to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing…
Those lines are from Galway Kinnell’s marvelous poem “Saint Francis and the Sow.” They came to mind as I was reading a preaching blog this week by Lutheran pastor David Lose. He observes that, over the past thirty years or so, and especially since the explosion of social media, our culture has evolved to give us lots of affirmation. My peers, the younger members of Generation X, were the first to receive trophies for participation, something every child now gets for being on a soccer team or taking a dance class. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their kin allow us to collect likes, often from followers or fans or so-called “friends” we haven’t ever met. Google Analytics keeps track of our online presence, encouraging us to collect more and more unique visitors to our websites. Advertising is increasingly tailored specifically for us, giving us the impression that we are the most important individual in the world. We swim in a sea of affirmation. It’s become necessary to many people; they crave it and seek it out as though it were an addictive substance.
The problem is that affirmation is the relational equivalent of Hostess cupcakes. They’re delicious, cheap, filling, attractively packaged––but you can’t live off Hostess cupcakes. They’re complete junk food, and if you eat nothing but cupcakes, your teeth will rot, your hair will fall out, and your growth will be stunted. What really nourishes us, what gives us the relational nutrients to grow strong and thrive, is not affirmation but acceptance.
These two are not the same. Affirmation requires careful self-presentation, because affirmation is really about fitting in. And fitting in requires that you change yourself so that other people will like you, perhaps being someone you are not, certainly camouflaging or outright hiding the unlovely bits of who you are. But acceptance is not fitting in; it’s not conforming to someone else’s idea of normal. Acceptance is being seen and recognized for who we truly are. Acceptance acknowledges our full selves: our best, most admirable and attractive qualities and the crooked teeth, the C-minus on that test, the fears and inadequacy, the doubts and mistakes. Where fitting in says, “You are not okay as you are,” acceptance beholds us as we are and breathes in wonder, “You are lovely.” Where affirmation is junk food, acceptance is a square meal that provides our spirits with everything they truly need.
When we think about baptism, we often think about our promises to God. That’s as it should be. The Baptismal Covenant is serious stuff. The promises to renounce evil and turn to Jesus Christ are meant to shape our identity and our entire life. The commitments we make to continue in the apostles’ fellowship, to resist evil, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace––these are demanding. They ask us to bring all of ourselves to love and serve God, our neighbor, and God’s creation, and they will cost us our comfort and possibly our lives. Keeping those promises is not easy. But we are not the only party making promises in baptism. God makes promises to us as well, and God’s promise to us is acceptance. We don’t need to fit in for God; God does not need us to change to be worthy of God’s love and grace. We are already good enough for God. And God is working within us to reveal ever more of our loveliness.
That is what Jesus receives at his baptism. Christian theology holds that Jesus was without sin, so he did not need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Many people over the centuries have asked why Jesus decided to be baptized. It comes up every year on this feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and I wonder if Jesus too needed to be retaught that he was lovely. His childhood may have left him questioning his worth as a human being. It must have been impossible for the Son of God ever to fit in with peers. He was obviously different, and among children, difference is a magnet for cruelty. I wonder what scars Jesus carried from his early years, whether taunts and ostracism burrowed their way in like tapeworms on his soul, draining away his sense of self. And I wonder how he carried the burden of being the messiah––whether he doubted his ability, if he was afraid of failing, whether the tremendous expectations placed on him threatened to crush him. I wonder if a lingering fear that he is not okay drives Jesus to John at the Jordan River.
There, Jesus steps into the swirling chilly water up to his waist. John places his hands on Jesus’ shoulders, murmuring words in Hebrew, then, without warning, pushes him under and holds him there, just long enough for Jesus to think he is drowning. It is like a little death––and then, a little rebirth. John lifts Jesus and he rises, gasping for air as adrenaline floods his body. He wipes water from his eyes and looks up in time to see the sky torn apart, the separation between heaven and earth broken open for a moment. Something silvery-white, something like the wind of the Holy Spirit, swoops down to rest upon him. A voice from above calls out, “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” You are my son; with you I am well pleased. It is God’s absolute acceptance of Jesus. God beholds him as he is, and God pronounces him okay, good enough, lovely.
Jesus of course is the son of God, and we are not. But that absolute acceptance is what we received at our baptism, what Autumn receives today at hers. The heavens may not be torn apart, the voice may not call out, yet God makes that promise to us. God sees us as we are and embraces us fully. The oily swipe of chrism across our brows, that commitment “You are marked as Christ’s own for ever,” they reteach us our loveliness. You are God’s child, the Beloved; with you God is well pleased. In God’s eyes, you are lovely, you are precious, you are good enough. Not when you lose ten pounds, or when you get your act together, but now: you are lovely, you are precious, you are good enough. We are set free from having to be who we are not. We simply have to be who we are, who God created us to be.
In a culture that offers us the junk food of affirmation, God gives us the square meal of acceptance, providing all that we need for our selves to flourish. God will repeat that acceptance as often as we need to hear it until, as Galway Kinnell writes, we flower again from within. So bathe in those waters of baptism. Remember that swipe of oil across your brow. Hear again God’s promise that you are okay, you are good enough, you are lovely. Revel in it. And then, go and live as though this truth is true.
 Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow,” quoted in Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), 47.
 David Lose, “Baptism of Our Lord B: Baptism and Blessing,” In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/ (accessed January 5, 2015). This sermon leans heavily on Lose’s column.
Epiphany 1B: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11