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Posts Tagged ‘Love’

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Some may believe the image of God as a shepherd is trite or out of date.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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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 6: Judgment is Self-Incriminating

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Matthew 7:1-5

I remember being taught that whenever I point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at me. It was a lesson in judgment – as in, be careful when tempted to criticize others. Most of us are at least partially blind to our own shortcomings. The very traits we loath in others are frequently the traits we dislike in ourselves. Author William Wharton writes: “What we all tend to complain about most in other people are those things we don’t like about ourselves.”

I am ashamed to confess how judgmental I can be. I not only judge the words and actions of others, I judge their motives. There is no way for me to know the motivations of another. As individuals and as a society, we gossip ruthlessly, we bully, and we discriminate. Rendering harsh judgments has become such a common and accepted practice we hardly realize we are doing it. When we judge behind another’s back, we do it not so much to tear others down as to build ourselves up. How did we become so insecure as to desire to build our self-esteem by tearing others down?

The tendency to judge others is not new. Two thousand years ago, Jesus spoke harshly about casting judgment, telling us to attend to the “log” in our own eye before worrying about the “speck” in the eye of another. We will be judged by the same measure we use to judge others. He called us “hypocrites.” None of us is perfect or righteous enough to stand in judgment of another – especially when that criticism is unfair and unfounded.

This is why I grow so weary of political campaigns – candidates consistently try to build themselves up by pronouncing judgments of unworthiness upon their opponents. The fact that I am so bothered by this, unfortunately, is probably an indication that I tend to do the same thing. Ugh. Perhaps it is like a collective balloon being squeezed at one end, causing the other end to expand. Whenever I deny or repress undesirable parts of myself, those thoughts or actions enter my awareness through others.

One of the clearest commands of Jesus was to love each other. Mother Teresa (of Calcutta) said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” This may capture the core evil of judgment – that we cannot love and judge at the same time. Perhaps, instead of criticizing another, we should be looking within for something we can improve in ourselves. In the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

Judgement is self-incriminating. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 3: The Way Out is Through

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34a

                       “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.”

Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

We live in a violent time. Pundits of every persuasion speak with certainty about the causes and cures for the current violence. I am unconvinced. What I am listening for, but not hearing, is anyone recognizing and accepting personal responsibility for a solution.

Long ago, I was taught that one cannot solve a problem without accepting some level of responsibility. Once I recognize my part in a problem, I am able to begin making meaningful changes that may actually have a positive impact. The change, however, must begin within. If not, I join the legions of complainers, finger-pointers, hand-wringers, pontificators, and other reactionaries that only perpetuate the problem. As Christians, we have the audacity to claim Jesus took the sins of the world – past, present, and future – to the cross to purchase our salvation. But do we understand the nature of that sacrifice? Do we know how to apply it in practical ways? One lesson of the cross is how to participate in the reconciling of social ills. What Jesus modeled for us is this: The way out is through.

Jesus, an entirely innocent victim, knew a horrible death he did not deserve was waiting. He would endure the worst torture that humanity knew how to inflict at the time. The social systems of Jesus’ day, like today, were unjust and violent. They wrongly believed, as we believe, that progress – however the culture defines it – comes by force. Jesus recognized the corrupt underlying system and, in his humanity, refused to participate in or perpetuate it. Once accused, he did not get defensive, or try to shift the condemnation onto others. He knew the only way out of the situation – to begin a social healing process – was to accept his condemnation, take up his cross, and go through it. And in that act of civil disobedience, Jesus modeled what happens when we go through a difficult challenge – we come out the other side changed. All efforts to avoid, go around, or deny a problem leave it for another day.

What are my roles in today’s issues? Where are my actions toward others discriminatory and unjust? Which of my cultural assumptions are repressive? How do my words exclude others from kinship as fellow children of God? Specifically, what am I doing, or not doing, that is contributing to the problem? As a Christian, American (the only category of American without an ethnically-based prefix), heterosexual, white male, I have no meaningful experience with discrimination. I am near the top of the socio-economic ladder by accident of birth. Until I understand and accept my role in perpetuating a violent, discriminatory culture, I remain firmly a part of the problem – without ever pulling a trigger.

From the cross, Jesus looked with mercy on those who inflicted the horrible injustice upon him and asked that God forgive them. They did not know what they were doing; and neither do we. The spiral of violence we find ourselves in will only be solved when a critical mass of people accept responsibility for their part, say “Enough,” take up their cross, and go through the problem, including acceptance of its inevitable consequences.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that.” In these dark times, only love can carry us through to the other side. We underestimate how rare that sort of love is, however, let alone the level of sacrifice and focus it requires. Not all of us will survive, at least not physically, but deeply-imbedded social ills require much sacrifice for the future good. Jesus showed us the way. Non-violent leaders like Dr. King and Gandhi gave their lives for it. They faced evil head on, absorbed the worst evil could throw at them, and came out triumphant on the other side.

The way out is through. How did I miss that?

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Weightier Matters

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

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Life Notes

The Greatest is Love

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

To abide means to continue, to remain, to stay. It elicits images of stability and permanence. Therefore, when Paul says “faith, hope, and love abide,” he separates these qualities apart as uniquely enduring. While we know that much of what we work for on earth – homes, cars, clothing, food – will not endure, these are the priorities that consume many of our waking hours. We seldom lay awake at night worrying about a lack of faith, hope, or love. Instead, we worry about a lack of money, or a meeting with an unpleasant co-worker, or an appointment with the doctor about an abnormal test result. Faith, hope, and love are not commodities we can purchase, steal, or trade, but they are characteristics we can develop. Some come more naturally to certain people than others, but all of us are capable of cultivating a more-than-sufficient degree of all three.

Because Paul says the greatest of these is love, I think it is fair to assume that faith and hope are components of love. If we are to love others in the ways described in 1 Corinthians 13, we must have faith in the innate goodness of others, or their worthiness of our attention. Such goodness is not always obvious, but when we recognize that everyone is a child of God, we accept that everyone is loved and valued by God. We connect in love with their image-of-God essence, attempting to look beyond their all-to-human exterior. A loving relationship also inspires hope. There is an optimism in loving relationships that springs from the knowledge that all things are possible and, in the end, all things work together for good. We always hope for the best for those we love.

As we look in-depth at 1 Corinthians 13, we begin to picture the expansive and inclusive nature of love. It permeates every created thing and connects us all. Love is the thread of our interdependence, connecting us together as one – whether or not we ever recognize or affirm our unity. Love expresses intensely in committed relationships, but goes well beyond romance. Love is the essence from which we spring and the destination to which we journey. Love is God, and God is love. Without love we cannot recognize God’s presence in our lives, nor can we love ourselves or others as we should. We feel separate and out-of-step with life’s rhythms. Ultimately, the most pervasive sin of our time is that of separation – failure to recognize our unity with God and others. Separation, like all sin, is its own punishment. It makes us miserable, it makes us feel unworthy, and it makes us feel alone. Love is the antidote to sin and separation. Where faith and hope abide, love grows – and so will we!

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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