The Baptism of Jesus: The Picture of Freedom
“And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
"You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
When Jesus began announcing the coming of the kingdom of God, he was baptized in the Jordan River. And it’s no accident that his baptism was coupled with an emphatic and unwavering blessing from his Father. His Father was there. His Father was a force and presence. His Father, who could provide what no one else could, came through. And that would make all the difference.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)
There is poetry in this passage. It says far more than its short length in words. And it’s all about a father blessing his child.
The Blessing of a Father
We wall want to be chosen. We all want to be seen. Is there any clearer calling card of our humanity—any clearer mark of our being created in God’s image—than our insatiable desire for love? It burns so deeply within us that we can’t drill any further into the core of who we are. We can’t more clearly define what it means to be human, nor can we turn off or tune out this longing. The desire for love is our humanity.
Which reminds me: When I was in high school, I dated a beautiful girl. That’s not just wishful thinking; I have the pictures to prove it. One night we had a very bad date. It seems silly and all high school drama to write about now, but pain is real, whatever the context. And at the time, the pain was very real. My relationship with this girl was not working, and we were decidedly trying to make it work, desperately clinging to each other, trying to coax from our connection some sense of security, trying to get the love and affection we both wanted. (I didn’t say it was a healthy relationship.) The date was horrible and, ending as it did on a note of despair, I drove home the whole ten miles with a lump in my throat. It was like my life had fallen into a morass. Like the ground had opened up and swallowed me in a pit of existential nothingness. Okay, yes, that part of it was high school drama.
When I got home, I could hear my dad watching TV in his study upstairs. I felt wrecked and, rather than going to hide in my room, as per teenage m.o., something possessed me to climb the stairs and to stand before my father, a ball of nerve and emotion. He looked over, muted the TV, and asked me what was wrong. And I mumbled a basic outline of what had happened.
I wanted him to see into what was happening and to say what a dad would say. Something to the effect of, “You’re my son, I love you. You’re going to be okay. This stuff just happens.” You know, put a little perspective on it. Make the world stop spinning a bit. Ward Cleaver the thing. But he couldn’t think of anything to say, and, worse, I could see that he couldn’t think of anything to stay. I stood there thinking, “Well, say something.” Anything. Take me out for a beer (we won’t tell mom). Tell me a story from your life. But the awkwardness grew, and so I tried to fix it by escaping. “Goodnight, see you tomorrow,” I said, and I left as quick as I could.
We long for love, we long to be known, and we long for the blessing of a father. Absent that blessing, life, as difficult as it is, becomes a lot more difficult. We are left standing awkwardly, trying to figure out what to do or how to escape. We are left, ultimately, to cover and hide the gaping hole in our side—that part of us that wants to be filled--or to find something else that can fill it up.
Life is built on blessing—either blessing received or blessing denied. My little girl, Charlotte, is eight months old. She’s perfect in every way, but that’s beside the point. Becca and I didn’t have to teach her how to reach up for a bottle or breast; when it’s offered, Charlotte jumps for it. Woohoo, milk party! Every living thing is so wired to reach for nourishment, without which we die. When Charlotte doesn’t get milk, she cries: her way of trying to fix it. At whatever age, this is the pattern. But our real hunger is not physical. Our bodies crave milk; our souls crave the blessing of love and belonging and being known and accepted. When we are denied that blessing, life is crippled. We are crippled. It’s just not possible to truly thrive in the ways that actually matter absent that blessing.
Fathers are so important because they have an intrinsic and irreplaceable authority to speak and to be with and for us in a way that provides blessing, that provides nourishment, if you will. There’s a reason Darth Vader is Luke’s father and not, say, his uncle or his third grade teacher. (Can you imagine? “Luke, I am your fifth period Physics professor!”) The parent-child dynamic makes us viscerally aware of our own longing without ever addressing us directly, and the story comes alive—because we are already living in this story. Something is meant to be put deeply in place within us by how our father or some father figure is with us. And we are all on pins and needles longing for this thing.
Mature as we do, cease to look like kids as we do, the desire for the blessing never goes away. We may get the car or the degree or the bank account that says “I’m an adult,” but many of us are still living with that hollow place, still looking for the blessing that will make us feel, finally, mature and confident. And even if you had a great father, the vacuum is greater than what even he could fill. Welcome to humanity: the state of desiring to the point of agony. The state of hungering so completely that little on this earth can satisfy for very long.
Wearing Masks and Numbing Out
It usually hits around middle school. I mean, we’ve experienced it before then, certainly, but there’s some magical veil of innocence—or ignorance—that protects us as children. But as childhood wears off and pubescence kicks in, a realization dawns over us, and it’s a terrible sunrise: we are vulnerable. We are terribly vulnerable. It’s like an adolescent version of the Eden story; suddenly, our eyes are opened and we realize we’re naked.
