As I shifted away from trying really hard to “revisit” my Pops’ workshop and toward a genuine desire to experience God’s love, no matter how he might to chose to show it to me, I realized that I might have been trying too hard. I was looking for really impressive, unmistakable affirmations of the Father’s love. Was I overlooking a multitude of small, daily reminders? I shifted my praying in that direction, asking for the grace to recognize the small, daily tokens of my Pops’ love for me. I unexpectedly found myself back in the workshop, talking with my Pops.
I was in the front part of the workshop, where Pops shapes wood. That is just what he was doing, using a rasp or file to shape a piece of wood. Watching him work, I become aware that this is creative activity; he is creating something new from a block of wood. This is fundamentally different from Jesus’ work of restoring, his sanding and polishing. Pops is creating, Jesus is perfecting and restoring. What the Father creates is good, but we are in a fallen world where we invariably drift away from the good we are created to be. Jesus is about putting things back to the way they should be, restoring and perfecting the beauty that was there in creation. He undoes the hurts and camouflage we accrete as we go through life.
As I watched Pops working, I called out to him, “Hi ya, Pops!”
His response was matter-of-fact. “Hello, David.”
God kept at his work while I stood quietly to the side. When one isn’t used to having a conversation with God, thinking of what to say can be daunting. This level of conversation was different from my past experiences of prayer. Before my workshop visits, I mainly talked to God (or at him) but not with him. Now I wanted my words to be profound and worshipful. Almost anything that came to mind seemed trite, if not irreverent. My thoughts turned to my familiar, casual name for him. I broke in on his work, “It seems formal when you call me ‘David.’ Shouldn’t you call me ‘Sonny’ or something?”
Pops paused in his work and replied, “How about I call you ‘Beloved’ instead? You know, you are my beloved.”
This was challenging to hear. Two things crashed through my mind. First, I was aware that “David” in Hebrew means “Beloved.” God seemed to be saying that my name fits me in his eyes. The second thing that came to my mind was what God spoke from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism:
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:16-1 (ESV)
Jesus was God’s beloved. How could that same honorific be applied to me? I knew God loved me. He had to; he loves everybody. I love Nacho Cheese Doritos, but I don’t notice or love any particular Dorito. I don’t differentiate one Dorito from another. I love them as a group. But here was God seeming to say yes, he loves everyone, and yet, he notices and loves me in particular. It is as if I were to pick one Dorito from the bag, a Dorito that is especially dear to me. But here the metaphor falls apart. Each of us is special to God. With our human finiteness and limitations, it is hard to understand it, but he sees, values and loves each one of us. Whether we know it or not, we are each his beloved. He knows me, and I matter to him.
It was unnerving to hear my Pops declare that I was his beloved and to think about what that meant. In the vision, I could see myself looking down, studying my feet as I lightly kicked at sawdust and small scraps of wood on the floor. I was decidedly not looking at my Pops. I had not yet accepted that I could be special to God. I was grappling with a reality that didn’t fit with my view of God and of myself. I had started this journey wanting some ill-defined “more” and found myself directed to experience God’s love. When the “more” came, when I came face to face with the love of God, and I was having trouble accepting it.
Part of me wanted to shore up my crumbling defenses, to come up with some obfuscating reason, some glib response to mask my discomfort and avoid the truth: God’s assertion that I was his beloved was colliding violently with my view of myself as fundamentally flawed and unworthy of love. Set against my desire to avoid that internal incongruence was an increasing sense of safety and security; a sense that nothing truly harmful could come from opening up to my Pops. He is, as C. S. Lewis described him, good but not safe.
My discomfort and internal conflict did not go unnoticed by my Pops. After a few moments passed, he asked gently, with a hint of sadness in his voice, “Why is that so hard for you to accept?”
I choked on my reply but decided the risk of honesty was going to be worth it. I admitted, “I guess I think I am not much of a person.” This was no false humility. I carried an internal “truth” that I was somehow broken or defective. Sadly, many of us learn that growing up. In my case, I already knew much of the cause.
My mother was an alcoholic, and my father was all but consumed by co-dependency. Children have a remarkable ability to believe they are all-powerful actors in their families. As children, we believe that if anything goes wrong, it must somehow be our fault. Like many others raised in chaotic and highly dysfunctional households, I had a deep-seated belief that I was somehow defective and not lovable or worthy of love. Knowing that the belief was not rational or reasonable did not change its reality.
