All That’s Wrong with “Love”

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

Do you ever get tired of hearing about “love?” I do. As someone who has spent most of his time in mainline denominations (and surrounded by people who espouse more liberal theology), I was hammered on the head for YEARS about the supposed “love” of God that we were supposed to share with one another. Often, the verse above was cited to make sure we understood the importance of this.

Now why am I bashing on the idea of “love?” Also, why am I putting “love” in quotes?

For starters, the “love” that is often peddled in the religious mainline is not real love. It’s a form of passivity that keeps us out of confrontation. When we “love” one another, we blandly accept each other in a way that keeps everyone feeling comfortable. Preachers don’t really say anything because they don’t want to alienate anyone by declaring certain beliefs and practices to be inconsistent with the Gospel, so you get a lot of “spiritual” sermons that just tell you God “loves” you and it’s going to be okay.

People “love” each other, so they don’t call one another out for being total jerks. Parents “love” their kids, so discipline falls to the wayside. We “love” our country, so we don’t question its practices or heroes. God “loves” us all, so we can basically do whatever we want.

Welp. I’ve had it.

I’ve been as guilty of this as everyone else, but sometimes, you just have to change. Why? Because this form of “love” is a slap in the face to God. I will repeat.

This type of “love” is a direct, violent, and dismissive slap in the face to God.

Referring back to the selection of John 15 I used for this post, it is true that Jesus’ commandments ultimately boil down to “love one another as I have loved you.” But how did Jesus love us? Read the next verse. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13).

Oh, SNAP!

Yes, as it turns out, real love is costly. It hurts. It is confrontational, takes no prisoners, and can end up costing us our very security, comfort, and lives.

God doesn’t “love” us. God loves us. God came in the flesh to show us the extent of that love, even going so far as to accept a horrific, torturous, and humiliating death to make sure we understood what love really is.

To love God means to love one another. To love one another means we are willing to speak the truth to one another and to ourselves. We are willing to point out what’s wrong and our own participation in those wrongs. We are willing to face our darkness so that our lives may be life-giving and a blessing to those we encounter. Further, love also means that we are willing to change in order that we might grow in our ability to honor God by truly loving our neighbors and enemies as ourselves.

I openly admit that this post is a lot of frustration with myself. I used to live a life that was rooted in “love,” a fickle feeling that justified the crappy things I did while paying lip service to God in how I treated His people. I’ve recently come to the point where I am much healthier; physically, mentally, and spiritually. With that health comes the full knowledge and recognition of all the wrong that I have done in the name of “love,” and I am writing in the hopes that the rest of us can avoid learning this lesson the hard way.

I am also writing, however, that you may know just what it means to love. Love is sacrifice. Love is fierce. Love transforms our hearts, minds, and lives into something utterly beautiful. Love is what God has for you. Yes, God is just, holy, and “other.” But all of that is rooted in the reckless love God fosters for every aspect of His creation. It’s a love we are reminded of when we look to the cross and see how far He was willing to go for our sake.

This was a pretty heavy, passionate post, I know. It at least felt that way to me. But my own revelations over the last year or so (my entire life, really) have come to a head and I just feel this urgency to let you know that love still has power for us today. No matter how often it gets watered down or misused, the power of love is the power of God, and it is offered to you and me. It is my prayer that we will accept it.

Peace be with you.

Changing the Story

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” — Matthew 2:13, NRSV

We live in a world that needs a change in story. Repeating cycles of violence, physical and ideological, seem to indicate that we have made very little real progress in the ways we deal with each other. The dangers of forcefully keeping “peace,” drawing lines in the sand, and demonizing each other based on our differences have all been made known throughout history. Somehow, though, we just keep barreling toward whatever next great “fall” comes next.

Even as individual people, things seldom look better. We continue painful and self-destructive cycles believing “that’s just how I am.” We dismiss ourselves and one another based on the worst information we can obtain. Both us and the people around us suffer for our unwillingness to put down the burdens we carry.

So why is that? Why do we seem to always fall back into dangerous patters of behavior, both collectively and as individuals? Well… Change sucks.

Change is something humans resist. It scares us. If the rules, standards, and patterns are allowed to shift, there is less for us to cling to for support and stability. Unfortunately, the fear of instability and change causes us to resist, often to our hurt and that of others.

