I do a lot of nodding and listening in my line of work. For the most part, this is confined to my office, but every once in a while, I end up having an impromptu pastoral counseling session on the sidewalk. When you ask people if they have any particular prayer needs, the answers can range from one word to a person’s life story.
Here’s what the middle of this spectrum looks like – a lengthy explanation of a personal problem, accompanied by that person’s need for validation of certain feelings or permission to take a certain action. This could be anything from taking antidepressants, to taking back a cheating partner, to taking a new job. While some people are just looking for a little spiritual input, others clearly want my stamp of approval – or more accurately, God’s stamp of approval and the imprimatur of the church.
I’m wary of even purporting to pick up that stamp, especially after a five-minute conversation with someone I’ve just met. But there are times when I reach for it right away. “Is it okay to be gay?” Yes, stamp. “Is it okay to leave my abusive husband?” Yes, stamp. And the question that underlies so many others, “Does God still love me?” Yes, double stamp.
In my Christian denomination, the ultimate stamp of approval is seen in baptism. The priest uses a special kind of holy oil to make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead while saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
This sealing indicates the promise of God to never let us go. God approves of us even when God doesn’t approve of what we’re doing. God loves us even when we’re unlovable. I think it's fair to say that most of us love God through all things too. Even when we're angry at God or frustrated or bewildered, the love is there. Peter denied Jesus three times yet never stopped loving him. This is why, after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times over, "Do you love me?" Jesus is essentially saying, "You failed, you let me down. But you still loved me the whole time, and that's what matters most."
God's seal of approval is a sealing in relationship. It's a reminder "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39).
When I pronounce God’s blessing over someone - and make the sign of the cross on their forehead - I harken back to that seal. I acknowledge God’s imprint on that individual, who like all of us, is made in God’s image. I remember that God created humankind and saw that it was good. Loved. Blessed. And approved.