Hello again. I’ve missed you. It’s been a long while.
Henri and I parted ways, after I thanked him for speaking life into me when I needed it desperately.
“Bye Henri! You’ve done great, I’m fixed!”
“Ohhhhh really, Jessica? Doubtful, my friend.”
“Okay fine. You win again, Henri.”
Below is a piece I wrote for Mennonite Community Church on April 29 – the church that has become my home over the last couple years. It was an experimental joy to be able to share my ever-ongoing journey with this community.
Good morning! I’d like to share a bit more of myself with you today.
In 2004, as a sophomore at Hoover High School, I was the girl with paper clips in her ears. I was the girl who wore a flowy bohemian quilt-looking skirt over my jeans, topped with a graphic tee shirt from the boys’ section in Target. I was the girl who preached recycling and Bob Dylan and obscure quotes from Internet cartoons, and all sorts of things that I thought would make me interesting. Needless to say, I was not very “cool” at Hoover High School.
But – I was distinct. People knew me. I was recognized and marked by being something ‘other than’ the rest of what I saw as the status quo.
I had learned to thrive on being distinct. I had found life in feeling like there was something different residing in me, making manifest my uniqueness. My identity was rooted in what made me set apart. For 16-year-old Jessica, the strategy worked just fine, and life was good. But for 23-year-old Jessica, things started to fall apart.
By this time I had ditched the eccentric wardrobe for the most part, but somewhere along the line – between the milestone of college graduation, the pain of new and old and failed relationships, learning encounters with the inner-city of Fresno, unrealistic expectations of my own grandeur and perfection, all topped off with a mighty desire to people-please… I came to realize that my identity is fragile.
Identities started to shift with the seasons, and it was no longer easy to know myself based on what I did or who people told me I was – daughter, sister, girlfriend, student, youth pastor, musician, cyclist, leader in whatever context people had told me I was a leader – the ground seemed shakier than usual. That uniqueness residing in me got lost in the fog of figuring out who I really am, and that distinction inside me was somewhere hiding in a shadowy corner. I started to grow up, and found more questions than answers.
(From what I hear, these “post-college, pre-the rest of your life” years are usually this way. But oh my gosh, it’s still rough!) For the first time, I found myself having to ask the question – what really IS my identity? what really IS inside me? Outside all the expectations and assumptions, beyond all the affirmations and encouragements, deeper than the flattering persona I’ve worked long and hard to present to the world… What really lives in me? When what makes me distinct on the outside is not a permanent identity, how do I know who I am?
At a very dark time, in the middle of a bleak road where either end seemed reachable, a very friendly Dutch priest showed up – named Henri Nouwen. Henri spoke words that pierced my vulnerable heart – in spots that were already sore and/or scarred – and started to slowly heal me. I spent a few months with his book The Inner Voice of Love, reflecting on his own raw journey from depression into wholeness, with all the muck and grime along the way that I saw mirrored in my own story. Muck and grime and isolation and loneliness and sin that I thought had the potential to keep me away from God’s goodness for a long time to come…
Henri says this in his book: “You continue struggling to see your own truth. When people who know your heart well and love you dearly say that you are a child of God, that God has entered deeply into your being, and that you are offering much of God to others, you hear these statements as pep talks. You don’t believe these people are really seeing what they are saying.” Exactly, Henri. Exactly how I feel.
Let’s flash back, a couple thousand years before Henri, to our scripture today – 1 John 3:16-24. John has much to say about love. He calls his readers, addressing them as little children, to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” John calls love is a tangible characteristic of the body of believers, and defines love by Jesus’ act of redemption and sacrifice. The active form of loving one another is what John identifies as God’s commandment, coupled with faith in the name of Jesus. Love is key for John, but another word may also catch our attention. From verse 24, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” So it seems like we ought to pay attention to this act of abiding…
This Greek word “meno” appears 20 times in John’s epistles, as well as about one hundred other references throughout the New Testament. Our passage today sees God’s love ‘abiding’ in humans, obedient humans ‘abiding’ in God, and God – not just God’s love, but God’s self – ‘abiding’ in these people. The verb “meno” is also translated to describe something that remains, that continues to be present, that is held, that is kept, or that endures. Whatever abides is stable and solid, and continues to stay its ground. Throughout his letter, John makes note of many other elements that are “in” the Christians to whom he writes – truth, the word of God, commandments, anointing, God’s seed, and God’s love perfected. John presents God’s love as perfected both IN his readers and AMONG his readers. (The Anabaptists here, or perhaps one of my housemates, might remind us that God’s love is always better in community.)