Besides, I could look back over my life and see a string of damaged and broken relationships. Even as a Christian, trying, in my own strength, to emulate Christ-like love and compassion, I often “failed” and hurt those I was trying to love. I knew God was good; therefore the problem must be me. I must be “defective.”
I had yet to learn that we cannot, by the strength of our wills or intellect become more like Jesus, we need to open ourselves to the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that God didn’t value and honor my doomed-to-failure attempts to mold myself in the image of his son. Quite the opposite: he values and respects our desires to conform to his will. He knows the healing we each must go through before we can stop trying to do it ourselves and allow his spirit to transform us. Looking back now, I believe that my time in the Workshop, unexpected and unbidden, was a sign of God valuing me and my misguided attempts at righteousness. But in the moment, with my ignorance of that dynamic, my continuing misfires in trying to be like Jesus reinforced my sense of shame and worthlessness before God.
My Pops had asked me why it was so hard for me to accept that I was his beloved. He already knew the answer to his question; he asked it so that I could start to uncover the answer for myself; he knew that I needed to peel back the layers of pretending that I was “okay.” I needed to be honest with myself about how I felt before I could be honest with him. It was a painful truth to face. We cannot be healed of what we do not know and acknowledge
With the piece of wood he was working on still in his hand, my Pops, continued, “I don’t make bad people or unlovable people. I have always loved you.” As he said this, I became aware that the piece of wood he was shaping was, like the wood Jesus was sanding, a person.
Who Am I?
My thoughts turned to God as the creator, specifically the creator of me, and I asked, “Who am I supposed to be?”
He replied, “You are supposed to be you.”
That seemed a less than satisfying answer, a throwaway, almost. Yet it was profound. My Pops was telling me that I am okay the way I am. I already am what I am supposed to be. I don’t have to be anyone else besides who I am, who he created me to be.
Then, as the vision ended, I could see myself trying to pile sawdust and wood scrap onto myself as if to undo what the Father and Jesus were doing. It was a futile and silly act, trying to go back into hiding, putting back the layers of defense and camouflage. Clearly, I was still not fully ready to accept that God saw me as his beloved; that I am treasured just the way I am.
Later that day I had a session with my spiritual director, where I shared this experience. His advice was to press into being known by God and knowing who I am. He suggested that I spend time asking my Pops how, specifically, he sees me. Who is it my Pops sees what he looks at me?
I did just that: I prayed, asking the Lord what words he would use to describe me. In response, I heard these adjectives: “compassionate, very smart, generous, and caring.” I was immediately dismissive of this list. It looked a lot like a list that a vain and arrogant person might come up with. If you had asked people who knew me even a few years before my Workshop experience, how they would describe me, you would not have heard caring, generous, or compassionate. Smart? Yes – I made sure everyone knew how smart I am. But not caring or compassionate. If I was anything, I was vain and arrogant.
I asked Pops specifically about arrogance. Surely arrogance must be high on the list. It was my number one character flaw; the very thing that was immobilizing me from going deeper with him! He led me to understand that his list was describing how he made me, the true me. In spiritual direction we often talk about the psychological concept of the false self and the true self. My Pops was describing my true self. Arrogance and all the other negatives I would use to define myself were a description of the false self; part of the paint and varnish I had accumulated over the years. My false self was the protective shell I covered myself with to try to protect myself. Those things effectively protected me, but at a very high cost to myself and others.
My defense mechanisms, learned and honed to a sharp point protected me but hurt those around me. Arrogance, along with pride and vanity, do not define me; they are not who I was meant to be and really do need to go. They are not me, and when I am in the hands of my Pops, they are no longer needed. In his hands, my defenses and protections are just in the way.
Striping off the paint, varnish, and other accretions we have covered ourselves with is what Jesus is doing with his sandpaper and what he invites me to help others do: helping people see themselves as they are meant to be, as God created them to be. Jesus was starting to model for me the ministry he was calling me to. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he was showing me the ministry of Spiritual Direction.
See chapter eight of “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Now, as a Spiritual Director myself, I wonder at my director’s calm acceptance of my visions as I unpacked them with him. I felt like that sort of thing happed all the time.