Becoming God’s Beloved

“When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. … Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved. Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

These words from Henri Nouwen circle my heart every time I walk with someone who is struggling to break free from the yoke of self-rejection. The hard knocks of life have a way of infiltrating our core identity in destructive ways. I see it too often in my ministry. Each time I encounter it in a sister or brother I find myself reflecting on my own path with this insidious, hissing voice of Satan, lying in wait for our death-dealing allegiance.

For a quarter of a century, I lived with a deep call to priestly ministry in a church institution that blatantly denied that possibility, still today. Living an ontological reality out of sync with what the church considered “revealed truth” made me run the gamut of responses: from denial of and flight from the call, to feeling the strong pull of self-rejection, depression and anger, feeling victimized by the church’s prohibition, to finally letting the priestly charism/call form my personhood in Christ alone and grow my ministerial journey even without the Church’s formal blessing.

We are always passionate about the challenges that affect our own lives most directly. But we each engage challenges in different ways. While I readily acknowledge the need and importance of working for justice both in and outside the church, I never joined the ranks of lobbying Rome to ordain women. My call was more in living deeply and fully, fruitfully and faithfully the ecclesial and spiritual tensions which God’s priestly call created in my mind, heart and spirit. Thus I opted for the spiritual route, pleading with God to help me stay clear of the traps of victimization and excessive anger or depression.

This route, it now turns out, was the best choice. For many years I lived my priestly call intentionally and fruitfully in a non-ordained capacity inside Roman Catholic structural constraints. I learnt to unmask and courageously mock the cunning voice of self-rejection. In turn the spiritual practices produced unimaginable fruits which I continue to reap in abundance today, now as an ordained Anglican priest, with an abiding affection for my ecclesial family of origin intact.

However, dodging the outside voices of rejection was no small matter, and the dodging never ends. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the father of spiritual direction, reminds us that the better we get at dodging, the more subtle the deceiving voices become to trap us. Fortunately I had a secure and loving childhood to draw from; a sheer luck of the draw I think. I found solid spiritual mentors on the journey, and my husband believed in me. These elements turned out to be vital in honing the necessary spiritual disciplines. The hard lessons from the refiner’s fire of life have deeply shaped my mental maps and the ways I engage challenging realities today.

The way we navigate our inner path with God has a direct effect on the outer path we tread in the world. In other words, not grounding our identity solidly in God’s love through Jesus (the only safe ground) will make us exact from the world (even from the church) an affirmation and recognition which cannot be delivered by fallible and imperfect human beings. Without a courageous claiming of our identity as God’s beloved we become easy prey for self-rejection.

I’d like to think that those who disagree with us are not always unjust and unenlightened. Each of us is the product of multiple experiences, encounters and belief systems. Each of us also carries unhealed wounds and emotional baggage. Not to make space for this woundedness and diversity with respect and gentleness, to dismiss opponents as merely narrow-minded conversation stoppers, to turn them into problems or obstructions of justice, could run the risk of a new type of fundamentalism or doctrinal orthodoxy that disregards another’s history, freedom and conscience, resulting in a free pass for intolerance.

Frances Lee addressed this very phenomenon a couple of years ago on CBC Radio, calling some activist circles breeding grounds for a culture of victimhood. Lee’s essay sparked a public conversation about what social movements lose when valuing being right over being kind. Lee wrote: As an intersectional activist who is concerned about the future of our movements, I’m really worried that social justice activism in the West is stuck in a dangerous state of disrepair. Ideological purity has become the norm. Social justice movements, which were originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structures, have become imbued with their own narrow framework of morality.

The spiritual challenge is always and only to “love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us” (Luke 6:27) and let God do the rest: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (Romans 12:20). That is why the spirituality of reconciliation is so compelling, and can guide and sustain all relationships in God’s household. That is why the things that damage bonds of affection can feel more painful than holding onto rigid positions at the expense of those bonds. God is clearly not finished with any of us yet.

It’s hard work to keep the ears of our hearts open when listening to different perspectives. I still cave in at times. But I am also trying to apply the above lessons to other difficult situations now. Henri Nouwen is right: being God’s beloved and living from that center truly does set us free to live in joy and peace and communion with all despite disagreement and difference. Such freedom gives no power whatsoever to opponents to define or hurt us, personal or ecclesial. This freedom is truly out of this world, and even out of this church.

Prairie Encounters

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Tucked in Our Hearts

There are two things we all have in common: we are born and we die. In between these two non-negotiables lie a number of years, or sometimes only months, weeks, days, hours. But if we get lucky and we get eight or more decades, like Doris did, we have to make something of this life, something that gives meaning and purpose, something that helps us to grow in love, in joy, and in fulfillment. That’s no small task, especially when life begins in a ditch, as Doris’ did. When circumstances and hardships conspire to knock us down, to crush our spirit, and to rob us of all chance of succeeding, how in the world do we grow a moral compass, and a free spirit?

