Regarding Love

 

 

uncomfortable love

 

God comes into the world celebrated by an unwed mother and an old infertile woman, the least of these, at least at those times. Two individuals who would have been nearly invisible then and certainly the subject of gossip and shame. Today as we are asked to ponder love and what our scriptures tell us about love and loving we begin with two women who likely would have struggled with love, who had reason to feel unlovable, excluded, unworthy, ashamed.

 

In that time and culture a woman’s central role was to provide a trustworthy lineage, heirs who were their father’s sons, a legacy that could be trusted. Unwed mothers and infertile wives need not apply. Elizabeth would have known a lifetime of failure, Mary would have been subject to honor killing if her fiancee or family so chose. They were the most unworthy in the eyes of society. Yet both women found themselves regarded by God in an unexpected way, and this changed everything.

 

My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sings, for he has looked upon the humble state of his slave, and now everyone, everyone, will call me blessed. Such is the power of being seen, truly seen, by love; to be regarded by God and seen as something you never thought possible. When you have been taught you are worthless and a failure but God says you are blessed; when you have been filled with shame and God says that God’s very self will come into the world-through you! Is it any wonder Mary sang? Is it any wonder that her song was filled with reversals, the weak made strong, the mighty brought low, the hungry fed while the rich leave empty handed. Her whole world had just been turned upside down.

 

The Stoic philosophy which was so popular when Jesus walked the earth, and still is in some places, insists that the body is the source of evil, that one needs to rise above it, to be objective and not swayed by physical or emotional involvement.

 

Then Jesus comes, an embodied God who delights in good wine, who shares fine food with good friends, who hangs out with prostitutes and con men, with traitors, God who simply melts with love unashamed. This was not a god who rose above messy emotional and physical entanglements but who was born of a woman, in a barn, and who died a brutal death on a cross. It was all very messy, very involved.

 

We too, are called to engage with the world, to be subjective and be in love, not to distance ourselves and objectify all that is, including ourselves but to be subjects in love, to be subject to love, to be involved in all the mess.

 

Even the early church struggled with this. Even the later church struggled with this. I think the church probably still does. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a treatise on the advantages of virginity which insisted that even the best marriage, the most loving and well put together, was a distraction from God. All that raising of children, loving one’s spouse, the need to provide, if you could just let go of all of that, it would be easier to focus on God, he said. Forget watching your children grow or play. Forget the sweet touch of a loved one’s hand on your cheek, let it all go. One of the first on record to say it’s just better not to be involved. This doesn’t concern you. But it concerned Jesus, it concerns God, who did not, does not stay separate or distant from all this mess but gets right in there, in the midst of the mess.

 

Stoicism established a hierarchy which privileges the spiritual, the intellectual at the expense of the physical and emotional but this hierarchy isn’t Christian. Jesus shows us a very different way of being, one which is engaged, emotional, involved, invested not only in great abstract ideas, which are beautiful, but in actually making people well, in healing and attending to their broken bodies, broken relationships, and broken hearts.

 

He does not stay distant from them or us in the midst of pain and brokenness but joins us, weeping, hungering, even dying. He does not take a free pass straight to the, “I won’t care and it won’t hurt,” This is not the unchanging and unchangeable god but one who instead dives right into the messy, muck of a well loved, well lived life. It is messy, there is no withholding; there is only love, full, complete, subjective love. This is what it means to be regarded by God, to be gazed upon with fierce attention which sees you and loves you, exactly as you are. It means God is involved with you. Loves you. Not in some abstract indefinable way, but in a real, tangible, touchable way.

 

So is it any surprise that when God regarded Mary, as she felt it in every part of her being, something new was born, changing her life forever. Mary had been seen in the very depths of her being, in all of her low-class, socially unacceptable being and God looked at her and saw more. In that moment Mary discovered that she was named and claimed forever by God and she got brave. She got Brave! In that moment a revolutionary was born. Mary regarded by God, seen, examined, admired, appreciated, regarded, held. Seen in depth, in the depths, all of her humanity, her struggles and her brokenness, all of her beauty, strength and wisdom, all of it, seen, regarded, held in God’s gaze, and loved. It was personal just as it is for each one of us.

