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.