the texts it uses a word that refers to the anointing that means you are set aside for a special purpose…it is how kings were anointed.  In other accounts, a word is used that is in the practice of anointing the body for burial. But Maybe as we bring the texts together to get a much fuller picture of what is going on maybe she is bringing both of these ideas together. Maybe She is signaling who he is…an anointed one for special purpose and she knows where all of this is leading very soon….to his burial. In the first supper, all those who gathered were in denial. They had listened and dismissed what Jesus kept saying to them about where he was headed. But apparently not Mary. If Mary came to anoint him for burial, then she was the only one who took seriously Jesus’ prediction that he would be given in death. #SayHerName.

In Luke’s account, Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is not asking did you glance at her or do you know her.  He is asking, “Have you recognized that she is created in God’s image and so her actions have something for us to learn from?” But we know that the disciples did not see this woman, instead the gospels tell us that they were angry and dismissed her gift and judged her action.

Now, we can be really hard on the disciples about how they behaved… but Don’t we do this too…in more subtle ways?

I’ll just speak for me…When someone offers me hospitality or calls to ask if I need anything this week, I am quick to dismiss the gift that this person is offering which is the gift of their life. I do it automatically because I either don’t believe that they truly want to know what I need or I think well, they have more to do than I do so my need is not that bad.

When I do this I am devaluing this beautiful human life that is generously offering me a gift of themselves!

Or, I am quick to judge. I have been welcomed into homes and offered a lavish dinner and judged this is a waste of this person’ money because I know that the family struggles to pay their bills.  Or someone sees a way to beautify the sanctuary and offers a generous gift and I judge their offering because I see our transient population struggle with basic food, water and shelter.

But Jesus says to me as he says to the disciples, “Practice receiving gifts well so that you honor the gift of the human being that is in front of you…see them and accept the gift of their life.” And Jesus says, “it is not your right to judge” and then he quotes from Deuteronomy reminding us that it is a daily requirement that we open our hand to the poor and give to those in need while in this moment at this time…this is a one time…special gift…that must be honored because it is someone giving something precious of their life to another.

And more often the gift of our life has nothing to do with a monetary gift. I called up a member this week and she quickly asked me what I wanted and I shared that I was just calling to get to know her and spend time visiting. I thought at first that our conversation might be short and simple, but she opened up and invited me to meet her friends and invited me over to her home for lunch. She commented over and over again how much she appreciated my call. This small simple act of offering the gift of my life helped her feel more alive, animated, and curious about me!

Nouwen writes, “More surely than ever before, I know now that we are called to give our very lives to one another and that in so doing, we become a true community of love.”

Nouwen turns our attention to see that just as we are given in life..We are given in our death: He says, “Still as the Beloved, I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death as a final act of giving. The deaths of those whom we love and who love us open up the possibility of a new, more radical communion a new intimacy, a new belonging to each other. If love is indeed, stronger than death, then death has the potential to deepen and strengthen the bonds of love.”

Nouwen’s words remind me of our final resting pose at the end of every yoga class. The final resting pose is called Savasana or corpse pose. In savasana, you are lying down on your back with your arms by your sides palms facing up. In this shape, we close our eyes and we wait for the body to get really still. We notice that the breath gets smaller and more shallow. As we rest, the mind quiets. We stay like this for 3-5 min practicing for our final rest where we will take our last breath. In an article called the Savasana of Lent at artandtheology.org, the author writes that “the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.”

It is from this pose that we rise up off our mat to embrace the newness of life today! It’s a beautiful and powerful experience and creates a different relationship with death!

I don’t know if any of you have had an experience where you meet a loved one who has long passed in a dream or suddenly you smell something and you are reminded of this loved one or you say something and you know those words were spoken before by a loved one. Last year in a class at Claremont School of Theology, I was invited to expand my idea that my meditation practice was just about healing myself and helping me to be a good person. I was asked to create a display of my ancestors…some who have long since passed and others who are still living and to explore what it would be like to practice my meditation on their behalf as well…that my meditation practice was not only healing me but is healing generations of family members through my prayers.  I will say that I experienced a sense of connection that even in death they live on in me…in my very DNA.  I also recognized that death is no match for the power of love. If love is stronger than death then our relationships continue in a different way.

Jesus asks us to remember Mary long after her death and today we say her name proudly so that across time and space and through the bonds of love we invite a relationship with the one that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” The gift of her life and her death continues to bless all who #SayHerName. Let us prepare to come to the communion table.

Life of the Beloved: Broken

According to HAI Global (www.hai.org/connection-is-essential-to-survival), the more we understand about neurobiology and social psychology the more we understand that humans are wired to connect. The latest neuroscience out of UCLA tells us that the drive for connection is as essential to our wellbeing as our basic needs of food, water and shelter.

Back in 2016, the US Surgeon General warned that Americans are facing an epidemic of loneliness and now we have experienced a global pandemic that has us shelter in place and keep a distance from each other to protect and care for each other so that the virus does not spread…But we see teenagers suffering from depression & committing suicide, people who struggle with addictions slipping back into unhealthy patterns of behavior, a growing rate of reported domestic and intimate partner violence issues, and increased loneliness among the more vulnerable population.

This is not to discount the death toll in relation to the pandemic, but it is to look at the science that says that our need for community is as important as keeping our physical bodies safe.

Even if you were the healthiest human being or the healthiest faith community in all of human history in 2019, we all experienced a degree of brokenness in 2020.  If we did not recognize the many ways we are broken before 2020, we feel the weight of our brokenness today. The many wounds of our hearts need tending, need the support of community, and need for a people to bring a message of hope that healing is possible.

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 who identified as a secular Jew and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to step away from writing to people who are connected to a faith tradition and to instead write a book for people who are disconnected from any particular religious tradition. Fred was asking Henri to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exists in the world and to offer a message of hope to a people who no longer came to churches or synagogues. Fred said, “If you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” (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.

Two weeks ago, 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. Last week, Henri pointed out that our prayer practices and cultivating the gift of presence are two ways that we get in touch with our blessing so that we can be a blessing to others.

Today, we arrive at the word broken. The order of these words reminds me of the many youth summer camps I attended. There was always a night where the message raised the level of emotions high and mixed in with lack of good sleep, we were all crying and bonding over the many ways our hearts were wounded. I can look back and smile at that experience but in the moment it was the most intense religious experience of my life. Maybe you are like me and you were raised in a faith community that structured your youth experiences in that way and now you raise an eyebrow at the push for heightened emotions or maybe you did not. But something that is true about that experience is that humans bond over sharing our woundedness. Nouwen writes, “The way I am broken tells you something unique about me. The way you are broken tells me something unique about you. That is the reason for my feeling very priviledged when you freely share some of your deep pain with me, and that is why it is an expression of my trust in you when I disclose to you something of my vulnerable side.”