 

We need to add the spiritual discipline of attention to self-mastery. We want the mastery because we want control. It’s the way it’s always been, we like control. It makes us feel safe. But the discipline of attention, of being present to another with love and justice, this is out of our control. It changes us and it scares us. But it is by being at the disposal of another that we are drawn out of ourselves (ekstasis) and this drawing out is wild and uncontainable, it’s ecstatic and mystical. It’s plain old scary.

 

You might feel for the stoics, I know I do. After all, being in love and vulnerable is scary stuff. Love has a way of shattering all our preconceived ideas about who we are, what’s important, and what might be. It might feel better to put all that stuff away, not feel, not be vulnerable. To just know the rules and abide by them and one can be certain of success. Just give me a formula I can follow. Just don’t get caught up in the messiness of love. It ruins everything. It draws you into situations which you don’t want to be in. It breaks your heart and muddles your thinking. It’s a wonder that we can speak at all intelligently about something that blows our lives up as much as love does. It is easy to understand why so many want to avoid it, control it, contain it, keep it proper, but it just won’t be contained or explained. It won’t be proper.

 

Just as it was for Elizabeth. That surprising moment, when you’ve given up all hope that you might have some worth, some value, some meaningful contribution to give and someone sees you and calls you out. Yes you. Called out. You have something to give, to offer the world, a legacy that you might leave behind. Something good and unique, a gift that is uniquely you. That moment when you get the message that God isn’t done with you yet.

 

When Elizabeth saw her niece appear, pregnant and unwed, we might have expected Elizabeth to look at her and judge her, shame her, kick her to the curb, but this doesn’t happen, she steps outside of her culture and praises Mary. It’s startling really, that Elizabeth sees more in Mary, that she is able and willing to confirm for her the good thing that is happening. There is some part of us that needs this confirmation, that needs to be seen.

 

And then Mary bursts into song. This is the great reversal of fortune, not to be a disgraced and ostracized teenager or a shamed infertile woman, both to be forgotten and dismissed in the course of history but to be eulogized, memorialized, remembered forever as blessed, as the most fortunate of women. Our God is a god who reverses the fortunes of those who are lost, in pain, broken, who have failed and missed the mark, who are covered in shame and regret. Our God is a god who restores all of us to a wholeness that we could never know alone.

 

The incredible thing, the astonishing thing, is that we are called to participate in this great reversal, to see one another through the eyes of love, to regard one another as God does. We are invited into a spiritual practice of gracious, loving attention. To look with intention, seeking the child of God in every broken or hurting person, every self-righteous or proud person, in everyone.

 

We are called to see one another with the eyes of love and mercy. To look upon everyone we meet with kindness, to be attentive to them, to see them with a loving and just gaze that they might become who they really are, who they were created to be.

 

This is the gift of love, to see with eyes wide open, all the hurting and broken pieces of a person, of life, and to not withdraw one’s gaze until love has filled in every cracked, broken piece. Do not withhold yourself, do not look away. Look with the eyes of love and participate in the great reversal; join God in God’s work of restoration, actively participate in the mission of God. Risk being fully vulnerable and letting love change you, blow apart your self concept, change your world, to be a new creation and nothing will ever be the same again. Know that while loving others will change them forever, it will also change you.

 

We have never been called to a personal security at the cost of love but rather to be changed, transformed, made new through a self-giving love of others. This is the way that Jesus came that we might see, that we might follow on this way. It feels like losing, losing control, losing safety, security, losing certainty, but there is something beyond this, a reversal of fortunes, for those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Those who give, who love freely and fully and who allow this to change them, to change their lives, their selves, will be a new creation.

