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“You are my beloved” April 14, 2013

“You are my beloved”–What the church might learn from Positive Psychology

Final Project for the Certificate in Positive Psychology by Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

Imagine a place where, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, no matter how old or young or inbetween, you are welcome and reminded that you are a beloved child of God, precious in God’s sight. – That is my dream for Second Congregational Church, and I believe that insights and practices from Positive Psychology could help us become more of such a place.

The field of Positive Psychology is a relatively new–or newly revived–discipline within the wider field of psychology. Rather than focusing only on mental illness and dysfunction, what happens when things go wrong, Positive Psychology focuses on what helps human beings flourish, what contributes to well-being, what “works.” It asks questions like, Why do some kids succeed and flourish in incredibly challenging environments and situations? not just, why do so many others fail? How could my day go 5% better? What gives life meaning? How can I be happier–not “happy” all the time, but generally experience a higher level of well-being? What makes some people more resilient, able to weather the real crises and challenges of life? What difference could all of this make to our experience of community and relationships, in our families and most intimate relationships, in our communities, in our world?

Just as Paul writes in Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22), so Positive Psychology researches and helps us to develop gratitude, grace, joy, kindness, health, courage, vulnerability, discipline, ritual, relationships, service, connection, healing. Indeed, the vocabulary of Positive Psychology may very well communicate the concept of “abundant life” which Jesus said he came to bring, as well if not better than the traditional language of the church, which is no longer the native tongue of growing numbers of people in our culture.

So perhaps one entry point–to pick just one– for discovering where Positive Psychology might be infused into the church is where we enter into the Christian community. Baptism is the initiation rite into that community of people who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus. It’s an experience that we share with Jesus who, as tradition tells us, was also baptized. The story in Mark’s gospel says,

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

(Mark 1: 9-11)

For Christians, baptism is our reminder that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. Just as Jesus was marked but still had to affirm and live out his identity as the beloved Child of God, so do we all need to claim and live out our identity as beloved children of God.

Listen to this baptism story from Preaching Professor Heather Murray Elkins, who tells of

a young man on a clergy retreat she was leading.

As a part of the retreat, Elkins had asked the pastors to spend some time to find their story, and their name, in scripture. On the last day of the retreat, the pastors gathered in a circle, with a chair in the middle. Then, one by one, they took their turn to sit in the chair in the middle of the circle, and told the story they had found, and the name they had found, and how they knew it was theirs.

The final gathering was going well, and the preachers were telling profound and moving stories. And then, one young man took his place in the center. But he just sat there, and said nothing. And at first, the others waited, but still, the young man said nothing. Then folks began to get a little nervous and a little fidgety. Some were looking at their watches. Finally, Elkins said to the young man, “Is there something you would like to share with us?”

“I spent all three days looking through the bible,” he said. “And I saw many names there that I wanted to have. I read many stories that I wanted to claim. But none of the names were strong enough to overcome the name I already have. My father gave me this name when I was very little. And there was nothing I found in these last three days that is strong enough to change that name.”

Then the man fell silent again.

So Elkins waited a bit, and then asked, “Would you be willing to share your name with us?”

And the young pastor answered, “My name, that my father gave me when I was very small, is ‘Not good enough.’” And the man put his head in his hands and began to sob. It was as if he was drowning there before them. And there they were, a room full of life guards, and no one knew what to do.

But then, as if the Holy Spirit was descending like a dove right there in that room, one by one the others rose and went to the man. Then a few others rose, and then more. They surrounded him, and they laid their hands on him, and in one voice they said, “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.”

Elkins says that at the end of the retreat, she saw the young pastor packing up his car and she just had to go over to him and ask him, “Do you think what happened in that circle will make a difference?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But it does feel that something inside me that was broken somehow isn’t broken anymore. And I do know this. From now on, every time I hold a baby, and dip my hand into the water to name that child before the congregation, I will remember this moment, and I will remember who I am.” (Grateful to the Rev. Catherine Foote, University Congregational UCC, Seattle, WA, for transcribing story told by HME, Living the Questions…)

This is the “What” of the intersection of Positive Psychology and the church. What and Who are we really? “Know thyself” say all the sages from Aristotle to Buddha to Jesus. (“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.“) “Not good enough.” How many of us have been given that name, or claimed it as our own? “Not good enough.” Is that your name? Not pretty enough, not thin enough, not successful enough, not smart enough; your house isn’t clean enough, your golf score not low enough….not good enough? If I asked you for a list of your faults, could you stop at one or two, or do we not have time for the whole list? We all know people, like the young pastor’s father, who are always finding fault, who focus on what’s wrong, what’s not quite right, the glass that is half empty. Fault-finders. The church has a reputation for being full of them. Finger-waggers. Sin-seekers.

Perfectionism has its own deadly self-reinforcing feedback loop–no matter how hard we strive to be perfect, we inevitably fail or fall short of the ideal, which then makes us think that if we had just tried harder, we would have made it; so we continue to drive ourselves, and continue to fail…because we are human. “Permission to be human” is a theme of Positive Psychology. What if instead of perfectionists, we became Optimalists–doing our best at any moment, taking into consideration all we’ve got available to us at the time, our human limitations, the circumstances? What if we saw failure not as a catastrophe but as an opportunity to learn?

Not good enough. Shame says we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy of connection, which, actually, is “why we’re here.” (B. Brown) Sociologist and Pos. Psychologist Brene Brown found in her research that those who feel that they are worthy of connection have more resilience to shame. What if the church taught shame resilience instead of just shame? A sense of worthiness despite our vulnerability? A sense of belovedness, of unconditional acceptance?