Back in 2016, I resigned my former position as associate pastor. This was the result of 2 years of struggle that took a toll on my emotional, mental, and physical well-being. You see, I had been waiting for 10 years to finally arrive at a place where my son’s intensive care and therapy were manageable and I could devote myself to my calling. Many women dream of having the gift of staying home and caring for their children, but this was not my dream. In fact, in the tiny town I grew up in I would tell boyfriends that if they expected me to be the little wife and stay home, then they better move along. My husband knew the price I paid for choosing the health of our son over my career.  It was a constant struggle and many tears were shed, but I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision. But even in making the right decision to care for my son, there are consequences. During those 10 years, we had embraced a new denomination that did not know me or any of the work that I had done before children. During the 10 years that I stayed at home, I felt disconnected from all the training that I had experienced in seminary. After 10 years, I was a different person and I wondered where I would fit.

So, this opportunity to work as an associate pastor represented all of my hopes and dreams that I had been waiting for over 10 years to see realized. And then just as quickly, it all came crashing down. The drive I used to pursue healing for my son was too much. My ability to think outside the box was considered hostile to the normal way things were done at the church. My care for the outsider was interpreted as a lack of care for members. And so I tried to change myself. I tried to fit a round peg in a square hole and it was painful. And the words that had been spoken over me my whole life came to fruition…you are too much. No one likes a saint. You’re too up in the clouds to be any earthly good.

It may sound silly that a job would devastate me, but this was the dream I had postponed and built up over the years. And a pastor’s job is not just a job…it is a calling from God and acknowledged through the church. I felt that my calling had been stolen from me by a diagnosis of autism. And yet, through my Doctorate of ministry, I would discover that the death of that dream, the brokenness that I experienced, and all of the tools I gained through loving my son…this is the vehicle by which I would bless others.

One of Nouwen’s favorite passages in scripture is John 12:24. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[1]  Nouwen understood this through an experience in his own life. In the 1990s, he felt a call to become the pastor at Le’Arche in Canada. Le’Arche is a community of people who have physical or neurological differences. In stepping into life as a pastor, he was given care over a community member named Adam. Nouwen’s one job was to care for Adam’s needs. But Adam did not speak and could not do many things for himself. So, Henri had to learn Adam’s unique rhythm so that he could notice the subtle communications that Adam would send about his needs.  During this time, Henri suffered greatly from a wounded heart. He had experienced a broken relationship and was devastated at the loss. He also did not realize how much it would affect him to step out of the limelight of speaking, writing, and teaching and into caring for the humble needs of Adam. He did not realize that his self-worth was wrapped up in receiving praise, book deals, and experiencing success at the university. The death of that part of Nouwen continues to bear fruit today. It is through his relationship with Adam that he began to understand the importance of mutual ministry which is a new way to think about pastoral ministry. So much of pastoral ministry is about what the minister can do for the people and what the minister can do to grow the church. Give give give until you burnout. But what Nouwen means by mutual ministry is that the pastor is to recognize that every person that walks through our doors or shows up online is sent to us as a gift from God! Each person gives us something to learn. Each person offers us something that will help us flourish. It is the meaning of the statement The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.…even in our brokenness. 

Nouwen suggests two ways to handle our brokenness. 

First, we have to befriend our brokenness.  What he means is that we must turn to face our suffering, talk to it, understand it is a part of us that needs attention, and nurture that part of ourselves back to good health.  In another book that is a complilation of his writings, Nouwen wrote “Ultimately mourning means facing what wounds us in the presence of the One who can heal.”  Xv  So we turn to and develop a relationship with our suffering while sensing a sacred presence that gives us hope for our healing journey.

Nouwen says that the temptation is to distract ourselves from facing our suffering or to push it down and belittle our pain. As I looked at bestselling books in 2020, I saw the human tendency to escape our pain. Romantic comedies increased in sales by 188%, lots of murder mystery novels made the list, and not surprising a couple of comfort food recipe books. But then, many people turned to face their suffering by reading books to help them more clearly see the racism that supports, undergirds, and benefits white people. They turned to books like The body keeps the score to understand trauma.  The pandemic forced many to look at the consequences of unhealthy behaviors/routines so books like Atomic Habits made the list. We also turned to poetry like Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur to give voice to our suffering..

The sections of poetry in Rupi’s book are about the experience of a broken heart. Rupi’s experience tells us something unique about her and it also speaks to the ways we are similar in our suffering as human beings…see if you can hear the cry of the human heart….listen.

“You tell me to quiet down because my opinions make me less beautiful but I was not made with a fire in my belly so I could be put out. I was not made with a lightness on my tongue so I could be easy to swallow. I was made heavy half blade and half silk difficult to forget and not easy for the mind to follow (30)…..I didn’t leave because I stopped loving you. I left because the longer I stayed the less I loved myself (95)…When you are broken and he has left you do not question whether you were enough. The problem was you were so enough that he was not able to carry it. (103)  Losing you was the becoming of myself (174)” Milk and Honey

In her words, it is easy to hear the cry of women. Listening deeper, you can hear the cry of people of color. Allowing the words to sink in, these words resonate with the suffering of the poor, the oppressed and the refugee.  This is the cry of the human heart that Fred hoped Nouwen would hear as he listened.

If we do not turn to and face the ways we are wounded, then the consequence will be that we will wound others intentionally or unintentionally. The way she ended that last line leads us to Nouwen’s final suggestion. Nouwen suggests that we “pull our brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.” (97)  Here is how I understand what he is saying. We all have stories that we tell ourselves about our lives and if you are not familiar with the story you tell yourself just ask a loved one because without being aware of it, your speech is filled with it. Some of us see the world as against us and so anything bad that happens we fit under that umbrella. For me, I was always told I was too much or too saintly so no one would want to marry me, or too direct in my speech so that no one wants to hear what I have to say.  So, when my time at my previous church came to an end, I put that under the umbrella of the curse.  I told myself, “well of course this did not work out because you are too much. Well of course people did not like your leadership style because you are too much.  Well of course…..” 

Instead, Nouwen invites us to pull our wounds out from that narrative that story that we tell ourselves and put it under our statement of blessing. So for me that would look like, “well now that I have experienced this pain, I want to create a safe space where people feel the freedom to share their experiences of the divine without judgement. Well now that I understand what it feels like to be rejected, I am able to see and hear other people. Now that I have experienced a pain that went deep, I am able to be more compassionate to the wounds in people’s hearts.  It’s not that God caused this to happen so that I can be a blessing.  It is that God uses everything in our lives, even the wounds, for the good of ourselves and for the good of the world.