When we look at the story of Jesus, Herod violently opposes the idea of a new king, one that would, in the end, deliver the people from the oppressive reign of Rome. He seeks to destroy Jesus, and in the process, countless innocents are slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). The moral of the story? Change is not a neat process, and while it is absolutely necessary, resistance is to be expected.

I can’t prescribe much for changing the entire world, except that we as individuals need to start choosing different paths. If enough of us do that, taking a page out of Jesus’ story, perhaps things can start to look different. Rest assured, though the path of improvement is necessary, it is bound to meet resistance.

Others will try to keep us from changing. Mantras like “once a cheater, always a cheater” serve as examples of how we tend to write people off. When we start embracing the love of Christ in our lives, the resulting change will scare others. After all, if we hold ourselves accountable and begin the process of transformation, that means they can. The resistance we meet in others could come in the form of ridicule, cruelty, or rejection, and that is horrible.

But it pales in comparison to the resistance we will meet internally.

There will be tears, doubt, and a surge in the negative feelings and habits that we are trying to eradicate. Our ego will violently revolt, leading to some crappy days… weeks… months. We will want to quit and flee back to “safety.” But that is not the end of the story.

You see, as the life of Christ teaches us, the love of God cannot be stopped once it is welcomed into the world. Jesus met a horrific amount of resistance, and it ended up costing him his life. Yet the victory is ultimately his, and that promise is extended to you and I.

If we take one step at a time, we will eventually look up and see that we have traveled a great distance with the love of God lighting our way. We will meet the Herods, the Pharisees, the Pilates (not the exercise), the cross, and the grave, sometimes in others and sometimes within ourselves. However, if we keep in mind the victory God has already given us and the responsibility we have to keep walking in the Way, the story will continue, culminating in a moment when we look back and see the momentous changes God has brought to completion in us. What’s more, we may even see the many people who were positively touched by our journey all along the way.

It is my prayer that you will join me in trying to change the story. If we change ours, we also stand to change the world’s. This is going to take loads of patience, prayer, and self-love, and it will often be a painful road. Yet all of that pales in comparison to the blessing that will follow.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

Righteousness ≠ Perfection

The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. — Proverbs 13:9, NRSV

Reading Proverbs is both a delight and a challenge. Wonderful wisdom abounds in this small, fast-paced book of sayings, but the challenge comes from historical and cultural values that differ from our own, plus one other thing: vocabulary. The word “righteous” is used quite a bit in the Bible (around 567 times, give or take, depending on the translation), and I’d wager a hefty portion of that usage comes from Proverbs.

The reason I bring this up is that in my own life, the word “righteous” has been largely misunderstood, making Scripture study rather unpleasant. If you’re anything like me, you tend to beat yourself up. Your mind plays your failures over and over again, and reading a collection of texts geared toward making us more righteous certainly doesn’t help. I have found, though, that this is because I have come to confuse righteousness with perfection.

Righteousness is a life defined by virtue and justification, but even the most righteous person in the Bible would by no means be considered perfect. In fact, God seems to go out of His way to choose wildly imperfect people for the purposes of establishing His covenant. Noah, Abram (later Abraham), Sarai (later Sarah), Isaac, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Jonah, Peter, Judas, the Twelve, Saul (later Paul), and the list goes on and on. All of them are in some sense chosen and involved in the continuation of God’s covenant and story, yet none of them are even close to being perfect.

My point? The Bible has a distinction between perfection (a quality of God) and righteousness (something God imparts to humans). For us to understand the Book of Proverbs, or any other Biblical literature, we must first understand that for the writers of Scripture, sin is a fact of life. It is an ever-present part of being human. Therefore, when we read about righteousness, we cannot assume that we are supposed to be free of sin always and forever. As John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Rather, all this talk of righteousness and sinfulness is about the trend of our lives. You and I will inevitably mess up. Sin is a part of who we are. However, it doesn’t have to be our defining characteristic, and it won’t be if we are honest about our faults, do our best to positively affect our surroundings, and rely on the grace of God to fill in the gaps. While sinners, we can still lead a humble life that tends toward the kingdom of God rather than our own selfish pursuits. We only become truly wicked when we decide that we are our gods, having no sin because we can do whatever we wish. In short, we become defined by our sin when we give up.

We must remember the central Christian teaching that salvation and righteousness are gifts of God granted by His sacrifice in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The love of God is given freely, and relationship with God is opened to us free of charge. This does not mean that we do not have a response to make, but it does mean that our response should come from gratitude, and not the desire to earn our way to heaven.

