Sunday, January 11, 2015

"You are my beloved"

If you're looking for a counter-cultural message, look no further than today's Gospel reading. In four short verses, the Evangelist Mark presses on two particularly sensitive areas. First, John the Baptist acknowledges something difficult for most, if not all of us, to say: it's not all about me. Second, God affirms something of Jesus that many of us long to hear said of ourselves: You are my beloved...with you I am well pleased.

I'll be the first to admit that there's an ever-present temptation to try to make all things center upon me. When community obligations prove inconvenient, I groan and say, "I have better things to do." When others are given praise, or acquire honors, I might smile outwardly but, inwardly, I sneer or downplay the person's accomplishment.

My spiritual lifeline, however, has proved to be my accordion. Not that the accordion is a talisman able to ward off self-centeredness and resentment, of course. But the many hours I have spent, and continue to spend, playing for Irish dancing competitions reinforces, in my life, that this is not all about me. The music I play provides the context for the dancers to dance, but my task is to prepare their way, to play music enabling them to dance. When a dancer executes a particular dance in spectacular form, it brings me great delight to hear people laud the performance: even though they aren't talking about me, or may not even have noticed me, I am joyful that I've had even a small - even if invisible - part in creating something others love.

John the Baptist isn't looking to take a selfie, or to gather a whole group of people around him. He doesn't come up with a catchy #Baptizer or #I_Baptized_Him or #Dunked_Him Twitter claim. He proclaims a truth surely hard to share: you might think I'm good, but you haven't seen anything yet. The Baptizer must have faced terrible temptations: his words and deeds so touched his listeners' hearts, they came to see and hear him, and he must have been tempted to think that he was the star of the show. Yet he knew at the core of his being a lesson most of us have to learn, and re-learn, throughout our lives.

Second, and probably more difficult for most of us, would be the possibility of hearing God say to us: You are my beloved. You (insert your name here) are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. 

"The Baptism of the Christ" by artist Daniel Bonnell
Again, speaking only for myself, I find it hard to take a compliment. If you say, "Ry, that was a great dinner you prepared," I'll probably discount it: "It was nothing" or "Thanks, but I thought the meat was too overdone." I don't think it's modesty so much as, deep down, a little fear-scar refuses to be healed and I'm always self-conscious about whether the person really means what is said. Better to downplay a compliment, to hedge it with some negativity, than risk being disappointed later.

I think a rather glittering seduction is to invert God's words to Jesus. We try to make it something like, You have pleased me by what you have done, therefore you are my beloved. Our sinful hearts want to believe that God loves us because of something we've earned or merited but, even then, do we believe this much? If I can't take a compliment from my friends and family, do I think I'd be able to receive it from the Almighty?

Fortunately, the God we praise short-circuits our many neuroses. Our being loved isn't tied to an accomplishment, or an achievement, or something we've done or might do. We are loved simply because we are. In the celestial Facebook, God gave us a "Like" long before we ever thought to post a selfie.

You're not loved because you're good, or because your worthwhile. You're worthwhile, valuable, and you can be good only because God loves you. Stop trying to be loved. Love, instead, the great adventure of trying to be a disciple, of growing ever closer to the God who loves and sustains us.

Today it may prove helpful to meditate on Bonnell's powerful depiction of Jesus' baptism. Notice the play of light and shape surrounding Jesus who is cruciform: the Jesus who heard God's affirmation is the same Jesus we, sinful humans who are allergic to the message of God's love, crucified. Nevertheless, our hateful rejection of God's love doesn't silence the message directed to us. Perhaps we could take a few moments today and, in quiet prayer, imagine hearing God address us:

You are my beloved. Yes, you. 
Of course I know who you are. I know you are a sinner.
I know what you've done.
I know how you have failed.
I know of what it is you are ashamed, of what you work
so hard to keep concealed. 
I know the doubt in your heart; I know you struggle to believe
that anyone could love you.
"If they really knew me," you think, "they couldn't love me."
I know you because I am creating you, 
and I love what I create. 
You can say no to my friendship, no to my love, only because
I offered it to you first. 
It is never too late and my words to you never change:
You are my beloved. 
Allow yourself to be who you are. 
You cannot force this. 
You are free. 
You are beloved.
Let yourself be.
Be loved. 

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