I am the team chaplain (or whatever you call it) for our high school football team in our community. It is a role I have held and cherished for the past eleven years or so. During that time, I have been so blessed and privileged to be a part of the lives of so many wonderful people; folks that have cared for, marked, and communicated Christ to me in so many ways. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that what I have received from being a part of this wonderful community is so much greater than what I have actually given to it. Which at times, if I'm brutally honest, makes me wonder if someone else in this role might be a better gift to them than I am. I am often tempted to think, at age 53, that someone younger and more energetic, more winsome and outgoing, might have more of an impact on the lives of kids and coaches for the Kingdom than I do/have over the years. More on this later.
This past Friday we had an away game at the home of a bitter rival. Although their record was better, and they were ranked higher, we, in a valiant effort, pulled off the victory. One of our players, Derric (not his real name), had an incredible night--both on offense and defense--and was one of the major reasons we were victorious. Another one of my high school friends, Caleb (not his real name either) had a not so good night. In fact, he didn't get to play at all. And during the course of the game he just became sadder and sadder. Every time I walked by I tried to encourage him, and get him to enjoy the fact that we were winning a huge game, but he continually refused to enter into "celebration mode."
After the game was over, since it was a bitter rival with whom we have a history of animosity, all of the fans were held off of the field and not able to join the players in their post game celebration. Therefore they all stood by the gate and waited for the players as they came off the field. As the players walked off the field, the contrast was too much not to notice: even for me:) First, here came Caleb and many of the other players who didn't get a chance to participate in the game. As they walked out of the gate and past all of the fans they got a warm greeting, but no one specifically congratulated them, or patted them on the back, or cheered their names; which I'm sure sent Caleb further into the downward spiral. Then the more veteran players (the ones who had contributed a little more directly and visibly to this specific victory) began to exit the field, and the cheers began to grow. One of the last players off the field was Derric; and as he came through the gate there was a huge cheer from the adoring fans, a reward for his incredible effort. In fact, they clapped, and cheered, and even chanted his name; and the smile on his face grew from ear to ear.
There is simply something about being celebrated that strikes a chord deeply within us. It is something that we all so desperately long for. When we get it, whether we realize it or not, we get a taste of the eternity we were all created for. And when we don't, it throws us into a pit of doubt, insecurity, sadness, and despair. What a contrast the night was for me...Derric and Caleb...one celebrated, one unnoticed. But obviously there was far more to the picture than meets the eye...like, how does this scene take on life within me?
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:20-32)
This was my gospel reading a couple of days ago...before my experience at the football game. But it wasn't until the realization at the game that I began to understand what God was trying to help me see and understand. All of us have a deep longing to be celebrated; even the older brother--and maybe particularly the older brother. He comes home and sees a party. Immediately his insecurities rise to the surface. "What is this celebration about? My younger brother? How is he worthy of a celebration? I'm the one who never left; this celebration should be for me."
The Father's words are priceless here. "My son"...affirming His sonship as well as the Father's affection..."you are always with me." Almost as if to say "I love you and celebrate you every single day, don't you know that?" In fact. "Everything I have is yours." If you knew my deep love for you (and knew it to the core of your being), if you were attentive enough each day to know how dear you are to me and how much love is in my heart for you. If you were only aware of how crazy about you I am and how much I celebrate you every day; then you would be secure enough in my love to celebrate the homecoming of your wayward brother. My celebration of him is not a threat to my celebration of you. You are my Beloved! Know that to the depths of your being.
We will have our need to be celebrated met somehow, somewhere. If we refuse to enter in to the celebration God offers of us--either because it sounds too good to be true, or somehow not good enough--we will find a way and a crowd to celebrate us, or we will chase after it for our entire lives. But the celebration we most deeply long for (in fact the celebration we were created for) lies only in His celebration of us. And until we realize that, and live out of that, we will never find the rest and peace we most deeply long for. So let us all turn the ear of our hearts toward God and listen to the words of celebration He most deeply wants us to hear.
Derric, my son, you are my Beloved. I know it feels good to be celebrated by the people around you, but the celebration you feel from them is only a drop in the bucket compared to the celebration that is in my heart for you. Remember those cheers, remember the applause, remember them shouting your name, because that is exactly how I feel about you...only much more so! I rejoice in you every minute of every day. When I even think about you it brings a smile to my lips and deep joy to my heart. You make my heart leap within me; you make it skip a beat. You cause me to jump up and down and cheer. That's how much I delight in you. Come to me and know yourself as my beloved.
Caleb, my son, you are my Beloved. I know you are tempted to believe that you have no worth, no value, because you are not celebrated by those around you as much as you long to be. But as long as you seek that kind of celebration you will be disappointed, discouraged, sad, and in despair; because people can never offer you what you most deeply long for--only I can. You are a joy and a delight to me. I created you uniquely and wonderfully when I dreamt you into being and you are mine; the work of my incredibly loving and wonderfully creative hands. Do not let the voices and applause (or lack thereof) of this world define you, but be defined by my abundant and unfailing love for you.
Jim. my son, you are my Beloved. I know how much insecurity and doubt fills your heart; and it makes me so sad. It hurts me deeply to see you doubting your value, your worth, and your calling. I know how much you compare yourself with others, and how much (in your mind anyway) you come up woefully short in that comparison. I so much long for you to know your own beauty, value, and worth. You have something to offer that no one else in all creation has ever had or ever will have. You are a wonderfully unique expression of my love, care, and creativity, and it gives me such joy to see you be who I made you to be and give what I gave you to give. You are incomparable; beyond compare. You are of infinite worth. Come to me and allow me to celebrate over you daily. Allow me to convince you of my extravagant love for you. Allow me to convince you that you are worthy of being celebrated. And allow me to remind you that I celebrate you ever minute of every day. You are mine!!! And I love you!!!
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