When I asked for feedback about the pillars of the church, someone responded:  Mine would be ACCEPTANCE. Our congregation has open arms, minds, welcoming essence for anyone who walks through the door.  We’ve had less-than-elegant transwomen, queer couples, POC, and others come through our doors–all are welcomed.

Dennis the Menace cartoon: There is one I absolutely love.   Dennis and his friend Joey are leaving Mrs. Wilson’s house loaded up with a plate full of cookies. Joey turns to Dennis and says,

I wonder what we did to deserve this.’ Dennis is quick to reply, ‘‘Look Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we’re nice, but because she’s nice’.

There is a theological phrase for this concept – it’s called Prevenient Grace.  John Wesley organized Methodism around what he called “means of grace”, three primary ways related to particular moments in our spiritual journey: prevenient grace, justifying grace, & sanctifying or perfecting grace.

Much of our theology depends on whether we start from the perspective of “God is Judge” or from the perspective of “God s Love”.  Those who see God as Judge tend to have a faith that is fear-based.  It starts from the premise of Psalm 51 – “You are a worm – a sinful creature.  You were born sinful, and you will always be sinful.”  That fear permeates your worldview. Those who view God as love, ultimately come to God out of love, not fear.  It is a theology that says, “Yes, we are broken creatures living in a broken world, but we were born of grace, and at our core resides the grace of God.”

Methodist & UCC theology, as I see it, start from the standpoint of God is Love, as embodied in  I John 4:7-8. Prevenient Grace means “to come before”.  It is the grace embodied in Psalm 139.  The understanding that God’s love is present from the very beginning of our lives, regardless of any conscious effort on our part to know God. God loved us before we ever loved God. When we look back on our lives, we might see that God was reaching out to us, loving us, nurturing us, inviting us into relationship long before we ever thought about it.  No one is immune from the impelling, persuading,  enticing nature of God. God reaches out accepting us just as we are, even before we are capable of accepting God’s love. God takes the initiative. John 15:16:  You did not choose me, I chose you.”

Henri Nouwen:

One of the enormous spiritual tasks we have is to claim God’s belovedness, and live our lives based in that knowledge.  Most of us fail to claim the truth of who we are.  Stay connected to who God says you are. It will strengthen you in all your inner and outer dealings in this world.

And yet, there are so many things that keep us from accepting God’s love, from claiming God’s belovedness, from being able to love ourselves, accept ourselves. There is so much in our society that tells us we are not good enough, smart enough, rich enough. If that’s not enough, we have our inner critic to contend with as well.  Henri Nouwen in his book Life of the Beloved writes: “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.”  My dark side says I am no good…I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

The longing to feel accepted, enjoyed, and loved is at the core of every human.   Part of cultivating a healthy spiritual life involves a process of  accepting our self in the grace of God.  This requires that we become acquainted with our true self, in our present condition, and learn to living according to the reality of who we are today while working toward who we long to become in the grace of God.

Nouwen kept a journal, that wrote from December of 1987 to June of 1988. The Inner Voice of Love.  He shares a difficult time and painful journey in his life when he left the academic world of as a prestigious seminary professor at Harvard & Yale Universities and took up residence at L’Arche – in a community of developmentally disabled adults. At this time Henri Nouwen experienced what seems to have been a Dark Night of the Soul. In his book, The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen describes his spiritual crisis: Everything came crashing down — my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness. What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.

The famous Catholic priest, seminary professor, and author had helped millions of people grow into a more intimate relationship with God and yet he found himself in a period of “extreme anguish.” He felt “completely abandoned” by God.

When Nouwen got to the other side of his dark tunnel in 1988 he was asked to publish his secret journal, but he felt it was too raw, intense, and exposing. Besides, he says he couldn’t imagine it would help anyone but himself! But in 1996, shortly before he died, he was asked again to publish his private reflections from his season of spiritual darkness. This time he felt he had enough distance to release his experience of fearful anguish to the public. He wanted others to know what he came to know: God does not abandon us during dark night trials.  In sharing his secret journal the beloved priest and wounded healer shows us that even great spiritual leaders may struggle with loneliness, insecurity, shame, and feeling far from God.

Nouwen’s experience and testimony reminds us that though it doesn’t feel like it, God is caring deeply for me when I’m in a Dark Night of the Soul. True spiritual healers are wounded healers.

Listen to the scriptures – I have loved you with an everlasting love: I have written your name in the palm of my hand for all eternity. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.  I love you, I embrace you, and you belong to me. Hear that voice that speaks to you.  You are my Beloved.

God’s love is like the Mother Bunny – some call her the Stalker Bunny – always searching for us, knowing our inner nature, longing for us to come home.  God is always there taking the initiative, tugging at our hearts.  At some point, Prevenient grace may become saving grace. We decide to choose God back – just like the Runaway Bunny ultimately realized WHERE home was.

We’re not waiting for God; God is waiting for US – waiting for us to recognize where God is working so that we might join in, to participate with God in what God is doing.  God’s desire is to guide us into the fullness and abundance of life, wants to give us direction, wants to speak to us.

Just like the Runaway Bunny who spent all his time running away finally decided he may just as well go home, so too do we have to decide to go home and choose God back.  Our job is to open our lives and open our hearts to God’s love.  Our response is to choose back.  Why is this so important?  Perhaps our very lives, as well as the community around us, depends on recognizing this belovedness.

Jer 1:5 : “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you…”

Jer 31:3: “…I have loved you with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee.”

I John 4:19: “We love God, because God  first loved us.”

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,

I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny,  I will become a rock on the mountain, above you.”
“If you become a rock on a mountain high above Me,

I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”
If you become a Mountain climber, said the little bunny,  I will become a crocus in a hidden garden.”

“If you become a crocus in a hidden garden,  I will be a gardener. And I will find you.”
If you become a gardener, I will become a bird and fly away.

“If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will be a tree that you come home to.”
If you become a tree, I will become a sailboat and sail far away.

“If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,
I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”
If you become the wind, I will become a little boy, and run into a house.

“If you become a little boy and run into the house,
I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

Shucks,” said the little bunny, “I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
And so he did.”Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.

All-Loving God, we give thanks you have created within us something of the spark of God and that you have also placed within us a restlessness of the spirit that only God’s nearer presence can satisfy. We give thanks that over the years of our life, we have known and experienced your guidance,