The church that I left turned and faced their many wounds. My resignation was like an ambulance alarm that forced them to wake up to patterns of behavior that no longer served them. They sought out wise counsel from an expert outside of their congregation. And they had to let old patterns, old ways of doing things die. It was brutal. It was ugly and painful for everyone. But at the bottom of their pain, they suddenly felt a new calling to be an inclusive place for people. They felt a surge of energy to create a space that would welcome people who are different from them. And they are flourishing….

I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[2]


[1] John 12:24 (NRSV).

[2] John 12:24 (NRSV).

Life of the Beloved: Blessed

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

1 Peter 3:8-15 NRSV – Suffering for Doing Right – Finally, – Bible Gateway

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.

Life of the Beloved: Taken

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.

Our first word is taken. For some of us the word taken sounds negative, unsafe, like I have no choice in the matter and so Nouwen invites us to use the word chosen as a way to soften and warm up the concept. And yet, chosen might also bring up feelings of exclusion, competition, and comparison. If you are like me chosen reminds me of times when I have been singled out, lifted up, and raised high above others in a very competitive spirit. Also, it reminds me of times that I have not been chosen when I have felt that I was not enough, not special, not wanted in comparison with others.

Competition and comparison rob us of the opportunity to claim the truth that we are the beloved, chosen by God. And so Nouwen invites us to explore a third way a higher way of understanding the words taken/chosen.

For Nouwen, God choosing us means that we are each seen in our uniqueness. He writes that being taken is a compassionate choice where God intimately sees and is captivated by the unique beauty of every living being. A Student who studied this book with me at the University of Houston pointed out that to be chosen felt like someone sees your passion and chooses you. Another student added that chosen sounds purposeful like we are here for a reason.

A tale often told about Michelangelo forming a statue speaks to this idea of seeing each of us in our uniqueness in being and becoming the beloved.

There was once a sculptor who worked hard with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble. A little child who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right. He had no idea what was happening. But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later, he saw, to his surprise, a large, powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood. With great excitement, the boy ran to the sculptor and said, “Sir, tell, me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble.? The sculptor replied, “I knew there was a lion in the marble because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my own heart. The secret is that it was the lion in my heart that recognized the lion in the marble.” Nouwen’s book on Spiritual direction, pg 16-17

For me, this tale gets to the heart of the matter regarding being chosen.

It’s about trust. Trust is a huge challenge right now because the virus has broken our sense of trust that our world is a safe and wonderful place to live. It’s hard to trust that God has a purpose for our lives because we feel out of control right now. Our sense of trust in our leader’s ability to make the right choices for the best interest of everyone has been broken.  Our sense of trust with each other to see our differences and appreciate how our differences make our country stronger instead of act as a source of division. And let’s go even deeper…we are having a hard time trusting ourselves to make the most compassionate choice with the information we currently have.

I think Nouwen is speaking to us about this deeper sense of being able to trust ourselves. How do we build or regain a sense of trust?

First, the sculpter had to spend time tending to his internal world so that he could see the lion within himself. A way to begin to repair broken trust is to acknowledge the ways that we have broken trust with ourselves. In difficult situations, it is easy to run around looking to everyone else for advice or to read every book on the subject..I am a read every book on the subject type of person. But what we neglect is our source of inner wisdom or the way of the heart. Our faith tradition calls us to be knowledgeable, to seek wise counsel, and to trust in our God given ability to make the right choice with the information that we currently have. This reminds me that I am created in the image of God that I have the Divine DNA within me and that if I pay attention this can be a great source of wisdom and guidance. But it takes practice to build trust.

I began the process of building trust in my own life after my son Peyton was diagnosed with autism. I am a person who immediately addresses a crisis with action. So, I read all the research. I took him to a variety of doctors and I spoke with experts who helped children with autism live full lives. I also surrounded myself with moms of special needs children. These are all good things and yet God was teaching me something deeper. It wasn’t too long before I realized that I would need to trust my own intuition, my own inner wisdom to guide my son’s therapy. For example, a therapist told me early on that my son would never walk. I listened to her expert opinion and this did not feel right to me so I pushed for continued therapy with a plan for him to gain the strength he would need to walk.  Now he walks, runs, plays golf, baseball, and basketball.

A speech therapist assessed Peyton and said that we should stop teaching him to talk and instead teach him sign language. I listened to her realistic and wise counsel, but I felt a red flag when I heard these words. I agreed to teach him sign language as long as 50% of the time, we worked on speech. Now, he is articulate and talks endlessly about subjects that he has interest in like sports and Nascar. You can find him on Instagram giving running commentary on his favorite sports.

Time after time of listening to my inner wisdom and finding the strength to follow that guidance taught me that I could trust myself to help my son flourish. Now this does not mean that we made all the right choices or that we perfectly navigated the process. Nope! We went down many winding roads and made some quick U turns. I will say that I found it easier to learn to trust myself to care for another person and much harder to trust myself to care for myself, so there is always opportunity for growth!

Next, we offer gratitude. Our sacred text helps us trust that our world is a safe place to live and that God is actively involved in this world.

Philipians 4 talks about not worrying but instead rejoicing and offering gratitude for God is near and that when we operate in the world this way that the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds. What Paul is asking us to do is to look for the ways in which God is active in our world. It’s not that we are to turn away from the groans and pains of mother earth or that we stop seeing the suffering in each other’s eyes. What Paul knew is that it is much harder and it takes more practice to see where God is working in the world. And so we come to

the passage in Psalms today that we began with in our call to worship. It speaks about the intimacy of Creator God shaping and forming all living beings. It is such an expression of gratitude. Creator God, I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too – your reassuring presence, coming and going. Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight?  If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, you would find me in a minute—you are already there waiting.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. I thank you, High God – you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration – what a creation! 

This Psalm reminds me of The documentary my octopus Teacher. It is such a great example of how we repair trust with a sense of gratitude.

In this movie, 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 so He wondered if he came everyday would the octopus start to trust his presence there in the water. At first the octopus would hide and run away when he came near and 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 celebrated. He rejoiced that the object of his delight became curious about him as well.

Lastly, we remember. Nouwen invites us to be in communities and to surround ourselves with people that remind us of who we are…

And so we look to leaders in our faith tradition to remind us of who we are and who we are becoming. This week, our family watched the documentary on Bonhoeffer. My son and I read a book about his life last year and finally Chad and I found the film on Amazon prime that we had watched at our church in Maryland over 15 years ago.

Bonhoeffer was a minister during WW2 and one of the leaders of a resistance movement that included ministers who intuitively knew that Hitler was twisting words about God and that most of the church was either blind to Hitler’s intent or too scared to stand against him. One of the things that stuck out to me is Bonhoeffer’s reminder that Christian spirituality is not only about an individual relationship with Jesus but that “communities are the body of Christ in the world with Jesus as our head.” It was a great reminder that the church is called forward to be the visible representation of Christ’s body in this world.

