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Posts Tagged ‘Love’

My Face

 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Genesis 1:26a

According to the creation story recorded in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind was created in the image of God and according to God’s likeness. Not only that, the account is recorded as a conversation within the Godhead: “Let us make…” We assume this is a discussion among the persons of the Trinity, which is one of many biblical hints that God, while One God, is not a single being, at least not as we understand single beings. Rather, God’s core essence is relational. The Trinitarian paradigm describes a God that expresses in different but interrelated ways. Indeed, this series of Life Notes about The Faces of God has attempted to describe a number of the ways our one God manifests in our lives. The descriptors of those manifestations are familiar to us because many describe very human traits – lonely, sorry, demanding, militant, merciful, vengeful, intimate, calm, submissive, creative, and loving. If we are indeed created in the image and likeness of God, why would we expect anything different?

While I believe it is accurate to claim that we reflect aspects of God’s nature, I am not making a case for pantheism, which is the belief that everything is God. Rather, the more correct term for our relationship to God is panentheism, which is the belief that God is in everything. The difference is far from trivial. A pantheist would say “I am God (and so are you),” where the panentheist would say “God is in me (and also in you).” That I do not perfectly reflect God’s nature is an understatement and a relief. There is, however, a portion of God’s nature reflected in me. Richard Rohr, in his book A Spring Within Us, writes, “We cannot bear the impossible burden of being God, but we can and should enjoy the privilege and dignity of being with and in God” (p. 356).

The first faces of God for most of us are those of our parents (an illusion quickly overcome in adolescence). Imagine an infant gazing up at the loving faces gazing back at him or her. The parents are so much larger, so much more powerful, so much smarter and worldly, and the infant is completely dependent upon them. It must be difficult for an infant to imagine how these incomprehensibly vast beings could be so captivated by one so small, unworthy, and helpless. When parenting works as designed, however, a powerful bond forms between parent and child. For the rest of our lives, even once our parents are gone, we long for that intimate, accepting, caring connection, particularly during our toughest trials.

When we are in the presence of one we care deeply about, when we feel loved and accepted for who we are and as we are, we enter a state of heightened awareness of who and whose we are. In these experiences, God within us connects with God within the other. Sometimes, the connection is so powerful that we feel more like witnesses than participants. In those moments, heaven and earth merge, and we know the ground we are standing on is holy. Those moments cannot be forced by strength of will; they are gifts of grace that can only be received when and as given.

When we live with the knowledge that God lives in and through us we begin to understand that our bodies truly are temples of the Most High. God looks out through my eyes and sees God looking out through your eyes, and together we say, “Let us create in our own image,” and life springs forth from the relationship. When I identify with God living through me, my prejudices, my biases, and my judgmental vision fall away, and I see the world around me with a clarity not otherwise possible. And I know everything is just as it should be, right here and right now. Obviously, there is work to be done to help the world become as it will be; but for this moment, I can simply enjoy what is in a worshipful, contented way. The moment is always enough when we center ourselves on the presence of God in us.

One of the many faces of God is my face. Another is yours. Divinity lives within us as Emmanuel.

Note: this is the 36th and final in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

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God the Spirit, Part 2

 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20

The third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, which is a product of relationship. Relationship occurs when someone is in fellowship with one or more others. Reflecting on my marriage, there is a third something present that has grown out of our relationship, our love and care for each other, and the life experiences we have endured and enjoyed together for over 30 years. That spirit is unique to the two of us, it changes with us and our circumstances, and it is a manifestation of God the Spirit. A description of marriage found in Genesis 2:24 says the two “become one flesh.” That does not mean that either individual ceases to exist, nor is it exclusively a sexual reference. Quite the contrary, it can be read as referring to a third being – a spirit of the relationship that manifests from the connection between the two. Whenever you and I interact there is an us produced, and the essence of that us is the Spirit. We do not perceive this Spirit because we focus on the two people as separate individuals. As we become aware of the Spirit around and within us, we realize there is no such thing as separate individuals because we are all connected. As the apostle Paul writes in many of his letters, together, we are all one Body.

