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Love Your Enemies

 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Matthew 5:44-46

As I ponder these words of Jesus, I find it helpful to distinguish between people I do not like and those I consider an enemy. In general, I choose not to associate with those whom I share little in common. The person I must associate with in the normal course of my days who does not share my core values and understanding of the world, however, is a higher level of annoyance for me. While I accept that not everyone feels the same way I do about things, I find these people unpleasant to be around for an extended time, and I try to avoid or ignore them as much as possible. The third category of person is one who not only does not share my core values and understanding of the world, but he or she actively works against what is important to me. This person fits my definition of an enemy because avoiding or ignoring them is not sufficient. Rather, I find myself working in direct opposition to them in support of what I believe. Fortunately for me, there are not too many people in either of the latter two categories. They do exist, however, and I struggle with how best to deal with them in a way that is consistent with Christ’s teachings.

There is one striking example in the Gospels of Jesus becoming angry and actively working against the interests of another. In Matthew 21:12-13 (also in Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2). Jesus enters the temple and finds merchants selling sacrificial animals to worshipers. He overturns their tables and orders them to leave, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” The sellers were actively working against Jesus’ vision of the temple as a house of prayer. It was a dramatic clash of values, and Jesus took overt action against them. Based on my definition above, one could say the merchants were the enemies of Jesus.

Even so, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Everyone loves those who love them, Jesus says. For me, it is helpful to remember that to love someone does not necessarily mean I have to agree with them, approve of their behavior, or even particularly like them. The type of love of which Jesus speaks is an action, not an emotion. We can act in the best interest of another without necessarily agreeing with their life choices. We do not have to become like them, but we do need to acknowledge their existence, respect their right to feel as they do, and understand that God loves and cares for them every bit as much as God loves and cares for us. God allows us our preferences, but when our preferences lead us to judge others harshly, we tread a thin line between seeking to do what is right and believing that God is on our side, exclusively.

With some serious self-reflection, we begin to understand that our views and preferences are fraught with biases and prejudices, just like those of our enemies. With more reflection, we may even discover that what we find so annoying about another is actually a reflection of some deeply repressed tendency in ourselves of which we are ashamed. In other words, our enemies reflect something within us that we are hesitant to acknowledge. In that sense, our enemies are our greatest teachers. When we hate an enemy, we are only directing our venom back upon a part of ourselves that needs to be known, loved, and transformed. Many times, our enemies are not even aware of our feelings, so we truly only harm ourselves.

What I actually think Jesus is leading us to through loving our enemies is to persist in finding a third way to reconcile our differences – one that includes and honors both the position of our enemy as well as our own. In that way, there is no reason to hate our enemies because they are no longer an enemy but a comrade in a shared purpose. Loving others is the mark of a child of God, even and especially when that person seems to be working against us.

This is the 22nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

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Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.

 

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Great Joy

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

The theme for the third week of Advent is Joy. Happiness is often used synonymously with joy, but the two are significantly different. Happiness is a transitory state of mind, but joy is an underlying orientation to life. We can be happy one moment and sad the next, not unlike the ups and downs of an emotional roller-coaster. Joy, however, remains relatively constant regardless of the immediate circumstances. In Luke 2:10, the angel tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (emphasis added). The angel’s message clearly refers to something greater than momentary happiness. The incarnation of God on earth as Jesus was and is intended to be a life-altering, joy-inspiring occurrence.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes that God fills us with joy and peace in believing (15:13). In other words, it is our belief – our lived faith that God is real and present in our lives – that leads to joy. Like a self-perpetuating cycle, faith makes hope possible, hope brings joy, joy renews our faith, and so on. Those who lack the optimistic hope that life is defined not by its challenges but by its blessings cannot live with joy. The pessimist only sees life as one set of catastrophes after another and lives in constant fear and dread of the next disaster. A joyful person knows that great blessing lies just beneath every difficulty and waits expectantly for it. The difference is subtle, but powerful. One scriptural reason for hope is found earlier in Romans (8:28) where Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”  Nowhere in scripture are we promised an end to the troubles and heartaches of this life. Rather, we are assured that God will work through our suffering and transform it into something good. Those of us who have lived long enough and awake enough have seen this proven true repeatedly. Indeed, this is the good news of the Gospel.

One can be happy without joy for a time, but only a joyful orientation to life will bring lasting happiness. The first step is to develop our faith, and this is a personal choice. No one, including God, can force us to believe. Becoming faithful requires a willingness to trust that which we cannot see or prove exists. As we surrender into a stronger faith, we cannot help but become more hopeful about life and the future. Our faith teaches us there is nothing that can possibly happen to us that will happen beyond God’s ability to mold it into a blessing. Once we know that even death cannot separate us from love, our fears dissipate. As we worry less about the future, we become capable of experiencing joy in the present moment. This is the great joy spoken of by the angel to the shepherds. This great joy is not about some future reality in a faraway land we may see when we die, nor is it about some obscure event that happened two thousand years ago. This great joy is here, it is now, and it is available to everyone. We must position ourselves to receive it, however.

So, when I wish you a joyful Christmas season, I am not hoping you will receive lots of nice presents (not that there is anything wrong with that). My wish for you is for a life transformed by the birth of the Christ child within you. That is the path to a true and sustained joy; and from that great joy, all good things will flow!

 

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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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