In a crumbling monastery, overlooking grazing sheep and stony shores, we said words that cracked something open in my heart and changed my life forever. It was the summer of the year I turned 40, and I had saved for a trip to Scotland and Ireland, a solo adventure that I had always dreamed of taking. The purpose of my trip was to explore the beauty and the wildness of these two countries; their history, their art and architecture, their food, their spiritual landscape, and their people. I was also booked for a week-long workshop with the Iona Community in Scotland.
The Iona Community is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, the rebuilding of community, and the renewal of worship. Their home-base is a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides, which can only be reached through a series of trains, ferries, and bus rides, generally taken in the pouring rain. Ever since hearing of them fifteen or twenty years earlier, I had felt a deep connection with this group because of their relationship to the earth, their focus on social justice, their commitment to diversity, their use of the arts in worship, and their love of reconciling community. As it happened, they were hosting a week-long workshop that summer, called “Change Without Decay.” It seemed timely, since so much was changing in our denomination and in my own life at the time.
The description of their workshop ran like this:
For many people in churches, change is a no-go area, a source of stress and the cause of major disagreement. Yet change is the central dynamic of the Christian faith: Jesus both changes people, and in the resurrection moves from being a corpse to a living body.
For many people (especially in the churches) mention of change evokes an immediate negative reaction. Some have put that down to the couplet in verse two of Abide With Me: “Change and decay in all around I see; Oh thou who changest not, abide with me.”
Given that among the primary purposes of Jesus were to call people to repentance (which is a substantial turn-around) and ‘to make all things new’, it is important that people of faith do more than have a knee-jerk reaction to change. It should be a central dynamic in our life. This is what we will explore together as it affects the worshipping life of a community.
I was hooked. What I didn’t realize is that I would take away from that workshop not only the concepts and skill-sets of institutional change, but my own inner transformation. A real shift was about take place within me, a resurrection of the soul.
The gifts of that week were many. There was the welcoming, ecumenical environment (every perspective was respected and considered); the locally-sourced, homemade food; the work teams we all participated in to cook and to clean; the new friendships where life-stories were shared; the thoughtful, small group seminars; the ethnically-diverse worship resources; the singing, art, and play (think, Scottish dance party); and the wild geography that spoke to my soul. Everything felt like a gift!
Yet I had already been hoping for most of those things; the thing that completely took my breath away and knocked my theological socks off was the gift to my identity. It came three or four days in. Each morning we worshipped together in that crumbling monastery, overlooking the grazing sheep and stony shores. (Which, quite frankly, are hard to beat.) I’m not sure if we had said these words every day up until then and I just woke up to them that day, or if this was the first time that we had said them. What I do know is that the words hit me sideways. I felt as though the earth had split open. What we said went like this:
4A Morning Service
Leader The world belongs to God,
All the earth and all its people.
How good it is, how wonderful
to live together in unity.
Love and faith come together;
justice and peace join hands.
If Christ’s disciples keep silent,
these stones would shout aloud.
Open our lips, O God,
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Song of praise
Call to prayer
Leader Move among us, God; give us life;
All let your people rejoice in you.
Give us again the joy of your help;
with your Spirit of freedom sustain us.
God, make our hearts clean,
restore us in body, mind and spirit.
Let us pray.
And then there was a prayer of confession and the Lord’s Prayer. But what came after that was the staggering part. It was the response of faith:
Leader With the whole church
All we affirm
that we are made in God’s image,
befriended by Christ,
empowered by the Spirit.
With people everywhere
God’s goodness at the heart of humanity
planted more deeply than all that is wrong
With all creation
the miracle and wonder of life,
the unfolding purposes of God
forever at work in ourselves and the world.
Then there were more readings, songs, and prayers but frankly, I wasn’t listening anymore. I was reeling. God’s goodness at the heart of humanity is planted more deeply than all that is wrong?! The goodness of God is planted in me more deeply than all that is wrong? I realized in that moment that I had internalized the opposite: that the badness of humanity was planted in me more deeply than all that is right and good.
I don’t want to get into a debate about the doctrine of Total Depravity here. Let’s save that for another day. What I want to say is that a misapplication of Total Depravity had led me to believe that the truest thing about me is that I am inherently bad, in the deepest roots of my being. That same misapplication suggests that everything in the world should be seen through a lens of badness. And it was making me miserable. I was trying so hard to do all the right things, to appear good, even to look for goodness in the world around me, but there was always this deep sense that I wasn’t making the mark. I had a tape running in my head that kept saying, “try harder, it’s not working, you’ll never be good enough.” I desperately needed the affirmation that day that God’s goodness was planted in me more deeply than all that is wrong, because the other theology, the misapplied one, was corroding my soul.
