Embracing our vulnerability and limits involves coming to finding rest in your identity. Our success-driven, accomplishment-focused society so often makes it seem as if our identity is wrapped up in what we do or what we acquire. Isn’t so often the first question asked upon meeting someone “what do you for a living?” And isn’t much of how we end up judging others or ourselves our standard of living – in other words, how nice our house, car, or clothes are? Yet the flip-side of this ritual of ashes is another ritual: the placing not of ashes but instead of water on one’s forehead. When my nephew was baptized as a baby, he literally had water poured on his forehead, and for many people I know this water is also placed as a cross of water or sprinkling of water on their forehead by a preacher when they too were very little. Others, like me, were dunked as a teenager into water so it not only splashed on our forehead but embraced all of who we were, so that we came up dripping wet.
Whichever form our baptism takes it is a claiming for ourselves, an acceptance, of that same word spoken over Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan. When Jesus was baptized by his cousin John, the Gospels all tell us he saw the heavens open, the Spirit descending and resting upon him like a mother dove brooding over her newborn chick, and heard the voice from heaven saying of him: “This is my Son, whom I love, and in whom I am well-pleased”. This happened of Jesus before he could do anything to prove his identity. It happened regardless of what his class was – likely fairly low in the society of his day – or his background – born scandalously, to a mother who allegedly became pregnant out of wedlock.
The water on our forehead which welcomes us into the Christian life also is the community saying to us, on behalf of God, that each of us are ones upon whom the Spirit has descended, like a mother bird sheltering her chicks under wing . It announces that we each are ones whose entrance into this world was like heavens opening to send a unique gift, and of whom God says before we can do anything right or wrong, regardless of any success or failure on our part: “This one. This one is my child. This one is the one whom I love. This one is one in whom I am well-pleased”.
It is a statement that our identity is as a child of God, a creation made with love, full of gifts, and beauty. It is not based on accomplishment, power, ability.
In fact, just as the ashes on the forehead is a statement of vulnerability and limit as gift, so is this act of baptism. In Romans we are told going under the water is a symbol of dying with Jesus, being buried, and a promise that it is not despite but within this experience of dying and vulnerability that the gift and grace of new life becomes possible to us.
Likewise, in being called child of God, we are being recognized as limited. We do not love our children because they enter the world all-capable, but in fact fully aware they need us. They do not come into the world able to feed, clothe, and care for themselves. And their stumbling attempts to learn and grow which reveal their limits and vulnerability actually endear them to us. We love them for who they are, accepting their limits as gifts and joys. So God looks at us, loving us for who we are, not what we have and have not done.
In embracing our vulnerability and limits, we are called to embrace this identity as unique people, gifts to the world, children of God – always worthy of love, always both sources of pleasure to God and others and always deserving of joy, pleasure, in our lives. We are embracing that this is true whether we are strong and successful in the eyes of others or experiencing loss, weakness, and need.
In centering our identity on this, we open ourselves up to embracing each moment and each person as including gifts and graces, both where those bring strength but also where they bring struggle. In doing so, we allow ours and other’s struggles to be teachers, opening us to new wisdom and strength.
How have you struggled to embrace your identity as being centered not on accomplishment or failure, but on who you are as a child of God? I would love to hear your story.
Let us continue on this journey together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,