This, of course, does not mean that whatever we do or say is ok. Our children–and we– need to be taught what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t, that what we do actually does affect other people, and that we value our God-given connection with all other people and creatures. There are things for which a sense of guilt is not only necessary but helpful. We need to be able to recognize when we have betrayed our true selves, when we have hurt others, when we have failed to act when our actions or words might have helped another. We need to be able to say we’re sorry and make amends when that happens.

The kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about has not fully arrived. There is evil and there is injustice and an infinite number of ways that we wander from our best selves and end up doing things we regret or that harm ourselves or others. And yet we know from research that those who focus on the full half of the glass, who identify and build on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses, who look upon failure as an opportunity to grow and learn, who are “Benefit finders” instead of “Fault finders”–we know that these people experience more well-being, are physically healthier, and in fact, contribute more to the well-being of others. When we appreciate the good, the good appreciates, i.e. it grows.

“You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased,” rather than, “Not good enough.” Imagine if we in the church help people discover their true name, instead of adding to the shame and sense of failure.

Another baptism story–this one from Janet Wolf, a United Methodist pastor who used to serve the Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN.

Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism–‘This holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,’ as Janet puts it–especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, ‘And when I’m baptized, I am…?’ ‘The class,’ Janet writes, ‘learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ “Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.

The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it:

Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.

Two months later, Janet received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. So I went [Janet says]. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved….’ She turned, saw me, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror–hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘….and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’

(Janet Wolf’s story is from The Upper Room Disciplines 1999[Nashville: The Upper Room] and cited by Jan Richardson in her blog, paintedprayerbook.com, Dec. 31, 2009)

This, in a sense, is the “how” that Positive Psychology can help us with. Being positive doesn’t mean bad or negative things don’t happen. Being a beloved child of God doesn’t mean you won’t get beat up or sick or crucified. We’ve been through enough funerals together, been driven to our knees over tragedies that left us feeling helpless and hopeless. Positive psychology does not tell us, “Don’t worry. Be Happy.” It is important to be as present to the negative emotions and experiences as we are to the positive, for, in fact, fully experiencing the negative emotions allows us also to experience the positive emotions more fully– The “happy” life is not “happy” all the time. The only people who don’t experience negative emotions, our professor reminds us, are the sociopaths and the dead.

The more present and mindful we can be in our negative experiences–to allow grief, or anger or sadness or frustration to be real, the more likely we will be able to return to a sense of well-being, to see the negative as temporary–”This too shall pass.” “If you come back tomorrow,” Fayette said, “I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away….God is still working on me.”

To be able to return to that core identity, that seed of greatness, even in the midst of turmoil and tragedy, is such a gift–and such a skill. Over and over, every day. We can create daily rituals that remind us who we are and Whose we are. As you know, I actually do say this baptismal affirmation everyday–”I too am beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold, and [I add] I serve the God of Love and Light.” And daily rituals that include mindful breathing, some kind of physical movement, some kind of intentional affirmation of our core identity can literally begin to re-wire our brains, no matter how old we are.

A third and final baptism story is not really a baptism story per se, but it is related and comes from the great preaching professor Fred Craddock.

Fred and his wife had stopped to eat in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. Now, Fred is a quiet, unassuming man, but is not an unknown figure in that part of the country

. An elderly gentleman came over to the Craddocks’ table and introduced himself. [His name vaguely rang a bell.] He said that his mom was not married when she had given birth to him, and the community directed shame toward her and her child. He often ate alone at school; he sat alone at church, which for some reason he felt drawn to, but he always left early. One day, as he was trying to slip out, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find the minister looking down at him. “He looked closely at my face,” the gentleman said, “and I knew he was trying to figure out whose features I shared. I knew he was trying to guess who my father was.” “Well, boy,” the minister said, “you are a child of….” and then he paused. When he spoke again, he said, “Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, “Now you go on and claim your inheritance.”

I left church that day a different person,” the now-elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”

Fred Craddock said that when he told his dad this story, his father recalled that the two-term governor of Tennessee

[that’s who the gentleman was] had been born to an unwed mother. (Told by Joanna Adams, Day1.org., 1/10/10)

This is the “So what?” The man who eventually became the governor of Tennessee was reminded of his true self and it changed his life. And not only did it change his life, it also changed the lives of countless other citizens of Tennessee. Tending to the seed of greatness planted within us has endless ripple effects out into our family, our community, the world. When we know that we are worthy of connection, when we recognize that not only we, but every other person, is a beloved child of God, then we will engage in acts to advocate for justice and alleviate suffering. That’s part of who we are.

So, imagine our church–this place and this community– where those seeds of greatness, that spark of divinity and true humanity, are tended to in a garden of care, accountability, challenge, nurture, joy, celebration, shared sorrow and struggle, and in acts of justice and compassion; where all around you are reminders of your true identity– Reminders of who we are and Whose we are, to post on our doorways, wear around our necks and wrists, to write upon our hearts, even, to tattoo on the palms of our hands.

Jesus wasn’t the only or first to be named and claimed and loved by God. The prophet Isaiah, in the midst of exile in the 6th century BCE, sent a love letter from God to the people of Israel. The love letter is to us as well.—[If you’d like to see the video I showed here, go to saltproject.org, and to their video section where you’ll find Tattooed.]

What a privilege and joy my immersion in Positive Psychology has been, not only taking me into new places and learning new skills, but also helping me to go deeper into the well of living water that the Way of Jesus has offered me. I’ve made a list of some of my imaginings of how positive psychology might help us to transform lives, which I invite you to pick up on the way out and see what you think. I am so grateful for your support and your companionship on this amazing journey into life in all its fullness. Let the journey continue!

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