(Thanks to Dave Walker of the Cartoon Church blog)
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Now, this is actually the Gospel text of the Daily Office reading for the day before Ash Wednesday, but it is still stuck in my head today.
Have you ever noticed, when the "important" people in the Gospels are asked who they are, they never answer directly? When Jesus is asked who he is, elsewhere in the Gospels, his answer is "Who do you say that I am?" In our passage above, John answers the same question by saying who he is not.
It reminded me of the discomfort of other people's projections.
I was really really little when I first discovered when people do that.
I've blogged before about my late uncle Richard. He was killed in a hunting accident when he was eleven years old, and I was eight months old. I really don't have a memory of him. But I know from old pictures he was very fond of me. From the moment I was brought home, he wanted to carry me everywhere and be with me, and they used to have to scold him repeatedly for "bothering the baby when she was asleep." My grandmother told me he used to "have conversations with me," telling me all sorts of things.
So in a sense, I feel like I had a relationship with him, even though I don't remember him. All my life has been a tense balance between a yearning that I wish I could have consciously known him vs. a joy that he knew and loved me.
But growing up, something that used to be a great source of irritation was when something I did, just because I was "doing what I was doing," reminded my mom and grandparents of Richard.
Let's say I was reading a story book. I used to read story books aloud, with expression, even when I was barely able to read. I was wanting to be heard for my reading the story. Nothing got my goat when one of the grownups would go, "Look. Remember when Richard used to love that book?"
I'd be doing something and it was always Richard, who was dead for years, who got the attention.
"Remember when Richard did that?"
"Oh, that was Richard's favorite toy, too."
"Richard used to sit and do that for hours. Remember that?"
I remember when that was going on, it used to make me really angry. What I wanted to do was stomp my foot up and down and yell, "I'M NOT RICHARD! I'M ME! Doesn't anybody care that I'm doin' it?" But I knew I dared not do that, because I knew he was dead, and I didn't want another dose of the "You are an only child, but I'll be damned if you're going to act like a spoiled only child," shtick. Besides, there were all these weird "Richard boundaries" in the house that I dared not cross. They were like land mines. I hated those land mines because they made people quiet, or made them cry, or at the very least, I felt they were angry at me that I had somehow impugned the memory of "St. Richard." Things like the drawer full of toys in the bottom drawer of my grandmother's chest of drawers that I would be spanked for, if I dared take them out and play with them. Things like following my grandfather to the cemetery--it was made clear to me he went there by himself. Things like looking in the little book of poems and art he made for my grandmother that she kept under the doily of her bedroom dresser.
I used to think, "If I'm not supposed to mess with these things, why do they put them out where I know where they are?"
Then there were all the accidental transgressions. Some of those things I did "just being me" that reminded of Richard, would make them cry and be all somber. I would be thinking "What'd I do?" and then the light bulb would go on and I'd realize I'd crossed another "Richard boundary," even though by accident, and it would be very confusing. Many times I was wanting them to be proud of me, or laugh with me, and somehow "what I did" made them sad, and although over time I came to realize it was not "my fault," it felt like my fault.
It has only been very recently that I have recognized that I could never admit I carried jealousy and resentment over that for many years, and that bits and pieces are still there. You see, although I don't remember Richard, I do love him. When I see the old family pictures of how fond he was of me, I realize that even for only the eight months we knew each other, I was very loved by him, and I feel like some day, when we are both in the same place, I will recognize that love and be able for the first time to share it. There have been times I have in odd ways, felt his presence. So for many years, it just felt "wrong" or "bad" for me to have these angry feelings about those boundaries I grew up trying to negotiate, or those times I wished people looked at me and saw me instead of him.
It has taken five decades to admit that it was okay for me to have these feelings of jealousy and resentment. But I think it simply took many years of having a rich, full, rewarding life of my own, and recognizing his life was tragically cut short at age eleven, to have the ability to do that. It was only until I could be at peace that my life is an okay life--a better than okay life, in fact--that I could be free to be understand my mother's and my late grandparents' grief and sorrow. To lose a child in his or her childhood is one of the most devastating things in this world. Once I could share their grief, rather than see it as an oppositional force in my life, it didn't take long for me to realize these jealousies and resentments are not worth having. After all, had he lived, there would have been different jealousies and resentments that would have cropped up. I would not have grown up jealousy or resentment-free. No one does.
But back to John the Baptist. I get where he is coming from, and I understand his forthrightness in his answer in a different way. First, he knows he's not the Messiah. He knows it in his heart. He doesn't want anyone to be falsely led that he is. He knows he cannot live up to that. He earnestly desires for those coming to him for baptism to continue to look for the Messiah and await his coming. But I also hear in his answer that little wish to be seen for who John is. "I'm not the Messiah! I don't want to be the Messiah! But won't y'all just notice me for me a little bit? Can't you notice what I'm trying to tell you for all our sakes?"
One of the things that has cropped up among my friends and connections is that, in the last couple of years, people come to me and tell me the things that bug them, or sadden them, or make them afraid, and ask me,"Will you pray for me/them/it?" In one sense, this is flattering, but that's not what I usually feel. I feel uncomfortable. What I want to tell them (and sometimes do) is "I'm not ordained, you know. I don't have any more special powers than you do with this. My prayers don't have any more special stuff than yours or anyone else's. I can't absolve you. I can't do any more than you can."
But their answer is sometimes, "But you're such a spiritual person. This matters to me."
I get so very uncomfortable about that. I know every NOT spiritual thing I am. I know who I am NOT. I don't ever want to pretend I am "more" than them, and I don't ever want to lead someone on. But I have also come to realize arguing with them about who I'm not, sidetracks the issue. It doesn't address their spiritual need.
The way I have mostly learned to find my way through that one is by suggesting, "You know what? Let's pray together about this. I'll start, and maybe something will come to you that you want to say about this. Then I'll finish it up."
What I have come to discover is what I can be in this scenario is the catalyst. I've found if I start the prayer, they can usually find their own words in it. I've discovered this is what I can add to this and still be "just me" and not let my own discomfort of who I'm not, get in the way.
The other thing I often do is encourage them that their own prayers are very powerful, and not to ever discount them. I try to make others feel that they have this ability to be the spiritual person they desire to be--that they don't have to depend on others for that task.
In short, I have not made peace with this totally--but I recognize John the Baptist probably hadn't either, and I am in good company.
The final thing that comes to mind, as I ponder my own history of dealing with "I'm NOT Richard," is something that was very important in my growing up. My grandparents were crucial to my stability growing up. If they had not lost their son, perhaps they would not have had the desire to bond to me and shape my life the way they did.
Well, you know, God lost his son too.
Many of you all know I am no fan of "substitutionary atonement." I really don't think Jesus died to pay any unpaid bills on our behalf. That just seems cheap and manipulative to me. I don't want a relationship with a God who manipulates us with our unpaid bills and threaten us with it like a celestial repo man.
But I can understand a God who wants to love us because his own son's life was cut down short--who mourns and grieves and misses his own child--and still desires to love in that way. I can understand that God very well. I can bond with that kind of God as the object of his love.
As we begin Lent, I think that this year, rather than obsessing and dwelling on all the things where I fall short, my task is to simply accept who I am not, and rejoice in a God who wants to love me like his own child.