God’s grace is not intended to inspire guilt or a brow-beating approach to our lives. If we spend every day trying to check off items on “The Chart of Perfection,” we will soon grow resentful of that which is meant to give us everlasting joy. Instead, we are charged with living lives of gratitude, humility, and mercy, with the love of God and neighbor at the front of our minds. We will still have sin, but instead of crippling guilt and regret, we can humbly approach the God who will remind us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So when we hear the words of the Gospel, extolling the value of righteous living, we shouldn’t engage in self-punishment because we lack perfection. God has plenty of perfection already. What the Lord seeks is that our perfectly imperfect hearts would seek after Him and trust Him to take care of the rest. If we remember our faults (and that God has forgiven them out of His limitless love), we are able to look graciously and lovingly upon the faults of others, and in doing so we fulfill the Commandment. But that is a subject for the next post. 😉

Peace be with you!

Your Own Eyes

…for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did. — Deuteronomy 11:7, NRSV

Religion is an interpretation of life and its meaning. Every faith in every place sees the world in a particular way, with problems that its teachings are designed to solve or address. Even if you don’t hold yourself to be particularly religious or a person of faith, I guarantee that you have a belief system that affects how you approach and understand the world around you.

The same holds true for the Israelites in this passage of Deuteronomy 11. In fact, I would argue that the long sermon of Moses that is Deuteronomy is designed to ensure what view of life the nation of Israel brings into the land of promise. Repeatedly, Moses emphasizes that the people of God should live in a way that honors their history and the grace God has shown to them.

Moses frequently reminds Israel to keep “the commandment.” The word is singular, implying that this command is an umbrella over the 613 specific commands laid out in the Torah. In fact, this command is the very one Jesus calls the “greatest and first” in Matthew 22:34-40. “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always” (Deut. 11:1, while Jesus quotes 6:5). Israel’s worldview, then, should be filtered through love for the God who first loved and delivered them.

The generation of Jews Moses is addressing in Deuteronomy is not the generation delivered from Egypt. Those of the previous generation were all led through the wilderness until they died, as a punishment for their chronic disobedience and dissatisfaction with regard to God. So why does Moses say, “It is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did?”

Communal memory is an important thing in Judaism and Christianity. We were all delivered from Egypt through the Red Sea. We all drank water from the rock, ate manna in the wilderness, and witnessed the pillars of fire and cloud as they led us to the promised land. We all saw the healing power of Jesus, fled from His cross, and rejoiced at His resurrection and ascension. This is not just the story of those who were physically there, but it is our own story that we (are supposed to) witness to with our lives.

So what is your story? What is the tale you tell with your life? For far too many of us, our lives do not tell of the magnificent works of God, nor do they bear witness to the hope of Jesus Christ. In fact, many of us live without any hope at all, settling for bleak acceptance. The result of this is a life lived proudly, inwardly, or selfishly. We become our own gods, and we fail to recognize all the opportunities God sets before us to make a difference.

Even if you are of the non-believing crowd, careful application of hope in the ultimate victory of good can make a huge difference. What you do in this world matters, even if only for those around you. The choice that faces us is the choice that faced the Jews in Deuteronomy: blessing or curse, life or death. Whatever you and I believe, I hope we will choose the things that bless others and bring life to a world trying to kill itself.

So now I ask, what have your eyes seen? How will you choose to walk on this brief journey of life? It is my prayer that the grace and love of God will be your lens, and that the hope of Christ will fuel your heart for the purposes of doing some good during your short visit to this earth. Pray the same for me, and let’s live out a better story together.

Peace be with you!

The Task Ends With Peace

When the Lord gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you. — Deuteronomy 3:20, NRSV

If you’re like me, you have wondered when everything finally stops. Life is a constant, tiring journey full of stressful decisions, twists and turns, hills and valleys. For the person of faith, concerned with the improvement of the world based on their belief system, this is made even more difficult by the constant clash between one’s ideals and the seeming reality of earthly life. For every step we take forward, it seems that we are given yet another series of challenges to face.

Therefore, when joy in our progress is constantly hindered by new challenges, it is only fair that we sometimes wonder when it all will finally stop. Isn’t there some checkpoint that we get to when the veil peels back and we are able to just coast? Unfortunately not, my friend.