In our bodies, we have largely anonymous groupings of cells called connective tissue. It is everywhere in the body and connects skin, organs, muscles, and bones with each other. It functions to hold things in place as well as to exchange nutrients, water, oxygen, and wastes between the various activity centers in the body. We do not often speak of the connective tissue because most of our attention goes to the major organs. Just as our connective tissue fills the spaces between our bodily parts, so the Spirit fills the spaces between what we perceive as individual beings. In other words, we all are connected in and by the Spirit, even though we cannot see or touch it. We can feel it, however. The feeling of the Spirit may be comfortable among friends, familiar among family, and frightening with those who are threatening.

The Spirit is a product of interaction and proximity, and it is not limited to interfaces between people. The Spirit manifests in solitary walks in nature, while gazing at the night sky, or witnessing a stunning sunset. These, too, are interactions within God’s creation. Likewise, it develops between people and their beloved pets – the joy of being greeted enthusiastically by a wagging tail or the comfort of a purring cat asleep on one’s lap. We see it manifest in intimate relationships, but also among co-workers, students and teachers, parents and children, and everywhere there is conscious interaction. The Spirit is unique to each relationship, although the experience is not always pleasant. Some people walk into a room and seemingly suck every ounce of joy out of it. Their own pain and need is so great that their contribution to the collective spirit is negative. Fortunately, other folks enter a room and immediately brighten the atmosphere.

One way to picture the Spirit in our everyday life is to describe an electrical circuit. For electricity to power something requires a connection between two points, one giving and the other receiving. When the circuit is complete, electricity flows between one end of the circuit and the other and accomplishes a third something – powering our lives. When the connection is broken, our world goes dark. When two or more interact in giving and receiving ways, the Spirit will manifest – a circuit is completed and power is generated. Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love is the substance of the Holy Spirit, and we are connected by that love. The Spirit arises out of God, and the Spirit is God. It is incomprehensibly larger than we are, and yet we are intimately and inseparably woven within it. This love, this Spirit, is more real than anything we can touch, smell, see or hear. The Spirit of love surrounds us always, and in that love we live and move and have our being – forever and ever. Amen.

Note: this is the 35th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

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The Face of Submission

 Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done. Luke 22:42

The setting for this passage is a garden on the Mount of Olives, moments before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the temple police to be tried, tortured, and crucified. Jesus is spending his final free moments on earth in prayer with his Father. He asks if this cup – the upcoming suffering and death – can be eliminated and some other, perhaps less gruesome way to accomplish God’s purposes be found. He closes by submitting, however, saying, “…not my will but yours be done.”

There are those who claim Jesus could have saved himself from the agony of his final hours by exercising the divine powers he displayed throughout his ministry. Perhaps he could have set a series of plagues in motion, as was done to the Egyptians. Maybe a crumbling of the city walls, as occurred in Jericho. A pillar of cloud could have covered Jesus and allowed him to escape unnoticed. While these options may have been possible, none were realistic. Jesus could not escape the fate awaiting him without denying the essence of who he was. It was the fact that he expressed his divinity in his humanity that threatened others so. No doubt, the religious and political elite would have preferred to have Jesus renounce his divine nature, to deny that he was the Son of God (and thus equal to God), discrediting Jesus for the rest of his days and allowing everyone peaceably to go back to their normal lives.

Being true to who and what we are makes us vulnerable and forces us to submit to certain realities. When we commit to love another, we make ourselves vulnerable to that person. Jesus’ foundational commandment was for us to love each other. In our relationships, we submit to some things we might otherwise resist because the value of the relationship outweighs the value of our own preferences. The deeper we love and submit, the more exposed we become; thus, the deeper we can be hurt. Jesus loved unconditionally, he submitted completely, and he suffered tremendously at the hands of those he loved. And yet, from the cross, he sought forgiveness for those who took his life because he knew they did not know what they were doing. They could not help themselves.

