Over Christmas I went to visit my family in Nashville, and I got a chance to read — not for school, or to write curriculum, just read. One of the books I picked up was Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved.” The book was written by Nouwen as almost a long letter to a dear, non-religious friend of his. It is basically Nouwen’s argument for faith but, because it’s written as a compassionate letter to a dear friend, it’s almost unbearably gentle and vulnerable. While Nouwen says the book never really meant what he wanted it to for the man he wrote it for, the book became a lifeline for searching Christians — Christians who want to believe but aren’t sure how or where to start.
Part of the reason I thought to read it is that the book draws its inspiration from Matthew 3:17, which is in the lectionary for this weekend. The verse comes at the end of the baptism of Jesus and reads: “And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, on whom my favor rests.”
Nouwen uses that verse as the basis for the core argument of his book, a thesis which has been rattling around in my head since:
My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being — you are the Beloved
As much as I loved the book, I also felt for Nouwen in it. It’s a deeply personal book written by a man to a friend he loves dearly who he just wants to know the truth — that he is the beloved child of God, who God so loved he gave his only son for, who carries the light of Christ around with him. I feel for Nouwen’s urgency, heart, pleading, because I work with teenagers, and if there’s anything I could teach them, that they should hear, it’s what Nouwen tries so hard to tell his friend: That You are the Beloved.
Teenagers’ core need is the need to know that they are worth your time, enough, and loved. Especially the teenagers at this church; I don’t know if you know any of them, but they are relentlessly accomplishment-driven, and unbelievably busy. For many of them, nothing is ever enough. For many of them, they are never enough.
It’s funny — I think there’s a misconception that the most useful thing we can do for teenagers is to shape them, mold them, and keep them on the straight and narrow. As though they weren’t getting that enough. As though no one had thought to mention to them that they were not good enough. Don’t misunderstand me, we are under no disillusionment that our teenagers are perfect. But maybe we don’t need to tell them they are broken, we need to tell them that they are loved regardless. Let the message of the world be their inadequacy and failures, let ours be love. The world will beat them down, I will not. These teenagers need not to be called back to the fold, they need to be called the beloved.
This is what I am learning as a youth pastor, and sometimes it’s so frustrating. When they give into addiction, self-harm, when they call themselves bad names, pretend to be something they’re not, it makes me want to shake them and say — Don’t you get it? Can’t you see? You are the Beloved! You are so completely and utterly enough!
That brings us to a funny truth about teenagers. They’re not so different than us. They’re just more out in the open about how they feel. The most intense need of a teenager is to be called the beloved, but is it not also the adults? Teenagers say mean things to themselves and think themselves unworthy. Much of their selfishness, shortness, comes from really core insecurity.
Does that really sound all that unfamiliar? Teenagers are on a process of trying to understand how a perfect God could love such imperfect people so perfectly. Do we not ask ourselves the same question? Aren’t I just a few more steps down the same road than them?
Which leads to the other funny thing about teenagers. You cannot lead them where you have not gone. When I look at them, it’s so obvious to me that they are beloved and wonderful and enough — but it feels less obvious when I look at myself. They can only truly love God when they understand the way they are loved by God. And I can only show them the way they are loved by God as far as I understand the way that I am loved by God.
So here’s the strange truth I want to leave with you. It’s the same one I want to leave with teenagers, and honestly, that I’m trying to learn to hold on to myself:
My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being — you are the Beloved. The greatest gift my friendship can give you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness? Yes, there is that voice that speaks from above and within and whispers softly or declares loudly — “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.”