You see, the effort of changing one’s world by way of God’s grace is a life-long trek sustained by faith, hope, and (above all) love. In the text for today’s post, Deuteronomy 3, Moses recaps his conversation with the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, all of whom having been allotted terrain beyond the Jordan before Israel’s formal entry into the Promised land (verses 12-16). The temptation must have been strong for those tribes to settle, so Moses instructs them to continue in the journey until “the LORD gives rest to [their] kindred” (verse 20). The Israelite journey began together, and it will end together.

The same essential truth is evident in our lives. Only when peace, justice, and wholeness are a reality for all can our efforts cease. As such, it stands to reason that it is only “when the complete comes” that we will achieve the rest we seek (1 Corinthians 13:10). The life of faith is not a checklist that, once fulfilled, allows us to rest on our laurels. It is a journey to the day when Christ comes in final victory and we all experience the blessed feast together.

So perhaps you have been sprinting through life. In spurts, you make progress only to be slowed by even more derailing challenges. In that case, it is best we examine how to consistently sustain our efforts to share the light and love of God in Christ with the world. We must exhibit the humility to accept our constant room for growth, stay connected to God through prayer and ritual, and regularly commit acts of charity that we may embody the peace we wish to one day experience.

It is important to note that Moses assured the tribes that the day would come when they could rest. I am offering the same words of encouragement. The day will come when you and I see and understand the fullness of God and become partakers in it. We will have our rest. For now, however, we must be content with the little glimpses we are allowed through our everyday interactions with the Divine.

With every kind word and action, with every embrace of the Eucharist and other rituals, and with every moment spent in community with the Spirit, we are able to foster an enduring sense of joy that will be brought to completion at the appointed time. It is my prayer that you will join me in our long journey together. May we all earnestly tread the road of Life, helping each other experience a little bit of Heaven all along the way.

Peace be with you!

“Oh, Honey… You’re Not That Powerful”

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”… Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” — Luke 5:8, 10, NRSV

I was having a conversation with a much-beloved friend of mine about the human tendency to exhibit pride through excessive shame. A good example is the person who believes they are too sinful or lost for God to forgive or love them. It’s not that they are intentionally being prideful, but it is in some sense misguided to believe that God’s love (a love that sent Him willingly to execution on a cross) is limited based on our misdeeds. My beloved friend’s response to this was one that made me laugh and think all at once.

“Oh, honey… You’re not that powerful.”

This is, I think, a more sassy interpretation of what Jesus says to Peter in this passage of Luke 5. Jesus instructs Peter’s crew to “put out into the deep water” with the expectation of catching fish, despite them having “worked all night long” without catching a thing (5:4-5). Peter, naturally, expresses some doubt regarding the outcome, but relents.

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ prediction comes to fruition. Tons of fish are caught, and Peter (not for the last time) feels like an ass. In verse 8, he falls down before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Despite evidence to the contrary, Peter believes his sinfulness should keep him from experiencing the power of Christ.

Jesus responds in a way that makes a world of difference. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10). There are two sides to this wonderful revelation. First, Peter should stop falling down in fear. Christ’s mission is not to condemn, but to save. This brings in the second piece, which tells us that Peter’s sin not only lacks the power to condemn him, but it also is powerless to prevent the work of God from being done through him. Peter is free to fearlessly follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This interaction should also serve as a powerful lesson for us. We tend to give up on ourselves rather easily. How often have you said or heard someone say, “I am what I am. If I haven’t changed now, I just won’t?” This is really a lack of security masquerading as confidence. Sometimes our insecurities are more pronounced, as we believe ourselves to be so unworthy of love that we almost willingly fall deeper into our self-destructive cycles.

If we examine this passage and allow ourselves a bit of grace, however, we can see that we don’t determine the love that is felt for us by others (especially God). Jesus knew Peter would not only exhibit some disbelief, but that he would also abandon the Son of God to a horrible fate, yet Peter was brought into existence and called to be a leading Apostle. Likewise, God knew all that you would be capable of, both in a positive and negative sense, and He still decided that it would be worth every risk to have you in this world. Further, the same call He offered to Peter is offered to you, that you may experience and participate in the sharing of His unending love.

Of course there will be days when we feel unworthy. We are bound to screw up repeatedly. Luckily, perfection and shame are not requirements for discipleship so much as humility and the willingness to take a chance.

So when you begin to let shame take control, and you fear that you are too low for God to love or forgive, remember the good news of Jesus Christ: “Oh, honey… you’re not that powerful.”