It seems counter-intuitive to think of God as submissive, as bending to our will, but that is a face manifested in Jesus. When we remain faithful to who we are, we open ourselves to criticism, persecution, and hatred, especially by those who have no such grasp of their own identity. When we know the why of our existence – our purpose for being – we become a threat to those who do not. To be in the presence of one who understands their who and why is a powerful and humbling experience. It often leaves those who are less secure feeling inferior and frightened. In Jesus’ case, they captured him, beat him, publicly shamed him, and killed him the in most excruciating manner known at the time. It was the best option their limited identity at the time could find. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s haunting poem, Carol, one character, observing Jesus on the cross, concludes “We’re surer of God when we know he’s dead.”  Jesus understood that reality and submitted to it. He loved, in spite of the high personal cost.

Jesus, in all his acts on earth, manifested God as love; and love submits. Always, and in all situations, love submits to a higher good. Does this mean we do not defend what we believe is right, that we do not resist evil and correct injustice? Certainly not! It only means that we refuse to act in ways beyond what love and our identity allow. For example, if we identify with the non-violent face of God, we might physically shield a loved one from danger but not take the offensive against the perpetrator. Love’s focus is outward to the beloved, not inward to the personal needs of the lover. Jesus modeled that perfectly on the cross. Love is always other-focused, always true to its nature, and always submissive to greater purposes, even to the death of the lover. Not my will but yours be done.

Note: this is the 28th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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An Intimate and Personal Gaze

 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Mark 1:40-42

The portrayals of God in the Old Testament are largely impersonal. Readers can come away with an image of God as distant from, inaccessible to, and unapproachable by the majority of humanity. Personal relationships with God seemed to be reserved for a select few. It is a familiar structure because many churches give the same impression with their organizational hierarchies. The pastors, bishops, and cardinals are often assumed to be more connected to God than others are. Although most of these people receive formal training about the Bible, God, and matters of the church, their relationship to and with God is no more exclusive than that for anyone else.

Unlike the God of the Old Testament, God in Jesus communed intimately with many different individuals on a very personal level – not just the upper class, the religious elite, or the societal leaders, but with regular, everyday, run-of-the-mill folks like you and me, including many considered undesirable by society. The Gospels are full of stories of masses of individuals seeking out Jesus for healing, and he willingly accommodated as many as possible. In the passage from Mark above, a person with leprosy approaches Jesus and acknowledges that Jesus has the power to make him clean, if Jesus so chooses. Jesus does choose and frees the person from his disease.

There was a significant event documented in Matthew (27:51) and Luke (23:45) as Jesus died on the cross that symbolizes God’s personal openness to us. The curtain of the Temple, whose sole purpose was to keep the worshipers separate from their impersonal God, was torn in two. This tearing of the curtain symbolized the removal of a barrier to our direct access to God. This was one of the messages of Jesus – that God is the God of all of us, individually and collectively, and that God is accessible to everyone.

Many of us are reluctant to believe in a personal God. It defies logic. Indeed, I believe we miss the personal nature of God because we tend to learn about God in our head instead of experiencing God in our heart. Intellectual knowledge about anything does not lead to a deeply personal experience. Further, since we can only know God by faith, some find belief in a familiar God a leap too far. We feel unworthy, or we believe God is too big, too busy, or too important to care about us in our individual quirkiness. God came to earth in Jesus, though, precisely to be in direct relationship with individuals. Although the person of Jesus died 2000 years ago, that personal face of God remains connected to us through the Spirit whether or not we are aware of it. What is hard to accept, what seems too good to be true is that God knows and loves us in our entire individual idiosyncrasy. Those who are parents love their children for their unique traits, even when they disappoint or annoy us. Why would we expect less from a divine parent?

The personal nature of God is important. We know from our other relationships that it is difficult to dislike a person we know well. Once we get to know a person, once there is a trusted, mutual vulnerability between us, we cannot help but appreciate who they are, where they have been in life, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Indeed, knowing someone in much of their specificity is a prerequisite to deeply loving them. It seems to follow, then, that for God to love us, God must know us in a detailed and specific way. That love is the source of our inestimable worth, for if God knows us in all our particulars and still loves us, who else’s opinion could possibly decrease that value? When we seek the face of God with our heart, an intimate and personal gaze gazes back.