Brené Brown makes the differentiation between guilt and shame by defining guilt as the feeling that “I have done something bad,” and shame as the feeling that “I am bad.” That’s what I was feeling and fighting against, the shame that comes from internalizing a story that badness was the truest thing about me. This was not about having made mistakes in my life, but about there being something wrong with me at the core.
Strangely, this sense of deep badness was in constant conflict with some other truths that I knew about the depth of divine goodness: God’s redemptive generosity, my belovedness, the dignity of human beings, and the beauty of creation (brilliantly described by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as “the dearest freshness deep down things”). It was creating a flip-flop within me between badness and goodness: which one was most true? Was it really, as one of my summer camp counselors told me, that I’m bad to my core but that God sees me through Jesus-colored glasses? Or was there some other way of seeing here? I found myself fighting to reclaim an understanding of goodness and to find its place in the story.
In all of this, word order is supremely important. It has been said that there is a problem in Christianity when we start the story with the problem, that is, when the story begins with inherent badness as a premise for redemption. Stay with me here. I’m not saying there is no badness, and I’m not saying there is no redemption.
To start the story with inherent goodness (that has been forgotten) would mean that the story is not about making our badness good, but about remembering who we are.
What I am saying is that it would make a world of difference if the story started differently. What if we started it not with ugliness, but with beauty? (Which is, in fact, what happens in Genesis.) What if the foundation for the story were not our inherent badness, but first and foremost the fact that we are made in the image of a good and beautiful God who declared creation to be “very good”? And what if what came next in the story was the unfortunate reality that when we forget our true identity, we make bad mistakes? We certainly have cause for remorse and repentance here, but not for that kind of deep-rooted shame that says there is something terribly wrong with me. To start the story with inherent goodness (that has been forgotten) would mean that the story is not about making our badness good, but about remembering who we are. Hear me again. I’m not saying there is no badness in the world, or in human beings. I’m also not saying there’s no need for redemption. What I’m saying is that the story is really better told by starting with goodness, and then by framing it in terms of remembering who we are. As one friend posted recently on Facebook, “the Imago Dei is stronger than sin.” That is the story.
To think in this way changes everything. I remember feeling free and beautiful in that moment at Iona, in touch with my core Self – the self I was created to be. No longer flip-flopping between goodness and badness, I was resting securely in my identity as a child of God. I didn’t wake up anymore feeling heaviness, I woke up feeling grounded in goodness. I wondered, is this how we were intended to live?
But thinking this way didn’t only change the way I understand myself. It also changed how I relate to other human beings. Research shows that when humans become anxious, our brains resort to binary thinking. Generally, we try to work out “who is wrong here?” Either I am wrong and you are right, or you are wrong and I am right. But what if we changed the question? What if it’s not, “who is wrong here?” but “where is the image of God here?” How might our relationships change if we were to say, “the goodness of God is planted at the heart of that other person more deeply than all that is wrong,” and then we looked for that image? For members of the RCA, this is especially timely. At a moment when the stress and grief of the changes threatening our beloved denomination have caused many of us to act poorly toward one another, what would it mean for us to acknowledge that the goodness of God is planted at the heart of the RCA more deeply than all that is wrong?
I’m not saying that human beings are perfect, or that our institution is beyond reproach. Far from it. There has definitely been wrongdoing, and the institution as we know it might be irreparable. What I am saying is that it could make a world of difference to change our lens from inherent badness to inherent image-of-God-ness. What if God’s goodness is more deep and more true than all the wrongdoing? It might just change everything if we made it the project of our lives to see the beauty of God’s image in ourselves and in others . . . to remember who we are. I know it made a world of difference to me to hear that truth in a drafty monastery on a cold summer day on a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides. The truest thing about me is that I am made in the image of a good and beautiful God. The goodness of that God is planted in me more deeply than all that is wrong. The same is true for you. And maybe it is also true for our denomination. Maybe it is, as Hopkins said, that there is the dearest freshness deep down things. I hope we can have the eyes to see that deep goodness. I hope we can remember who we are.