This is Love

heartI am writing this on Valentine’s Day (the Feast Day of St Valentine,, for the purists out there). Traditionally, it’s a day when much of the world celebrates love–particularly romantic love–with all its trappings: cards, flowers, chocolates, romantic dinners, and actions that show how much we love those who have a special place in our heart.

In our collective lives we are inundated with the theme of love. It makes headlines as those in the public eye hook up with (or unhook from) other famous people. It’s celebrated in tabloid magazines. It’s the reason why most music is written–at least most country music. It’s the theme of nearly every movie, every novel, every story worth telling. It’s on every channel of our television sets, every night.

Love Island.

The Bachelor.

The Bachelorette.

Married at First Sight.

Perfect Match.

We get so addicted to the drama of romance. Perhaps this is because we have an inner longing to find ourselves that perfect soulmate, the One who will solve all our problems and satisfy all our desires (in and out of bed). Or maybe its simply a residual trait from a long evolutionary process where the fittest of our ancestors were those who procreated the most.

Or maybe not.

Regardless, love is, as immortalised in song, is all around me, is in the air, is a battlefield (a little like ‘choose your own adventure’). Love is all you need, it will keep us together, it’s more than a feeling and it ‘ain’t for keeping.’

At the heart of our desire for the love of another, I believe, is the need to know another and be intimately known by another, and accepted regardless of what that knowledge uncovers. We all crave a relationship with someone who will love us in spite of our flaws, our bad taste, our sub-standard looks, our dad bod/dad jokes and our annoying habits.

And when we find that person, we are not afraid of what that relationship will bring because we know that we are truly loved.

As St John wrote two millennia ago, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In the embrace of a genuine, accepting, forgiving and including love, there is no room for nor necessity to be afraid. You are loved.

The opposite of fear, then, is love. In the absence of fear, love thrives. In the presence of love, fear flees. You cannot have both.

And we know from the same biblical letter, that God is Love and anyone who truly loves (loves with the generous, fear-scattering kind of love), is of God.

So on this auspicious day of the celebration of love, may I offer this blessing:

May Love bless you, and keep you.

May Love shine upon you and give you peace.

And may the blessing of Love–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–be upon you and remain with you always.

Amen.

 

Just in Case

justincaseI’m not a hoarder . . . any more.

There was a time when I would wander through Kmart or Target and find something that attracted my attention. I didn’t need it, but I bought it anyhow. Just in case.

I had cupboards full of things and felt quite satisfied with myself that I had anything anyone could need for any given situation. I kept everything, just in case.

I had clothes I no longer fit into. I was hoping one day I would. They cluttered up my wardrobe because I may lose weight one day. Just in case.

I was a sucker for sales staff. I bought insurance policies for this that and the other because one never knew what might happen. I got an expensive monitored security system installed. I had to be prepared for every possible disaster. Just in case.

Filing cabinets full of ancient documents.

Boxes in the shed full of books, crockery, knick-knacks.

That huge drawer filled with every cable you could or may (or may not) ever need.

Every piece of music I ever played, sang, and lots that I filed away . . . just in case.

Just in case weighed me down.

There came a point in my life when I was reviewing my insurance needs and I realised I was paying money to protect myself against the loss of stuff I didn’t need, that was cluttering my life. I was buying a policy just in case I lost a lot of junk that I had accumulated in my house just in case.

I know the Boy Scout motto is ‘Be prepared.’ But prepared is a subjective word. There is no way I can be prepared for everything that happens in my life. Just trying to do this causes so much worry, fear, anxiety and nervousness.

In a rather famous sermon, a wise preacher once asked his congregation:

Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

His advice has the power to change not only the way we look at stuff, but our attitude towards life itself.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Read full text here.)

Fear of loss breeds anxiety. Fear of things not being just the way you would like brings worry. The root cause of all this is a lack of trust (faith) in a loving God / Presence / Universe / Force that looks on Creation with compassion.

So what happens if our house burns down? We are still loved. In the words of another group of wise preachers: “All you need is love . . . love is all you need.”

What happens if thieves break in and take our treasured possessions? We still have our lives, our memories, our family and friends.

