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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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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

Love Endures All Things

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The 15th characteristic of love, as described by Paul, is that love endures. Love is persistent and determined. It does not give up easily. When we think of endurance, we often think of sports and the extended and extensive training required to achieve at high levels. Sports are not a bad metaphor for loving relationships. When we commit to love another – whether in marriage, friendship, or other committed relationships – we commit to being with and for them over the long-term. We agree to support and accompany them in good times, in bad times, in boring times, and in all times in between. We vow to love them when they treat us well, when they treat us poorly, when they act in ways we wish they would not, as well as when they treat us as if we were the only other person in their life.

That we remain committed to another does not mean we simply weather the difficult times, however. It also means we work to shape a relationship from those difficult times into something rare and beautiful. Enduring for endurance’s sake is self-imposed torture – there needs to be a higher purpose for our endurance, a purpose like love. I am told that wine made from grapes whose vines grow in poor, rocky soil and that endure challenging weather conditions have a depth and body that other wines lack. Some of the most beautiful things on earth require time, time necessarily requires endurance, and the difficult times often make the results more beautiful. The rings of trees record the relative ease or difficulty of their individual years. A weathered face reflects a life lived in the elements. Friendships we maintain for many years have a level of comfort and acceptance that simply cannot fully develop otherwise.

This is not to suggest that all relationships should be endured. Abusive, unhealthy, one-sided relationships should be terminated, not withstood. An abusive relationship is not a loving relationship. Where there is a foundation of mutual fondness, respect, and benevolence, however, endurance will take a relationship to levels not otherwise possible. There is a saying in sports, “No pain, no gain,” which suggests we must endure difficult practicing and training in order to reap the benefits of athletic achievement. The same can be said for loving relationships – the benefits come from a wide diversity of experiences with the other, not by only accepting the good and rejecting the not-so-good.

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

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Life Notes

Love Rejoices in the Truth

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

1 Corinthians 13:4-6

Paul lists 16 characteristics about love in the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 13. Eight are positive, or things that describe love, and eight are negative. I find the groupings interesting. He begins with two traits that characterize love, followed by eight qualities that do not, closing with another six positive qualities. It seems to follow a common pattern of worship today – begin with a positive, uplifting tone, move to something more somber, and then end on a positive, encouraging note.

That “love rejoices in the truth” may seem obvious, at least at first. After all, why would love rejoice in a lie? Yet, what poses as “truth” is often harsh. Truth may take the form of a significant other being a little too honest with us, or a boss providing an all-too-candid performance review. In her book, Lean In, Cheryl Sandburg writes, “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest. Speaking truthfully without hurting feelings comes naturally to some and is an acquired skill for others.” When we consider love in relationships, we often need to be “delicately honest” with the truth – not that we should lie, but there are many ways to speak the truth in an unloving manner. When we speak truth without a perceptible love behind it, we simply make the other person defensive, or worse. Once that happens, the opportunity for a meaningful and healthy dialogue is likely lost, at least for a time.

On the other hand, Jesus says, “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Knowing the truth is supposed to be a freeing experience, but it seems contradictory to our experience to say the truth will always make us free. Is it always best to know how another truly feels about us? Is that truth? Is it best to know where we stand with our boss, or how our abilities rate against others? Probably, but that is not necessarily truth. It is best to know these things when we first know we are loved and accepted as we are and not judged for what we are not. In an unloving environment, knowing the “truth” will not be a freeing experience at all. We will not rejoice – we will be devastated. The truth is found in the knowledge that who and what we are is good enough for love and acceptance as a child of God – only then will the truth set us free. As a result of that truth, relationships become more genuine, love based in truth thrives, and there is much rejoicing! The Truth is that we are loved with an eternal, freeing, undeserved love that is beyond all comprehension, and for that we can rejoice!

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

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Won’t You be My Neighbor?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second (command) is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. Mark 12:30-31 

Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.  — Fred Rogers

My children were not among the tens of thousands of children who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on a regular basis. The show, however, was a regular feature on television for 33 years. At the beginning of each episode, Mr. Rogers would sing the song, “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” as he came through his front door. He would put on his cardigan sweater, and then sit down to put on his sneakers. After he was comfortable, he began an informal visit with his (mostly) young audience. Fred Rogers – both in character and in real life – preached love, acceptance, and gentle living. He received training as a Presbyterian minister, so his focus on virtues, values, and the respectful treatment of others should not come as a surprise.

In one of his simple and profound writings, quoted above, Mister Rogers stresses the importance of recognizing the action implied in love. Too often, we relegate love to emotion and to romance; and while those are important expressions of love, they are not necessarily love’s highest expressions. Jesus, too, focused on the act of loving, saying we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To love, both God and our neighbors as ourselves, is the greatest of all the Biblical commandments.

During this season of graduations, imagine a commencement address given by Jesus or by Mister Rogers. There would be no shallow platitudes such as, “Be all that you can be,” or “Go forth and prosper,” or “Seize the day!” There would be no cheerleader-like chants and no sports metaphors. Equally absent would be tired clichés and forgettable advice. I believe a graduation speech given by Jesus or Mister Rogers would be straightforward. The focus would be on relationships – with God and with others – and the words would be about love. The words of love would be couched in caring for and about others – being a good neighbor, particularly to those less fortunate than we are. There would be no flowery descriptions of dreamy, fairy-tale futures. There would, however, be direct instruction for a focused present – a moment-by-moment, single-mindedness that assures its own glorious future, beside our God and with those we love.

Come home to church this Sunday. Won’t you be my neighbor?

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