When I was a hospital chaplain I would sometimes ask patients,
“Where is God/Jesus/the Holy in all this?”
I would use the language of the transcendent that the person I was with used..
I wanted to know how they connected the dots, what meaning their faith or beliefs had in their challenges, illness or suffering.
I got a wide variety of responses.
Sometimes the reply would be, “God wants to teach me something.” Or “God is testing me.” Or, “God is using this to make me stronger.”
When I heard such responses I would think to myself, “What kind of a God would do that??
And if I felt it was appropriate my response would be:
I am a parent and I love my daughter. I would never wish cancer or a serious illness or unemployment or heartbreak on her as a way to teach her a lesson or test her.
Because I love her, I will do anything I can to protect her, to keep her from suffering or experiencing harm. But, I realize that I can’t protect her; she is an adult and there is so much I have no control over.
A few times I have even said to her, “I wish I could wave a magic wand and make things better but I can’t.”
I hope my point is obvious; if God truly is Love, do you think God inflicts suffering so that we learn a lesson?? No! God wants the best for us, God suffers when we suffer. God isn’t sadistic.
Today’s gospel story is our introduction to Jesus.
Before we meet Jesus, we meet John, preparing the way and preaching a baptism of repentance.
Then we meet Jesus for the very first time…emerging out of the waters of baptism and hearing a voice:
Jesus is the Beloved. God is pleased with him. There is no need for Jesus to repent. There is no need for Jesus to prove himself or learn anything.
Jesus is the Beloved. That’s it.
The Beloved, this is how we are introduced to Jesus.
I have used to image of childbirth before and it is also appropriate here as well.
When a child is born, he/she comes out of the waters of the womb. The parents greet the baby with words that say, “You are my beloved child.” And, doesn’t every parent pronounce his or her newborn child perfect and beautiful?
Like a newborn, Jesus emerges out of the waters and is pronounced the beloved child.
Gestation is 40 weeks; Jesus is in the wilderness forty days.
One of the core teachings of Thomas Keating are the four consents. (Invitation to Love, p.44ff)
He writes that the spiritual journey is a training in consent to God’s presence.
In childhood God asks us to consent to the basic goodness of our nature. We are to consent to the goodness of our being before we do anything.
We are not good because we do something well. We are the Beloved of God because we are created by God and are children of God.
But, because of abuse or disabilities or fear or ambivalent parents or whatever this consent may not happen in childhood. Rather, we absorb the message that we are less than perfect, we are lacking. We internalize the message that we are not good enough. We may feel we are to blame for the suffering of our parents.
Sometimes these negative messages stay with us for a lifetime. It is a grace to be able to let them go and know in our hearts that we the Beloved and consent to God’s gift of ourselves.
I believed I was “damaged goods” until I was 50. Sure I had known intellectually that I was loved by God but I had not internalized it. When I could let go of the tape that I was “damaged goods”, then I knew I was God’s beloved child.
We all grow up internalizing the negative more than the positive. It is part of being human.
Research shows that for every negative word we hear, we need to hear five positive ones to balance it. A 1:5 ratio.
The story of Noah and his family leaving the ark is a great example.
In today’s reading we heard that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”
This goes along with the reasons God sent the flood, the wickedness of humankind and their evil thoughts.
This assessment prevents us from hearing the good news that follows: “I will never again curse the ground” or the seven times that God speaks of covenant. It can prevent us from hearing the good news of the rainbow—God making the promise to Godself never again to bring destruction.
By the way, did you know that many many cultures have some form of the flood myth in their religious beliefs? It is not unique to the Hebrew Scriptures. A flood is sent by a deity to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution. There is a hero who represents the human craving for life.
It is important to acknowledge this predisposition to hear and absorb the negative as we begin our Lenten journey.
Do we embark on the Lenten journey thinking of ourselves as unworthy, unlovable, sinners in need of forgiveness?
If so, Lent is about doing penance, keeping fasts, measuring up. Lent becomes a morose affair or an annual ordeal. It is about placating God or winning God’s favor.
Or do we embark on the Lenten journey as God’s beloved?
If we are beloved we are invited to a deeper relationship to God and God’s creation. There is intimacy. Lent is a time of deep listening and joy. “Abide in my love.” It is not a burden to embark on the Lenten journey again. Instead, it is life giving. All our years, no matter how many there will be, are not enough to fully experience the love of God and our Belovedness.
When we can consent or embrace our “beloveness” we can honor the belovedness in the rest of God’s creation as well.
Henri Nouwen has a wonderful story from his years as a member of a L’Arche community. L’Arche enables people with and without disabilities to share their lives in communities of faith and friendship. Community members are transformed through relationships of mutuality, respect, and companionship as they live, work, pray, and play together.
With this story I close:
Shortly before I started a prayer service in one of our houses, Janet, a handicapped member of our community, said to me, “Henri, can you give me a blessing?” I responded in a somewhat automatic way by tracing with my thumb the sign of the cross on her forehead. Instead of being grateful, however, she protested vehemently. “No, that doesn’t work. I want a real blessing!” I suddenly became aware of the ritualistic quality of my response to her request and said, “Oh, I am sorry…let me give you a real blessing when we are all together for the prayer service.”
After the service I said, “Janet has asked me for a special blessing. She feels she needs that now.”…Janet stood up and walked toward me. Spontaneously, Janet put her arms around me and put her head against my chest. Without thinking, I covered her with the sleeves of my robe so that she almost vanished in its folds. “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart but I want you to remember who you are; a very special person, deeply loved by God.
When Janet returned to her place, Jane another handicapped woman raised her hand and said, “I want a blessing, too.” After I had spoken the words of blessing to her, many more of the handicapped people followed, expressing the same desire to be blessed. The most touching moment, however came, when one of the assistants, a twenty four year old student, raised his hand and said, “What about me?”
“Sure,” I said. “Come.” He came and as we stood before each other, I put my arms around him and said, “John, it is so good that you are here. You are God’s Beloved Son. Your presence is a joy for all of us. When things are hard and life is burdensome, always remember that you are loved with an everlasting love.” As I spoke these words, he looked at me with tears in his eyes, and then he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you very much.” (Life of the Beloved, pp.59ff.)