To store up stuff just in case is to prepare for the worst. It is quite a negative approach to life. Rather, living in a simple acceptance of what is, and trust that we will always be cared for by our all-loving God is enough to see us through anything we face in life.

I think it’s time for another cleanout.

Laying it on

christmas loveIt’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

As we approach this holiday, preparations are being made for huge family get-togethers, massive roast turkeys, bottomless bowls of salad, and copious amounts of drink (alcoholic or otherwise).

With this celebrations, the pressure is on to do what we colloquially term ‘laying it on’–putting on your best face, wearing your trendiest clothes, saying things that could pass as highly intelligent or bring the family to tears of laughter.

Sometimes we simply lose sight of what it is all about, as we are reminded in this fourth week of Advent, love.

Love doesn’t require airs, shows, obligatory pleasantries, or even artfully-painted faces. Love is.

With love–and I am speaking here of both being loving and accepting love from others and from God–there is freedom to be who we are. Richard Rohr uses the example of his favourite saint, Francis of Assisi, to illustrate that my true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me. When I know that I am loved unconditionally (without obligations or requirements on my part) I have a certain kind of freedom where not only do I not care what others think of me, but I, occasionally, intentionally play the fool in order that they don’t get too high a view of my self.

St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”

Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.

A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.

That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?

When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons. – Richard Rohr, adapted from Franciscan Mysticism (an unpublished talk)

May you know this kind of love this Christmas, a love that frees, a love that releases from expectations, a love that doesn’t need to ‘lay it on’ for others to see, and a love that values others simply because they are loved by God rather than because of what they can bring to the table.

Yes, God Can! (Questions that shouldn’t need to be asked)

We say “God can do anything.”
But God doesn’t do all the good we expect: planes crash, ferries capsize, people die of common illnesses, resources aren’t made available for our neighbours outdoors, and refugees are imprisoned.
We say “With God nothing is impossible.”
But then put limits on God’s power and ability. After all, how could God forgive Hitler? How could God love that rapist-murderer? And how could God save anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus or who was born into the wrong religion?
We say “God is king over all creation.”
imageBut then we assign ourselves the task to make the rules other people must keep in order to please God: “You mustn’t swear. You must attend Church. You must read your Bible. You must not think about sex. You must disapprove of gays, abortionists, socialists, Catholics, liberal politicians, or (insert profession, people-group or minority here).”
Pope Francis says that Jesus saves all, even if they don’t seek him.
Can God do that?
Rob Bell seems to believe there will be millions more in God’s kingdom than we would ever suspect–that we will be surprised at the reach of God’s love.
Can this be true?
Can God move in ways we cannot imagine? Yes! Yes! Hallelujah, YES!
Can God save anyone simply because of God’s instinct of love? Yes! (I believe this is called “grace.”)
Can God refuse to be limited by our human understanding of Divinity or our interpretations of revelation? Yes!
Could Pope Francis, Gandhi, the Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and St Paul all have a similar underlying understanding of God that ruthlessly opposes any attempt at figuring God out or assigning a role statement to the One-who-cannot-be-contained?
Yes!
Could it be that now we see as in a mirror, dimly? Could it be that worship of the Bible or our group’s way of seeing it is more important to us than letting God be God? Could it be possible that one day we will look back and be astounded by how small our imagined God was?
Would it be too far-fetched to assume that, when all the dust settles after all the wars are fought, that, in the end, love really is the highest aspiration of all creation and this love indeed has won?
I dare you to believe that this is the way it could be.

Embracing Imperfection

One of the often-sung hymns in my early life was one entitled, ‘Yield Not to Temptation.’ The driven-in thought pattern which accompanied such singing went something like this:

‘You cannot be a good Christian if you sin.’

You cannot expect other people to want to become Christians if you don’t show you have victory over the world, the flesh and the devil.’ (or, ‘You can sin as much as you want, but don’t you dare let it be known.’)

‘Your number one aim in life is to avoid doing whatever may even appear to be evil so you can maintain a good testimony in the world.’