That’s when the feeding frenzy begins, as every one rushes to the highest ground they can find. Being the smartest, being the bad girl, being the badass, being the bully, being the beautiful one, being the star. We’re all looking for some ground to stand on, out of the fray. A place where we can cover our nakedness, safe from the waters, safe from our fear.
Our nakedness comes simply and completely from how deeply we desire. If you desire, you can be hurt. If you long for love and acceptance, you face the possibility of denial and rejection. The adolescent obsession with being cool is a reaction against how out of control—how vulnerable and exposed--we feel. If you can bluff your way to looking invulnerable, maybe that will be enough. The last thing we want to appear is needy; as sharks are drawn to blood, so our peers our drawn to weakness, and they attack what they fear the most. Attacking is a way of seeming powerful, a protest against the weakness we are constantly aware of.
All of this self-protection happens with little to no processing beneath the surface of our conscious minds. We start constructing a mask, a covering to keep us safe, as instinctively as we breathe. We look for something that we’re good at and try to make success secure our safety. It’s so instinctual that it’s not even thinking. It’s a reflex. It’s a fight-or-flight reaction that doesn’t end after we’ve outrun the bear, because the bear is inside us. And this is no mere adolescent game which we automatically outgrow. For many of us, it simply becomes our reality, no matter how old we are.
One of my favorite movies is Searching for Bobby Fischer, a story about chess
prodigy Josh Waitzkin, who wrestles with the blessings and challenges of his unique ability. In one scene, Josh’s parents, Bonnie and Fred, are arguing, and Bonnie insists that Fred is pushing Josh too hard. She says, “He's not afraid of losing [in chess]. He's afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers' love every time they come up to the plate?” And Fred, without missing a beat, slams the door and yells, “All of them! Every one!”
The line caught my attention and my breath. The scene is not just about Fred; it’s about us. Each of us. It’s about how we find power—through being a worthy ballplayer or a worthy fill-in-the-blank. It’s about how our brains, freaking out, create a story to regain some semblance of control over our terror: “If I hit the ball, I’ll be loved.” “If I make a bunch of money, I’ll be worthy.” “If people like me, I’ll be safe.” “If I do a lot of good deeds, I’ll be worthy of blessing.” Our stories, well-cloaked as we keep them, are generally this simple. If I’m successful at religion, at being the vixen, at being the smart one or the athlete or the nerd or the whatever, I’ll have power and control. I’ll be safe. This belief—that we can do well enough to earn or coerce the blessing—gives us a semblance of relief even though it exhausts us.
“Mask” literally means “persona.” It’s the character we play that we want people to see. If I can control how I appear to you, I can live perpetually on that stage. The problem is, we can spend so much time constructing and adjusting our mask that we lose ourselves. The mask becomes grafted on so tightly that I no longer discern where I end and it begins.
As a teenager, I watched my mom, in her 30s and 40s, go through a long and laborious process of extricating her true self from the mask she was made to wear. My grandmother was terribly insecure and tried to use my mom’s successes as her own mask. My grandmother surely never said out loud or even consciously, “If my daughter succeeds, I’m a success,” but she certainly seemed to believe this. And so my mother learned to perform perfectly—straight As, Miss Junior Miss, Little Miss All-Around--all the while terrified of the lurking fear, “What if my mask is all I am?” This is the power of our fear: it consumes us in play-acting without ever satisfying. And it can lay waste to our relationships. Though my mom forgave my grandmother, there was little space after all the manipulation for any real relationship.
My mom’s long struggle to remove the mask speaks to her character. Most people come to love their mask like Winston loves Big Brother. We see no possibilities for life outside our protective coverings. Ultimately, we end up hating and resenting the counterfeit self we’ve created, even as we remain terrified and incapable of living without it.
Or, when masks fail or are simply not powerful enough, we turn to a different strategy for protecting ourselves: numbing out. We can take good things--food, drink, money, sex, chemicals—and try to coax from them, even if just for a moment, the high that approximates the feeling of being chosen and truly blessed. The goal—power over our vulnerability (without having to face our fear)—remains the same.
We might be tempted to give ourselves a pass if we avoid the more conspicuous forms of numbing out, the kinds that leave a stain on our breath or lines along our veins. But the ways of numbing out are not only countless, they are subtle to ever finer, and ever more clandestine, degrees. The use and abuse of food is a great way to put handles on our vulnerability, to try to control it, even if we don’t appear to have an addiction. Work, or overwork rather, is a superb way of numbing out, and one that is actually esteemed and rewarded in our society. Yes, addiction can take many forms. In our wired world, with its endless barrage of images and sounds, we can jump from TV to Facebook to the Internet, to numb out, to avoid the fear within us, to gain a measure of control. And pornography, of course, is everywhere; no longer do you have to put in some work, some creative thinking, to get it (like I had to). Buying, shopping, spending. We could go one and on, for the ways of numbing out and avoiding the desire within us for something real and satisfying are legion.