Then, I am reminded of a man who shaped my life. Mr. Rogers was a minister who recognized the need to bring God’s message of love into every person’s home. His ministry captured a moment in history when TVs were becoming a feature in every home. The message he shared reminded me and all the children who watched him that our feelings matter. That our experience of life matters. That we can talk about our feelings and that he would listen. Through his words and actions, we are reminded that we are the Beloved.

And now we bring it closer to home…to hear words from this community of faith that remind us of who we are as a community at the heights Christian church. This week, I was talking with one of our members and I heard words like this church is “safe”.  It is a “Shelter.” We want to be a community with a purpose.  In our reopening committee meeting, I witnessed small acts of kindness that showed me that one of our values is that each person feel seen and heard. We are also an inclusive community that considers the needs of people outside our HCC community.

Another member offered such a hopeful statement that grounds us in trusting ourselves, trusting each other and trusting God for our future. This member said, “God guided us for 100 years and God will continue to guide us forward.” What a source of comfort and hope and a reminder that we are the beloved chosen for a purpose.

Becoming the Beloved

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.

Communion Meditation:

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.

From the Pew to the Mat & Back

Hello friends! It has been a while since I added to my blog. In 2020, I felt a lack of words to describe my experience so I held on tightly to my husband and children and spent a lot of time outside enjoying nature. Now, I am back and have a new position as Pastor of Heights Christian Church in Houston. Each week, I will share with you the thoughts on my mind and the insights of my heart as I have crafted words to share with my new community. Thanks for welcoming me back!

As we begin this season of Lent, I must confess that I have Lent Fatigue Syndrome. Let me explain. For me, it felt like all of 2020 was a long season of lent because I spent much of 2020 participating in all the experiences that we associate with the season of Lent: introspection, self-reflection, meditation, repentance, a lot of time connecting to nature, and many days spent alone and in silence. For an extrovert who loves people and activities, this was a challenging experience and in some ways I still am waiting for the community Easter Celebration!!

So, I am having trouble embracing this new Lenten season and maybe many of you are feeling what I am feeling.  I wonder if you could join me in staying curious today about what we can learn from this new season of Lent? I think that if we can lean in a little, we can approach leant 2021 with fresh eyes and ears. And at least we will be following in the challenge Jesus gave the first disciples. He consistently challenged them to see with new eyes and to hear the message in new ways!!

Let’s refresh ourselves about the meaning of lent. Lent comes from an Anglo Saxon word that speaks of spring and the lengthening of our days as more sunlight is becoming available during this season. It lasts for 40 days because 40 days is a special number in our sacred text including being the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Lent is a time of repentance & a preparation for the celebration of Easter Sunday. Two words we use in connection with repentance are pretty interesting to me. Christianity.com says that sinners seek cleansing from sin, but also freedom from shame.  Cleansing and freedom. Now, these two words sound like something I could celebrate this year!

This Sunday, our scripture begins by sharing with us the story of Jesus participating in the cleansing ritual of baptism. As he rose out of the water, he heard the words, “ You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” So the cleansing we experience at baptism acknowledges an internal experience or an internal cleansing that has already occurred where our heart sees things a new way and holds the truth that Jesus is the son of God. Baptism is also the outward sign that you join a community committed to following the way or the path of Jesus. You join a lineage, a long tradition, of people who came before you and people who will come after you who all are seeking to be faithful to the message of Jesus seeing it in new and creative ways that speaks to living life to the fullest in the present age.

A man who has been instrumental in my life over the past 3 years wrote a book to explore a new way to understand the spiritual life. Henri Nouwen’s book is called Life of the Beloved: Spiritual living in a secular world. In this book, he is writing to a friend named Fred about what it means to follow the path of Jesus in this day and time. When Henri first met Fred he thought he looked like a prisoner locked behind the bars of a society that was forcing him to work at something he did not believe in. Nouwen wrote that he felt a strong desire to set him free and help him see more clearly his values and desires. Nouwen outlines a path to follow and says to his friend, “So if you are interested in starting on the journey of the Beloved…In the pages that I now want to write for you, I would like to be your guide.” So, today as we are beginning a new friendship, I invite you to join me in exploring Nouwen’s themes during this new season of Lent. He will be our guide to the spiritual life, a conversation starter, and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry.

The first step that Nouwen offers is that we must embrace the idea that I am The Beloved. Say that once in your mind. I am the Beloved.  The words sound so simple, so elementary and yet they take a lifetime to fully embrace. They were spoken over Jesus at his baptism..the very beginning of his ministry.. and they continue to reverberate through time and space.

Nouwen offers us 3 ideas about this statement First, that this statement is an inner truth that is rooted in humility. Second, it grounds us so that we aren’t wandering around everywhere looking for external validation from someone or some great achievement, and thirdly that it protects us from self-rejection.

First, this statement is both a celebration of who you are and is protected by humility. Over the years, Christians have had the tendency to hear statements such as this in an exclusive or elitist way so I love that Nouwen invites us to see the humility of this statement. Today, the Psalmist reminds us that those who are humble will be taught God’s ways and that God will lead the humble in God’s truth.

Humility from Latin humilis is earthy. It acknowledges the reality that my life is short blip on the giant screen of human history. Richard Rohr in a recent podcast I was listening to was speaking about the 5 essential messages of intitiation. What he is talking about is that historically and cross culturally there have been special male initiation messages. These male initiation rites took place with Young men between ages of 13-17 to let them know there is a deeper, bigger world than his own ego, his own self desires, & even bigger than his own tribe or community. Rohr connects this initiation experience to our sacred text by reminding us of the story of Jesus going to the temple at the age of 13. Jesus was the age for his initiation ritual to begin, but instead Jesus shows the teachers that they have nothing to teach him. So after his baptism at the age of 30, when he goes into the wilderness he is self-initiating…it is a radical judgement on the temple in that what they offered no longer spoke to what is needed to experience the transformation of mind, body & spirit.

One of the 5 messages of initiation that Rohr discovered through his research is the statement It is true that I am unimportant. It is not all about me. There is something bigger than me and a world larger than me. and yet the bible says in Luke 10:20, “do you not know that your name is written in heaven?”  So this second message is holding the tension between how special it feels to hear the words, “I am the Beloved,” and yet how earthy the words are because it is the truth about every part of God’s creation from the beginning of time.

This message of humility is central in the writings of many of the Christian mystics. Hildegard of Bingen adds to this earthy tone by defining Humility as valuing others as equal to or better than yourself.

She writes “O Humility who lifts to the stars the oppressed and the crushed! O humility, glorious queen of the virtues! What a strong and victorious protector you are to all who are yours! No one falls who loves you with a pure heart.”