The words of the song provided the perfect backdrop for such a lifelong drama:

Yield not to temptation
For yielding is sin
Each victory will help you
Some other to win

Sin avoidance was the key to a successful and ‘victorious’ life, and, through this seemingly-successful life, others would be drawn to Christ.Sometimes God chooses to shine forgiveness and love through the broknness and imperfections in our life.*

Yet, the more I understand Jesus, and the more I am exposed to people who are sincere followers of his way, the more I see imperfection as being the cracks through which the love of God can shine–windows through which God’s forgiveness can be seen.

Richard Rohr writes of this ‘losing’ lifestyle thus:

One reason why I am so attracted to Jesus and then to Francis is that they found God in disorder, in imperfection, in the ordinary, and in the real world—not in any idealized concepts. They were more into losing than winning. But the ego does not like that, so we rearranged much of Christianity to fit our egoic pattern of achievement and climbing.

Isn’t it strange that Christians worship a God figure, Jesus, who appears to be clearly losing by every criterion imaginable? And then we spend so much time trying to “win,” succeed, and perform. We even call Jesus’ “losing” the very redemption of the world—yet we run from it. I think Christians have yet to learn the pattern of redemption. It is evil undone much more than evil ever perfectly avoided. It is disorder reconfigured in our hearts and minds—much more than demanding any perfect order to our universe.

St Paul well said, ‘[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.’ In our imperfection, in our humanity, in our losing, God’s grace–the one perfect constant in our life–is seen for what it truly is: fully unconditional, all-encompassing and imperfection-embracing love.

So I embrace my imperfection. It’s part of who I am as a human being. I will not and cannot be perfect. I cannot keep up a ‘victory’ front, appear to be squeaky-clean, look like Jesus. But I can trust, humbly live my life in my humanness, and believe that, through the imperfections, God’s glory will shine.

____________________

* The irony of this scenario seemed to me to be that one would put on a facade so they would attract others to Jesus. The new convert then would be taight that they too must put on a similar appearance to draw in others into this vicious cycle of hypocrisy and deception. In hindsight, I should have seen how unlike Jesus this really was.

Scandalous Grace

pearlGrace.

There has been so much written about grace, so many definitions presented, so much airtime given to extolling the many nuanced meanings of this theme in Scripture.

Who hasn’t heard of “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (or as one mission board used in its promotional material, “Give Regularly as Christ Enables”–what to do with that?!)

Who hasn’t heard a preacher speak about “the unmerited favour of God” (to which needs to be added: “with no strings attached”)?

Grace.

She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

(‘Grace’ as recorded by U2
Written by Dave Evans Adam Clayton
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group)

Grace is scandalous.

That is if it is real, genuine grace.

Because grace means ‘gift’ and it is something given to one who may not deserve it, who may not even appreciate it, want it or like it.

Hence the scandal.

Imagine the God who made the worlds stepping into human history in the form of a human baby. Now imagine that this baby is born to a woman out of wedlock. Born in a cattle stall, worshipped by shepherds, yet claimed to be the Saviour. Scandal from the very beginning, grace never meets the expectations of those who are fortunate enough to bear witness to its presence.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV)

Take the story of Zacchaeus, for example. Jesus enters the city of Jericho, notices this tax collector in a tree and boldly invites himself for dinner. Why would he do such a thing? Tax collectors were sinners (on the opposite end of the righteousness-scale of those who were teachers of the law, a.k.a. the Pharisees. In fact, when the Pharisee in another of Jesus’s stories prayed in the temple, he said:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

The truth is, Jesus was known for his association with such outcasts. He was spoken severely many times by those who thought he should be more careful in choosing his dining companions: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” he was asked.

And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32, ESV)

Scandalous! Jesus hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jesus partying with the unrighteous. Jesus rescuing prostitutes from judgement. Jesus inviting himself to be the guest of a tax collector.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Scandalous grace. Didn’t the Saviour know the impropriety of such an action?
In today’s terms, what might this look like? Going into a bar? Entering a Casino? Partying with friends at a club? How many of your friends would think it improper if they caught you in such situations? Yet this is where we see Jesus on numerous ocassions–in fact, so numerous that I would say this is “the norm” for his ministry.

Tony Campolo (in his book The Kingdom of God is a Party) tells of a time when he was speaking in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Campolo lives on the east coast of the United States so his body was six hours ahead of Hawaiian time. At three o-clock in the morning it felt like nine o-clock to him. Awake and hungry for breakfast, he found himself in a “greasy spoon” café in the small hours of the morning.