We know, even as we jump into the deep end, that over-indulgence doesn’t actually satisfy. There’s little real comfort in the bottle or the needle or anything in between. But in the face of our fear, what other tricks do we have up our sleeves? A feeling of control, even if frustratingly temporary, is better than feeling totally powerless.
Life, then, is easily reduced, on the one hand, to trying real hard to look good and, on the other, to throwing up both hands and numbing out. Probably some combination of both. If we live for looking good, we can’t shake the feeling that none of it is real—that we aren’t real--and that everything is meaningless. If we live for numbing out, we aren’t helped but for short periods of time, and cruel reality is always knocking on our door, post-binge. Yet both these patterns, mask-wearing and numbing out, seem impossible to break. What are we supposed to do, after all? Sit on our hands and let our desire and fear drive us crazy? So we stay in the cycles that, on some level, work for us, even if we are miserable. And life looks like this:
The Cycle of Control
Feeling unworthy and unblessed
Feeling out of control and freaking out
Finding some way to stop feeling out of control
Mask-Wearing Numbing Out
Feeling fake or ashamed of how we tried to get control
Feeling more convinced than ever that we don’t deserve blessing (and won’t be blessed)
I was abandoned by my father and mother Something within me is desperate for touch I settle for the touch of a man or woman who doesn’t really love me/whom I don’t really love I feel sick to my stomach the next morning Now I’m more damaged than I was before But maybe I can still find some way to get the blessing
I feel this itchy sense of not being enough I read my Bible and try read hard to pay God back for his “free grace.” I can’t seem to kick my porn addiction Clearly this God thing is not working Maybe if I just try harder
The cycles plays out in these and ten thousand other ways. I sometimes get itchy when people close to me don’t compliment my sermons, as if my identity is tied to how I look or how well I perform or how clever I think I am. I’m desperate to get affirmation and use it to convince myself that I’m good and worthy of blessing. It’s exhausting, but my ego clings to the possibility of proving myself great. “Then I’ll be safe,” I must believe.
And so it goes. The cycle of control is the cycle of despair. That’s because the quest for power is never, ever satisfying. But it’s also our default human reaction to life. Control—the attempt to regulate and master our feelings of vulnerability—is unending, a black hole we can’t escape from, because our desire can never be masked or numbed out.
Our problem is that control never satisfies while love (and the vulnerability it demands) terrifies us. And most of the time, we take what doesn’t satisfy over facing terror. We believe that at some point, we’ll catch the carrot on the stick. We’ll attain that feeling of blessing we so long for. You go to a bar, for example, and bed someone (which generally entails a whole lot of mask wearing and pleasure seeking of the numbing out variety), thinking you’ll get that control that feels like relief. And it feels so close to satisfying that desire for love and blessing. But then we discover, again, that such hookups are only satisfying to one part of our psyche, and not the part that really matters. Your ego may be soothed by its success, but your spirit shakes its head, sadly. “No, that won’t do it.” Your body may be pleased with the sex, but your spirit demands more.
We are up against a dogged reality: our spirit—the center point of our desire—is like the ultimate bank teller, tenacious and all-seeing. It will accept no counterfeits. It’s like a customs agent with ESP. We’re simply not going to get past the gate with our weak substitutes for blessing. The itch of desire won’t be scratched by anything false. We are spirits, not simply egos desiring respect, or bodies desiring comfort, or minds desiring knowledge. The spirit is not satisfied except by what it really, actually, truly desires, for it cannot betray itself.
All this tension points to a hope and a promise: somewhere within us, beneath the masks we’ve come to wear, is our true self. We know this, and that’s why there’s a tension at all. Somewhere within is our real image, not the one we’ve manufactured. This self bears the Imago Dei—the image of God. And we get glimpses of our true self that thrill us with hope, visions that correspond with glimpses of who God actually is, and not the crude masks or religious pictures that we’ve draped over him. The problem is that the vortex of life, with its demands and its pressures, and our overriding commitment to protect ourselves at all times, strips from us our awareness of who God has created us to be, and our strategies for self-protection become our over-arching reality.
So we are stuck. All our mask-wearing and numbing out is exhausting, but without some way of maintaining power, we believe we’ll die. And this is the tradeoff: because a mask “works” on some level, we cling to it even if, internally, we are miserable and even if we know there our soul is crying out to become something more.