Hildegard outlined 7 steps of the spiritual path that begins with humility and progresses through ever deepening levels of humility until full and complete surrender to the will of God.  Humility is considered an essential virtue of the entire spiritual life because it is the beginning, the end, and also protects our spiritual walk. Bringing us back to our statement…We can say It is true that I am the Beloved in the same way that You are the Beloved in the same way that we are all the Beloved.

Second, I am the Beloved grounds us like the trunk of one of the big trees outside in the courtyard. So what do I mean by being grounded. We experience a feeling of being grounded when we stand up tall, feel our feet touching the earth, observe the strength of our legs, and recognize that our core muscles are holding us upright. Being grounded helps us feel the strength to no longer be wandering around Looking for validation or to feel blown here and there by every wind of acceptance or rejection that might come our way. It is our stability. It is what we come back to time and time again as a reminder of who we are.

I know I have a tendency to think that the next thing or the next achievement or when I become a pastor then I will feel accepted, loved and enough. Although it is very nice to feel valued, this statement I am the Beloved helps me see more clearly that no matter if I am complimented or cursed that I know who I am in every cell of my being. This way I don’t cling to praise or run around looking for it. And I also don’t take the slippery slide of following the path of rejection. It sets me free. Both praise and rejection are fleeting moments—they come and they go–but what is solid and strong and will never change is that I am the Beloved.

Third, Henri Nouwen says that it protects us from self-rejection. He writes that “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved. He says that self-rejection is the darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence and that it hides itself cleverly in arrogance or is more easily seen in low self-esteem (pg 33).

I am the Beloved protects us from self-rejection by cultivating the virtue of Kindness.

Kindness is a personal quality that enables an individual to be sensitive to the needs of others and to take personal action to endeavor to meet those needs. It is a quality of one’s being, not just a matter of a person’s behavior!  Christianityetc.org

In order to cultivate the virtue of kindness that is a quality of our being, we must be aware of the internal chatter of our minds. How is your self-talk?  Is it judging and shaming? Is it evaluating and punishing? Or is it tender & accepting. The type of kindness we are talking about here is one that you have to experience giving to yourself so that it is how you operate as a human being in this world. It is much harder to embrace the statement I am the Beloved if our internal dialogue says, “Yea, right!? Or If Nouwen knew me better he would not invite me to say this statement.

One of the many reasons that I was happy to interview and get to know The Heights CC is because of how the congregation described itself on the profile.

  1. When asked the question,

How does this congregation bear witness in tangible ways to God’s healing, welcoming, reconciling presence in a broken world?

The profile read,

Our clear and unconditional welcome to people regardless of their background and identity, our practice of naming injustices without reservation, and our willingness to admit what we don’t know and learn, are the ways we bear witness.

The written answer described the humility you embody and the virtue of kindness that is a part of your very being.

My greatest desire as your pastor is to help you find practices and ways to connect that invite this truth to be felt in every cell of your being. If we can be a people rooted in humility, grounded by our truth, and operate in the world with the virtue of Kindness that is a quality of our beings, then we will see the fruit of being The Beloved. And maybe this is as simple as Tim McGraw sings, “I know you’ve got mountains to climb but Always be humble and kind.”

I am the Beloved. You are the Beloved. We are the Beloved.

The Call of the Midwife Breathe. Listen. Push

Celebration Service at The Heights Christian Church

Valarie Koer is  a Sikh faith leader, a seasoned civil rights activist, the daughter of Sikh farmers, and a celebrated prophetic voice. In 2016 she was invited by William Barber II to speak at Metropolitan AME church, a historic black church in Washington D.C.  Here is what she said,

The future is dark. But what if —what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, “You are Brave?” What if this is our nations greatest transition?

The crowd erupted in cheers and shouts and cries of Hallelujah. And as Reverend Barber stood with his great bear hands outstretched over Valarie she cried, “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe! And Then? Push!

The past three weeks we have journeyed together to this very moment. We have learned the importance of the breath as a connection to the Divine. We have discovered that it takes paying attention, setting an intention, and being open to having our perceptions challenged to truly listen. Now that we have the breath. Now that we have tuned our ears to listen to the call of the midwife. Now, we must push!

There are two ways to look at our gospel text for this morning. First, we are challenged to be open to hearing the voice of the prophet—to show kindness and hospitality to the voice of those who God has called to share a message.  I hear Valerie Kaur’s words as the voice of a prophet. In our faith tradition all you have to do is read the section of our bible where the prophets share their stories to know that we have struggled to hear the voice of the prophet even when it comes packaged in a person of our own faith tradition. In more recent times, We have not heard the voice of the prophets crying out for justice for people of color. We have painted them as criminals, put them in jail or killed their prophetic voice. Sometimes we are not present in the moment enough to recognize a prophet until they have passed away. Let’s listen to the story of a modern day prophet:

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was a man awakening to a call. Rosa Parks had just defied the law by sitting in the section on a bus designated for white people. A One day boycott of the city lines was put together and King had been called to persuade his church to join, but he made it clear that he had more pressing matters. Later he was persuaded to become president of the movement. King’s strategy was moderation: he asked for the bus drivers to be courteous; he asked that blacks be seated from back to front and whites from front to back and that in Black Neighborhoods more black bus drivers be hired. The organizers of the boycott  were not happy with his call for moderate change.

In all this time, King thought this would resolve and he could get back to the plans of his church. But, A month later, feeling defeated in the boycott’s efforts to accomplish anything and acknowledging no end in sight, King voiced his self-doubt by offering his resignation as president. Then, he was pulled over by two police officers for driving 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile per hour zone.

During a very confusing arrest, King was put in the police car and driven to the Montgomery City Jail. It is in this jail that he began to awaken to his call. In this cell, a group of black men gathered around him and he spent the evening listening to their stories and in exchange he gave the men a vivid account of his afternoon. Several people asked if he could get them out of jail, to which he responded, “Before I can assist you, I have to get my own self out.”

Charles Marsh writes in his book title Beloved community that It was In the spirited company of these unlikely allies—movement people, vagrants and serious criminals he realized that even jail could be endured for the sake of doing what is right. King writes about the experience, “From that night on, my commitment to the struggle for freedom was stronger than ever before. Yes, the night of injustice was dark; But in the darkness I could see a radiant star of unity.”

The next evening, he hears the voice of Jesus calling him to stand up for righteousness. To stand up for justice. To stand up for truth. And that Jesus will be with him until the end of the world. Martin Luther King Jr. received his call.

And what was he pushing for…he was pushing for something called The beloved community. The idea of beloved community was first written about by the influential philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce says that the beloved community is a “perfectly lived unity of individual men joined in one divine chorus.”