So, all these elements swirling inside John’s audience are already present – he does not call them to invite and coax God’s love inside, or challenge us as readers to grab hold of God and force God inside, but these manifestations of God’s presence are already existing inside. They are already abiding, dwelling inside – they have already entered “deeply into our being,” as Henri puts it.
There is something powerful, something of God, something very distinct – right now, present and swirling around inside you and me. And how quickly we forget that.
I’d like to suggest that, unfortunately, sometimes our Anabaptist heritage makes it more difficult for us to recognize this distinctive identity inside us, especially my generation of Mennonite folks… Growing up in an Anabaptist home, I lived in this tradition of peace and justice and came to know a spirituality that was infused with the values of reconciliation, restoration, redemption, and all those other great R words. I saw a mainstream Christian evangelical subculture around me that looked unfamiliar and looked less compelling than my Anabaptist subculture – and so I rejected it outright. I maintained this identity of “Christian on the outskirts,” proudly Anabaptist but hardly ever proudly connected to the rest of Christ’s body.
For years, I forgot that that the distinctive presence of God abides inside me, because to admit that felt… perhaps boastful, perhaps selfish, perhaps just too associated with evangelicalism to go down that path. My simple but genuine prayer at seven years old was this: “Jesus, please ask God to come into my heart.” And in favor of more complicated prayers, I just dropped that notion that God had really come into my heart.
But what a disservice to our creator! And what a lie that it would be even remotely possible to ignore this distinction inside us – that God has moved into the neighborhood, and chooses to make a home inside each of our very imperfect selves.
Henri Nouwen calls this the good news of the Incarnation: “The Word becomes flesh, and thus a new place is made where all of you and all of God can dwell.”
A thought occurred to me while I was reading Henri Nouwen , struggling through my darkness, and searching desperately for something distinct about me to cling to – what if I let go of the persistent desire to create and re-create and define and re-define my identity? What if instead I let that distinction inside me become my core identity? What if I surrendered to the simplicity and humility of saying, God abides in me. The end.
God abides in me, and what makes me distinct is that the ruler of the universe has made a home inside me, and that is enough to identify me. God abides in you, in us, and what makes us distinct is that the ruler of the universe has made a home inside you and you and you – and that is enough to identify all of us.
For me, that changes everything. This is not an identity that will only swirl around inside our bellies and make us feel happy, an identity kept secret and protected without ever seeing the light of day. No, this is an identity that drives forward the rest of who we are – as a community of faith, and as these imperfect individual vessels who have learned to own the most beautiful thing inside them.
So what changes?
With God abiding in us, there is no longer a need to find identity in all the external qualifiers. Whether I am a student or a girlfriend or a leader or something else fabulous, beneath it all I am always a child of God. And that is enough.
With God abiding in us, community can flourish. You do not have to rely on your own imperfection to create healthy relationships, because God stands at the ready with strength and grace and forgiveness. And God stands inside each of you as neighbors.
With God abiding in us, justice has a chance to become reality. We can pursue peace and justice all we want, but without the Spirit to sustain and give direction and mobilize… All our work towards justice just falls short. The fullness of God’s shalom, the richness of kingdom justice, happens when it is the distinctiveness of God inside each of us driving us forward. Without that, we are just clamoring at an uttainable vision of utopia… it will surely disintegrate once again, if God is not there to catch it when it falls.
Dorothy Day says it well: “One reason I feel sure of the rightness of the path we are traveling in our work is that we did not pick it ourselves.” She’s right – God was passionate for justice long before we ever were.
I have, over the years, still held onto one of my favorite cultural distinctives –which are tattoos. My tattoos remind me of my convictions, ground me in my faith, keep me rooted in the theology I have committed to for the long haul, and mark me. As part of my intentional community experience with my household and other friends, several of us have decided to get tattooed with something distinct. “Imago dei” – Latin for image of God – tattooed on our bodies reminds us that God’s presence inside us is not to be easily forgotten. It changes everything, the way we value our selves and our neighbors and our strangers and even our enemies.
“All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.”
That distinct presence of God swirling around inside you and me is beautiful. And it is worth embracing, worth claiming as what makes us who we really are.
PS – the tattoo looks great. : )