“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” [Matthew 5:16-16 NRSV]
I’ve learned to be someone who’s trustworthy enough to listen deeply without judgment, to make connections with other people at a soul-deep level, and to reflect back the innate goodness and inner wholeness of the other person. Another way to describe what I have learned might be to say that one can hold a space open for a short while that allows another person to receive the gift of affirmation, or in other words, to receive the acknowledgment that he or she is truly created in the image of the Creator.
Even as I affirm other people, I am being affirmed that the gift of affirmation is a characteristic of God that God has shaped in me. I recognize that it’s not about me; it is entirely of and about God . . . and I claim it as my inheritance in the family of God – to participate in God’s grace of affirming the gifts that God has created in each of us.
God calls each of us in individual ways that are often indirect, and for most of us, we live a lifetime not recognizing and not responding to that calling by God. When Jesus called Zacchaeus, he did so in the form of a command, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” [Luke 19:5 NRSV], calling forth the tax collector’s innate hospitality [“So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” Luke 19:6 NRSV]
I learned the language of call with help. I spend time with a “conversation partner,” who has helped me to notice and name the places in my life in which God has called me to be God’s hands and feet and mouth. Noticing and naming are powerful practices that rest in the stories of God’s presence among humanity. It has been through the study of those stories – the holy scriptures of human religions – that noticing and naming have taken form for me and invited me into their mysteries.
Affirmation might be defined as the noticing and naming of responding to God’s call. When I affirm someone, I am noticing and naming something in that person that is an expression of the wonderful human creation that person is. When I tell Ally that she has a tender heart that moves her to speak out against injustice and stand up for the rights of others, I am noticing and naming the gifts of compassion and solidarity that God has created in her. When I tell John that he has a creative imagination that he uses to build compelling publications to tell stories of the people in the community, I am noticing and naming the gifts of open-hearted listening and desire to share what others have told him that God has created in him.
In the act of affirmation, the person being affirmed often has an epiphany of sorts – a recognition that something inherently good, useful, and hopeful inside of him or herself has been noticed and praised by another person who is judged as honest, trustworthy, and even admirable. Affirmation is like a heavenly mirror that is placed in front of a person and reflects his or her gifts so that in an epiphany, the person sees how he or she has been created in the image of God.
When we affirm children, they have a sense of “I know” or gratefulness that responds spontaneously. Regrettably, when we affirm adults, they often have been acculturated over a lifetime not to believe in the God-created parts of themselves anymore – that they still have them and that those parts have the power to be expressed as good thoughts, good messages, and good actions.
Responding to calling by God is self-affirmation of the parts shaped in oneself by God. Responding can take the form of first, noticing and naming those parts or gifts, and then, honing and using those gifts for the benefit of others and of God’s Creation.
It would be easy to say that the gifts of God shaped in us are easy to identify and lift up, because that would be desirable to most of us. However, we humans are both willful and stubborn, and more than a bit covetous. It is likely true that we often desire and seek gifts that we haven’t been given and ignore and deny those gifts which we actually have been given. That is one of the reasons that discernment to various roles within the church (and within the wider community) must occur in community rather than in isolation.
One of the difficulties of doing call affirmation in community is that sometimes, the communities in which we live and work are not trustworthy. Sometimes, the communities simply have become distorted by sinfulness in the form of discrimination, hierarchy, and power polities such that the messages received from and through them are distorted and false. In those cases, it is only through an abundance of prayer, reflection, and conversation that one achieves some clarity about the rightness or wrongness of that community and whether or not to remain in that community for one’s discernment process.
Just as in the theology of accompaniment, in which we lift up the importance of walking with others in order to acknowledge and receive the grace of God, in the theology of affirmation we lift up the importance of acknowledging and using the gifts of God shaped in us for the benefit of our sisters and brothers and all of Creation. When God calls, we are being called to give a response.