What Josiah Royce defined as a unity of men, King supported with theological vitality, but not just from his Christian tradition. King said that Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method. Gandhi supplied the Christian doctrine of love with a strategy of social protest.

So, what is the beloved community. The beloved community is both the hope of the ministry of the church and it is a community that cannot be contained solely in the church. It is the kingdom of God coming to earth. It is any place where we find love for the divine, love for self, and love for others including our enemies. It is any place where this deep love extends out into the community in acts that work for justice. It is any place where love and justice create a community of people.

Marsh writes in his book entitled Beloved Community “Therefore as Christians build beloved communities in, through, and outside the church, they must remain humbled by the camaraderie of unbelievers and non-Christians, grateful for their passion, and inspired if not intrigued by their pilgrimages in service, even as Christians continue to proclaim exuberantly the story of Jesus as the source of their own compassion and mercy.”

Let’s hear from another prophetic voice not from our Christian tradition:

In my final class at Claremont School of Theology I wrote a critical review on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Together we are one: Honoring our diversity; Celebrating our connection. This book offers us a window into their community’s creation of retreats for people of color called Colors of Compassion.

More than 10 years ago, a group of practitioners had been meeting to discuss how their Sanghas could be more inclusive of people of color. Thcih Nhat Hanh agreed and pointed to his own skin. The community understood that Buddhism offered a way to acknowledge suffering as the ground for enlightenment, but realized that people of color retreats were new areas that would create new expressions and practices. In order to provide space for new expressions, The people of color retreats were shaped by listening circles, testimonies, dharma teachings, and mindfulness practices.

At the end of the book,

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that he met Martin Luther KingJr in June of 1966. They discussed how they could be a part of spreading ideas of truth and right thinking regarding peace, human rights, and social justice. Dr. King found common ground with Thich Nhat Hanh and talked about the Buddhist Sangha (Sangu) as a beloved community. Thay writes, “The Sangha (Sangu) is a source of inspiration and protection. Martin Luther King Jr built his Sangha in his own way, and I have built my Sangha in my own way, but we were both sowing the seeds of peace, nonviolence, human rights and togetherness.” (220)

Valerie Koer, Martin Luther King Jr and Thich Nhat Hanh are creating something new…within their different religious traditions, they are pushing for the Beloved community.

Today, What we need is something new, something we have never seen before, something that we create together that honors differences while celebrating our connection. The prophets in our sacred text called for something new when God’s people were suffering in exile. The people were tempted to look through rose colored glasses at their past and long for former times, but the prophets were saying PUSH! IN our reading this morning, Jeremiah declared that God was making a new covenant. God cries out through Isaiah saying, “see,  I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” God spoke through the prophet Exekiel saying, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Then Jesus joins the voices of the prophets when he is in conversation with nicodemus, He says, “you must be born again!”

The second way to look at Our gospel text this morning is to see that it is situated at the end of chapter 10. Chapter 10 reads like an ordination ceremony.  we see Jesus sending the disciples out knowing that in some places they will be treated with kindness and hospitality and in some places they will not. What if today we hear these words in a new way? What if we hear these words as our being sent into the world to discover God in the face of the other. What if we are being sent to set ourselves free from the suffering we have caused ourselves through exclusionary thinking and exclusionary practices. What if the only way forward is to recognize where love and justice is present and to join God in that movement? What if we as Disciples are being sent to follow in the ways of Jesus as healers of a fragmented world?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who wrote the book: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Religious people in the grip of strong emotions-fear, pain, anxiety, confusion, a sense of loss and humiliation-often dehumanize their opponents with devastating results. Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other…If only we were to listen closely to the voice of the other, we would find that beneath the skin we are brothers and sisters, members of the human family under the parenthood of God.” (Not in God’s Name, 25 ,160.)

Today, we listened to the voices of many prophets and it is time to PUSH! We are pushing forward through the darkness of the birth canal and we are uncertain of what it will look like on the other side. It is a painful time. It is bloody. And as all births are it is a time for celebration.. God is at work in the world inviting us to join in the creation of something new.  It is time to push forward out beyond the walls of our church, our traditions, and the ways that our thinking creates boundaries.  It is time to push forward by linking arms with people who were born with a  different skin color, who come from a different religious tradition,  or who embrace a different political ideology. It is time to PUSH into the hope of the Beloved Community.

Beyonce & Hagar: Listen

Full Celebration Service at The Heights Christian Church

I can’t tell you how elated I was to find that our lectionary text today is part of the Hagar Narrative. The story of Hagar is very dear to my heart. In fact, I devote 3 years and 100 pages to theologically ground my Doctor of Ministry project in Hagar’s story. I was drawn to the story because it is a story shared by 3 different religious traditions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this story and interpret the story in ways that are similar and in ways that are very different.

The Hagar story unfolds in two scenes. The first is in chapter 16 and today we read the second scene where we find Hagar and Ishmael in danger.

Hagar’s name means “The Other.” Let that sink in for a moment. “The Other.” Hagar is “the other” in the story because she is a woman in a man’s world-she doesn’t get to keep her heritage or her own religion because she is absorbed into the house of Abraham; she is baptized into the God of Abraham without her consent. She is a slave in the house of her master and so she does not get a say in what happens to her body; she is property and can be used for surrogacy. She is the other because she is Egyptian; she is not one of them; she does not know Abraham’s people or Abraham’s God. Hagar does not even have a voice until God speaks to her. Hagar is three times the Other. Are we seeing Hagar a little more clearly? Can we begin to hear her voice a little more clearly now in the story?

In chapter 16, we find Hagar running away from Abraham and Sarah because she was being treated harshly. God searches and finds Hagar, and asks her where have you come from and where are you going? This is the first time in the Hagar narrative that she is given a voice.  God listens to Hagar’s response and Hagar feels seen. This scene marks the beginning of her healing and transformation. She marks this moment by being the first and only person to name God. She names God El Roi, the god who sees. But she will have another challenge to face. God sends her back to Abraham and Sarah. This is a very confusing story because it seems that God is sending Hagar back into the hands of her oppressors. Delores Williams a womanist theologian points out that according to the law of the time, Hagar must be returned to Abraham to save her life and to secure her freedom. Otherwise she will be seen as a runaway slave. Abraham must set her free and God promises Hagar that her son will have this freedom. God doesn’t just give her a promise that puts her son’s freedom under the umbrella of the Patriarch Abraham, but God sees Hagar in her Otherness and offers hagar and Ishmael a promise similar to the promise of Isaac.

 Hagar returns to the house of Abraham where she is again low in status as a woman, as a slave, and as an Egyptian.  But she returns with the hope That the God who sees will fulfill the promise given to her and her son.