And The Lord Saith, “Do Nothing”

But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. — Luke 1:20, NRSV

Traditionally, we look at this passage in Scripture and proceed to contrast the story of Zechariah with that of Mary. Zechariah disbelieves Gabriel’s message while Mary embraces it. In standard teachings, Zechariah is merely the negative foil to Mary’s exquisite faith, apart from being the faithful father of John the Baptist.

When I stumbled across this passage recently, though, something different caught my attention. When Zechariah asks, “How will I know this is so?”, he is looking for security, assurance. Sure, he is doing it in the face of a divine messenger who literally appears out of nowhere, but it is something we all do. We crave security, and we want to have as much control as we can in life.

In ancient near eastern culture, childbearing was the greatest sign of blessing. For Israel in particular, bearing a child was a physical reminder of God’s promise to prosper the nation, making them as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5). This is why the Bible has such strong opinions on marriage and procreative sexuality. It is also why Zechariah and Elizabeth were considered to be in disgrace, because, despite their righteousness, they were a barren couple.

When we understand that, Zechariah’s skepticism (which mirrors Abraham and Sarah’s), makes sense. He wants to be assured that when he tells his wife (and others) that they’re going to have a baby, it freakin’ happens! Otherwise, their disgrace would be amplified.

The first problem with this, though, is Zechariah’s source. Gabriel, the messenger of God, is probably not one to come play a cruel prank. This is a divine message, not some cosmic episode of Punk’d.

Second, and more importantly, there are no guarantees in life. It’s a cliche, but it’s a lesson we desperately need to learn, just like Zechariah. You see, Zechariah is being told what’s going to happen (“until the day these things occur,” 1:20). Outside of sex with his wife, there is nothing Zechariah is expected to do to bring things to fruition. The results do not depend on him, and we all know how scary it is when important aspects of our lives rest outside of our ability to control them.

In response to Zechariah’s questions, Gabriel does something that seems punitive. I mean, he takes away the guy’s speech, which also probably made seducing Elizabeth hilarious. I imagine lots of eyebrow waggling and gestures… Anyway.

When we look a little closer, though, Gabriel’s action is more of a “blessing in disguise.” All Zechariah can do is sit back, go (quietly) about his regular life, and wait to see what God does. This is also all we can do.

I know this isn’t what some of us want to hear, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Whether it’s a job interview, pregnancy, asking for a date, or awaiting diagnosis, there is a broad spectrum of life events with outcomes we cannot determine. We normally view this as a horrible aspect of living, and many of us refuse to accept or admit it, but what if it is actually a blessing?

When we obsess over the details and outcomes of life various issues, are we being healthy? When last I looked, continuous stress contributes to declines in physical and emotional health (it’s science). Our enjoyment of life is made less and less possible as we try to guide (force?) life to go the way we would prefer.

But what if I told you all you were in charge of is living your life? What if, instead of fighting or fearing the truth of our limited power, we embraced it? Life would consist of actual living, where we take care of business, but also make space for the Spirit of God to do its work. Uncertainty would serve as a reminder to take time to enjoy our short time on this earth as opposed to obsessing over it.

I believe this was Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, and it is God’s message to us. If Gabriel (and God) wanted to punish him, the birth of John could have been given to someone else. Instead, Zechariah gets to learn a powerful lesson about his own powerlessness as he also experiences the birth of his son. In the end, both of these things prove to be sources of joy.

So for us, that which normally worries us can actually provide us happiness. We cannot control everything in life, nor are there any guarantees. When all we can do is wait and see, perhaps it is best we employ a bit of faith and spend our time doing what we can by loving those around us, honoring the gift of life and the One who gives it to us.

I’m not suggesting some “pie in the sky” view of life. I suffer from depression, and I know many of you may suffer from anxiety. It’s important that you realize, dear reader, that I am not advocating the view that anxiety, stress, and worry are sinful. Rather, I am affirming the need for us to engage in self-care and seek treatment so that we may live life fully. It is true, however, that we must be willing to admit when we are being unhealthy, accept our dependence, and find a way to move forward.

So no matter what you have going on in your life, I hope you will accept this teaching from Zechariah. Yes, there are things you and I cannot control, and worry is an inevitable response, but we can also learn to respond with faith. When we understand our own limited power and that each day is ultimately a gift, we are free to guide our efforts away from what we cannot affect and toward those people and causes in our lives that mean the most to us. This is God’s gift to us, and I pray you’ll join me in accepting it.

Peace be with you!