Some of you may have noticed that I have a tattoo on my wrist. I used to cover it up, but I don’t anymore, because I love when people ask me about it. It’s not in English—it’s in Welsh—which is intentional. My family is Welsh, and besides, I like that if someone wants to know what it means, they can’t just read it. They have to ask me.
The tattoo says cariad. In Welsh, this word is most commonly used as a nickname, a romantic pet name, something like “sweetheart.” But it really means “beloved.” In its deepest sense, it carries the same meaning of the Greek word agape, which we understand as the unconditional love of God.
I got this tattoo because I need a constant reminder that I am beloved. This past Sunday was Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a day when some churches will have a baptismal remembrance service. I’ve talked before about how many of us who were baptized as infants don’t remember our baptism—but that’s not the point of baptismal remembrance anyway. The point is not to remember an event but to remember that we are beloved.
In theological terms, we say that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Baptism, understood fully, is one way of uniting our inner and outer lives. The outward and visible sign of baptism is not a sign that you have been good or that you have achieved something or that you have earned anything. The outward and visible sign of baptism is a sign that declares the truth of the inward and invisible grace, the truth that you are a child of God, the beloved.
Baptism doesn’t do anything to you—it simply acknowledges and visibly seals your identity as beloved. Henri Nouwen says that when we offer a blessing to someone, we are not conferring anything on them. We are simply affirming and saying “yes” to a person’s belovedness. Nouwen says that we live in “a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.” But there is nothing to prove. There is only a truth to be acknowledged, an inward and invisible grace to be made outward and visible, a belovedness to affirm.
Jan Richardson penned a poem about Jesus’ baptism called “Beginning with Beloved.” Here is the last stanza:
Keep saying it
and though it may
sound strange at first,
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
as if you could ever
have been other
Beloved is where we begin, and beloved is where we end. Beloved is our source and our goal. Howard Thurman says that the source and goal of a river is the same—it comes from and flows back to the sea. In the same, way our source and our goal are the same: we come from and move back toward God’s love and our belovedness.
In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Quaker author Parker Palmer talks about how we live divided lives. We aren’t born this way—when we are very young, we are simply who we are. If you ever interact with very small children, you know what I mean—what you see is what you get. Infants and young kids have just one reality, and they live it wide open.
But as we grow older, we start to divide ourselves between our inner and outer lives. It may start at school or at home, but somewhere along the line, we will get the message that there are parts of us that are not acceptable. We start to hold some things back and behave the way we think other want us to behave. Our outer lives become a wall of separation that protect our inner lives, our true selves, from being hurt.
Setting up that wall is a natural defense mechanism, and of course there are parts of ourselves that don’t need to be broadcasted to the whole world. But if we live too long behind the wall, we fail to see and become who we truly are, who God made us to be. We may project an outer image of accomplishment, success, and confidence, while inside we are anxious, lonely, and insecure. We seek validation from our outer lives, but what we do get in the way of external praise is never truly what our inner selves desperately need.
Because what we most need is to know that we are loved. We need to know that we are God’s child, the beloved. I just finished Desmond Tutu’s book God Has a Dream, and perhaps one of my favorite things about it is the way he starts every new chapter. Rather than saying, “Secondly,” or “My next point is,” he begins each new section with, “Dear Child of God.” It almost seems silly at first, to read again and again, “Dear Child of God,” but it quickly becomes beautiful and deeply affirming. Perhaps our deepest need is to know that we are a child of God, and yet how often do we hear it?
And being a child of God, being the beloved, is not something we can accomplish or earn. Tutu says this: “Dear Child of God, in our world it is often hard to remember that God loves you just as you are. God loves you not because you are good. No, God loves you, period. God loves us not because we are lovable. No, we are lovable precisely because God loves us.”
We are the beloved because the God who is love calls us his child, his beloved, no matter what. This is the truth of our inner selves. And Parker Palmer says that becoming our true selves means uniting our inner and outer lives. He uses the example of a Möbius strip. I’m going to show you how to make one. Take your piece of paper and hold it up. Give it a half-twist, then join the ends together. The words “INNER” and “OUTER” should be aligned.
A Möbius strip has only one side. If you take your finger and start tracing along one side of the piece of paper, you will find that you can get all the way back around without having to switch sides. On a Möbius strip, there is no inside and no outside. It is all one.
Parker Palmer says that this is our goal: to unite our outer lives—our image, our influence, and our impact—with our inner lives—our ideas, our intuitions, our feelings, our values, and our faith. Most importantly, this means knowing that the core of who we are is found in our identity as a child of God, the beloved, and letting that truth inform all we are and do and say.
Because when we know we are children of God, then and only then can we see the belovedness of others, friends and enemies alike. Glennon Doyle Melton says this: “I am confident because I believe that I am a child of God. I am humble because I believe that everyone else is, too.” When we know that we are beloved, not because of what we have done but because of God’s love for us, we no longer have to compete with others for love and affirmation. There is an unlimited supply of belovedness. The more we can claim and live our identity as children of God, the more others are able to do the same.
So when we’re go down in the river, we’re going as sisters and brothers, as children of God, all beloved. We’re going in part to wash away sin, but more to find out who we truly are. We go to the river, not to be told how bad we are and how much we need to change, but to be shown the beauty we were made for and are called to live into day by day.
The sacrament of baptism is a theological and liturgical Möbius strip that binds our inner and outer lives, anchoring our whole selves in grace and love. We are after the same rainbow’s end—to know ourselves and one another as children of God, all beloved. And when we take steps in that direction, however slow, however halting, God says to us: “You are my child, the beloved. And I am real, real proud.”
Sarah S. Howell