Now, in chapter 21, we find Abraham setting Hagar free. God first speaks to Abraham and assures Abraham that Ishmael will be a leader of a great people with God’s blessing which makes Hagar a Matriarch. Abraham gives her food and water and releases her from slavery. This is Hagar’s Exodus experience. I can almost hear the cry of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” But we don’t think of Hagar as our people do we? Have we ever taken the time to listen to Hagar’s story in such a way that we find ourselves in her story? We know the Exodus story of Israel being released from the hands of the Godless Egyptians as our story. But well before that story, we have an Egyptian woman experiencing her own Exodus from the hands of the oppressors who we have considered our people. Let that sink in a moment.

When we shift our gaze from the central story of those we consider one of us to listen to the character on the margins, we are given the most beautiful gift. We hear the Other naming the God of her experience as the God who sees and naming her son God hears. Brian McLaren says that this story reminds us that God sees and God hears The Other

Say, “I think Beyonce gives the invitation of our sacred text. She shares what we are to do and how we are to be for Others.Let’s Listen.” Listen for Hagar. Listen for the voice of The Other.

Play to 1:34 then stop.

God found Hagar in the wilderness, asked her a question, and then listened. This is the first time in the hagar narrative where Hagar has a voice. God is showing us how to show up for people; how to put into action the great value that God places on one particular life; We are learning How to listen. Leaders from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush are calling out for us to Listen. So let us understand what it means to truly listen.

1-Listen is paying attention

Just think how naturally we hear something, we turn our face towards the noise, and then we are invited to pay attention. The first two might be automatic, but paying attention is a choice.

Seth Horowitz who is an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University writes, “Hearing in short is easy. You and every other vertebrate have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. It’s your life line, your alarm system your way to escape danger and pass on your genes. But listening, really listening is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second—and pathways in your brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers.

Paying attention is the key to move beyond just hearing into listening. When we actively focus on what we are hearing our brain works like a set of noise suppressing headphones for those sounds that are not as immediately important. Then, we become able to attend to the words of the person and beyond the words to the cry of their heart. I think this is what I intuitively knew as a child. I’m sure my mom heard my endless chatter, but was she paying attention enough to listen.

2-Listening is also requires intention. For the past year, I facilitated listening groups. It began as my doctor of ministry project and then continued beyond that initial experience. When I gather with my listening groups, we make commitments to each other before every session. These commitments help us create a safe enough space for people to participate. The first commitment is to seeing each other’s inherent goodness. To say out loud that every person was created with a core of compassion and goodness. The second is to notice judgments when they arise; to notice our perceptions, to notice the stories we have created about a person; to no longer deny what is inside of us, but to offer it love and compassion, and then return to recognizing their inherent goodness. The third commitment is to listen to each other as though God speaks through and from within the other person. This shapes the quality of our listening. If I am listening as though God is speaking through you then I am open to changing my view or seeing a situation through a new lens.  My heart is open and receptive.

A conversation I had with a dear friend of mine gives us an example of how to listen. I was in a crisis having just resigned from a job that I thought was a dream job. I was feeling wounded. I was feeling that people where pushing me into a box where they could not see me or hear me. My friend knew a summary of my experience, but wanted to give me an opportunity to share my story. As we sat down at a table in a coffee shop, she took my hands, looked into my eyes and said, “I want you to know that I see you.” She turned her attention to me and she shared her intention which was to see me: to see me in my pain, to see me in my failure, to see my pain as love lost, to see my inherent goodness, to see God in me. As I shared my story, she listened with her whole body. As she reflected back to me what she heard, she was able to recognize how an experience that she had in her life had some similarities so that she could say, “I understand your pain.” Although our stories were very different, in our suffering there are similaries so that we could offer compassion to each other. This is a deep level of listening that honors differences while celebrating our connection.

3-Listening invites us to challenge our perceptions

There is a lot going on inside when we set our attention and intention to listen. And so we also have to recognize what is bubbling up…do we feel threatened when we listen, do we feel challenged, does the story we are hearing resonate with our own experience, do we feel overwhelmed when our listening gives us new information that changes the way we have viewed something for a long time.

Let’s think about Hagar’s story…

What story had you heard about Hagar before today? Was she the one who was a threat to the promise child Isaac? Was she the sin of Abraham because he did not have patience? Was she the slave who looked down on her mistress and deserved punishment? Or was her story just absorbed into what we call the Abraham and Sarah narrative? We say that our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but what about the Matriarch Hagar and what about her son, A leader of a great people blessed by God? For a long time, I had only heard her story through the dominant narrative of the chosen people.

In Galatians, Paul writes that those who continue circumcision are of the line of Hagar, slaves to the law. Those who no longer circumcise are of the line of Sarah, free and blessed by God.

Letty M. Russell writes that this is Hagar’s second rejection: first in her representing the non-chosen people in the Hebrew Bible and now in Hagar being linked to the Jewish people who were the chosen ones in the Hebrew bible, but are now considered outsiders by Paul.

We have failed to see Hagar even in our own sacred text, even in our own religious house. She is a Matriarch. Her son is the leader of a people who have God’s blessing. But today, we have done the work to listen to her story a little more clearly. To see past our perceptions or the narrative we the dominant chosen people have created about who she is.

If we did not listen to Hagar, we miss a very profound moment that has shaped three faith traditions: her experience of God seeing and hearing the outsider. In Hagar’s story, God models a way of being in the world that we are called to emulate. As people of faith, we are called to embody the gospel and that is what my friend offered me..she offered me her face, her eyes, her ears, her hands. I return to this memory over and over because this simple conversation in a coffee shop marked the beginning of my healing and transformation.

In these uncertain times, where it feels difficult to see the way forward…We follow what God is teaching us and we listen. We turn our face towards those on the margin and we choose to pay attention. And we just might find ourselves in a new story of healing and transformation.

Benediction

May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.

May God hear you and turn her face toward you and give you peace.

The Power of the Breath

Full Celebration Service at The Heights Christian Church

In the past three months, we have been reminded of the power of the breath. The novel coronavirus is experienced differently in each body, but in severe cases, it is an assault on the breath. Coughing, congestion, tightness in the chest, the body not receiving oxygen even when the breath isn’t labored, pictures of people on ventilators, the cry for more ventilators, and the tears shed as nurses and doctors witness countless final breaths.

Then, we heard the cry of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” We have seen the video of George’s final breath and witnessed the silence of those in power who heard Floyd’s cry and saw Floyd’s anguish. We have responded in outcry over the assault on his breath.

The collective trauma we have experienced from the fear of the coronavirus and from witnessing the murder of George Floyd has quite literally taken our breath away.

So, let us remember the power of the breath.

In the book of Genesis it says that God created humankind by giving them the breath of life. We live and move and have our being sustained by the breath of God. Jesus in John 20:22 appears to his disciples and breathes on them that they might receive the power of the holy spirit to animate their ministry.

