Last week, I invited you to join me in practicing Jesus’s prayer every day in 2023. Jesus promises us that our lives come home and flourish when we practice his words (Matthew 7:24).
This week, I’m delighted to share an excerpt from Flourishing on the Edge of Faith about the first moment in Jesus’s prayer: “Our Father.” This is where our flourishing begins and always comes home. I call it a practice of divine belovedness.
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Thank you for joining me in practicing flourishing with Jesus in 2023!
May you flourish,
“You Are My Beloved Child”
Jesus’s invitation to call God our Father is rooted in perhaps the most intimate, important moment of his own life – a moment that he invites us to share with him in prayer.
Before Jesus preaches a sermon or performs any public action, he journeys out into the wilderness. There he meets his radical cousin John by the river Jordan, where John is baptizing people from all over ancient Palestine.
This immersive water ritual was meant to symbolize new birth, a washing away of old ways of living and the start of a new way of being human with God. John called this metanoia in Greek or a revolutionized mind.
Jesus is plunged into the river by John and rises up with water washing over him. In this moment of sacred passage, he sees heaven open and hears the voice of God say to him, “You are my beloved son; I delight in you” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).
I suspect that many of us have had this heaven-opening experience at some point in our lives. We call it epiphany, insight, or enlightenment. Its sacred message has been paraphrased in all sorts of ways. Hannah Arendt said, “I want you to be.” Fred Rogers said, “I like you the way you are.” The traditional Hindu greeting says, “I see God in you.”
These heaven-opening words speak to the core of Jesus’s identity. They engulf him in his divine belovedness. They express God’s unconditional pleasure in his being and a secure attachment that bathes and enlivens Jesus’s humanity like the river’s water rushing around his body.
Our Father’s primal declaration reveals that God understands our deeply human fear that we’re ultimately alone and unwanted. From God’s words, it also appears that Jesus knew this haunting inner pain. By this point in his life, Jesus had survived an atrocious political massacre, fled to a neighboring country as a child refugee, and grown up in a rural village synonymous with mockery. Jesus was woundedly familiar with loss, violence, and trauma as we’ve seen.
Our primal fear of being unloved and abandoned sets in motion a desperate struggle to perform, prove, and project that we are worthy of love. It also often leads us into a numbed or self-mutilating existence with a cutting inner voice of insult, rejection, and aggression. Here we find the hidden roots of some of our most desperate addictions. I have battled with both tendencies of ambitious performance and self-loathing throughout my life. During my PhD studies at the University of Chicago, I often heard an inner voice whisper, “You’re a piece of sh*t.”
The timing, then, of God’s heaven-opening message to Jesus is significant. Before Jesus has said or done anything that could seemingly earn love, God speaks this absolute affirmation into the core of his being: You are my child; I love you; your existence brings me happiness. It’s unconditional.
And God doesn’t just say this once at the beginning of Jesus’s movement. God says it repeatedly. In fact, this is the singular message that we hear God revoice to Jesus throughout his life recorded in the Gospels. It’s as if these words encompass everything our Father wants to say to us.
The second time comes at a crucial turning point when Jesus faces growing unpopularity and rejection. Like the first, Jesus steps away into solitude, this time up in the mountains. There he prays and hears our Father repeat, “You are my beloved son; I delight in you.” Then, moments before Jesus’s brutal execution and ultimate act of self-giving love, God echoes this soul-healing message yet again.
I find it striking that even self-confessed atheists have had this experience of God. For example, Dinah Bazer was a 63-year-old grandmother and ovarian cancer survivor. She was paralyzed with fear that her cancer would return and consume her life. But after an innovative treatment organized by New York University, Dinah confessed:
“I’m an atheist, I don’t believe there is a God. But then I began to feel this love. Just overwhelming, all-encompassing love. And the way I describe it is being bathed in God’s love, because I find no other way to describe it. I felt that I belonged, that I was part of everything and had the right to be here. How else do I describe it? Maybe what your mother’s love felt like when you were a baby. This feeling of love was suffusing the entire experience.”
This atheist’s experience of divine belovedness is uncannily like Jesus’s baptism. She recalls being bathed and suffused with nurturing parental love. And this love washed away her fear of dying and embraced her with complete belonging.
My friend Simon Howard researches the testimonies of people who have had near-death experiences, and he’s found a strikingly similar pattern. He told me,
“I don’t think I’ve listened to a single recounting of a near-death experience that hasn’t included a profound sense of being overwhelmingly loved by a being that is identifiably God, and that hasn’t resulted in a new resolve for the experiencer to love others in their continued earthly life.”
This is who Jesus experienced God to be. God is the One who knows us, who loves us, and who delights in us. God declares this before we have said or done anything that could deserve love. And God continues declaring this even in the midst of fear, loss, and death. It’s unconditional.
With his prayer’s primal movement, then, Jesus invites us to talk to this God as our Father. He welcomes us to hear that divine whisper in the depths of our being. This Voice opens heaven and interrupts other gnawing voices of shame, performance, rejection, and aggression. You are my beloved child; I delight in you. Nothing can make you less than that for me. Henri Nouwen wrote that this divine belovedness “reveals the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not.”
This is where our practice of flourishing truly begins.
*** Excerpted from Andrew DeCort, Flourishing on the Edge of Faith: Seven Practices for a New We (Washington, DC: BitterSweetBooks, 2022), 3-6.