Sunday, January 11, 2009

Belovedness and The United Methodist Constitution: Does All Mean All?

There is a story that another UM pastor, Janet Wolf, tells about one of her parishioners. This story about Fayette has become gospel for me in understanding the fullness of the meaning of baptism in our Christian tradition. You see Fayette, although new to the Church understood the power of baptism deep her in soul.

She came to Janet’s church one summer, pacing back and forth outside the open doors, listening intently to the music, the laughter, the words. Occasionally she would crouch down on the front steps engrossed, amazed and astounded at what she heard. Little by little that summer Fayette moved from the sidewalk to the steps, from the steps to the door and finally one day from the door to the pew.

Months passed and finally Fayette decided to join a membership class. As part of this class, Janet began to explain about baptism. She began, “You see, in baptism, each of us is named…” but before she could finish, Fayette jumped up and with excitement and enthusiasm, and began to finish her sentence….“each of us is named by God as bright, brilliant, beloved children of God and beautiful to behold.” “I know. I know those those words. I heard you say them before at all those other baptisms.”

“That’s right,” said Janet, “we say them as a response to everyone’s baptism.

“Well,” said Fayette, “I can’t wait till you say them at MY baptism!!”

It seemed from that day forward Fayette began reciting those words over and over again whenever she could. During prayer time, in the middle of the sermon, in the midst of a hymn, you could hear Fayette shouting out, “You are a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and you are beautiful to behold!”

Finally the day came for Fayette to be baptized. As she emerged from the waters, she sprang out of the baptismal, pool dancing and leaping for joy down the aisle. Turning to the congregation she said, “And now I am…” and the whole of the congregation responded to her, “bright, brilliant, and beloved child of God and beautiful to behold.”

Well, not long after that, the pastor received one of those dreaded middle of the night phone calls. It was the local hospital calling to say that Fayette was there, having been brought in after a brutal assault. As Janet approached Fayette’s room, she could hear her mumbling to herself, “bright, brilliant, beloved…bright, brilliant…bright, brilliant, beloved child of…” Standing in the doorway Janet could see Fayette pacing back and forth. Her face was swollen and bruised, muddied and bloodied, hair going this way and that.

She turned to see Janet standing there and she said “I am bright, brilliant, beloved child of God…” but she couldn’t quite finish it. Again she started, “I am bright, brilliant, beloved child of God” and turning to see herself in the mirror with the reality of the words not matching the image staring back at her, she went on, “And God is still working on me! And if you come back tomorrow I’ll be so beautiful to behold you won’t recognize me!”

You see, Fayette knew, even in the midst of the tragedy and trauma that was so often her life, that there was nothing that could ever take back, erase, or wash away that mark she had been given in baptism…she was forever permanently and powerfully marked as that bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and she was beautiful to behold!

I often wonder why, if Fayette could remember those words in the midst of crisis and trauma, why it often seems so difficult for many of us to remember those same words in the midst of our own lives.

Each year on this particular Sunday, I go back and read again the short little book by Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who struggled throughout his life accepting his own sense of belovedness knew that there was something about the world in which we live that seeks to destroy our belief in our belovedness. Nouwen believes this is a gradual process that happens overtime as we define ourselves, not by our baptismal vows or promises, but by the measures of the world; by what we do, by what people say about us, or by what we have.

And it is true, isn’t it? We measure our lives is by what we do. What we do in life determines who we think we are or how we judge ourselves. What is the very first question we hear when we meet someone new? “So, what do you do?”

In an instant who we are becomes reduced to what we do. And when we do it well, we feel good about ourselves and our lives but when we do things poorly, all our self worth flies out the window. What we do can never fully satisfy us as we seek to know who we truly are.

We also try to identify ourselves is by looking at what people say about us. What people say is a powerful thing. When someone speaks well of us, we are on top of the world. Life is good. Yet, when one person has something negative or critical to say it seems that our whole world collapses in on us. Whether it be gossip, or criticism at work or at home, these little comments can destroy who we think we are. When we depend on the evaluations and affirmations of others to tell us who we are, we find once again it never fully satisfies us.