I did not know Doris directly. But when meeting with her children and loved ones, I learnt a lot about Doris, and I got drawn into her life and her inspiring example. What we shared about Doris around that table guided the choices of the Scripture readings for today. If anyone had rough beginnings on this earth, it was certainly Doris. Her son William shared about some of those many rough spots. And we all know that too many knocks in life can turn us into a very angry or bitter, violent or depressed person, making life miserable for ourselves and everyone around us. And we would feel completely justified in doing so.

But what is remarkable about Doris is … becoming a victim of life’s hardships is not the road she chose. From childhood on, Doris chose another way. There was something in Doris’ spirit that refused to be a victim of circumstance, something in her spirit that stubbornly stared down any attempt to destroy her fierce and boundless spirit. What is remarkable about Doris is that somehow, somewhere, despite all the obstacles and setbacks in life, Doris tapped into a moral compass deep inside herself. It was almost as if God knew life might get tough for Doris, so he made sure to equip her properly. The unshakable gift of God’s belonging and love was tucked safely in Doris’ heart as she took her first breaths in that ditch, together with her twin sister Rose, the one whose life lasted only some minutes.

When I first heard about Doris’ humble beginnings in that ditch, I immediately thought of one whose humble beginnings we just celebrated at Christmas time – Jesus himself. When I learnt about Doris’ generous heart towards friend and foe alike, Jesus’ words sprung to mind: do not judge, so that you may not be judged, for the measure you give will be the measure you get. When I heard about Doris’ tenacity and courage, Jesus’ words sprung to mind: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. When I heard about Doris’ staunch refusal to seek revenge on those who hurt her, once again Jesus’ words sprung to mind:love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. And on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. In all these things, Jesus Christ has shown us the way, and by some miracle Doris followed that way, allowing Jesus’ example to shape her character, even without attending church and without consciously knowing it.

Without anyone telling or teaching her, Doris grew a moral compass strong as steel and stubborn as deep prairie roots surviving in a hot, dry summer. She was committed to living the highest calling: to love and to forgive no matter what, and to help others to do the same. Oh of course, she failed and messed up, many times. Don’t we all? And of course she wasn’t perfect, and had her failings. But she never allowed those failings, weaknesses and shortcomings to define her as a person or to stop her zest for living. However hard it was, her spirit was determined to rise above all the negative and destructive forces tugging on her heart. Doris yearned to love better and deeper and bigger. And it is this yearning, this desire of Doris, this capacity to love, that makes her right with God, and right with all who knew her.

If ever we thought that humble beginnings determine a not-good-for-anything life, think again. What good can come from being born in a ditch or a stable? Our beginnings do not determine the outcome, quite the contrary. We can choose life and joy and goodness and love no matter who we are, where we come from, or what blows life delivers to our mind, body and spirit. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s never too late to turn from being a victim of hardships to being a lover of life,  living in freedom, in mercy and in joy. The choice is ours; Doris showed us that by her steel courage, her generous and joyful disposition in all things, and in her unwavering respect for family, friend and foe alike.

God is love, and all who live in love live in God. All the love we share with each other, comes from God and returns to God. At the end of each of our lives, everything will fall away but one thing: how have we loved? The love given and received is the only thing that we get to take with us in death, the only thing that matters in heaven. The love we have shared on earth is also the most precious gift we can leave behind with our loved ones.

And so I have no doubt that Doris is now with God. I have no doubt that Doris’ soul, like the Psalm’s words express, is now resting in that same God who tucked divine gifts in her heart on the day of her birth in that ditch over 86 years ago. Those divine gifts Doris used well in her lifetime. God tucks these gifts in each of our hearts, as guides and tools and blessings, and as sources of love and consolation when we need them. Having used these divine gifts well is now securing Doris’ salvation, her peace and her joy.

For Doris leaned on God as her rock and her stronghold. In God Doris found her safety and her honour, and no one or nothing ever took that away from her. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians which we heard today, Doris’ outer nature has indeed wasted away, and her earthly tent is no longer. But what she enjoys now is so much better: God’s presence face to face forever in heaven.

Doris’ example leaves us all with a challenge: how will we use the gifts God has tucked into our hearts at birth? What will we choose: living life as a victim of circumstance, letting the pain of life define who we are, or rising above the knocks and hardships and come out a better person? How will we love and forgive and help others to do the same in the years we are given on this earth between our birth and our death? As for Doris: she showed us all that it can be done. Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done, Doris, reckless lover of life. Until we meet again, rest in peace and in God’s glory. AMEN

This homily was preached at a funeral (names are changed) in the Christmas season with the following Scriptures: Psalm 62, 2 Corinthians 4:14-18, 5:1, Matthew 5:43—47, 7:1—2, 7—10, 12