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Preliminary Thoughts on Being Beloved


            Gosh this is stupid, I thought, staring at Google Docs, the blank page unwavering. It was halfway through the fall semester of my Junior year of college at Belmont, and no assignment had frustrated me to the level of a daily practice given by my Spiritual Formation teacher Dr. Skeen. A woman of peaceful firmness, she had a way of setting a challenge at the end of your table, waiting for you to wrestle with it. Several times in the semester I had become flippant, deeming an exercise worthless until I realized I needed a good grade, so I would return to the exercise only to find I was wrong and that it wasn’t the challenge I was fighting, but myself.

            I wanted to have it all figured out. I wanted to walk away with a full tool belt and less questions. So, when I received the daily journal task, I made sure every thought and emotion had its place. We were tasked to check in with our mind, heart, soul, and body, as well as a nearby tree. At the time I lived in downtown Nashville, but we had two oak trees outside our rented home off of Lindell Avenue. Earlier in the semester, realizing my need for a peaceful spot in a house with four other guys amidst Covid-19, went up to Kentucky to buy two used rocking chairs from an elderly family and placed them on our front porch opposite the trees.

            Every day, according to Dr. Skeen’s instructions, I would sit in the sturdier of the two chairs and check-in with my “parts” for fifteen minutes, gazing occasionally at the tree. What could’ve been a life-giving exercise from the start devolved into another attempt of mine to quickly make sense of something that can only been healthily managed by a being far more capable than myself. I began to give my heart and soul and mind and body personalities that had eloquent things to say. I named the tree Trevor, and Trevor soon fit right into the rhythm of journaling. I began to turn in my weekly journals quite pleased with myself. A couple weeks went by, and I anticipated Dr. Skeen’s response. A small part of me thought she would be impressed by the things I had to say or the creativity I demonstrated.

            A few more days went by and finally a short comment appeared on Blackboard by my submission. I opened the box to see what she could’ve said to encapsulate two weeks of journaling:

            “Are you ever going to be honest in one of these?”

 

            I shut my laptop and stormed off the sofa out to the porch. I looked at Trevor, bewildered. What does she mean by honest? I have been! I looked down the quiet street, looking for someone to validate my position. I could hear the roar of the interstate over the divide, but my little corner of the neighborhood felt louder in that moment.

            The next day, I sat on FaceTime with my friend Katherine and told her what the teacher had told me, expecting her to see my perspective too. She grew quiet.

            “What?” I asked.

“She’s right.”

           

            A few days later I sat on a Zoom meeting with Dr. Skeen and placed my pride at the door. “So, what did you mean by that comment?”

            “Austin, you are always writing for an audience. Sometimes that’s fine, but if you can’t be honest before anyone much less yourself or God, then who are you really trusting? It sounds exhausting.”

           

 

            Just write? I can’t do that. What if I say the wrong thing or convey the wrong emotion? What if she sees something and thinks less of me? What if I see something in myself that scares me? What if it’s not polished enough for God?

            But I knew I had to try. In the subsequent days, I tried peeling the layers back. I began to express more and filter less in the space. Most of the time these thoughts came with shame or guilt. I felt Trevor staring at me, as if he knew the words on the other side of the screen. Then I would hit a stopping point.

            No, I can’t write that. I can’t talk about that. I can’t voice that. It was as if I had placed my words on a wet paper towel, and if I added anything weightier, it would tear through.

            I kept looking at Trevor. Over the past weeks he had started to lose some of his leaves in the autumn transition. At one point he was beautifully colored in orange and yellow and red and now there remained one clump at the bottom right, refusing to give. The more I looked at the leaves, the angrier I got. I eventually stood up and walked to the steps down the porch.

            “What are you holding on for! Everything else has left, why are you still here?!”

I went back to my seat and stared at my laptop again. How could Dr. Skeen have any respect for me if I place every part of myself on this paper? How could Katherine have any love for me as her friend if in my conversations I just spoke?

            But you can’t even trust me to love you in your entirety?

 

            I stopped everything I was doing. In that moment I felt like Peter, looking at his Lord as Jesus offered to wash his feet, and denying the service. Every day I had sat on this porch, me in one chair, my God in the other. Every day He was waiting for me to trust Him with more, promising that His love would cover me still. And I wasn’t letting Him.

            He was begging me to soak in the cleansing water, but after just a moment I would try to leap out of the pool because I was more comfortable in my filth.

            “No Lord, you don’t know I’ve been hiding dirt there. If you knew---”

“I already did and I’m still here.”

