Today is the day in the liturgical church year when we read about the Baptism of the Lord – the day Jesus was baptized by John in the river and heard the voice of God say,
“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3: 21-22).
It also marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Every year when this text comes around I am reminded of the day I received my “call” to ministry. I was in the shower. A fitting place if you ask me. There’s all kinds of theological implications here on this one. However, that’s not where I’m going with this. I also clearly remember telling my husband, John. His response was not what you might expect. He didn’t jump up and down with joy and glee. Really. He looked at me with a blank stare for a very long time and then when he finally spoke said, ” Okay.” If was half question, half statement. I said, “I’m serious.” He responded, “What makes you say that?” I then went on to explain my encounter with God to him. In any case, it took a little bit of convincing. When he finally came around in a few weeks he said he had two questions for me: “Are you sure?” and, “Why?” My response was, “I have never been more certain about anything as I am this. And why? Because people need to know how much God really loves them.” From that moment on, we never looked back and I haven’t regretted one moment.
I have, with the help of the Spirit, held a theory for a very long time. In fact, I would say it’s a passion. I’m sure I’m not alone, others have believed it and taught it as well. I posted two devotionals on Facebook this morning that share this view. The theory is that if we as human creatures really understood how much God truly loves us and absorbed it, embraced it, lived it I believe the world would be a very different place. Think about it if you will. Don’t we act differently when we’re loved? Don’t we live with more hope that the world can be better than it is? Don’t we feel like we actually might be able to make a difference? Aren’t we nicer even to people we may not care for very much? Love makes a difference. Knowing we are loved and accepted makes a difference. There is a reason Jesus preached love all the time. He knew it from the beginning of his ministry. He knew it was the only way for us to find happiness and joy in our lives. He knew it was the only thing that would change the world.
I was bullied all the way through elementary and junior high school. I remember crying every day because I didn’t want to go to school. It felt like I was being sent to hell because every day at least one or more kids would make fun of me, or threaten to beat me up before I could get to the bus. I used to cry and beg my mother not to send me to school. She would tell me things like, “Ignore them. If you ignore them they’ll stop. They just want to get a reaction out of you”. And every day I would come home crying and say that I tried to follow her advice and it didn’t work. She talked to the teachers and the principal and their advice was for her to teach me to toughen up. Yeah, blame the victim. Finally she just said to me, “You have to go to school. I’m sorry, but just remember, I love you. You are beautiful. Nothing they say can change that.” At the time it was cold comfort to a pre-teen who only wanted to be accepted by her peers, but in retrospect it enabled me to endure. At those moments of torment during the day I would remember that once I got home I would be loved. I would be safe. In those days I felt ugly, worthless. I just wanted to fit in but there was no room. I learned how to make myself as invisible as possible. I didn’t raise my hand in class for fear of giving a wrong answer and being laughed at for that. I did everything I could to keep the kids from noticing me. Because of that, now as an adult, I can spot a bullied kid a mile away and my heart breaks for them. Bullied kids need to be protected and they need to know that they are loved unconditionally. Everyone does. It makes a difference. It changes how we view ourselves and how we view others.
By the time I reached my sophomore year of high school the bullying stopped, but the damage was done. It took me years to rebuild my self esteem. What got me through that time was the love of my mother. She was my safe place. My mother’s love was God’s love. In time that is what I learned. It changed everything. Do I wish that I wasn’t bullied? Of course. However, that experience enabled me to develop a deep compassion for others and I don’t think I would be the pastor I am had I not been through it. Now I can be a voice for the lonely, the scared, the voiceless. I know what it means to an outcast and so I preach, teach and work toward making the church and the world a safe place where all people are included. That’s the real Jesus work.
Now a large part of my call as I have discerned it is to preach the Gospel of love and teach people who to share that love with others. Now I am not afraid to speak up on behalf of others. I am braver. I don’t shrink anymore. Have I arrived? No. I am still a work in progress, but I know I am loved beyond all measure by the One whose opinion is the only one that counts. That love is unconditional and I have claimed it. I have a place in the heart of God. That is something no one can take away from me or you, because it’s yours as well.
On a bad day when I need comfort from a cold world I remember the words of God from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
I hope those words help you remember that you are loved beyond understanding too. And if you are someone who already knows that, please reach out and share it with someone who may not.