I continue to reflect on the fleshing out of the name God gives Moses in Exodus, Yahweh or “I am Who I Am”, “One Who Is”, “One who Lives”, which we have in Psalm 103. Today I turn to the following phrase,
“1 Bless the Living One, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless Their holy name.
2 Bless the Living One, O my soul,
“…who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…”
The image here is very profound: that One of the key ways we experience the presence of the God who both is and lives, the God who is our source of being and livingness, is seen clearly in our experience of being crowned with steadfast love and mercy.
The image of crowning brings to mind times crowns are placed on people’s heads. If we’ve been to a beauty pageant, we’ve seen a crown placed on the heads of the winner. Similarly, in Greek games, the winner would have a crown of leaves placed on their head as a sign they are winning.
In the Eastern Orthodox church tradition, often the bride and groom crown each other as a part of the wedding ceremony, recognizing and honoring each partner’s inherent worth as well as the importance with which they will hold each other close in their relationship.
This image of love that lasts, unshakable in its commitment, together with mercy being crowned upon our heads is a powerful poetic picture of how the experience of being loved, valued, and embraced by another for who we are is a gift, an outflowing of the presence of the God who is the source of life itself.
More and more, psychologists and neuroscientists are finding that our experience of being properly loved are central to our full flowering as human beings.
In her book the Intimacy Factor, author Pia Melody writes about our shared experience being damaged by love that is not steadfast and that does not balance boundaries and mercy, as well as the journey from this experience to recovery. She writes,
“an abiding sense of joy accompanies emotional well-being, and … this joy is our natural inheritance. I believe that this joyful sense of rightness can be regained, that we can be reborn. As adults, we can experience this rebirth, and this recovery of our inherent worth can be learned in an orderly and rational way.
“In her classic book The Drama of the Gifted Child, psychologist Alice Miller writes that when she used the word ‘gifted’ in her title, she ‘had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. [She] simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb … Without this ‘gift’, offered us by nature, we would not have survived.’
“If no parent is perfect, neither is any child: to emerge healthy from childhood is an act of recovery – not only from Alice Miller’s ‘numbness’ – but from keenly felt inadequacy and pain. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but we recover our innocence through reeducation: we regain knowledge of our inherent worth; we learn to accommodate to our perfect imperfection.
“The remembrance of our perfectly imperfect humanity is the bedrock on which the spirituality of recovery rests. Human beings have their limitations, but those limitations are not faults; they simply are a part of the given truth about humans. If we learn to despise ourselves for being limited humans, we lose contact with the prime spiritual truth of our reality: that we are not perfect and that it is all right.
“There is an authentic self. We are born with it. Under the influence of immature parenting, we lose contact with it. As children warped into shape by immature parenting, we get shamed about who we are. That shame gets bound to our experience of self. When we are ‘ourselves’, we will have a shame attack, and in that attack we feel worthless. Spontaneity is frightening for us; it triggers shame attacks, bringing us back to our feeling of worthlessness. We wall in and shut down. Over the years, we become cautious in what we say and do. We lose contact with our authentic self. Rediscovery of the authentic self is what recovery is all about.”
Melody’s description of our early experience of inconsistent love and mercy being the source of why many of us struggle to live life as our deepest and truest selves fits well the findings of psychologists and researchers who explore the role attachment in our relationships play in our emotional well-being. What they find is that our experiences early on in our most primary relationships, particularly with our mothers, shape our ability to trust, to be creative, to be curious, to show courage both in small daily interactions and relationships, and also in facing life’s crises.
In his books Wired for Love and Wired for Dating, Stan Tatkin explores findings of research in to human attachment patterns and neuroscience to explore the power of life-giving romantic relationships.