The something we are longing for is actual maturity, as opposed to its mere simulacra (mask-wearing) or avoidance (numbing out). Maturity is to be fully aware of your vulnerability and yet to remove the mask. It’s to be somehow at peace despite life’s unceasing anxiety. This is what our spirit longs for, for this is the vulnerable step towards being truly known, truly loved, truly accepted, truly belonging. Truly free. We want to stop pretending. We want to stop numbing out. We want to be ourselves without fear. This is the heart of the longing for blessing.
No wonder Jesus said we have to come to God “like little children:” We must come as those who aren’t pretending we are cool. Maturity, paradoxically, is very close to childlikeness. It’s the ability to acknowledge our weakness and limitations and neediness without freaking out or trying to numb out or deny our desire for love and affection. Again, no wonder the scripture repeatedly tells us to give thanks for our weaknesses. We must come like those who haven’t mastered the art of covering up and are comfortable admitting the reality about ourselves. This is the great unlearning that, again paradoxically, we have to walk into. Spirituality is not learning; it’s unlearning—which is why self help books with seven easy steps to XYZ can only take you so far. Life teaches us to build masks; God would teach us to take them off.
The question then is, simply, how? How do we learn to relate well to our vulnerability, which is what growing up to maturity is all about? As we read of Jesus’ life and his baptism, we have to remember that before he ever approached those muddy waters of the Jordan River, he had to deal with his own longing to be seen, to be known, to be loved, just like we do. He had to deal with the fear of denial, rejection, and heartbreak, just like we do. Jesus had to walk his own junior high halls, such as they were. Surely there is some hope in that.
Two Ways to Stay in Control
Jesus, in fact, preached and told stories about our conundrum, of our wanting an authentic, satisfying way of life but choosing instead comfort and control, despite of ourselves. Wrapped in a story about two brothers, he distills our two ways of staying in control—wearing masks and numbing out. We call it ‘The Parable of the Prodigal,’ but a more apt name is ‘The Parable of the Two Sons.’ It, too, is about a father blessing his sons. Except in this story, the sons don’t see it. And it is, in its own way, a story of baptism. Not in water, but into a living experience of God’s love.
In the story there is an older son and a younger son. The younger son demands an early inheritance from his father and then goes off, money in hand, to live it up. But he squanders all the money and ends up destitute. Then, in misery and shame, he returns to his father. But his father does not shame him: seeing his son returning, he runs and greets him and throws a party. This is meant to be a picture of God’s heart for us. And, truly, it is beautiful.
Sometimes we end the story there, and though we catch something great, perhaps we miss the full expression of Jesus’ teaching. For the parable continues, and we learn that the older brother doesn’t like this. That scoundrel of a brother is getting rewarded with a party? “This isn’t fair!” he says. I’ve been so faithful, dad. I’ve never gone off and wasted your money on liquor and whores! I’ve stayed here with you, doing the right things, and you’ve never thrown me a party!
The parable, as told by the master storyteller, reveals two ways of controlling: The older brother tries to control life through doing all the right things. This is the path of moralism. The younger brother seeks control through pleasure. This is the path of hedonism.
Moralism—which is perhaps the pinnacle of mask-wearing--is trying to do well enough (for others, for God, for the universe) to get control over our feelings of not being enough and our belief that, ultimately, we’re not blessed. Moralism says, “I can get power by earning what’s mine.” But the moralist only ends up with endless self-doubt and self-recrimination when there’s always more they could have given. The moralistic path is so insidious because it’s rooted in the lie of Satan that we can be like God and need no one else. We can overcome our limits. We can be powerful enough to deserve what we have. The voice of moralism is the voice of Satan, because unlike hedonism, it carries the lie that we can be like God.
Hedonism—what we called numbing out--is trying to use pleasure to control or avoid our feelings of being out of control and unworthy of love. It says, “If I don’t face it, I can have power over it.” Hedonism is a commitment to avoiding the fear we don’t want to face and the vulnerability we don’t want to admit. But the hedonist always ends up feeling the weight and sting of a betrayed conscience.
Moralism and hedonism may be at opposite ends of a spectrum, but both are equally attempts at control. They are both expressions of what the Bible calls flesh or ego (the opposite of spirit), and they are both rooted in the impulse to escape our vulnerability on our own terms, which is the ego’s soul commitment. And while the religious scoff at the hedonists, Jesus often, in no uncertain terms, warns that the moralists are actually farther from understanding the heart of God than are the “sinners.” At least the sinners aren’t pretending! Apparently, Jesus loves honesty, authenticity, and humility, and he can’t stand “putting on a good face” and pretending that we don’t need God or that we can succeed at controlling life. Ironically, religious life has often trained us to do these very things.
