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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Swimming in the deep

So it is New Year’s Eve 2015. This blog is celebrating its very first birthday — yeah 🙂 What began as a spontaneous urge for the new and untried has turned into a unique and surprisingly fun and edifying playground. While my writing expectations didn’t dare exceed more than posting two entries per month, last count totalled over 46 entries in 52 weeks! I have been learning a lot — about myself, about publishing and sharing deep thoughts, about others.

Writing the blog has confirmed and strengthened a tendency I already had, i.e. I process emotions and strong experiences through writing. Many entries have their genesis in my journal, gestating quietly but surely in those safe and secluded pages. Other entries come from previously written articles and essays, reflections and homilies but now updated and adapted for blog publishing. Each one grows from the intimacy of personal experience into food for public sharing.

This transformation does not come without effort and discipline, however. The process by which the raw material is refined into universal gold requires many rewrites and critical wordsmithing. For one thing, some reflections involving experiences with other people require a respectful concealing of identities while maintaining the core dynamics of the message. Other reflections become much more digestible with ruthless trimming and streamlining, turning my own uncensored verbal diarrhea into a coherent and intelligible flow of thought ready to serve to the blog guests …

Hmm, not sure if this is an appropriate image … from diarrhea to serving guests! Can I find a more palatable image? How about: turning my own uncensored verbal avalanche into a carefully crafted ski-jump, both inviting and challenging my guests? From avalanche to ski-jump — have I just invented a new analogy? Maybe this is how wordsmithing works — see what I mean by fun? 🙂

A third factor that challenges writing for publication is the important question: how do those not sharing my religious worldview read this, and how can I make room for them? To be honest, I often struggle with not seeing the Christian woods through the religious trees. My language and expressions are steeped in Scripture and the faith of the Church. I am so used to wearing the Christian meaning-making lens that I don’t notice how that same lens can make my ramblings hard to access for those who use a different meaning-making lens.

I believe this question is crucial in today’s secular culture if we wish our witness to have any meaning for future generations. Henri Nouwen is my guide in this matter:

Much of my thinking and writing presupposed a familiarity with concepts and images that for many centuries had nourished the spiritual life of Christians and Jews, but for many people these concepts have lost their power to bring them in touch with their spiritual center. (Life of the Beloved, pg, 20)

Nouwen wrote his book “Life of the Beloved” for his dear friend Fred who was a secular Jew. One day, Fred, who was familiar with most of Nouwen’s books, challenged Henri to write a book he and his secular friends could resonate with. When Henri resisted, his friend insisted, “You have something to say, but you keep saying it to people who least need to hear it … What about us young, ambitious, secular men and women wondering what life is all about after all? Can you speak to us with the same conviction as you speak to those who share your tradition, your language and your vision?” (Life of the Beloved, pg. 21)

The past year presented a few challenges in this department. I was asked to offer some “words of reflection” at a civil wedding ceremony with the request not to make it “too religious.” I discovered that this was easier said than done for me. I employ biblical images and references without thinking. I thought I had trimmed down my God-language ruthlessly. But when I asked a friend, familiar with speaking into people’s secular realities, to read my draft text, her comment was unequivocal: too much God! So at her gentle yet clear suggestion, I performed more surgery on the text and it hurt. Yet, once delivered at the ceremony, I realized that the couple had truly heard my words, for they were words which found resonance in their life experience.

Another challenge to share outside my comfort zone pertains to cherished relationships and friendships with those whose lives are interpreted through different belief systems. This will be an ongoing quest in the new year — learning to write and speak with a new vocabulary without feeling that I am somehow untrue to my deepest convictions by doing so. Suggestions and insights from blog readers would be most welcome on this subject.

So I’ll own up to it: when it comes to meaning-making I’m definitely a Jesus-lovin’ deep-sea swimmer (when it comes to the real physical version, I prefer lane swimming in the pool (slow but steady) followed by the hot tub!). Day-to-day living makes me rub shoulders with many people, some of whom may never consider swimming in the deep end of meaning-making waters. Others may swim deep in different spiritual waters than I do; still others prefer to safely stay in that part of  the pool where they can still comfortably stand. All this can make deep-sea swimming a crazy and lonely quest, so I’m doubly grateful for those who take the time to read my musings.

Reactions from readers always leave me in awe and wonder about the miracle that turns one individual’s fumbling meaning-making attempts into something that has a universal resonance. Only a few readers post comments for public sharing, but more share privately. I’m deeply grateful for every reader — you help me realize that I’m not the only crazy one that swims deep into the meaning-making oceans of life, with Jesus as my compass and guide. While swimming in the deep layers of life is a solitary activity, and necessarily so, it also needs a community of other swimmers to belong to, to be corrected and enriched by, to be encouraged and  affirmed by.

??????????????????????????????????????????????So, dear readers, wherever you are on this beautiful planet (and for some of you it is already 2016~), it’s time to post this last piece in 2015 before I settle into the evening with my dear husband to watch movies. Let’s raise the glass to another year diving into the deep together — it promises to be an exciting one! HAPPY NEW YEAR 🙂

Prairie Encounters

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