 

“I’m still here.”

 

“But Lord, I never brought that into the church…”

 

“I’m not just in the church. I’m in every room, space, and moment.”

 

“But that means---”

 

“Yes, I was there. And I’m still here.”

 

I grow silent.

 

“So, are you going to keep me out in this chair or are you finally going to invite me in?”

 

The last clump of leaves fell.

 

           

            Now, four years later, I have finished performing in a show where I was playing the role of John the disciple; known to many as John the beloved. The “beloved” referring to one of the recipients of Jesus’ love, or as some translations would put it, “the disciple Jesus kept on loving.”

            I walked into that story feeling like I understood to some degree how to love, but believing my work lay largely on learning to be loved. After four months of living the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through the lens of John, my mistake couldn’t be more obvious:

            There is no act of love if I am not receiving the love of Christ first and foremost as love first came from Him . In John 15, John tells of Jesus’ words at the table, illustrating us as the branches, attached to Himself as the vine. He states that apart from Him we will bear no fruit. This is told right before a “new command” to love one another.

            Jesus knows that apart from Him, we are constructing fake, decorative plants. They can look like the real thing, but they hold no life. They give nothing to the environment around them. They offer no seeds to the next line of plants. They are void of air and breath.

            But to grow as a real plant is difficult. It requires a full trust in the vinedresser to give and takeaway from our lives. It is a surrender of control and power (as if we had any) to the vine as our sole provider.

           

            Many times, still, I would sit side stage and think, I can’t give up that toil. To fight is to show strength, resilience, ambition. I can fight for joy. I can fight for peace. I can fight for love.

            And just like that I would be back at that laptop screen on Lindell Avenue, believing that if I show the “right qualities” I could earn the love and respect of myself and my creator. Meanwhile, God would watch me constructing this fake plant, knowing that the minute rain or wind came, my “work” would be gone.

            I would look up to God in frustration. “My work is necessary!” I would defy with a desperate grab for significance.

            I’d then feel His hand gesturing to the scene of Jesus being crucified that I was about to walk into. It’s the only work that matters, and that work was undertaken by Him so that the only thing I can do is receive in gratitude.

            As the crucifixion of Jesus commences, it is easy to feel this new love be tested. Lord I don’t feel loved. Lord I am loved but my situation is painful. Lord I am loved but I am alone.

            Then, the story continues, and Jesus overcomes death and returns for an embrace in the midst of my suffering and grief.

 He looks over at me and I realize: He too did not likely feel loved when His people rejected Him, or when He was tortured, or when He took His last breath by Himself. But it was never about the feeling of being loved.

John recounts Jesus’ words that there is “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” A choice. An action.

John the disciple is the only disciple placed at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies. When Jesus returns, John can think back and realize that Jesus was dying for Him, and that choice and picture can ring clear against any doubts. When the feelings pass and change, John still has the picture of Jesus’ choice to die for him. A choice made not to leave John alone, but to ensure they would be together for eternity.

John had to feel alone on Friday and Saturday for him to know he was beloved on every other day for eternity.


This is the love that when acknowledged, fills in the gaps for how we ought to love and makes Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 13 seem more focused. Regardless of feeling, we will choose to love in patience, and kindness, without envy, without boasting, etc., not because of our own strength or work, but because we have received the perfect example of this from the vine and that vine is feeding us in every moment. Other pictures will try to occupy our gaze, but we will return to the picture of Jesus on the cross.

Is this picture big enough to cover those places of filth I hide? I think so. When learning about John, I thought of the picture at most churches of a man full of love and peace. When I approached the Gospel accounts I saw an insecure kid using anger, prejudice, and pride to cover up his inability to trust others. That is, until Jesus saw these parts, and drew them into His chest at the table, carrying them fully to the cross with Him.

Before He took His last breath, He would look down on the cowardly angry kid trembling amidst Roman soldiers and entrust His own mother to him. Jesus cleaned every part of John and not only bestowed mercy, but grace abundantly. I believe this is what establishes the overflow of joy John is known for. John entered the depths of suffering with His savior to the point that every part of Him was finally out on the paper, and was still chosen and loved. He had no need for false significance because he was being loved significantly. How could you not rejoice in this?

All of this to say, I am still learning to be loved by God; to take Him at His Word and let the leaves go. The closer I can get to this, the better I will love Him in return and subsequently others. The more I can sit in His grace, the more grace I will have for others. The more I can sit in His mercy, the more mercy I will have for others. The vine is abundant, and I don’t think I’m going to leave anytime soon.

           

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