Note: this is the 24th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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The Good Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. Psalm 23:1-4

Some may believe the image of God as a shepherd is trite or out of date. I disagree. In fact, I believe God taking on the face and role of a shepherd is one of the most meaningful and insightful analogies about God’s relationship to us. The first line of the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As we better understand God and God’s workings with and through us, we realize that most of us seldom lack anything we actually need, certainly not for extended periods. We often desire more than we have, but that is another issue entirely. Obviously, there are parts of the world, including in the United States, where there are people who lack necessities like sufficient food and shelter. I believe God, the good shepherd, attempts to take care of those needs by encouraging the rest of us to share our abundance to help meet those needs. A shepherd does not feed the sheep; a shepherd assures there is food available for the sheep to eat.

My mother raised sheep as a teenager, and I remember her telling me how dumb they were. Her experience was that if they were not watched constantly, they would invent trouble to fall into. It was as if the sheep simply trusted that a shepherd was watching over them at all times, protecting them from life’s perils, regardless of what they did. (Perhaps sheep are not dumb, just faithful.) The third verse of the 23rd Psalm comes to mind, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me…” According to mom, her sheep would mindlessly wander into any dark valley available.

I tend to think of shepherds as necessary in open fields, where there is no fencing to keep the sheep contained within a certain area. Of course, it is still possible for sheep to find themselves in trouble in a confined area, but it limits the possibilities. The point is that the days of the shepherd being physically present with the sheep 24 hours a day, at least on modern farms, are probably over.

Even contained within a fenced field, and even with regular access to food and water, sheep can find themselves in danger. Coyotes and other predatory animals love nothing better than fresh lamb chops, and fences alone will not keep predators from easy access to the sheep. This is perhaps where the image of God as our shepherd becomes more meaningful. A shepherd does not create the dangers for the sheep, any more than God creates dangers for us. Danger is inherent in the world around us. A shepherd seeks to protect the sheep from the dangers that are naturally present. When danger cannot be avoided, however, a good shepherd stands with the sheep so they do not have to face the danger alone. While God may not physically intervene between us and threats, God does remain with us throughout the danger. As I hinted earlier, God also relies on us to help care for God’s sheep. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus’ answer? “Tend my sheep.” Understanding God as our shepherd does not imply that God is or needs to be physically present with us. It does mean, however, that God inspires others to help in our time of need, just as God encourages us to help others in our times of abundance. We are, after all, the hands and feet of a very good shepherd.

Note: this is the fifteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 33: Love is (always) the Answer

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12

The opposite of love is not hate. Hate is an emotion. The opposite of love is apathy, or not caring. Love is an action we choose to give or withhold. My friend, Stan Hughes, describes love as “caring enough to do something.” Because love is a verb, when Jesus commands us to love one another, he is telling us to care about others enough to take action on their behalf. He says nothing about liking another, or enjoying their company, or feeling that they deserve our care – those are emotions. Jesus tells us to love others as he loved us – unconditionally, sacrificially, and eternally.

There are a number of reasons why loving someone can be difficult. First, love makes us vulnerable. When we do something for another, they may not reciprocate or appreciate our generosity, and then we may feel stupid, cheated, or otherwise taken advantage of. We are to love anyway. Second, loving another can be expensive – financially, emotionally, or physically – and we may feel we cannot afford to love. We are to love anyway. Third, committing to love another takes time and attention away from other important activities. We are to love anyway. Our loving attention is life-giving and is sorely needed everywhere.

When we are puzzled about what best to do in a given situation or with another person, the answer is always more love. Love, when properly understood and applied, will not lead us astray. Obviously, loving someone does not necessarily mean we do whatever the object of our love asks. The term tough love comes to mind, where the loving actions we choose may not be anything the other person interprets as love, at least not at the time. Our actions might even cause him or her pain. There were times, when my children were young, I refused them something they felt they simply had to have. Love is not meek, weak, or unaware. For love to be effective, it must be conscious and intentional.

