My friend sat across the table from me with an empty candy apple box between us. The sun warmed my back from a clear sky while a cool breeze gave me goose bumps. Cars rolled by and girls with their summer clothes on drifted in and out of the downtown shops. We were a long ways away from the searing desert where my friend had learned to ask her questions.
She picked up the box and started folding the lid shut. “It just seems like where ever you go, everyone has their own dogmatic beliefs, and if you don’t agree with them, you’re going to hell. Everyone has this package to offer you,” she said, holding the box out and unfolding the lid, “but when you open it, there’s never really anything inside.” She dropped the empty box on the table.
I spun the box around my finger, letting her words sink in. While a journey should take us somewhere, I’m not so sure that we are guaranteed anything about where that somewhere is, or any answers along the way.
“Why are you searching? There’s something in you that keeps wanting to open boxes, some longing. Don’t worry about the rest of it, just pursue that longing. If God is half of who we think He is, He’ll meet you there.”
In Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen explains that we can only look for something that we have to some extent already found. Solomon described it as eternity in our hearts, that connection to and longing for the infinite we all share. It’s a restless longing.
“Being the Beloved,” Nouwen writes, “is the origin and the fulfillment of the life in the Spirit….As soon as we catch a glimpse of this truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth.”
This is Jedidiah’s Journey, the journey of transformation we are all on.
So how do we do it? How do we go from understanding that we are the Beloved to fully becoming it? What is the boots on the ground reality of this quest? The question I’m asking isn’t, “What must I do to be saved?” The question is, “What must I do to be changed?”
In Romans 12:2, Paul says that we are renewed by the transforming of our minds. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tells us that if we change our core beliefs, we can change our decisions and thereby our actions. But as my Alcoholics Anonymous volunteers often pointed out, you can’t just study new behavior, you have to practice it.
In other words, our core beliefs don’t change simply because someone convinces us that this or that is true. They change because we experience something as true. As long as my faith is just a litany of Bible studies and sermons, what I call whiteboard talks, then it really isn’t doing me any good. I can learn everything there is to learn about El Camino de Santiago, but it won’t change me until I actually get boots on the ground and submit to the process of the pilgrimage.
I like how Nouwen describes this.
“Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do. It entails a long and painful process of appropriation, or better, incarnation. As long as ‘Being the Beloved’ is little more than a beautiful thought or lofty idea that hangs above my life to keep me from becoming depressed, nothing really changes….Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about, and doing from hour to hour.”
Perhaps, like me, you have found it painfully easy to treat this process as one more proof that you are not truly Beloved, or one more gauntlet to run to prove that you are worthy. There is a very thin line between working out our salvation and working for our salvation. So easily, our hope becomes the very bait that hooks us back into the lie of self-rejection. That we are not the Beloved, that we lack, that we need more armor.
My tendency is to try to use spiritual disciplines as tools to remove my armor, pieces of my false self I have used to cover up my wounds and shame, but when I do that those very disciplines just become more armor plating. They become one more attempt to heal myself, one more thing separating me from the poor sods still wearing their armor like a fashion statement.
I imagine that just as we do not develop our false selves entirely on our own, neither do we unbecome our false selves entirely on our own. Perhaps removing our armor is tied up in the mystery of death and resurrection. After all, even Jesus had to be raised from the grave.
The truth is spiritual disciplines are not tools we use to remove our armor, rather, they are exercises we use so that we don’t need armor. I think this is what Spirit was trying to tell me when he described the disciplines as Kingdom culture rather than a means to citizenship.
So what does this practicing life look like? And how do we keep culture from solidifying into law?
We could write a library’s worth of books about spiritual disciplines and mindfulness practices, but I would like to consider Henri Nouwen’s model of the ritual of sacraments as a template for the Life of the Beloved. He describes the life of the Beloved as one that has been Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given. I’ll explore what he means by this in my next few blog posts, and I welcome your own stories of how you have experienced something similar on your journey.
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Buen Camino, my friends.