And so, we turn to answering the question by looking at what things we have. Our families, our health, our education, jobs, our bodies, our material possessions. When we tally up the sum total of what we have we may feel good. Perhaps our new job is paying more than just our monthly bills for once. Perhaps we have finally lost those last ten pounds, or we are close to finishing that eternally long degree program. And while all of these things are good things for which we should be thankful, they also do not satisfy our quest for who we truly are. The moment we lose any one of those things, when we lose our jobs, or worse when a family member passes, we can fall, and slip into a deep depression of inner darkness. The world seems to make no sense and our lives
crumble before us. And again we find that even measuring ourselves by what we have never fully satisfies us.

The truth is that no external source of affirmation, whether it is what we do, what others say about us or what we have, can ever truly satisfy that deep need of our soul for love. There is only one perfect love and that is the love we seek, the love of God.

Jesus knew that he was the beloved child of God through his baptism and it was this knowledge on which he hung his entire life and ministry. On that day so long ago when the clouds parted and the dove descended with the divine words, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased,” Jesus knew instantaneously who he was. There was nothing more he needed to know. It didn’t matter what he would do, what others would sayabout him or even what he might have…all that mattered was that he had been named by God as the Beloved.

This mark, this identity as the Beloved, is not just reserved solely for Jesus. As Christians we believe that God has also chosen and marked each one of us through our own individual and communal rites of baptism. Baptism is the outward sign and symbol of God’s grace poured out upon us as we are incorporated into Christ’s Body as the Beloved. It marks us, names us and claims us, just like the Spirit did that day to Jesus at the Jordan, proclaiming that we too are indeed God’s beloved children, we are pleasing to God.

This divine naming and claiming radically changes our identity; it transforms who we and shapes us into a new way of living and loving that is Christ’s Body, the Church. The first letter of Peter states it quite well, when in the translation of Clarence Jordan, he writes, “the former nobodies are now God’s somebodies” Or, in the more familiar translation, once we were not a people, but now we are a people.

Peter says, "the former nobodies are God’s somebodies."

In many ways, this is at the heart of our mission and ministry here at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries. Through our worship, our fellowship, our witness and our advocacy we strive to make a space where former nobodies are recognized as God’s somebodies.

There are a whole lot of people who have been told they are nobodies by their families, by those in their workplace, by their so-called friends and even by the church. But our distinctive voice needs to say again, the former nobodies are God’s somebodies. We are the Beloved. No matter what we do, what others say or what we have…we are the Beloved!

"The former nobodies are now God’s somebodies; the outcasts are now included in the family."

If we as a Church truly believe in the Gospel proclamation of the Belovedness of all people, then we must be compelled to pass the proposed Constitutional Amendment to Article IV of the United Methodist Constitution which would protect all people as members and participants in the Church. This simple amendment states that all people are to be included in the Church. Rather than list some protected groups and leave out others, this new amendment would ensure that all means all...that the divinely ordained Belovedness of all people is recognized by the Church...so that what God sees, the Church finally recognizes. (To find out more about how you can help pass this amendment, go to: http://www.rmnwitness.org/)

I often think back to that story of Fayette and wonder at the power of baptism for her that even in the midst of being beaten and abused she could not just remember those baptismal promises, but she could believe them. She believed those words with the whole of her mind, body and soul, even when everything else around her seemed to contradict those promises. She believed that baptism had forever marked her. She believed that no matter what happened to her, no matter what the world did to her, no matter what was said about her…she was no longer a nobody…through baptism she had become a somebody God’ bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and beautiful to behold!

And that is the most wonderful thing about baptism, isn’t it? It is a permanent sign from God that can never, ever be washed away…not by what others say, think or even do to us…no, our baptisms mark us as permanently and powerfully part of the family!! We have all been marked and we are all the beloved of God, bright, brilliant and beautiful to behold!

If we can learn to live out of that core of God's love, we can be freed to truly love one another without the burden of expecting that all these exterior things will satisfy our souls. We have been created with a heart that only God can satisfy. When we are grounded in God's great love for us we become free to live as the beloved, and love as the beloved. When we claim our belovedness, when we begin to live our belovedness, when we come to believe in our belovedness, we become as free as Jesus to love, minister to and care for the broken world around us.

May we leave today with the knowledge that despite all that the world may say of us, we truly are bright, brilliant, beloved children of God and oh-so-beautiful to behold.

2 comments:

Jules said...

Tiffany,
That is beautiful and powerful. Thank you.

Kelli Busey said...

Dear Tiffany, hope and peace. In my soul I know you are right, so right. Thank you.