The story has a twist worthy of O. Henry. Both sons are trying to find the blessing, and the irony, is that it is and was there, ready for them, waiting to be discovered, all along. The father freely gives and withholds nothing from his sons. But they prefer numbing out or trying to earn what’s theirs. The blessing had already been given, and we must take note how easy it is to miss it, even when it’s right before our eyes. It’s this pervasive form of spiritual blindness that Jesus warns us about time again and time again. The brothers, in their darkness, could not see this light.
I see myself in both brothers. I am the older brother. My ego wants to earn what’s mine far more than it wants to submit to grace or mercy or blessing. That sort of humility—the humility of receiving—is anathema to my ego. But I’ve walked the younger’s brothers path, too. I gravitate, in any given moment, towards whatever can make me feel safe on my own terms. And I end up, at best, antsy—like something’s not quite right--and at worst, miserable. The universe will always teach us this cold reality: all life, apart from God, is always a frustrating attempt to find control.
The Cycle Continues: The Path Into Violence
I was 19 years old when the news started coming in. Something brutal, barbaric, psychotic had happened. It was hard to process. I had certainly never had to wrap my mind around something so confusing, so gutting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two students at Columbine High School, had assaulted and murdered their classmates and their teachers.
How could we we even begin to make sense of it? How can we now? Of course, there is no way to make sense of it. Yet the choices those two deranged boys made are anchored in a very clear pattern: when people are desperate to find a blessing, and when they have concluded that they will not find it, the unprocessed sorrow and despair of that belief catapults them towards psychosis and barbarism. Violence is the inevitable end point of a soul committed to control; physical violence is despair’s final pathetic act.
In the story of Cain and Abel’s, Cain feels out of control and unblessed because a gift he gave is not accepted. He is resentful and pissed. Out of his despair, Cain, famously, turns violent.
“And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8).
Violence is a final gambit for staying in control. A wounded, cornered tiger with nowhere to run lashes out. Humans lash out to make a desperate last stand against the exposure of their deepest fear. The sick comfort of having control over others serves as a final, futile attempt to overcome powerlessness. Harris and Klebold had been bullied, they had been made fun of, and they let that alienation and despair drive them to an unyielding grab for power, at whatever cost, even the cost of human life. The desire for the blessing easily blooms, like a mushroom cloud, into something grotesque, horrific. We must beware: the unrelenting quest for power as an antidote for vulnerability and insecurity is the fuel of all spiritual darkness, and hell is the unmitigated commitment to control through our own means. Fidelity to the power of hell means doing anything, at whatever cost, to remain in control.
Physical violence is just the most obvious way of seeing it, but this violence is all around us and in all of us. In the Parable of the Two Sons, the children do violence to their father: imagine the Father’s pain as his younger son says, essentially, “Screw you, dad, give me now what I’d get when you die.” Imagine the violence to the Father’s heart as his older son scorns his father’s joy. Yet we all traffic in this sort of violence to some degree.
When Becca does something that irritates me—something as simple as not cleaning the kitchen counter how I asked (I’m sorry to say that is an actual, historic example), my first impulse has oftentimes been to go silent as a means of expressing disapproval. Or to make such a guffawing sigh that you’d have thought she’d spray painted obscenities on the wall and kicked me in the crotch. Why? Because I want things done my way. Childish? Yes, clearly. Effective? Well, yes. But only at great cost. I’ve never done damage to Becca’s physical body, but I’ve certainly inflicted a type of violence against her soul.
I am reminded of an image from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that I must have read when I was 8 or 9. I see great, vermillion tentacles wrapped around the hull of an unfortunate ship as a terrific and terrifying squid shakes crew and cargo loose, like a child shaking a piggy bank. The image reminds me of me. And it reminds me of all of us—desperate to find some control and power that will finally satisfy our appetite. Heedless of who we shake and wound in the process.
Our violence takes many shapes. Over-indulgence of any kind (in sex or pornography, drugs or alcohol, money and consuming) is a violence we do against our own soul. And it always, ultimately, does violence to those that care about us. Unforgiveness, likewise, is a violence against ourselves and against others. And just as we don’t consciously instruct ourselves to build a mask, neither do we instruct ourselves in inflicting violence. We just pick up the habit along the way. We learn how to protect ourselves as instinctually as we cover a cut in our side. We learn to lash out, to do violence to others, as a means of self-protection, and no one ever has to teach us how.
Indeed, our favorite strategies often start off innocuously and understandably enough—justifiably, even--and they form without our realizing it. Take my life: because I felt so skinny and embarrassed by a chest deformity in my sternum, I hated taking off my shirt in public. I’d avoid like the devil any situation where I had to be shirtless, and I felt a deep shame and searing, if irrational, guilt about how I looked, and more, who I was. So, to avoid this terrifying fear that something was wrong with me (and beneath it, that I could never be truly blessed), I tried to control my terror by being a nice guy. People won’t reject a nice guy, right? I’ll be safe, right?
