This is a message I gave some time ago at United Church of Chapel Hill, taken from Psalm 139 and Romans 8. I hope it blesses you!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
A book I recently read starts out “It begins, as most things begin, with a song. In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams … and the animals, how all of them came into the world. They were sang…
“Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughingstock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That’s the power of songs…
“Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words…” (Neil Gaiman, The Anansi Boys)
In a way our readings today also invite us to to discover that song which birthed us into the world, with which we are called to join our voices, and to which we are called to dance .
The heart of each of our songs begins with recognizing our own worth and value.
Romans 8’s cry “abba, beloved parent” echoes those words God spoke over Jesus at his baptism – “you are the child whom I love; in you I am well-pleased.” We join the cry “abba, beloved parent” whenever we recognize aloud we are loved and loveable, a source of delight, deserving of love and delight ourselves, just as Jesus was. We need not first fit some churchly mold of holy living before hearing these words, let alone live into society’s skewed image of what will make us a good man or woman. No. Instead, we are so loved from the beginning, before we have done anything good or bad, so loved regardless of our successes or our failures, so loved simply because we are God’s own. These words – “you are the child whom I love; in you I am well-pleased” are like a mother’s gaze upon her newborn baby. This gaze falls on her little one when they are weak, vulnerable, unable to do anything on their own. That little one cannot yet run a marathon or manage a business, let alone earn a PHD. Still that child’s mother already loves them, from their first heartbeat. She delights in that little one, simply because they are her child. Any mother knows that feeling, the sort of feeling that led my mother to once tell me “It doesn’t matter how big you get, whether you marry or not, or if you ever have armloads of children, I will always be your mama.” We are unconditionally loved Discovering our heart’s song begins with us knowing ourselves as God’s own, embracing ourselves as so loved and loveable in God’s eyes, knowing we are a delight to God and others, knowing we deserve love and delight ourselves.
In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen uses the imagery of the communion table to picture the rhythm of this song or dance. In communion, bread is taken, blessed, broken, and shared. Likewise discovering our life’s song, joining our life’s dance, involves us embracing that we too are being taken, being blessed, being broken and being shared.
To be taken is for God to look at us with the eyes of love and claim us as God’s own. Baptism is how the church proclaims to us that each of us – and all people everywhere – are embraced by this unconditional relentless love. Such loves comes from the very start, before we can do anything right or wrong. This truth is why in the Reformed tradition in which our United Church of Christ stands not only do we baptize adults who ask for it but also we offer to baptize children when they are just born, long before they can choose for or against God. We announce that God’s love comes to us before we can say yes or no, regardless of what future choices we make.
At General Synod this year I was blessed to hear Glennon Doyle Melton author of Love Warrior speak. Both in her talk and in her book Glennon told how accepting herself as so taken, chosen, and loved by God helped her find her place in God’s song. As many girls do, Glennon learned early on to hate her own body. She believed the damaging message society gave her about how a woman has to look, act, behave – in her words, to“be small” – in order to be beautiful, good, acceptable, a success. She learned to hide who she is. This path ultimately led her to develop an eating disorder, to abuse drugs and drink dangerously, to enter one after another dehumanizing sexual liaison. In the end, after one such tryst she found herself with an unplanned pregnancy, making the heart-breaking choice to have an abortion. Overwhelmed, Glennon sought support from the church. Waiting for her priest to talk with her about her situation, she looked up to see light shining through a stained glass window, falling all around her. That light revealed the image of a mother, the Virgin Mary, holding her beloved child Jesus cradled in her arms,. This mother’s eyes were staring down at Glennon. Looking into Christ’s mother’s eyes, Glennon experienced something unexpected: the gaze of someone who understands her predicament, seeing
her with the heart a mother alone has toward her children. For the first time in her life Glennon felt eyes upon her that did not judge her by the crushing standards of the world at large, but eyes which welcomed and embraced her as a child of infinite worth. She knew then if someone, anyone, sees her as those eyes seemed to look upon her, she need never do such things to herself again. When the actual interview with the priest occurred it didn’t help her much, but those eyes! That gaze! She could not get them out of her mind. Beneath them, she felt loved, embraced, and accepted. It changed the whole direction of her life. It was not, Glennon decided, just merely the human eyes of Mary the wife of Joseph of Nazareth she had experienced that day. Ultimately what she felt was the gaze her Creator always uses when looking at her. And is it any wonder, since the Holy Spirit says to us through the prophet Isaiah “Can a woman forget her nursing child, fail to have compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I won’t forget you”? Those eyes, that gaze, moved Glennon onto the first steps of a new journey – out of a cycle of drinking and drugs, eating disorders and accepting being used and abused, into a free and full life. To start our journey of discovering our place in God’s heartsong we too must begin to embrace ourselves as loved without condition, fully and completely.
