I think a lot about Jesus.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m following him, or stalking him. I mean, it’s a daily thing. I have pictures of him. I write songs about him. I talk to my husband about him. My husband, Sean, is surprisingly tolerant about my relationship with Jesus, especially considering the fact that he doesn’t really feel the same way about Jesus as I do.
I turn to Jesus on a daily basis. At least, I think that I do.
Sometimes I wonder if I place Jesus at the center of my religious life because doing so provides me an opportunity to look away from the complicated nature of everybody else – including myself. I can turn to Jesus – the Jesus of my own imagination, crafted out of my own interpretation of our shared stories – and I can see whatever it is that I want to see. I can make Jesus into the person I never could be: a person who is not jealous; who doesn’t harbor resentment or anger in his heart; a person who isn’t on occasion a dangerous combination of relative ignorance and brash over-confidence; a person who doesn’t get swallowed up by his own self righteousness while ignoring the ways that he, himself, benefits from sexism, or racism, or ableism, or misogyny, or transphobia. I could go on for days here about the way that the Jesus I imagine is way better than the person that I am.
Sometimes I think that this kind of imagining is what propels us into religious life in the first place. We feel ashamed about our own brokenness, and so we turn to an image of perfection in order to inspire us to be something better; to be, as we heard Jesus say last week, perfect.
This approach to the religious life, with a perfect Jesus at the center, on whom I place all of my attention, and me at the outside, who is incapable of perfection and so must continually return to the Jesus who is both my ideal and my impossibility, all seems like a great setup for a codependent relationship. I need him, because I cannot be him.
Our Gospel reading this morning could serve as a perfect justification for this way of seeing Jesus. He’s radiant. Glorious. He shines like the sun. He’s got followers who wait on his every word. He’s in with the cool crowd. His clothes? Seriously, his clothes.
If I wanted to place all of my focus on Jesus, the Jesus of my own imagination, the Jesus that I read into scripture, the Jesus who is perfect in ways that I could never be perfect, the Jesus that is the most righteous screenshot of God, I could easily find a reason to justify doing that today.
At Iliff I’m in a class called Nurturing Communities of Resistance, and one of our assignments was to learn about a thriving community of resistance from one of its members. I didn’t have very far to go to find my subject, for my own kid, Fio, is an active member of one such community. Fio works with Momentum Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose primary purpose is to empower young people living on the margins to become leaders in their communities and in their own lives. Fio creates curriculum for Momentum workshops, leads a cohort of young people, and is involved with organizing advocacy efforts to bring the needs of marginalized communities to the attention of legislators and city officials.
Fio is twenty one years old, and I have known them since they were 10. That was how old they were when I met my husband. They had not chosen their name, Fio, when I met them, and they were a few years out from sharing with us the reality of their gender identity. In the past eleven years, I have watched them grow into a person who is complex and interesting in ways that I never would have anticipated. And they know themself. They know who they are, and they knows that who they are, in all of their complexity, connects them to others around the city and around the world who, like them, live on the outside of what is deemed normal, or traditional, or sometimes even legal.
As I interviewed Fio, asking them questions about Momentum Alliance and their work with the organization, I witnessed what could be described as a kind of transfiguration moment – right there in the middle of my kitchen. Their face was radiant as they talked about the youth they serve, and about the innovative approaches they take to help young people, conditioned to think that they are powerless or voiceless, to use their agency and speak. Fio’s clothing did not transform to shining white garments while they spoke. The tattered black hoodie was still a tattered black hoodie. But my perception of them shifted. I saw something I had not seen clearly before. And I was awestruck. I loved them truly, because I saw them truly.
There are two illusions about myself that I frequently believe to be true. One is the illusion that I am imperfect, and the other is the illusion that I am perfect. The first illusion is what makes it possible for me to place the Jesus of my own making at the center of my life. The second illusion is what makes it possible for me to let the self-righteousness of my activism and my politics cloud my vision and keep me from being able to see the radiance of the person who is not just like me. When I punish myself for my imperfections, I am not being loving. When I celebrate myself for my perfections, I am not being loving. To be loving, to be The Beloved as Jesus is beloved, is to love in ways that neither demand perfection, nor expect imperfection. To be The Beloved is less a state of being than it is a process of becoming.
We are becoming the Beloved. That is our work.
“Dear friend, being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit. I say this because, 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. From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.”
These are the words of the Catholic priest and prolific writer on Christian formation and spirituality, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen inquires:
If it is true that we not only are the Beloved, but also have to become the Beloved; if it is true that we not only are children of God, but also have to become children of God; if it is true that we not only are brothers and sisters (or in a less binary expression of gender, siblings or kin), but also have to become (siblings or kin)…if all that is true, how then can we get a grip on this process of becoming? If the spiritual life is not simply a way of being, but also a way of becoming, what then is the nature of this becoming?
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 a lofty idea that hangs above my life to keep me from becoming depressed, nothing really changes. What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence, and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life.
I would add to this that what is required is to not only become the Beloved in the commonplaces of our daily existence, but to begin to look for the Beloved in the commonplaces of our daily existence; to look for Jesus in my kitchen, in the pews of Saint David’s, on the sidewalks of Portland, in the detention centers in Seattle, in the secret prisons funded with our tax dollars, in the hidden corner of every hidden room built in fear.
Jesus is sitting across from me at the breakfast table, telling me of the ways in which they love the unlovable, and the voice of God breaks into my heart and says,
This is my Child, the Beloved. Listen to them.