True Identity – Claiming our Belovedness

February 2, 2020

Mark 1: 4-11


                   Let’s start with a simple meditative exercise this morning:  I’m going to ask you a question and have you meditate and listen for the answer for a few moments.  Sit up straight, place your feet flat on the floor, and rest your hands in your lap.  Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath…  Now answer this question: Who are you?

                   (Ring singing bowl at end of silence)

Unitarian Pastor Robert Fulghum has written an essay about that inevitable question that is asked when you meet someone for the first time – “So, what do you do?”  It’s a kind of ice-breaker, used to make conversation, but it’s also a way to size people up, to evaluate who they are – it can also be a real conversation stopper.

As a pastor, I admit that I’m not always comfortable telling people what I do for a living, especially when I sense that they are not religious types.  Often the conversation goes like this:

“So, what do you do?”

“Me? I’m a pastor.”

“Oh…” There’s a bit of an awkward silence and then they change the subject.

Tired of answering the question of “What do you do?” in the usual way, Fulghum once told a seatmate on an airplane that he was a janitor, hoping that she would allow him to read his book in peace. Instead, she engaged him in an extended conversation.  He was only to discover later, when he saw her in the congregation, that she was a member of the church in which he was scheduled to speak that Sunday, and she had known who he was all along!

Another time, bumped into first class, Fulghum found himself sitting next to a distinguished looking gentleman from India, whom he assumed to be a businessman.

“So, what is it that you do?” The man asked him.

“I’m a neurosurgeon.” He replied.

“Really!” said the man, “So am I!”

Having learned his lesson, the next time Fulghum flew, he told his seatmate these stories and suggested that they each make up new occupations and pretend all the way to their destination.  His seatmate was game and chose to be a spy. Fulghum told him that he was a nun.  They had great fun on that flight, but the man sitting behind them had the last laugh when he passed Fulghum in the concourse and said, “Have a nice day, Sister!”[1]

In this culture, we tend to define ourselves in three different ways: by what we do, by what we have, and by what other people think or say about us.  Yet, these definitions are incomplete.  Instead of listening to these voices that come from outside of us, we need to listen with our hearts. The prophet Jeremiah tells us of God’s promise: “When you search for me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) When we seek with our hearts, we find love.  When we listen with our hearts, we find that we are not defined by what we do or what we have, or by what others think of us. Our true identity, which we had long before all of these other definitions, is that we are children of a loving God.  And that loving God calls to each of us saying, “You are my child, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

                   The voice that spoke to Jesus at his baptism is the same voice that speaks to each of us.  And yet, many of us, for whatever reasons, have not been able to hear that voice.  “God couldn’t possibly be speaking to me,” we say.  “God couldn’t be pleased with me.”  “I don’t deserve that kind of love, that kind of praise.” “I’ve really screwed up my life and no one could be pleased with me.”  Do these voices sound familiar?  In a human world of conditional love, where praise is often based on performance, it’s no wonder that we have a difficult time hearing the message of divine love that is not based on any conditions.

                   Folksinger Richard Shindell illustrates this difficulty in his song, “Smiling.”

I had a place in the desert

Just a roof and four walls

Where I could wait for the rapture

Where I could ride out the fall

I was keeping a vigil

I was deep in a trance

I was holding a candle

To the palm of my hand

Then I saw you smiling. . . .

Like a fool I protested

I need time to prepare

You see I never expected

Something so simple and clear

So I tried to persuade you

That I was not what you thought

That I would only disappoint you

That I can’t be what I’m not

You just stood there smiling. . .[2]

                   Richard Shindell’s vision of God’s grace is a powerful one.  It’s based on a quote from Anthony de Mello, “Look at God, looking at you, and smiling.”

                   God loves us with an everlasting love, and there is nothing we can do that can ever separate us from that love. Nothing!  God’s love for us is not conditional. That’s the amazing thing about grace!  God doesn’t love us because of what we do or what we have or what other people have said about us.  In fact, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love.  It’s a gift, a free gift.  And all we have to do is receive it.  In order to receive it, however, we have to realize that the gift is being offered to us.

                   In Toni Morrison’s prize-winning novel Beloved, Baby Suggs is a former slave and an “unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it.”

When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing – a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place.  In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.

                   After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently.  The company watched her from the trees.  They knew she was ready when she put her stick down.  Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

                   “Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

                   Then “let the grown men come,” she shouted.  They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

                   “Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.

                   Finally, she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them.  “For the living and the dead.  Just cry.”  And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

                   It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up.  Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath.  In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

                   She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more.  She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

                   She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine.  That if they could not see it, they would not have it.[3]

The only grace we can have is the grace we can imagine.  If we cannot see it, we cannot have it.  In other words, if we do not realize that the gift is being offered to us, we cannot receive it.  Can you imagine that God is smiling and speaking to you in love? Can you imagine that the source of all being is saying, “You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased”?  On the days when it is hard to believe that we are loved, perhaps we need only imagine the possibility.

I was the Associate Pastor of Nichols United Methodist Church in Trumbull, Connecticut when I met my husband, Jeff, who was living in Madison, New Jersey and finishing his M.Div. at Drew.  When we decided to get married, we also decided that we would live here in New Jersey, where Jeff was the newly appointed Pastor of the Springfield Emanuel UMC.  Planning a long distance wedding in four months, tying up loose ends and saying my good-byes at Nichols did not leave me time to look for another church ministry position. Instead, I found a job as an assistant manager at Borders Book Shop in the Mall at Short Hills.

Now I love books, and I worked in a bookstore during college, so in many ways I was right in my element. In other ways, however, I felt lost. After being surrounded by “church people” for so long, the corporate/business culture was alien to me.  None of the people I worked with attended church or synagogue on a regular basis. Only a few of them were interested in spiritual matters at all. Working in retail again was a real culture shock for me. To top it off, I was the manager for human relations, and in charge of hiring and firing. Some days, my job was just not fun.  One day, when I was feeling particularly low, Jeff came to meet me for lunch.  Later that afternoon, I was delighted to find a note from him on my desk. My husband, ever the romantic and ever the pastor had written: “Has anyone told you today that you are the Beloved?  You are.”

That message was one that I desperately needed to hear. I had forgotten that my true identity was not defined by what I did, or by what others thought of me. My true identity comes from inside, from my heart-knowledge that I am a beloved child of God.  That message has become a vital part of our relationship, and a reminder that we give each other and our children daily.  A few years ago, I told a Christ Church member that story and she asked me to repeat the phrase so that she could write it down and post it on her refrigerator where she could read it each day.  I wrote it down for her: “Has anyone told you today that you are the Beloved? You are.”  Maybe if we read it each day, or hear it often enough, or even imagine that it’s true, we’ll start to believe that we are Beloved children of a loving God. And when we begin to believe in our hearts that we are the Beloved, our lives are transformed forever.

Robert Fulghum closes his essay with these words: “I and you – we are infinite, rich, large, contradictory, living, breathing miracles – free human beings, children of God and the everlasting universe.  That’s what we do.”[4] And, I would add, that’s who we are.

Close your eyes again.  Ask yourself the question, “Who am I?” Now listen to the answer that comes from the voice of a smiling God: “You are my child, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”


[1] Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, (New York:Villard Books, 1989,) pp. 63-66.

[2] Richard Shindell and Larry Campbell, “Smiling,” from the CD Reunion Hill, #8027, Shanachie Entertainment Corp., 1997.

[3] Toni Morrison, Beloved, (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1988), pp. 87-88.

[4] Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire when I Lay Down on It, (New York:Villard Books, 1989,) p.70.

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