I perfected the art of being a nice guy. The nice guy. Some people saw through it; they saw that it was all a mask, elaborately constructed, meticulously controlled, viciously protected. In college, a classmate called me out on how I was with girls. He pointed out that it was unfair how nice I was to them, and that it wasn’t really nice at all. And even though I agreed with him and I wanted to break the cycle of using people, and especially girls, to make me feel better about myself, how do you stop doing the thing that keeps you feeling safe? I felt guilty, I felt false, but I went from relationship to relationship, leaving a string of hurt young girls, and then women, in my wake, as I tried to make relationships stand in for blessing. As I tried to coax from them some relief. Then I engaged a more serious, long-term relationship with a woman, making promises to her that really had no ultimate basis in reality. I cringe to write that truth, but it’s so: I was willing to trade my integrity for the relief that came through exchanging affection. What I ended up with, of course, was a lot of guilt over an understandably hurt and angry woman who I could not bring myself to commit to. Yes, I cringe at the violence I have done. I have been, can be, am still that squid, roving the ocean, hurting others, when desperation drives me to violent means of control.
The Bible has a word for this violence we do to ourselves and to others: sin. Oh, that word is out of fashion given our cynicism about absolute claims of any sort (or perhaps it’s just an appropriate reaction to how the word has been abused by religious powers). But sin is simply recognizing that we all do violence, that we all have violence in our hearts, and that this violence brings death. And, further, it is, implicitly, an acknowledgement that we need a path out of violence and into a new way of living.
But how do we escape the cycle of control, the pattern of violence? We are struck with (or stuck with) a similar question—if not the same question in different wrapping: “How can we take the mask off?” “How can we break out of the cycles?”
Our spirit says, “this can’t be all there is.” There must be more to life. There must be more than “settling for a level of despair I can tolerate and calling it happiness.” Of course, we are looking for a blessing that could change everything. But where would we find the nourishment our spirit is so desperate for?
A Life Lived from the Blessing
I remember another night, when my dad helped me manage the sting of life—and of my own stupidity--magnificently, in a way that moralism or hedonism never could. I had done something incredibly dumb. Something which culminated in me vomiting for three hours in a public bathroom in a swank Boston hotel.
I was embarrassed. I had made a total ass of myself, and my date had called me far worse (as she screamed my name, pounding on a stall door in a crowded public bathroom). The next morning, I called my dad. This time, he had the perfect words, “Well, son…this, too, shall pass.” That was it. I just paused and sat in silence as I thought about the words and heard the tone of love and wisdom in his voice. It was more Confucius than Ward Cleaver, but it did the trick.
Those words of comfort and all they represented—the care and blessing of my father, his faithful presence in my life—shrunk my embarrassment and restored my sense of equilibrium. It put things into perspective and reminded me that I could live in a much bigger story than my embarrassment and my shame. The persona I was so desperately trying to hold onto—of the cool guy who has it all together—didn’t seem so important. The clouds parted and I could breathe. I could see a direction forward, a bit humbled, a bit wiser.
Now that is a small picture of what the blessing of a father can do. It is such a powerful force of life, restoration, and wholeness that the mere hint of its presence brings comfort and re-assurance. It re-orients us.
Moralism doesn’t work. Hedonism doesn’t work. But the blessing of a father: that can change everything. We walk a long, miserable path through control and despair, through moralism and hedonism, into violence we can’t escape from, and come to a place of stunning sunrise. Despite our persistent blindness, a light breaks above us. For Jesus, as he walks the dusty trail into the muddy waters of the River Jordan, is not walking the path of control. He’s not pretending to be a nice guy. He’s not worried about what others think about him. And though he makes people incredibly uncomfortable, he does violence to no one. As Jesus walks into the water, it’s a picture of despair being walked to its death. As he’s baptized, Jesus makes the waters of the Jordan become the waters of new life; the shallow waters of the Jordan become the ocean depths of Genesis One—the waters of new creation.
There is nothing special about the religious act of baptism. Lord knows all sorts of religious people take religious acts and use them as a way of trying to get control. “See, God! See, everybody! Look how holy I’ve made myself! I deserve to be blessed.” Lots of Jesus’ contemporaries were baptized or talked about washing. But Jesus takes a religious act and turns it onto its head. “To fulfill righteousness” in Jesus’ world has nothing to do with trying really hard to please God or look good or even to be good. “Fulfilling righteousness,” to Jesus, is choosing to live from the river of belovedness, freely given him by God. Full stop. That’s why, as Jesus comes out of the water, his Father says to him, “Everybody listen up. THIS is my beloved son. I am very pleased with him.” And there it is. The blessing given. The blessing received. Somehow Jesus is living in and from the story we all want to live in. Jesus confronts us with our very desire for the blessing. He provokes us with the very thing we are eager to avoid: an acknowledgement of our vulnerability and our longing. This is not moralism, this is surrender. This is accepting the overwhelming generosity of a good God and letting his blessing, like river water, subsume you on every side.
