“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” – Henri Nouwen
I heard a sermon recently. It was called “The Importance of Beginning at the Beginning”. As I listened it reminded me of something that happened when I was little.
There are two ways I can tell this story. I can start at two different places, and the meanings we can derive from the story will be completely different. Let’s start the story at the point of conflict.
When I was 5 or 6 years old my parents went to Israel. My dad made a small vase on a spinning wheel and he was very proud of it. He put it on a shelf in his office. One day I was playing in the office, looking at the things on the shelf, and I broke a chip out of the top of the vase. Instead of going to him and telling him what I’d done, I turned the vase around backwards in the hopes that he wouldn’t notice what had happened.
Of course, he noticed in about 30 seconds.
He came to me and sat me down and said, “Did you break my vase?” He knew already that I did. But he asked me anyway. I admitted that I had. And I received my punishment (I can’t remember what that punishment was). As I got older, looking back I could be tempted to wonder what good the punishment did. I didn’t stop making mistakes. I didn’t even stop trying to cover them up so much.
And the vase was still broken.
Is it possible that my father’s punishment was just revenge?
This is the kind of crazy thing that happens when I don’t tell the story from the beginning. If I just come in that, “there was this vase, and I broke it” then I leave out all sorts of details that really play an integral part of the story. Nothing I said in the story above is false, but the conclusions I come to are so far from reality that the character of my father, and who I am become lost in the shuffle. My father becomes an angry and vengeful man, doling out revenge punishments on a sneaky little kid who won’t fess up to his mistakes.
But let’s see what happens when I tell you the whole story from the beginning.
In the beginning my father met my mother. They were head-over-heels in love with each other. The joy of that love led them to begin creating others to share their love with. My brother was born, and then I was born. They looked at us and declared we were good.
They created all sorts of other things together. My mother sewed beautiful clothes. She made paintings, and did these amazing cross-stitch pictures of waterfalls in which the plants actually cascaded off of the canvas. My father makes music. He arranges the notes on a guitar so that they make harmonies. He writes sermons that stir the souls of the people who hear them. He can point a camera at anything and create a beautiful work of art.
And once, he went to Israel and he made a vase.
Now, one of the things he created disobeyed him. That thing was me. I knew I wasn’t to go playing in the office. But I didn’t want to submit to the order my parents had prescribed for me. I thought that at the ripe old age of 5 years old, I knew better. I thought I could do what he didn’t want me to, and I could get away with it. I thought he was trying to keep me from enjoying myself. So I disobeyed him, and I broke something. Then I tried to hid my mistake.
My father knew I broke his vase, but he asked me if I had done it. He knew the answer to the question, but he wanted to be sure I knew the answer to his question. I was punished. But not really. It might be better to say I was disciplined. I wasn’t punished for breaking a vase. The vase was just a thing. I was a cherished son. Revenge for breaking a thing was not anywhere on the radar. I was disciplined in a way that would help me correct my thinking. It was done in a way that I learned that I was loved more than the thing I broke, and that I could come to my father and confess what I’d done when I made a mistake. That really that was the best way to do things. And that I was loved, and would be forgiven. I might be chastised, I might be spurred in the direction I needed to go, but that if I would not fight against that, then I would be guided in the right direction.
Of course, the vase was still broken.
The only one who could do anything about the vase at that point was my father. In either situation the vase stayed broken. But in the first version of the story, I was being punished because I had messed up my father’s creation. And somehow he seemed to love the thing more than his son. But when you hear the whole story it becomes clear. My father didn’t try to make me fix what I broke. He knew I had no ability to fix it. I received the discipline, but he took on the punishment. He took on the consequences of my mistake. And he is the one who can make it new again.
So, as we read the Bible, where do we start? Do we start in chapter three? Do we start our story when we broke God’s creation and received our punishment? Or do we start in chapter one in which God creates us out of an overflowing of love so that the love can be shared out farther?
A chapter three beginning tells us nothing but what we aren’t. It tells us we aren’t good enough. We aren’t worthy. We deserve punishment. True we read on and find that God took that punishment for us. But if we start in chapter three then it makes it seem as if God begrudgingly took our punishment just to fix our mistakes and we’d better stay in line and act right, or else he might decide it wasn’t worth it and squash us into pieces anyway.
Starting at the start we learn that we are loved from the beginning. We are created out of love by God who is Love. And we have made mistakes. We have missed the mark. We have rebelled. We have chosen to demand our own will over the wise will of God. But we, first of all, are loved. We are not, first and foremost, depraved sinners. We are, of course, depraved. But we are, at our core, beloved.
God said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
God said to John, “Look! I am making everything new.”
We are created as the beloved. Our sin does not change God’s love for us. It keeps us from returning that love. It eats away at our relationship with God. But it does not EVER change God’s love for us. Jesus died for the sinners in heaven, and for the sinners in hell. He died for the beloved in heaven, and for the beloved in hell. The question is not “does God love me?” The question has always been, “do you love God back?”