Jul 082012

By Emilie M. Townes

to be called beloved
is to be called by God
to be called by the shining moments
be called deep within deep
to be called beloved
is more than one plus infinity
more than the million breaths of loving
than the sounds of tomorrow’s horizon
to be called beloved
is the marvelous yes to God’s what if
the radical shifting of growth
mundane agency of active faith
to be called beloved
is to ask the question
what would it mean
what would it look like if we actually believed
that we are washed in God’s grace
to be called beloved
is to answer the question
we are not dipped
we are not sprinkled
we are not immersed
we are washed in the grace of God
to be called beloved
is to listen to the words of Baby Suggs
who offered up to them (us) her great big heart

I read this poem in Emilie Townes’ book In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality As Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 47). The poem references Baby Suggs, a character in Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, and Dr. Townes includes a segment of text immediately following the poem:

“Here,” she said,”in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.  Love it.  Love it hard.  Yonder they do not love your flesh.  They despise it…Love your hands!  Love them.  Raise them up and kiss them.  Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either.  You got to love it, you!…This is flesh I’m talking about here.  Flesh that needs to be loved.  Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you…So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.  And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them.  The dark, dark liver – love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.  More than eyes or feet.
“More than lungs that have yet to draw free air.  More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart.  For this is the prize.”  Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music.  Long held notes until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, 88-89)

I’ve recently started reading Beloved, and I’ve found that it’s the kind of book you carry with you – the kind of story that stays in your mind, even after you’ve put it down for the day.  It is set shortly after the Civil War, and tells the story of characters who, though no longer enslaved, find themselves having to navigate the ghosts of slavery.  (If you have not had the opportunity to read it, I highly recommend it.)  This passage is so powerful because Baby Suggs is encouraging her audience to love the very thing which had been devalued while they were enslaved – the parts which had just years before been sold as chattel, held as property to someone else.  To love one’s neck, one’s back, or feet, or face – was to love the things which had been dehumanized and enslaved, generalized to the point that the notion of an individual identity was lost.

I should confess that when I read the passage in Beloved last week, the first thing that came to mind was General Assembly, and the ways that shame can lead to disembodiment, or self-hatred, and how often that denial or hatred of self can come out sideways (e.g., by saying that homosexuality is a sin deserving of death…).  I say “I should confess” because I think it is vital to recognize the particularities of experience and marginalization as they cross lines of gender, race, sexuality, etc (I elaborate a bit more on this in an earlier post).  Nuanced as the conversation may be, this passage speaks to the power of loving intentionally the very thing society says makes you unlovable, unworthy of God’s love. In her book, Dr. Townes talks about the power of Baby Suggs’s call as a reminder of the individual experience – to recognize that any “other” of which we speak (even if our intention is to get to know or advocate for said “other”) is not a collection of generalized stereotypes, but is a combination of specific experiences, of hopes and fears – a specific body embodied in specific flesh.

To be beloved is to occupy a specific space in one’s gaze, in one’s heart – in one’s hopes and dreams and possibilities.  To say I am God’s beloved is to make the radical claim that the specifics of who I am, and what I have to offer this world, matter.  To recognize that everyone is God’s beloved is to see that the experience of each individual offers us a glimpse into the heart of God.  I cannot generalize the “queer” experience or the “black” experience or the “female” or “male” experience without realize that, in doing so, I am generalizing an individual heartbeat in a world of drumming hearts.  Real transformation is not possible if first, we fail to recognize that we are beloved – that we matter.  Second, it is not possible if we fail to see that others are as well.  Third, it is not possible if we don’t let ourselves get close enough to hear one another’s hearts beating – to intentionally share with and listen to each other’s stories, wishes and fears. As we engage in relation, we begin to see and to know each other as God’s beloveds. It is when we allow ourselves to make room for experiences starkly different from our own without trivializing or romanticizing them – that is when we can begin to advocate responsibly for one another (and for ourselves), to take risks, and to open ourselves to the possibilities grace offers.

  One Response to “To Be Called Beloved”

  1. Thank-you for this….and know that you are beloved….peace be upon you…..


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