A few weeks ago I found a child’s scrawl on the back of a prayer request card in the church. It read, “I know you God So I am so DispicuBel” I must confess that I was shocked and deeply saddened by this.
I have been a spiritual director and adviser over many years to probably dozens of people, and have been powerfully impacted by the fact that far and away the most common spiritual “ailment” is when people know Jesus and believe that he is the Son of God and Savior—but do not feel or truly believe that they are unconditionally loved and fully forgiven. Indeed, this is my own besetting sin. To see this sentiment laid out in the words of a child was distressing. Did the child hear the words from an adult, remember them, and then write them down without knowing their meaning? Maybe the child just liked the word because of the movie “Despicable Me”. Of course, I don’t know. But the implication that knowing God leads to believing oneself to be despicable is distressing.
After I reflected on the scrawl, the words of a song from 1970 came into my mind. The song was “Woodstock”, written by Joni Mitchell to capture the feeling of the legendary rock concert of August 1969. The song begins with these words:
I came upon a child of God.
He was walking along the road.
When I asked him, “Where are you going?”
This he told me.
I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm.
Think I’ll join a rock and roll band.
I’ll camp out on the land.
I’ll try and set my soul free.
We are stardust.
We are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
There are several recordings of the song on youtube, but here’s the best-known version:
Now here’s something funny. Woodstock is known as the largest gathering of people that had ever occurred in the United States up to that time. In the words of the song, they were “half a million strong”. Woodstock is remembered not only for the music but for the rampant “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, i.e. immoral and illegal behaviors. Yet there is an appearance of joy in what people experienced there, expressed in the song that uses the words “child of God”, “getting one’s soul free”, and “getting back to the garden”, i.e. looking for Eden. And in recognizing that humans of all kinds are “stardust” and “golden”. Even in the context of public nudity and clouds of marijuana smoke there was a kind of lyric innocence underneath, with happy people looking for and finding some sort of freedom in contrast to, as the song says, feeling “like a cog in something turning.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that people become hippies in order to find God or freedom, or learn that they are loved. “Free love” and drug abuse are long-proven roads to ruination.
What I’m thinking about is the contrast between the genuine search for “the garden” and recognition that one is “a child of God” and “golden” among—what shall I say? neo-pagans?—and the sense of being despicable and loathsome that so many believers have today. Believers more than anyone ought to know that the birthright of the born again is “love, joy, peace,...” Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you”; “Your joy no one will take from you”; “My peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
The feeling of being despicable is valuable and, as far as it goes, true. But too many believers stop there. We need the overpowering message not only of Scripture but of the Saints: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, also called St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (January 2, 1873 – September 30, 1897).
During his pontificate at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pope Pius X declared St. Thérèse “the greatest saint of modern times.” She was only twenty-four when she died, but during her short life spoke more powerfully and simply and penetratingly of the love of God than most people in the history of the Church.
My favorite saying of St. Thérèse is, “I’m not saying that you believe too much in your own wretchedness. I’m telling you that you don’t believe enough in merciful love.”
Despicable, okay. But don’t stop there. Believers should have at least as much conviction of their being the children of God, and golden, and knowing love, joy, and peace as the neo-pagans of Woodstock.
“I’m telling you that you don't believe enough in merciful love.” If only I, and everyone I know and love and preach to, could really and truly know and believe and feel these things.