"A Word To Stand Against Other Words"
Most of you know I don't have television. By that I mean I don't have any cable hook up or antenna. I watch some shows on Netflix every now and then. But mostly, when I'm home, I read.
So I was in KC after Christmas at Ryan and Amanda's and we watched some basketball games on TV. And as you know, those of you who watch a lot of TV, there are commercials. A lot of commercials. I have forgotten how many, and the messages that are covertly or blatantly embedded in those commercials. Most of those messages, whether you are realizing it or not, are negative.
There are a lot of subtle negative words out there. The negative words in the commercials are hidden in the promises the commercials make. Most commercials start with an unspoken, negative assumption aimed at you the audience: you're too fat, too ugly, too blemished, don't eat right, don't dress right, don't drive the right car, don't treat yourself right, deserve better, etc. etc. Basically, the message is, we're no good, worthless, a nobody. The commercials make a promise to help us become a better person and more respectable, in their image. But the assumption behind the promise is there is something terribly wrong with you that needs to be made better, or done over.
We usually bite at the promise because it causes us too much pain to think very long about their assumptions about our worthless state. Yet, when we stop to think about those assumptions, they are so blatant and so persistent that we soon believe they are true. Their negative poisons slowly make their way into our self-image and they do their work. I am no good. I am worthless. I am a nobody.
That whole negative commercial campaign leads to the terrible trap of self-rejection. Our need for power, our desire to be a success, our dreams to be popular, are all ways we try to avoid the trap of self-rejection. We do all we can to not feel like a lesser-than. We don't want to appear that way in someone else's eyes. Especially not in our own eyes. We run from the voices and the words that tell us we are not worthwhile or lovable. We run toward the voices that tell us we can be worthwhile. What we don't realize is those voices are speaking words that have a back-handed slap in them.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, monk, and spiritual adviser to many, author of so many great books on the Christian spiritual life, once wrote:
How many of us spend our lives hoping that some person, thing or event will come along to give us that final feeling of inner well-being we so desire? But as long as we are waiting for that mysterious moment, we will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. That is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the path to spiritual death. (Weavings, vol. VII, no. 2, page 9)
What word can stand against all the negative words that scream out our worthlessness? What word can put us at peace with ourselves? What word can give us rest from what Nouwen calls the helter-skelter, anxious restlessness of never being fully satisfied?
I think God has many words that will stand against all those negative words. But there is one that may stand above them all. It is a word God speaks to Jesus when Jesus is baptized. Jesus comes up out of the water of the Jordan River, the sky splits open, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and God speaks. What a dramatic scene. What a powerfully awesome event. But what tender words God speaks:
"You are my own Son, my beloved, and I am pleased with you."
The most powerful word is the one right in the middle of God's tender statement: beloved. What a beautiful word. God speaks the word again to Jesus when Jesus is praying with Peter, James, and John. Suddenly, Jesus is all aglow, and Elijah the prophet, and Moses the lawgiver, are standing with Jesus. Peter, James, and John hear God speak the same words God spoke at Jesus' baptism with a little twist:
"This is my son, my beloved; listen to what he says."
I remember how my father always introduced me to his golfing buddies. When I would caddy for him, which was often, and there was someone new I didn't know, we'd stand there on the first tee, and my father would grab me around the neck and squeeze me tight with those work glove sized fingers of his and say, "This is my son Stephen; but we call him Arizona because he's our number 'two-son' (Tuscon)." You can go ahead and groan. Everyone else did at all his silly puns.
But I remember another time, when my father was much older, that he looked me in the face and hugged me, and told me he loved me, and that he was proud of me. It was the only time he did so. Why he waited so long to speak those words I'll never know. I just know how good I felt once those words were spoken. I vowed that I would never let my children wait so long for them to hear me say, "You are my beloved; I love you and I'm proud of you." I tell them every time I talk with them.
