09/05/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Are We OK the Way We Are?

The priest lifted the bread and wine in the air, representing the body and blood of Christ, in the way I have seen clergy do for decades. But her next words were off script, and they sent a jolt through me.

"Behold who you are. Become who you receive. All are welcome at the table of the Lord."

It was an eloquent invitation to a sacrament of the Christian Church. I wonder if it also holds the key to many of our thorniest issues. The words unveil a tension deep within all of us: between being and becoming.

We do both throughout our lives. We are human right from the get-go, lying in our bassinets and cradles and slings. We become something else: humans with language, humans with this belief or that approach to life, productive members of society, frail people as we age. Or maybe that's wrong: maybe we simply blossom more fully into "who we are." Being? Becoming? Which is better at what stage of life? Who knows?

Lest you think this a silly argument, consider that the debate over sexual orientation has turned, at times, on this very point. Lesbian and gay people insist that their orientation is an element of who they are -- i.e., their being. Traditionalists assert it is a choice -- a decision to become.

Think too of our approach to change in general. On one side of the spectrum are the "everything is a choice" believers. We can choose how we respond to circumstances; we can even elect to become different people, at least to some extent. On the other side are those who excuse (or despair of) their behavior with the credo "I am who I am; I can't change."

We also, to our shame, apply the can't-change label to others. What he just did is "typical man," as if that construct were fixed and equally applicable to all who present as male. Even if he wants to change, the "typical" language boxes him into being -- in this case, being a stereotype -- with no room to become. Have you ever attended a family reunion only to have people talk to you as though you were still 12? In their eyes, you're the "same old you," and the you who you're becoming is invisible.

How do we know what we are vs. what we are becoming, what can change vs. what can't? The words from today's Eucharist do not offer hard and fast answers. They do, however, draw from the treasure trove of Christian tradition to speak to our universal condition:

Behold who you are -- i.e., human. Christians believe that the bread and wine at Eucharist become, or represent, Christ's human presence on earth. What we see at that moment is our humanness: our noble, heroic, sloppy, comic, ultimately glorious nature. The calling here is not just to behold who we are, but to embrace it.

Become who you receive -- i.e., Christ: the highest and noblest of what we can become. For some people, this means becoming what Christ was in his earthly life: the embodiment of boundless compassion, empathy with the outcast, challenge to power, self-sacrifice in the name of love. For the mystics among us, it means literally becoming one with Christ through a union of the divine and human in our souls. Ultimately, "become who you receive" is both, the moral and the mystical. And both lead us to become, in every way, better.

All are welcome at the table of the Lord -- i.e., everyone. We may not understand the difference between who we are and who we might become. We may not know whether anything in our own hearts is being or becoming. We may be disillusioned with both. We may be a blooming mess. It doesn't matter. At every point of being, at every movement of becoming, God welcomes us.

That boundless welcome opens all kinds of possibilities. In a space of welcome, we no longer have to justify ourselves, as we often do in the face of disapproving friends or religious institutions or a prevailing culture that tells us we must be otherwise. Instead, we are free to explore: to be, in that moment, and to listen to the divine voice for what we might become.

Because of that, we would do well to extend that welcome to one another. Our communities of worship could do the same: "whoever you are, whatever condition you're in, you are welcome to explore here."

Are we OK the way we are? Yes. Are we called to become better? Yes. What we need is the space to explore this paradox in all its fullness, away from the naysayers and the pressure to conform and everything else that holds us back. If our communities of worship could provide that space, they could finally offer the radical hospitality of which so many people -- and, likely, God's own self -- have dreamed.