Janis Ian’s 1975 song, “At Seventeen,” still runs through my head sometimes
“To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came,
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball.
It was long ago and far away;
The world was younger than today,
And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.”
(Copyright, Mine Music Ltd./EMI Music Publishing Japan Ltd. All rights reserved)
The song ended up being an enormous hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard charts. She performed the song live on the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live,” and she ended up receiving a best female pop vocal performance in 1976. The song deeply resonated with people in 1975; it still does, I think, because it reflects a reality in our world. The reality is this: the beautiful and the talented and the strong and the coordinated are the wanted and valued and befriended.
Valentine’s Day is here, the moment for people to say “I like you” or “I love you” or “I want to be with you.” As kids, we waited to see what signals we would get. Who wanted me? How many friends did I have? The “modern” signals come more from networks like Facebook or Twitter. Who wants to “friend” me? Who wants to “follow” me?
Some people have hundreds of Facebook friends. Some people get hundreds or thousands of Twitter followers. Why? They have something people value, that’s why. Perhaps you watched this year’s national college football championship game featuring Notre Dame and a school in Alabama. Just over a quarter into the game, which was getting a bit one-sided, the t.v. cameras panned over to the stands where the family of Alabama quarterback, A.J. McCarron, was seated. The commentators pointed out his mom, but then they identified his girlfriend, Katherine Webb. The camera struggled to leave her.
That’s when the commentators forgot there was a game and began doing color commentary of Ms. Webb. They noted that she was a former Miss Alabama and went on and on in adoring her good looks. One commentator seemed smitten: “Wow, I’m telling you quarterbacks: You get all the good-looking women…” As if that were not enough, the cameras found their way back to Ms. Webb more than once after that.
The story doesn’t end there. By the next morning, more than 100,000 people had begun following Ms. Webb’s Twitter account! Why? Well it’s not because she’s just any old Auburn student. People want to be connected with the beautiful and the famous and the brilliant and the funny and the gifted. It can be a different story when you don’t possess those things. I have been there.
In fourth grade, I was the last kid you would pick for your kickball team, and frankly no one would have taken me on their team if that was an option. Why was that? Because I was crappy at kickball, that’s why! You may not realize that it is possible to kick at a ball rolling toward you and miss it entirely! Believe it or not, you can “strike out” playing kickball. It looked so easy for others, but my leg was less under my control than I thought it was.
Generally, other kids did not want me on their kickball team. Regardless of how bad you are, that hurts. You realize what it means. People don’t want to be with you because you have nothing to offer. We know how the world works: You are desired and wanted if you have something to offer, something of benefit. So you are wanted if you are skilled or beautiful or smart or funny or strong. That is how the world works; those are the “rules.”
There was perhaps no place where the “rules” were stronger than in the school lunchroom. Who you would sit with for lunch had significant implications because you would be “associated” with them. Table company implied friendship. Some people’s tables were mobbed. Other people’s tables looked like a hazmat zone. You got an indicator of your perceived value by the number of people who wanted to be with you. That’s how the world works; it always has.
So, when God showed up on the planet, people naturally assumed He would “play by the rules.” Only he didn’t. In particular, He repeatedly violated lunchroom protocol, which earned Him some icy stares and “under the breath” comments from some of the popular and powerful. And so the Bible notes:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (The Bible, New International Version: Luke 15:2)
“Sinners” was another way of saying “moral losers.” They cheated people, they messed up sexually, they didn’t keep the religious rules, etc. One of the rules, then, was that you certainly would not sit with sinners at their lunchroom table.
But Jesus did. He wanted to be on their teams. He wanted to sit at their tables. He wanted to be their friends. Not because they were beautiful. Or talented. Or powerful. Or rich. Or role models. He just wanted to be with them, period.
And so Jesus added a new word to the world’s dictionary. Grace. God loves the rich and the poor, the CEO’s and the blue collars, the beautiful and the ugly, the skilled and the uncoordinated. He just loves…period. And He wants us to do the same.
On this Valentine’s Day, let’s make sure everyone gets some love, even if their names aren’t Katherine Webb or A.J. McCarron.