In Wired for Dating, Tatkin explores in detail some of how this works out in romantic relationships. Writing about what he calls the “myth” that “you have to learn to take care of yourself before you can” find love and that “you have love yourself before you can love someone else”, he says:
“If this were true, a baby would have to love itself before it was able to love its mother. But that’s not what happens: a baby learns to love by being loved. For a baby, there is no loving without being loved, or vice versa. The two work in tandem, inseparable. In fact, the baby experiences being loved and loving before it has any concept of what love is. Moreover, self-love becomes meaningful only after a child experiences a sense of separate self. That typically occurs after a child’s first birthday … Suffice it to say that, in our earliest stages of development, love is like a vast oceans whose waves do not distinguish between self and other.
“The myth of self-love being primary implies that, as an adult, you should stop right now, go somewhere, and learn to love yourself before you embark on the … journey [of love] … It supposes you can generate self-love by taking a class, reading a book, or meditating in a cave. But you can’t. You can learn to love by engaging with another, period. It can’t be done alone.
“Some people turn to this myth because they feel they cease to exist as a whole person while in a relationship, or even while dating. This feels so threatening that they decide the only solution is to opt out, at least for now, and avoid the risk until they have become strong, self-loving, and ready. . . the opposite is true – that if you were hurt in a relationship, the only a relationship can heal you. Couple therapist Harville Hendrix … puts it more explicitly: ‘ In order to heal the wounds of the past, you need to receive love from a person whom your unconscious has merged with your childhood caregivers.’ …”
In his book, Tatkin suggests ways in which our experience of relationship both reveals and helps heal, when engaged mindfully, the damages of our early experiences of relationships which do not crown us with steadfast love and mercy.
I do not personally think that romance alone, the focus of Tatkin’s work, is the only kind of relationship other than parent-child that can help us discover our work, restore our sense of being lovable and worthy in our perfect imperfection, although Tatkin makes a strong case for why this for many is the primary relationship which makes this possible.
In my own life, I found other relationships to be key places in which the steadfast love and mercy of God was revealed to me in healing ways.
Just after the death of my late wife, I felt the bottom drop out from underneath me. Growing up I had an unsteady experience of love and mercy from many sources which led me to feel certain that those who say they are in my corner will quickly drop me, turn from me, and leave me abandoned. Later in life, when I began to move away from conservative Christian circles when as a pastor I chose to embrace an approach to ministry that embraces queer people as equally acceptable to God, I experienced mentors, friends, and others in my faith community who had promised to stand by me come what may dropping me like so much damaged goods, as if I was disposable. Deep in my heart I knew I would experience being abandoned.
Yet what I found was during that time, people showed up. A pair of dear friends took me briefly into their house so that I didn’t have to face the first few nights alone in the apartment my wife had died. Family showed up, standing with me through decisions about how to do Katharine’s funeral and how to navigate her cremation. Friends reached out, standing with me and listening to me in moments of heartache and despair. I can list off so many who stood with me through that whole dark journey, even as I took my first stumbling steps back into entering into the dating world again, including the joys and heartaches it brings.
In those dear friends I found the loving presence of God, God’s steadfast love and mercy revealed.
I find this experience too in my own spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, hiking, and even the kind of journaling I am engaging in even as I write these words. In ways I cannot full expressed, these relationships of love that surround my life and the deep spiritual connection with God these spiritual practices produce together drive home to me that I am surrounded on all sides by a love that guides me days, a kindness that means I do not need to fear what lies around the next corner. For, even if pain lies there, also a companionship, love, and support will go with me.
To me the words of Psalm 103 here remind me that this experience of a love that surrounds our lives, guides our days, and will not be shaken which we so often experience through the loving kindness of friends, family, life partners, pets, and even in our own care for ourselves through spiritual practice and self-care is the outworking of God’s love in our lives.
I encourage you think for a moment about the many ways your own experience of being lovable, worthwhile, and important have come home to you through nature, through relationships, through spiritual practice. Think about ways in which that was healing to you – and ways you too have embodied that healing love.
Wherever we find that healing love, it is an outworking of the Loving Presence of the great I Am, the One who lives, who revealed Theirself to Moses.
Your progressive redneck preacher,