Dr. Frank Rogers who is the codirector of the center for engaged compassion at Claremont School of theology writes, “For many spiritual traditions, breath is intimately connected with the sacred and sustaining life force of the universe. Chi in Taoism, Prana in Hinduism, Lung in Tibetan Buddhism—all refer both to our literal breath and, more profoundly, to the animating life energy of every living thing. In Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (Pneuma) and latin (spiritus), the words for breath are synonymous not only with the human spirit but also with the Divine Spirit. Catching our breath, then, deepens our connection with the sacred source of life, the vital spiritual energy that sustains and restores all living things.” (Practicing Compassion pg. 45)

Human beings naturally understand the power of the breath in everyday life. Just think about anytime we are overwhelmed or angry or filled with anxiety or deeply saddened what do people say to us, “let’s just stop and take a deep breath.” What we know is that the breath grounds us, helps us regain our footing. What we also intuitively know is that in order to take a deep breath, in order to reclaim our center, we must be still. Our scripture for today reminds us that when the earth is shaken and when the cities are in uproar that as people of faith we are to first, “Be Still and Know that I am God.”

What we already understand intuitively about the breath and what our faith teaches us about the breath, neuroscience helps us understand the power of the breath a little better.

In a healthy brain, a threat triggers the mid-brain and this sensory information is directed through the higher brain that decides on a plan of action in response to this threat. But there is another pathway that when the mid-brain senses threat it bypasses the higher brain and quickly activates the lower brain for an immediate response. We call this the fight or flight response. When this happens, the autonomic nervous system floods the body with hormones to speed up the heartrate and breath, to sweat, to send blood, energy and oxygen away from our organs and into our limbs helping us get ready to physically respond to the threat. In a healthy situation, we expend this excessive energy, and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to bring a sense of calm, to help slow the heartrate and breath, and to bring the blood, O2 and energy back to the core of the body. Now, the higher brain becomes accessible to help us reflect on what just happened. Fight or flight is balanced in the body with rest and recover.

Over the past three months, we have experienced a profound sense of trauma which leaves the brain operating in a different way.

“Trauma is defined as any event that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond. Trauma leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control.”  In the first few days of quaranteen, I felt a tightness in my heart and my breath was quick and shallow.  I could not read anything for comprehension. It felt like my brain was shut off. I also felt a surge of energy to clean the house, buy all the necessary groceries and cleaning supplies, jump into homeschooling my kids…I was an unstoppable force of activity. In talking with other moms, we experienced a similar surge of activity. But this quickly turned into not knowing what to do. I found myself walking around my house aimlessly. I was finishing my doctoral degree that I had been working on for 3 years, and I noticed my thoughts turning to “who cares anyways. What does this even matter.” One friend said she could not get out of bed or change her clothes or care about eating. This surge of activity quickly turned into feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  

Why? It’s because our brains experienced a threat but it wasn’t just a one-time situation that we could fight off and recover, it was months of on-going numbers of cases and deaths rising, it’s the news framing our experience in terms of war against an invisible enemy. Every time we see or hear these things we reexperience the trauma. Neuroscience tells us that once we have experienced a trauma that the brain is wired in a certain way so that anytime we experience something that is remotely similar, we respond as if the initial trauma were happening in the present moment. In this way, we wire our brains to by-pass the higher brain which allows us to step back and assess the situation and immediately we are overwhelmed by the autonomic nervous system for fight or flight.

Enter into this ongoing trauma, George Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe.”

Another response that the body has to trauma is freeze. I know that as the information was coming in about George Floyd’s murder, I felt frozen, paralyzed. I spent time in bed crying as I watched the video of his murder. I cried as I saw police hitting protestors with their batons and spraying protestors with tear gas. I held the covers up over my body only exposing my eyes as I witnessed traumatized people express deep wounds and a profound sense of loss.

Our faith now supported by neuroscience offers us a way to heal. Our faith now supported by neuroscience offers us a way to access our creativity for how to navigate a way where there seems to be no way. (Isaiah 43:19)

Be Still (The power of the Breath) and Know (gain wisdom & understanding).

The power of bringing our attention to our breath is that it activates the Parasympathetic nervous system shifting us away from fight or flight and into a sense of rest and recover. This is the bodies natural response to bring everything back to a sense of shalom, but we also have the power to activate a sense of recovery. Our Scripture says Be Still. That is where we find the power of the breath. When the brain is asked to focus on the breath, this singular job, quiets the chatter of the mind. When the mind is still, the body is flooded with hormones that say, “we are ready for rest and recovery.” When the body feels a sense of rest and recovery is sends messages back to the brain that I am at rest. This feedback loop from brain to body and body to brain allows us to rewire the brain from the traumatic event. Our Scripture says Be Still and Know. Yes, our beautiful bodies are designed for healing-and with neuroplasticity we know that we have the opportunity to heal the mind and heal the body from trauma.

The breath is a tool that connects me to the relationship between my mind, body and spirit and it is a gift that reminds me of my relationship with the Divine…to an awareness of the presence of God here and now. When I am sitting with my full attention on the inhale and exhale, I am fully connected to this present moment instead of ruminating on the past or anxiously planning for the future. The breath reminds me that God is with me now in this present moment providing all that I need. The breath reminds me of the miracle of life-that I am alive in this moment and that I have the opportunity to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven in this moment. The power of the breath heals and animates life.

Our faith tradition also illuminates our next steps. When we are grounded in the loving presence of God and have cared for our own suffering, we are able to see the suffering of other people through eyes of compassion and have access to the part of the brain that gives us the ability to discern how to act in a way that values life.  

It is recorded in Matthew 9 that Jesus went around healing and teaching. The scriptures say that Jesus saw the crowds through eyes of compassion recognizing that people were wandering around like sheep without a shepherd. Then, he turned to his disciples and he turns to us today saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

I have read many posts on social media where people were crying out for someone to stand up and lead us into a new future. I found this question resonated with the feeling I had of being like a sheep without a shepherd. As I took a breath and gained understanding around why this question spoke to me, I realized that I was looking for an inoculation for the pain I was feeling; I was looking for an easy pill to take to give me a sense of safety and peace. I was looking for the quick fix, someone else take charge, so that I don’t have to do the messy work of understanding my culpability in the systems that oppress people of color.

You know who is called to humbly lead the way? I am called to humbly lead the way. You know who will humbly lead the way? You will humbly lead the way. It won’t be perfect and you and I will do and say things that need correction, but in humility we will lead.

I participated in Part 1 of a series on Dismantling Racism with the Disciples of Christ. At the end of this session, Rev. Virzola Law sent us out with these words, “Show up and pay attention. Then, take that next right step.”

%d bloggers like this: