It’s funny, the sorts of things that have made me feel loved.
When I mine my memory, no grand gestures or extravagant expressions of affection come to the surface. Instead, I remember unexceptional moments on days that I could not locate on a calendar.
For instance, when I was a toddler, my maternal grandmother and I would sit on the sofa of her living room and watch “The Three Stooges.” She would cover my legs and feet with a brown and tan plaid blanket. We laughed together. Curly struck her as especially hilarious. She would laugh until breathless, wheezing the last few molecules of air from her lungs.
My grandmother had emigrated from WWII-shattered Austria less than a decade before. She was a seamstress with scant formal education. The little English she spoke was heavily accented.
She expressed her love by being with. And since my mother and I were living with my grandparents, and a heart condition kept her at home, my grandmother spent entire days being with me.
My grandfather was a mill worker and my mother was also a seamstress. There was no money for trips to the zoo or to admission to a theme park. I played around the house. She played and cleaned and cooked. We were together.
I still remember vividly the sound of her voice, the whiteness of her hair, the smell of her breath when she kissed my cheek, and the incongruous heaviness of the footfall of a woman standing hardly five feet tall.
My grandmother made me feel loved by being with me.
I know that I’m loved. And yet, sometimes I don’t feel especially lovable. I worry that I’m a lousy husband, a clueless parent, and an incompetent bishop. In other words, I’ve not completely internalized the basic lesson about love that I learned on my grandmother’s sofa.
From time to time I still slip into equating my lovableness—or my worth or my significance—with my performance in one or another of my roles in life. In other words, there is some part of my soul that still buys the idea that love is a reward for measuring up, for achieving, for being a winner.
My grandmother taught me the exact opposite lesson. She showed up when I broke dishes, refused to climb down from a neighbor’s tree house, painted my entire body with wet red clay, or threw a tantrum from disappointment or fear or the deep need of a nap.
Love is not a reward. It is an unconditional, continuous gift. No matter what sort of mess you are at the moment.
I feel loved by my wife Joy when we sit down for a cup of coffee together after I’ve said or done something thoughtless or rude or self-centered. I feel loved when I’ve preached a dog of a sermon and people still say, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Feeling loved isn’t something I can do for myself. People frequently say that you can’t love others until you love yourself. And there’s no question that loving others when you loathe yourself is a very tall order. But loving yourself doesn’t make you the Beloved. And that’s what humans need above all else: knowing that we are loved unfailingly by another.
That’s one of the lessons we can derive from Mark’s telling of John’s baptism of Jesus. When Jesus emerges from the water, he hears a voice say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) To put that another way, “I love you as my very own. I delight in being with you. And I will always be with you.”
God did not say, “I’m so proud of what you’ve achieved.” After all, Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. And I find it hard to believe that God is saying, “Wow, you’ve been a heck of carpenter!” God said, “I’m with you. Always. No matter what.” God’s unwavering presence makes Jesus know in his gut that he is loved.
And in this we see the meaning of Jesus. Jesus is the sign, the icon, that God is with us. When we’re up and when we’re down. When we’re at the top of our game and flat on our back. God is with us. We are the beloved. Each and every one of us.
Jesus could go into the world as the embodiment of compassion, the voice of justice, and the healer of the wounded because he knew that he was loved. He walked the streets of this planet to give love away. And you can only give away what you already have.
Christians believe that the work of Jesus continues in each of us. Our vocation is to walk the streets of planet Earth giving love to every person we meet. To friend and to stranger. To those who love us and to those who despise us. Even to those who see us as their enemy and wish us harm.
It is not our way to shore up our sense of security by threatening others with nuclear destruction. It is not our way to let others die of treatable illnesses. It is not our way to refuse shelter to those fleeing from violence and persecution. It is not our way to tear families apart to secure our borders. This is not the way of love.
A defining mark for the way of love is this: Do our actions encourage others to know themselves as the beloved? As inherently valuable and worthy of respect? This is Jesus’ mission. And it’s the mission that Jesus gives to anyone who claims to be his follower. To give away what we’ve already been given.