Accepting ourselves as not just taken but “blessed” as Nouwen suggests means going that next level of embracing who we are as individuals and what our unique journey of life has been as a source of blessing, no matter its jagged edges. Sometimes when we talk about being being taken, or unconditionally loved by God, we focus not on our blessedness but on our list of despites: God loves us despite our failings. God uses us despite our weakness and inability. God calls us despite how unfit we are to what we are called. So often we look at who we are – our appearance, our talents, our life story – as inconsequential. Or, worse yet, wrong. If only, we say. If only I was taller. If only I was stronger. If only I was male. Or straight. Or cisgender. If only I had a different job. Better education. A different upbringing. If only I was someone else, essentially… Then we could matter, make a difference, deserve love.
Yet finding our song involves seeing how our lives are blessings, expressions of the beauty God has woven into the very fabric of the universe. The Psalmist, elsewhere in the Psalm we read today, says we can praise God that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Why? Because God is that weaver woman who knit us together in our mother’s womb, crafting uniquely our personality, strengths, vulnerabilities, and life experiences. Hearing our place in God’s song involves us coming to see our uniqueness as a part of God’s gift to the world. Claiming our place as children of God, as dancers and singers joining in God’s song, means recognizing that who you are is no mistake. You have beauty, joy, healing to add to the world that can only be done by someone just like you. Not despite the things that make you different from others, but precisely because of them.
This call to not just accept that you are taken, but also blessed, connects us directly with the call to embrace that you and I are broken.
In our Psalm, we are invited to embrace our brokenness by acknowleding our “chaos and confusion”, our “weak points and … hurt places,” and our negative “habits” we “resort to”. One of my favorite spiritual writers, Rumi, wrote after the loss of his closest friend, Shams, to a sudden death, that we need to embrace the broken places of our lives for they are what let our light in.
In a way this is what Glennon discovers after her realization of God’s unshakable love. At Synod she told a story about trying hot yoga to come to terms with her losses and pain. It’s horrible! Glennon said. You have to stretch and sweat around much skinnier, more fit people. And it is so hot! She was about to get up and head out when her instructor told her just to do the pose where you lay down, breathe, and let yourself face your feelings. “How easy!” she thought. Then, all her pain, heartache, and loss, began rise to the surface. Alone with her pain, she had to face it and learn to embrace it. Ultimately this experience showed Glennon the path forward for her, one that inspired her to start a group called “Momastery”, working with women like herself struggling to find their true selves and authentic voices against the crushing messages to women from our world at large.
In the end, facing our own points of brokenness can also teach us what is necessary to help reach out to those hurting around us. This is a part of why Romans 8 goes on to talk about all of creation groaning, together with us, awaiting our revealing as the children of God. As we face into our own heartache and pain, we make room for the weaver woman God, whom Romans calls the Spirit of God, to begin to work with us to knit together the pieces of our heart’s fabric that are torn and tattered into stronger patterns than before their tearing. Just as Glennon’s experience led her to be open to the hurts of other women around her, inspiring her to reach out though Momastery, when we experience being woven together in new ways by the Holy Spirit through our pain, that same Spirit also opens us up to those parts of our communities, relationships, nature, and world where there are tears, rips, broken places needing to be mended. We can then use what we have learned through the Spirit’s healing our own brokenness to work together with this same Spirit to help weave new patterns in the broken places in our world so that they, too, can become stronger than they were before being torn. Out of our own inner healing as we embrace being taken, blessed, and broken comes our being sent, sent as vessels of healing.
Jurgen Moltmann beautifully pictures what this transformation can look like when he prays
“When I love God, I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the scents, the sounds of all … creation. When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me. For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others.”
May it be so for each of us, and for all hurting and longing to find their song, their voice, their dance, in God’s world. Amen.