Honestly, I rarely listen to sermons on the internet (even though I usually post my own when I preach). But earlier this week I saw a link to a sermon by my friend Chris Thacker, Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Alexandria, Louisiana. I don’t know what got my attention exactly, but the title is “Beloved,” and the sermon is on the story of Jesus’ baptism.
I sat there in my room and listened to the whole thing, and I sent Chris an email later to tell him how moved I was by it. Both the content and the delivery were both so very, very good. I would highly recommend listening to it yourself here.
Chris speaks movingly of our desire to impress, to receive praise, and our struggle to both receive and give the unconditional blessing of God.
Chris’s sermon certainly speaks for and to me. And it made me go back and read my own attempt this fall to address basically the same topic.
I had written something about relating the gospel to being a number 3 on the enneagram. The enneagram is tool that represents nine distinct personality types– really it’s much more profound that “personality type.” It’s more about the different patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that arise from deep inside each of us. So I wrote something about being a 3 on the enneagram. It turned out I couldn’t use it for what it was intended for, so I’ve just had it saved on my computer but haven’t shared it.
After listening to Chris’s wonderful sermon, I went back and reread what I had written this fall. Here it is.
The Gospel According to an Enneagram 3
In over two decades of preaching almost every Sunday, I found myself returning to this episode in the Gospels again and again. Only now, looking back, can I see the extent to which I was preaching to myself. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:13-17. Jesus came up from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus heard that voice, and I need to hear that voice as well. Especially as a number 3 on the Enneagram. 3s are often described as ambitious and competent. At their healthiest, 3s are everything they seem to be—role models, achievers, and leaders. They can also be status-conscious and highly driven for advancement and overly concerned with their image and what others think of them. I have often thought that Jesus was speaking to 3s when he criticized the Pharisees for cleaning the outside of the cup and neglecting the inside (Matthew 25:25-26).
I realize this is true for many people, but for 3s it is central to our identity. We will do almost anything to distinguish ourselves as special. All the praise we seek. All the recognition: the trophy, the degree, the office, the job, the promotion, the address, the accomplishments of our children. All the ways we endeavor to stand out. All the ways we use to assure ourselves that we matter, that we have a place in the world, that we are loved. All because we assume we have to do something to be valued.
Martin Copenhaver talks very effectively about this and relates it to walking for the first time as a toddler [“Whispered in Your Ear,” 30 Good Minutes, January 7, 2009]. Paraphrasing Copenhaver, I don’t remember the first time I walked, but I imagine it went something like this: I stood at one end of the room with my mother, and my father was about three steps away. Before that day I could probably do the kind of dangling that almost looks like walking, when somebody held me by the hands and shifted me from side to side like a marionette as my feet barely touched the floor.
But this is the day when I will try a real walk on my own with just two eager parents, seemingly miles apart, there to cheer me on. So I set out, wobbling at first, stumbling at second, but unmistakably making it on my own from one set of arms to the other. And then I imagine that my father lifted me high in the air with an exultant shout as if no one in human history had ever walked before. Then, after numerous kisses and exclamations, I probably felt like the most loved, most marvelous boy in all the world.
After a while I could walk with more assurance but, for some reason, I didn’t receive so much praise. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that anyone praised me for walking across a room. So I had to do other things. Simply walking just wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to strive to make a splash in other ways, just to get back to that feeling, that feeling of being noticed, of being picked up with a shout of delight, of being valued.
For the most part, we don’t have much experience with unconditional love, so we try to create conditions in which we will feel worthy of love. We do not entirely trust love without reasons, so we strive to create reasons for the love received.
And in all that striving, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact, as Copenhaver puts it, that my parents did not praise me because of my accomplishments. Rather, they praised my accomplishments because they loved me; they took joy in my accomplishments because they loved me and would have loved me if there were no accomplishments to praise. I found myself repeating this bit of wisdom often to my kids over the years as they excelled in athletics and I gave them praise. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that this was true of me, too.
Every time I performed a baptism as a pastor, when I raised that person up from the water, I would look at him or her and say, “You are God’s beloved child. With you God is well-pleased.” Maybe I was trying to convince myself that this was true for me, too.
I have struggled mightily with the idea that God loves me for no other reason than that I am God’s child. I have preached it with great frequency and sincerity to others and have seen helping others to internalize that message of blessing as central to my calling. But I confess that I haven’t been very successful in accepting that for myself. And here is a further confession (that perhaps only another 3 can relate to): I’m not sure I want that to be true for me. Because that means my good and impressive qualities and accomplishments don’t make me exceptional or maybe don’t mean anything at all, and if that is true, then… who am I?
The spiritual practice for me is to claim that voice that says I am God’s beloved— that God is pleased with me, that God takes joy in me simply because I am me. The great question for me, a 3, is, Can I find my self-worth in blessing rather than in praise?