And I scratch my head and say, “Huh? What?” I don’t get it. Jesus is not living to find control at whatever cost. His reality looks something like this:
The Cycle of Blessing
Feeling the lack of blessing/feeling out of control
Jesus doesn’t resist being out of control
Jesus looks to the Father
Jesus dwells in a freedom and the possibility of selfless giving and self-giving love (even in the midst of suffering)
I can understand this cycle on an intellectual level, but the expression of it is a foreign language to me. It is gibberish to my ego and my love of control. It literally does not seem like a possibility to that part of me. It’s easy to talk about “grace,” but to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, “We keep a-using that word, I don’t think we have any idea what it means.” The idea of actually being loved and chosen and adopted by God and then finding our identity from that blessing seems like a wonderful fairy tale that is also complete b.s.
It is, in fact, an offense to our ego and all its ways of seeking control through our own means. It is anathema to our comfort with quid pro quo, “earn what you get,” put your best foot forward ways of surviving. It doesn’t care for our masks. It offends us by how it never takes seriously our favorite ways of looking good.
And this brings us to a conflict and a climax. This scene at the Jordan River provokes in the same way we are provoked by the beauty of a sunrise. Unless we shut our souls against it, it begs us to ask the question: Is there a place of rest where I can find something of which Jesus tasted? Are those waters of baptism for me? In short, is there a place of blessing for me?
Life, Death, and the Way of Trust
A few years ago, I became a pastor. I was never planning on working at a church, let alone helping to lead one, and for the first year, I could hardly use the ‘P’ word. It had bad connotations for me. Church had bad connotations for me. Yet I had a very clear sense that this exactly the path I was to take, as if God’s Spirit was whispering, “This is the way, I’m with you. Something will happen here, in this, that can’t happen for you anywhere else.” I can say, without exaggeration, it has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. Challenging, rewarding, joyous. And it has been grueling. Exhausting. De-stabilizing. There has been a type of death in it.
To reduce a long story to a paragraph, within the first few months of pastoring, I had to fire a number of staff members for various reasons. One firing in particular came under incredibly painful circumstances that lingered on for months, an earthquake with a seemingly endless barrage of aftershocks. I was attacked and I felt misunderstood (and as a recovering “nice guy,” I hated that). I woke up every morning with my stomach numb, my mind swimming in circles. The next year, a dear friend and I who had shared life together in profound ways had a magnificent breakdown and blowup. Magnificent in the same way a train wreck is. It was gut-wrenching, again for months on end. The next year, two of my best friends betrayed me and many others. Gut-wrenching, again, on an entirely new level. For months. All this within our little church community.
All pain drives us, if we will let it, to an awareness of how vulnerable we really are. How greatly in need we are of a drink that will quench our thirst. This is the task of life: to remind us that we are mortal, that we are dependent, that ultimately, we are not in control. And then our awareness of this vulnerability will either drive us to despair as we resist this knowledge, or to a new and expansive reality, as we embrace it. But no one knows naturally how to embrace vulnerability. Not at first. We are wired to resist it, and we’ve been taught to fight it. To deny, to hate it, to cover it. To subsume it by looking good and being successful and having it all together.
I can’t think of anyone—and certainly not me--who enters the waters of trust and surrender willingly. It’s always instigated by the sting of life. Suffering drives us to surrender the illusion of control. The illusion of being able to earn or coerce the blessing, as if the drink we are so desperate for could be manipulated rather than simply received. Or of being able to numb out enough to manufacture some sense of relief. And this is precisely why pastoring has been such a gift to me: it has revealed my most cherished ways of staying in control. It has exposed just how deeply I have believed that God requires me to “try really hard” and to “get it right.” It has revealed my many hedonisms—my love of food, of buying things, of having things—each of which I use to keep the storm within me at bay.
I have understood that those thoughts about God aren’t true, but I haven’t really known that. I haven’t believed that. I have known that buying things or using food or drink to take the edge off doesn’t fully satisfy, but I haven’t been willing to let those things go, afraid of what life will look like if I surrender my favorite means of control. I’ve heard a lot about grace (a lot!) without being pierced by it. What I’ve actually believed in instead of grace is the mastery of principles and self-improvement.
