Monday, January 14, 2013

Who Tells You Who You Are?


In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloan Coffin says that when he was chaplain at Yale, he would sometimes get requests from seniors to write a letter of recommendation to some highfalutin school like Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School. He mostly wrote about their character and integrity rather than their academic achievements or potential, which to some students was not totally satisfactory. Coffin describes it this way: “Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate ninety-eight. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Coffin ends by concluding: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!”

I think that if Jesus had not been listening to God and open to the leading of the Divine Spirit, he may have been pressured to conform to John’s expectations. According to Luke 3, John seems to have had some definite expectations of Jesus.

John, himself, refuses to let the people shape his understanding of who he is and what he is called to do. He knows his place in the redemptive scheme of things. He does not pretend to be more than he is. His work is one of preparation for someone greater.

But John clearly has some expectations about the kind of work the greater one will do. The greater one, he says, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will use his winnowing fork to thoroughly clear the threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16–17).

John was ready for the hammer to fall. In Luke 3:9 he says, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” It’s pretty clear what John was expecting Jesus to do.

Jesus’ readiness to be baptized by John could be interpreted as his willingness to embrace John’s agenda. He certainly was ready to identify with John’s movement and John’s call to repentance. Luke describes John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:3). Whatever one thinks about Jesus’ personal life (whether he was or was not sinless), John is calling the covenant people to renewal and Jesus is willing to take his place with his people who are turning away from their sins to God.

Here Jesus has an experience. He hears the Divine Voice say, “You are my Beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). I would call this a mystical experience. (The experience is depicted in symbolic language. All spiritual language is symbolical language. Gary Wills in What Jesus Meant puts it this way: “To believe in the gospels is to take everything in them as meant, though at various levels of symbolization. To read the gospels reverently is to keep asking, through all such symbols, what Jesus means.”)

Almost all mystical experience, no matter how diverse and unique, shares two common elements. There is generally an indescribable sense of connectedness and union with all reality and a profound experience of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

You don’t have to have a mystical experience to know that you are loved unconditionally, but such experiences burn them into our consciousness like nothing else. I suspect Jesus had a number of such experiences.

Jesus’ assurance of being loved and affirmed by God gives him the confidence to embark upon a different path than John. He didn’t feel any need to conform to John’s expectations. He followed the Spirit down a different path.

Jesus’ mission would not be one of separating the wheat and the chaff as John hoped, but one of breaking down the barriers that separated the wheat from the chaff. Jesus would welcome and embrace the chaff and invite them to eat at his table, much to the chagrin of the religious establishment and to the disappointment of John (see Luke 7:18–23).

Jesus’ sense of belovedness and chosenness that sprang from his intimate experience of God as Abba did not make him feel more precious or valuable than others. Rather, it was his experience of divine love and affirmation that assured him of everyone else’s chosenness and belovedness too.

Instead of making us feel superior or more valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen and loved by God unconditionally opens our eyes to see the chosenness and belovedness of all people. This is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that everyone else is chosen too. God’s love is not only unconditional, it is inexhaustible.

These mystical experiences of the Divine do not cause us to retreat into ourselves, rather, they send us out into the messy business of daily life to be a blessing to others.

Surely parents and grandparents can do this for their children and grandchildren. I was reading a book to Sophie, my granddaughter who will be three in June. I stopped reading for a minute just to give her a big hug and kiss and say, “Pappie loves you so much.” I could tell she delighted in being so loved, but then out of the blue she said sort of apologetically, “I love Nan better.” She loved me, but she wanted to come clean. She couldn’t help it, but she loved Nan better. I said, “That’s okay, honey, you can love Nan better and still love Pap.”

Sometimes when I am quiet before God and invite the Spirit to allow me to share (to what degree I am able) in the passion of the Divine for our world, I sometimes think of all the little children who will be so severely hindered and wounded in life because there was no one there to be the Voice of God telling them how much they are wanted and loved.

Maybe we can find ways to be the Voice of God to one another. From time to time we all need to hear the voice of God saying to us, “You are my beloved daughter or son. You are loved with an eternal love.” We all need to feel and know in our deepest core that God’s love is not earned or achieved, it’s freely given. God’s love is greater than all our sins and failures. 

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