 

And then we too will join Mary singing:

I’m bursting with God-news;

I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, one really good look. God regarded me,

and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
His mercy flows in wave after wave over those who are in awe before him. All your breakers and tides have rolled over me.
He bared his arm and showed his strength, but his strength was not what we expected, all our preconceived ideas are blown apart, our lives are shattered and rearranged. We are held eternally in a loving gaze that knows justice and mercy, that restores us, that heals all wounds, that won’t let us fall. Just like He promised.

And then we will look with the eyes of love, and we won’t stop loving, not ever.

 

 

 

Peace Bearers

peaceful-dawn-bob-orsillo

Peaceful Dawn by Bob Orsillo

 

(Please excuse the brood of vipers comment! Just mentioning John the Baptist’s pastoral counseling methods!)

 

 

My friends, in the depths of my heart I am grateful for you. I am grateful for your powerful witness, your courage and tenderness in being willing to take on all the powers that would shatter our community into small self-interested, divisive groups. You have shown up at churches where the language and theology, the worship and songs are unfamiliar. You have engaged in relationships with people who are unlike you and been vulnerable enough to share your own stories and to really listen to theirs, to allow their story to impact you and change you. This is gospel work. This is the work of sharing the love of Christ with all people. We have been called to gospel work, to the work not of witnessing to some difficult intellectual idea about God but to the work of Be-ing grace and love to each other, to our neighbor, to our community.

 

We have such deep need for this kind of dialogue, more now than ever. On Thursday I followed along on Facebook as two of my friends, both PC(USA) pastors, initiated brave conversations about gun control. There was some heated discussion, but each time it threatened to get out of control these two amazing people would intervene, would ask that all voices be respected and that we all remain engaged in this dialogue. Boundaries were drawn to keep people safe by including them in healthy and appropriate ways, by not allowing shaming or attacking, by not excluding those we struggle with. The truth is we need each other. We are connected by ties that we cannot cut. We are a congregation of diverse points of view, conservative, liberal, cautious, radical. We have intentionally practiced staying in relationship across and through these differences. We have begun to learn and to appreciate that places of conflict, of diverse opinions and views, are also fruitful places, are creative places.

 

It isn’t easy. It’s countercultural. Our culture would tell us we must win, we must be right and we can get ardently caught up in being right! But this is the path we are called to, one of dialogue across differences, the path of reconciliation. In John’s gospel Jesus states, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

 

God’s peace, not the peace of power over another such as the Pax Romana, surely Jesus knew of this peace, the peace enforced by brutality and power over. (do not be afraid) But a different kind of peace, a different sort than we had ever experienced before. This weekend I was watching a Lifetime movie, a cute, not especially significant movie. But there was this one scene where a mother was trying to keep her son safe by keeping him away from the homeless man and her son says to her, “But Mama, the bible says we are supposed to help people.” And she responds, “Well yes honey, but the world was safer back then.” And I almost choked. The world that Jesus grew up in was brutal. The practice of being a reconciling peace-bearer in that world got him killed, hung on a cross, but Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Go on now, pick up your own cross and let’s get going. We have whole communities to witness to! We have a world to bring peace to, a world that cries out for this.

 

In a world where protest camps are bulldozed at 4 a.m. in the bitter cold, in a world where people live in fear of armed attackers, where people must run from their homes, their country, in a world where vitriolic political campaigns become unremarkable, we are called to be reconcilers, to be peace-bearers, to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. We are called to reach out to those unlike ourselves and really, truly engage with them, to love them. The Jesus way was counter-cultural 2000 years ago and it still is, but it is our path, the one we are called to walk faithfully.

 

It’s easy to become and stay polarized. To hang out and listen to, only those people who agree with us, who remain inoffensive. The wonderful and surprising thing about my friends’ Facebook conversations was that everyone was able to participate, that various points of view were included. Too often we are tempted to demonize those we disagree with. We struggle to hear the cry for understanding, for empathy and compassion under the fear, the anger, the prejudice. We struggle to admit that we are just as flawed and our needs are much the same as those whom we disagree with. Our common humanity and need for God’s grace unites us.