Case in point, I started pastoring thinking that if I did well, and especially if I became a great teacher, I would earn some sort of blessing. People would respect me, and I would feel way better about myself. But I think I can say, without resorting to cliché, that God had (and has) a different path in mind. The pain I’ve experienced has given me opportunities to trust in ways that are totally new for me and have nothing to do with me earning anything or becoming “great.” And in fact, the “better” I’ve done, the more vulnerable I have felt and the more aware of just how unable I am to “do it well enough.” There has been incredible grace in this, but it is a stinging grace. It’s the kind of grace that first wrestles your ego into submission before infusing your spirit with life. And truth be told, if I could find a workaround to this sort of grace, I’d take it. My ego screams “No!” every time I’m faced with a loss of control and every time I can see the writing on the wall: that surrender is my only path forward. I am way more comfortable trying to pay my own way than I am admitting to how little I can actually earn. Grace is anathema to my ego. True grace, experienced grace—not just professed grace—always stings our ego to despair.
And (oh glorious “and”), there is life abundant in this grace, to the greatest delight of our spirit. Our masks are torn off by this sort of grace, and our spirit finds space to breathe at last. The death to our ego brings life to our true self, because what our true self discovers is how deeply, unconditionally, passionately we are loved by a good God. And that is enough. That is the blessing, and it is enough. And it has been there, all the time, waiting to be received. We have simply lacked awareness, so caught in a conversation that has nothing to do with God’s ways or God’s mercy. God’s way of grace makes no sense to our mind so accustomed to thinking on the ego’s terms. But if we will weather the discomfort of the unfamiliar, we will come to well-watered land.
We are called by Jesus to walk this baptism path with him. His journey—as ours must be—is always a picture of control surrendered. Consider Jesus, there by the Jordan waters: he removes his outer garments—a picture of vulnerability, a picture of letting go. He lets the water cover him, a picture of receiving. A picture of not being in control and being perfectly fine in that reality. He’s covered on every side by waters that represent God’s blessing engulfing him. And when he steps out of the river, the voice of God confirms what he already knows: “I see you. You are mine.” There is no need for moralism or hedonism or violence in this place. They just make no sense. They have no bearing, no point of reference in this new reality. The blessing, like water, has cleansed Jesus from such a life of self-protection. And it can cleanse us.
Thus our work is to receive this generosity of God. There is still labor, there is still work, there is still effort for us, but it is not the labor of earning, it is the labor of trust and surrender. It is a work peaceful for our spirit and painful for our ego. It is a work that leads us into the unhurried life of belovedness, the very life Jesus promises us we will live forever with him in his kingdom if we trust him.
There is no formula for getting into these waters. There are no “7 Simple Steps for Perfect Surrender.” But our walk is consistently to learn the steps of a greater humility and a greater trust than we have yet walked in. In this trust, the complaints of our ego are driven quiet as we learn to live from our spirit and we begin to do the unthinkable: We give thanks for not being in control in the place where resistance to this vulnerability is our first response.
For me, these days, this path often looks like this: In the morning, I get up to pray because I have found I feel ungrounded without slowing and pausing and praying. Yet most mornings, my first thought is, “Here I am, I’ve got to do this right, I’ve got to be a good boy. I’ve got to find where God is.” There’s still this lingering belief in me that God is far off and that I’ve got to pay my way to Him.
But, as I press in, not resisting these thoughts but just labeling them as ego and not spirit, I find there is a water waiting for me. It starts to pour over me, to surround me. I’ve become familiar with the way it feels, and I relax, welcoming the Spirit of God. I start to become immersed in a new reality—the reality of baptism. The reality of having been chosen. It’s uncomfortable. I wouldn’t call it natural. And yet for my spirit it is like coming home. I can relax, because it’s not about me doing it right. What was a checklist task becomes a swim.
This is why the spiritual disciplines—solitude and silence, centering prayer, scripture reading and contemplation, and arranging our daily rhythms of life around connecting with and loving others—become paramount. Once spiritual disciplines cease to be tools in the hand of the moralist, they can become pathways that lead us to see what God has done for us. They raise our awareness that God has already called us the beloved and that what we need is not the work of earning, but the labor of surrender.
Our rhythms of life, then, can become patterns that helps us live in the discipline of hearing the whisper of God’s Spirit, as Jesus did at the Jordan. Whether we’re cleaning the house, finishing up a report, turning away from some opportunity to numb out, playing with our children, listening to a friend, or talking with our neighbors: All of life becomes an opportunity to learn to live the unhurried life of belovedness. All of life becomes learning to live in the water.
It takes time and it takes patience. It’s a training, a literal re-wiring of our way of thinking. And In the process, we lose ourselves in a very real way. We die. Yet we are also those who trust that resurrection life holds us. We are those who discover, like Jesus, that we are free.