Monday, January 20, 2014

Blessed to Speak

I preached this sermon as part of our sermon series: Blessed on Sunday, January 12, 2014.  The theme of the day was "Blessed to Speak."  Due to the response it received, and the fact that it certainly relates to our role as parents and our identity as children of God, I thought I'd pass it on... 

Blessed to Speak 

There is a phrase from the book, The Help that has stuck with me ever since I read it.  It is a scene when the housekeeper, Aibileene Clark, sits with two year old Mae Mobley on her lap, looks intently into her eyes, and says, "You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important."
This simple exhortation becomes a sort of sanctuary between the two, happening whenever they are alone together-- at nap time, or while potty training for instance. Mae Mobley's mother is rather indifferent toward her daughter and treats her like an inconvenience, so it's easy to understand why, even though she may not fully understand what the words Aibileene speaks to her mean, Mae Mobley knows they are different somehow...and important.

As you read or watch this exchange, though Aibileene's words are not grammatically correct, the message is clear: genuine affirmation is an essential ingredient in child development.  Ask any educator and they would likely agree.  

Genuine affirmation can go a long way in helping a child learn and develop the way I would guess most of us would hope children do.  On the flip side, lack of genuine affirmation can have lasting effects on a child's sense of worthiness and confidence.

I'm well aware that there is a danger in praising a child for no particular reason and doling out affirmation right and left if there's no substance behind it.  I've read numerous articles about the problem with praise and how it, if offered too liberally, can have negative effects on a child's confidence, effort, and ability to rebound after a setback.  

Yet, the key difference here--the necessary ingredient--is that the affirmation we give our children needs to be genuine.  And at it's best, it should be based on a child's effort and intrinsic worth rather than on their accomplishments.

One article I read defined affirmation as "'declaring something to be true.'  So to affirm a child means to communicate things we know to be true about them.  For Christian parents (and mentors, foster parents, grandparents, godparents, and other affirming adults) the things we know to be true about our kids will have spiritual significance and biblical underpinnings." [1]

There are unique affirmations that we give a child when we witness the Spirit moving through is or her life, such as "I've noticed how patient you are with your sister lately," or "It was so thoughtful of you to hold the door open for that lady."  

There are also truths that we can share with our children because of their status in Christ.  These are affirmations that should be pointed out in good times and bad, ones that are never based on how well someone does or related to progress on a goal.  For instance, "You are are created in the image of God...God is with you; you are never alone."

Of course, children are not the only ones who long for affirmation.  Grown men often yearn to hear it from their fathers; wives from their husbands; and people in general like to know they are appreciated.  Yet there is a danger in waiting to receive affirmation of our self-worth from someone else.  That's because, for a variety of reasons, we may simply not receive it.

So you can't go through life waiting for someone else to affirm you before you feel like you are worthy and of value. Especially in our culture, where it is so easy to get caught up in feeling like we are not "enough" unless we have this, do that, or achieve you-name-it, it's more important than ever to understand that our significance does not come from what we own, how much we make, what clothes we wear, what we do for a living, or who we know.  I think that's why, in part, God speaks the affirmation to Jesus that Matthew shares with us in our reading for today for us all to hear: "You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Just imagine the significance these words must have had on Jesus' life.  As he encountered all that came his way-- temptation in the wilderness, being ostracized in his hometown, ridicule by other religious leaders, and sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, he would always have these words to fall back on and to go back to, reminding him of who he really was.  These words likely became a sort of anchor for him in all he did, always bringing him back to where (and in whom) his true identity and source of worth was found.

The fact that God speaks these words at Jesus' baptism is a game-changer for us too.  That's because, when we are baptized into Christ, all that is Christ's becomes ours. Which means that these words of empowering grace that are spoken to Jesus are also spoken to us.  Think about that for a moment.  In our baptism, we receive God's forgiveness and are sealed by the Holy Spirit in a personal, tangible, and specific way.  And in our baptism, God announces our identity as God's beloved child.  Which means that we are among those with whom God is well-pleased.  

This is an incredibly important and profound thing.  As it was for Jesus, these words can become an anchor for us in all that we do, always bringing us back to where (and in whom) our true identity and source of worth is found.  

Yet how often do we really think about this reality and remind ourselves of the fact that God has spoken to us these words of affirmation and truth?  I once heard of a seminary professor and his wife who marked each other with the sign of the cross each night before they went to bed, but I think we would all agree that this couple is the exception rather than the rule.

Yet the truth remains that God has spoken these words to us.  And God has spoken many other related affirmations to us through his word...You are a friend of God (John 15:15); you are very important to Christ's church (Romans 12:5); God chose you.  You are important to him (1 Peter 2:9); your sin has been paid for (Col 2:14-15); you are Christ's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10).  

Just think of the difference it might make as you go about your daily life if we reminded ourselves of these truths (these affirmations) every day. And just think about the difference it would make in our interactions with others, if instead of getting our sense of worth out of how well our kids look or perform or from whether or not people like us, we got our sense of significance from being centered in God and confident in who we are in him.

I'm not saying doing this is an easy thing.  It actually takes some work and diligence on our part.  Particularly because we live in a commercialized world that spends a lot of money trying to convince us of what we lack, it takes work to not buy into the messages that other people and products are trying to sell us.

That's why we need to keep coming back to God, and why we need to keep reminding ourselves (and each other) that we are a beloved child of God, and that in God, we are enough.  When we are able to get to the point of remembering this truth more often than not, it is an amazing thing.  We’re able to live in a way that sort of permeates peace, and there is something about being at peace with ourselves that helps others to feel at peace as well. 

In thinking about this, I’m always reminded of the quote by Marianne Williamson that Nelson Mandela included in his inaugural speech.  It goes like this:  
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
I love that line: when we light our light shine, we unconsciously let others do the same.”  And that is exactly what happens when we let the blessing that God has spoken to us sink in and truly inform how we live.  Because the thing is, once we have received a blessing like this (and keep receiving it, for the promise of baptism is one we can remind ourselves of each day) we then have the awesome privilege of passing it on and speaking it to others.

As you leave this place today, my prayer is that you do so knowing you are blessed.  Knowing that you are God’s beloved child, and that God is well-pleased with you just as you are, I then pray that you are willing to pass this important blessing—these important words—on. 

Whether the words you offer to another are these, or a simple God bless you, or an affirmation like the one Aibileene gave to Mae Mobley, what I hope for you today is that you offer them, speak them, and give them freely to those connected to your life, both in your words and your actions.  In the name of Jesus, amen.

[1] Importance of affirming our children by Laura Kuehn

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