 

It is as if we are all engaged in creating a magnificent picture, of our deepest, most beautiful understanding –but we are doing so with puzzle pieces and I have some of your puzzle pieces and you have some of mine and our finished project will be diminished and incomplete to the extent that we fail to come together, to share.

 

John the Baptist takes us to task and invites us to a new way of being. That we would remove all barriers within ourselves that we might receive the Word of God. Make straight our tendency to slip around inconvenient truths and difficult experiences. Raise up our courage that we might enter into relationship with vulnerability and tenderness. Break down our arrogance and resistance that we might allow ourselves to be impacted and changed. Open our hearts and our mouths that we might confess in true humility that we need God and we need one another.

 

In Luke salvation is not a personal salvation, a get out of hell card for one, but rather a salvation which involves the whole of community, the whole of the world. In Luke salvation is the coming of the Kingdom of God here and now, in the flesh. It is something you can see and touch. So what would that look like? This breaking in of the kingdom of God become present among us? Living in the ‘already but not yet’ already Christ as secured our salvation, yet we wait upon the fullness, the fulfillment of this salvation. Can we see glimpses of it becoming present around us? Some glimmer of hope?

 

This week the camp that had been set up around the 4th precinct in Minneapolis was bulldozed at 4 a.m. In response the protestors gathered at city hall at 4 p.m. the next day and a truth was told that we, or at least I, had not heard before. As the community mourned the loss of this encampment something startling was expressed, that this camp had become a place where angry young men and women, those who wanted to respond with violence came and were talked down, were helped to be a reconciling presence rather than a divisive or antagonistic presence. Wanting to riot they were through an incredible gracious dialogue, brought into the process of reconciliation, of restoration. This was a place of love and grace. This is closer to Luke’s image of salvation, a community given to wholeness, to reconciliation which does not reject the angry, embittered or struggling but helps them to transform, to become better, to become witnesses to peace and reconciliation themselves.

 

We too are such a community. A community which does not reject dialogue or engagement with those who believe differently than us, but one which believes we can be wholly who we are without denying the validity of others. This is who we are called to be, to speak across differences, to humbly learn from those we disagree with, to invite all people to experience the love of God and to do so without fear.

 

Listen to Paul’s words, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight ,” that by being and sharing the love we have found in Jesus Christ we might change the world, one person, one experience, one place at a time. Love as the very being of God, “has to wear a face,” and that face is “our neighborhood, our neighbors and our community, other creatures, the earth and all its inhabitants.” That face is us. Love as the very being of God becomes present in a unique and tangible way when we let God wear our face and work through us. (Wendell Berry)

 

For the powers in the world cry to us Peace, peace, when there is no peace. They promise us walls to keep us safe but as in Ezekiel when they promise us walls to keep us safe, we will find these walls to be plastered with faulty mortar that dissolves under pressure, and with Jeremiah we will say, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace. They do not know how to blush”. But we are not of the world and where there is pain, loss, injury and anger, we will be there with compassion, with grace, with love.   Where hurt and misunderstanding confuse the issues we will take the time to listen, to learn, to understand.

 

A rabbi once asked his students, how can you tell when the dawn is breaking? His students, eager to please began positing solutions, “you can tell the dawn is breaking when there is enough light to see that the object on a distant hill is not a tree but a man.” No, no, the rabbi said. “You can tell the dawn is breaking when there is enough light to tell the difference between a sheep and a dog.” Another posited. No, no, the rabbi said. They continued this way for a moment, one suggestion after another always the rabbi said, no, no. They paused and into this silence the rabbi said, “The dawn will begin to break when you look into the eyes of the stranger, the foreigner, the other, and see there a sister, see there a brother. Then the dawn will have begun to break.”

 

By the tender mercy of our God the dawn shall break upon us.