Robert Greenleaf, in his essay The Servant as Leader, writes that we are to accept “unlimited liability” for others. Even in the business context from which he wrote, Greenleaf believed that leaders should take responsibility for the lives and well-being of those impacted by his or her company, just as a faithful servant would do. A leader committed to serving others will make decisions that consider the effect on his or her employees, customers, shareholders, and community. Accepting unlimited liability means our responsibility for those affected by our actions never ends – love demands that we always care enough to act in what we sincerely believe to be the best interest of those we love.

Ultimately, however, there is a selfish reason to love. In order to love others fully, we must expand our awareness to include their reality. While we do not need to accept their reality as our own, we do need to respect and acknowledge it. In love, we open our minds to be more aware and, in the process, a larger community of others enriches us. We grow closer to the God who is the Divine Parent to everyone; the same God that loves and accepts unlimited liability for all. We grow closer to the One who is the source of love, the One who is love. As we become more loving, we become capable of receiving love, and our world becomes a better, healthier, and more pleasant place for everyone.

Love is always the answer. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Paul Wrote the Book of Love

Love is patient; love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13 4a,b

My latest book, Paul Wrote the Book of Love: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13, will be available this Sunday in the FUMC-Lawrence office, and is available now on Amazon, at ContemplatingGrace.com, or directly from me. It is an insightful and quick read and would make a great gift for anyone confused about love! Here is the Introduction to the book:

bookThe 1950’s music group, The Monotones1, asked the question, “Who wrote the book of love?” Six decades later, I answer the question in this book. The apostle Paul wrote it. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes a comprehensive essay on what love is and what love is not. No doubt, it was timely 2000 years ago when he wrote it, but it is still relevant today. Our society thinks too narrowly about love, usually limiting love to romance. While romantic love is one important and pleasing manifestation of love, it is far from the only or most enduring. All of us want more love in our lives, but until we know what we lack and what we desire, we cannot begin to find it. The purpose of this book is to help the reader find a true, lasting, dependable love.

Fr. Richard Rohr and other Christian mystics point out that we do not think our way into a new way of acting, we act our way into a new way of thinking. The same is true for love. We cannot intellectualize our way into love. Love is an action, so when we decide to increase the experience of love in our lives, we do so by intentionally acting in more loving ways. Feelings of love may follow, but feelings cannot lead, at least not in a dependable manner.

Therein lies the beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 – it provides a list of specific actions that define love. It provides some of the most straightforward guidance for how to become a more loving person, and in the process become more worthy of receiving the love of others. We reap what we sow, and this truth is never more evident than in matters of love.

The first specific reference to love in the Bible occurs in Genesis 22:2, where God orders Abraham, “Take your son, your only son whom you love,” and offer him as a burnt offering (a fate that ended up not being required). A few chapters later, we find Jacob working seven years to be able to take Rachel as his wife “because of the love he had for her.” There are over 150 references to love in the Psalms alone – God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other. As Moses details the laws of righteousness for the Hebrew people in Leviticus (19:18), he writes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment to love others is repeated by Jesus in all four Gospel accounts, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Clearly, there are many variations of love recorded in the Bible, but throughout the Bible, love is non-negotiable.

Love is sacrificial in nature, meaning we hold what is dear to us loosely, willingly offering whatever we possess to our beloved. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was evidence of his love for God above all else. The story is immoral and inexcusable by today’s standards, but the lesson is sound – we may willingly sacrifice in otherwise unthinkable ways for the sake of love.

A word of caution as we begin: This book about relationships, but it is not intended to suggest that all relationships should be endured. Abusive, unhealthy, one-sided relationships should be terminated, not withstood. An abusive relationship is perversion of how God intended us to treat each other and is never a loving relationship.

Paul wrote the book of love 2000 years ago, and it remains as profound and vital today as it was in his day. This book intends to help the reader apply the timeless wisdom of the original Book of Love.

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