Our final readings come from the New Testament. I’ve often heard other believers say that the best way to read the collection of writings, largely letters, which makes up the Christian New Testament is as a letter: a love letter from God to you and me. A letter calling us to know and live as ones who are loved unswervingly and unconditionally.
Following our theme earlier this week, I think this description of the New Testament makes excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s The Life of the Beloved most apropos. Nouwen was a celibate Catholic priest who was also a gay man who longed for romantic love that was forbidden to him by Catholic teaching. He was also a child of the church who struggled with depression and self-image issues his whole life long. As such, Nouwen knew firsthand how easy it is to buy into the world’s message to you and me that we are unlovable. He beautifully summarizes the New Testament message that you and I are, in Christ, beloved children of God:
“Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: ‘May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.’ But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run…
First of all, you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting belief.
When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.
To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this.”
As you crack open your Bibles and read these words of the New Testament with me, please remember Nouwen’s suggestion that they are intended as a reminder to you and me that we are God’s beloved. Listen for those words, and the picture they paint for you of what a life as the beloved would look like. May that sense of being fully and completely loved transform you more each day.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Our Week in the New Testament:
Agrippa’s words in Acts 26:24-27:8 about Paul that “he might have been free now if he had not appealed to Caesar” is a reminder: God’s path is not always the most straightforward and efficient journey. Paul’s long winding journey to trial in Rome enables Paul to change the world more than a straightforward path would have. It’s not his destination but the lives changed along the way that make the real difference. A more straightforward path wouldn’t have made the same impact. I’m surely no Paul but this example encourages me. Trying to follow Christ’s lead has not been as straightforward a journey as I thought it would be when I began. Many a night I’ve thought to myself, “if only my ministry had been more conventional, life would’ve been easier for me“. Paul’s experience speaks to me. Clearly some of the winding nature of my journey are choices I’d make differently if I could live my life over, but could it be…could it be that sometimes God intends a more winding journey for you and me so certain people will come across our path who wouldn’t otherwise — people who bless us and we bless in life changing ways?
What stands out to me in Acts 27:9-26 was how God prepared Paul for what was ahead of him through an inner sense that obstacles lay ahead him in his voyage, as well as a sense from God that despite the obstacles God would get Paul to his destination. I have had so many times that as I prayed I was given an unflinching certainty like this, a feeling which proved true and alternately either buoyed me through hard times, guided my steps, or helped me prepare for obstacles or distractions. Yet I also have experienced how my own deeply human fears, anxieties, hopes, and insecurities can mask themselves in ways that, if I’m not real discerning, I can mistake for the Holy Spirit. How have you sensed this guidance of the Spirit? What helps you differentiate between your own fear or hope and the Spirit’s call?
What stood out to me are the words “then he broke the bread” in Acts 27:27ff. Though literally this describes a meal at sea, to early Christians this would automatically have become an allusion to communion. It is, after all, the exact wording used in Christian worship to begin that sacred rite. For these early Christians that Lord’s Supper would be the meal that nourishes and brings a place of safety in life’s turbulent storms. Our worship is hollower I think for making this sacred meal an occasional thing, as if we don’t always need that strength it pictures to buoy us through life’s storms. Yet this story’s allusion to communion also challenges how we turn the Lord’s Supper into a rigid ceremony. This story describes worship on a boat, in a storm. It is an open air communion with such an open table that the most hardened heathens and pagans are welcomed by Paul to taste and see the Lord in the bread without any repentance, baptism, or confession of sins beforehand. You don’t need a sanctuary or organ to worship, apparently. It can happen on a boat, in a hospital room, in jail or on courthouse steps. It can happen anywhere. Folks don’t have to have their life figured out, the right prayers having been prayed, or even have figured out what faith they are. They just have to come hungry, ready for something real. And for me some of the richest times of worship are outside of the four walled buildings amidst the storm of this world.
I’m amazed at how the same people accuse Paul of being a murderer and then try to worship him as a god later on in Acts 28:1-16. It reminds me of the fact that people can be fickle. If you are going to let other peoples‘ opinions of you determine who you’ll be or what you’ll do, you ain’t gonna too get far. You need to know who you truly are, whom God is calling you to be, and live out of that. Some close to you will not understand. Others will sing your praises. Remember ultimately it is to neither of those groups you answer. It is to the One who poured out their own life for you and into you.
Acts 28:17ff. We see Paul waiting for trial, yet its not a passive thing. His waiting is a time of continuing to reach out. This reminds me in a time of my own waiting that waiting need not be just sitting on my hands. Transition times can be times of deeper growth and service
Matthew 25:1-13 calls me to recognize that in times of waiting, impatience can lead me to places where I‘ll make choices that keep me from seeing God’s best when it comes. That is, if I let it. How have you found ways in your waiting to be patient and opening, while still seeking to discern if this is truly God’s will?
Growing up we attended for some time a church whose pastors seemed to think frightening folk with how angry God would be if they failed, and how awful that soon coming judgment would be, would make them act like better people. In Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 Jesus seems to suggest the opposite. The ones who see their master as good, generous, gracious, and understanding are the ones who take the risks necessary to multiply their talents. The one who fears his master’s anger and judgment is the one who does nothing but keep things status quo. He’s paralyzed by his fears, not inspired to do great things. I think a lesson we can learn is not
only is such throwing fear of God into people’s face wrong because its a wrong picture of God, it’s also wrong because it’s a kind of emotional abuse. Abused people are in survival mode and are going to be too busy fighting to feel safe to risk anything to better themselves and others by and large, until they find some space in their life to get out from under the abuse. But love, grace, and generosity not only are a more accurate picture of God but both inspires people to risk to better themselves, others, and our works and itself gives an image of God under which people facing abuse might find a little freedom to not just survive but find some healing and pathways toward thriving. Lets dispose of fear tactics as a way to push change. It’s not holy. It’s abuse. And it ain’t effective anyway, just as Jesus demonstrates. Love, not fear, is what sets the caged heart free to soar to its God-given greatness.
After interviewing Hugh Hollowell for Progressive Redneck Preacher about hobophobia and seeing the wonderful play on the plight of the homeless (“Dead End Road”), I was struck to see my devotional talk about St Basil the Great, a Russian saint who chose homelessness as a way of being a prophet to speak up for the poor. There is a long history of holy homeless saints like St Francis and Clare. In many ways the apostles were in this tradition when they stayed home to home while on evangelistic journeys. Even Jesus said he went through periods with no place to lay his head. That most of us, myself included, would probably balk at the idea of a homeless life as for some a sacred calling, this tradition of our faith suggests that instead of fear and mistrust of the poor amongst us, we need to expect that they, like these homeless saints, are bearers of God. And if we listen to Jesus in Matthew 25, we will realize this should not surprise us like it does. It’s what our Savior promised us.