"You are my son, my beloved," God said to Jesus. Yes, it's true Jesus held a special place in the heart of God as God's dear Son. Yes, God had a special mission of love for Jesus to fulfill. And you may think, God feels such love only for Jesus as the appointed Savior, but not for you. Your self-rejection voices start echoing through your head.
But all of the New Testament shouts this word above the brazen negativity the world would rather have us hear. The apostle Paul made sure people heard the Good News, the Good Word. Those who have faith in Jesus Christ are God's beloved. The church is like a beloved bride in God's eyes. We are especially chosen, holy and beloved by God. To each one of you, God comes and speaks as tenderly as God did to Jesus, "You are my beloved."
I receive a lot of emails from mission organizations—especially at this time of year. Most of the emails try to tell the stories of their work, about people with whom they work, and how they try to share the Good News that we are God's beloved. And they are asking for money, of course.
One poignant story I saved was about Maria and her daughter Christina who lived on the outskirts of a Brazilian city. In their small house were dirt floors and very few furnishings. In a word, they were very poor. Maria's husband had died when Christina was an infant. By the time Christina was 15 years old, life was still very hard.
Christina always dreamed of the city and what exciting adventures she could have there. She fantasized how her life of poverty would become magically transformed into a life of excitement and luxury. Maria's heart broke one morning when she awoke to find Christina gone. Maria found a note that said not to worry; that Christina would be OK; that she had gone to the city, to a new life. But all Maria knew was that she must find her daughter. Maria knew what the city was like. After a month of worry, Maria grabbed up some clothes, all the money she had, and ran out of the house.
On her way to the bus stop she went into a drugstore to get one last thing. She sat in one of those picture booths, closed the curtain, and spent as much money as she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of strips of black and white pictures of herself, she boarded the bus for Rio de Janeiro.
Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money, and she knew that her daughter was stubborn and would not give up. Maria also knew that when pride meets hunger, that a person will do things that otherwise they'd never do. Knowing this, Maria began her search in bars, hotels, and nightclubs. She went to them all, and at each place she left her picture taped to a bathroom mirror, or stuck on a bulletin board, or fastened to a phone booth. On the back of each picture she wrote Christina a note.
It wasn't long before both money and pictures ran out. Maria had to return home without finding Christina. The weary mother wept as the bus began its journey back to her home.
A few weeks later, Christina came down some hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes, that once danced with youth, now showed pain and fear. Her young girl's dream had quickly become an awful nightmare. She longed to trade a horrible life of prostitution for a trip back home to her village.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina's heart broke as she removed the picture from the mirror. Tears came freely as she read the compelling words on the back of the picture: "Whatever you've done, whatever you've become, it doesn't matter. I love you. Please come home."
And she did.
There are pictures of God all over the place. Pictorial reminders of our loving God. Within each picture is the compelling word that stands above and against all negative words, that has the only power to release us from any trap of self-rejection we may find ourselves caught up in: "Whatever you've done, whatever you have become, it doesn't matter. You are my beloved. You will always be my beloved. Please, just come home."
In a world full of negative words, we don't expect to hear ourselves called, "the Beloved." We doubt it at first. We think we know better—that God has it all wrong. That we get to trump God's love with our belief of our own worthlessness. But then we get a glimpse of light behind that word, and the voice of love that spoke it. Even a glimpse of that light becomes a beacon strong enough to weaken the degrading powers of darkness, and shine a path for us toward home.
We hear a gentle, soft Voice calling us by our name—a name much more intimate even than the name our parents gave us, the name that expressed our true identity. It is the only name that fulfills the heart's deepest yearnings, spoken by the One who created our hearts in the first place. That name is Beloved.
We see people all around us desiring, often without being fully aware of it, trying to catch a glimpse of the love that has claimed us as His own. What if they heard their name Beloved? Would there be any reason to cling to negative, self-rejecting words anymore? Wouldn't those words disappear as fast as snow under the heat of a summer's sun? Oh, that all could hear, really hear these words: "You are my sons and daughters; my Beloved!"