As he bit into his doughnut, eight or nine prostitutes walked in. They had just finished for the night. Their talk was loud and crude, and it was difficult to avoid listening in. He heard one tell the others it was her birthday the following day. “What do want from me? A birthday cake?” was the sarcastic reply. “Why be so mean?” she replied, “I was just telling you. I don’t expect anything. I’ve never had a birthday party. I’m not expecting to have one now.” When Campolo heard this he made a decision.

When the women left, he went over to the café owner, a guy called Harry. “Do they always come in here?” “Yes,” said Harry. “Including the one who sat next to me?” “Yes, that’s Agnes. Why do you want to know?” “Because I heard her say it’s her birthday tomorrow and I thought we might throw her a party.” Pause. Then a smile grew across Harry’s lips. “That’d be a great idea.”

Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. When Agnes entered with her friends, she was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and her knees wobbled. As she sat on a stool, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. “Blow out the candles,” people shouted, but in the end Harry had to do it for her. Then he handed her a knife. “Cut the cake, Agnes, so we can all have some.” She looked at the cake. Then slowly said, “Is it alright … would you mind … if I wait a little longer … if we didn’t eat it straight away?” “Sure. It’s okay,” said Harry. “Take it home if you want”’ “Can I?” she said, “Can I take it home now? I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And with that she left, carrying her precious cake out the café.

There was a stunned silence. So Tony said, “What do you say we pray?” And they did. Campolo lead a group of prostitutes in prayer at 3:30 in the morning. When they were done, Harry said, “Hey! You never told me you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry waited for a moment. Then he kind of sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.” Campolo comments:

Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?… But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with prostitutes and with all kinds of left-out people. The tax collectors and “sinners” loved him because he partied with them. The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious people could not relate to what he was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to him with excitement.

Scandalous grace! I don’t know about you, but I would so love to b a part of that kind of church.

In his interactions with Zacchaeus, Jesus seems totally unconcerned about reputation or even the holiness code of the day. That’s because grace always reaches out its hand to the other and gives of itself generously and fully without any thought of self. You could say the Biblical concepts of grace and love (agape) are synonymous for they are both self-forgetting, others-serving ideas.

You could also view these two ideas in the form of a Venn diagram: grace being one circle overlapping the other circle of love. If this were the case, then the place where these two circles intersect would be Jesus, the perfect embodiment of both ideals.

“. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, ESV)

Extravagant love and scandalous grace meet in the person of Jesus and in the pinnacle of sacrifice, the cross.

In the presence of such a man, we find Zacchaeus overcome by the outpouring of grace:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19)

Grace is far more than some ethereal concept by which we are “saved through faith.” Grace is a life. A Grace life is centred on giving. A Grace life is filled with moments of generosity, blessing, forgiveness. In Zacchaeus’s life, grace flowed the moment Jesus set his eyes on him. Jesus didn’t say, “Salvation will come if you give to the poor,” or, “Salvation will be yours after you make ethical restitution.” No. Grace reached out and the tax collector responded with a heart that only can manifest itself in one who has received this gift.

We don’t read anywhere that Zacchaeus even kept his promise to Jesus. Nor do we read that Jesus ever demanded it. All we know is that they beauty of grace caught someone by surprise and his entire outlook on life and vocation changed.

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

Amazing, fully-forgiving, all-embracing, life-giving, scandalous grace.

Pay for Someone Else

checkout2I was reading Mark H. Miller’s blog this morning and had to share this good news story and the challenge he took from it:

Jackie Switzer is a parishioner of a Christian Church in Round Rock, Texas—where I had served as interim pastor a few years ago.  In her e-mail message this morning was the following letter:

“Dear G:

“Today is Nicholas’ birthday. I went grocery shopping deliberately in a low income part of town, and bought the person’s groceries behind me as a birthday present to me and my big boy (inspired by Monkee See – Monkee Do). I left before the woman behind me in line knew I had paid for her things. A few minutes later I saw her climb into the driver’s seat of her car, put her head in her hands, and weep.

“I was so nervous trying to explain to the cashier what I wanted to do that I left my phone in the store. When I went back to get it, that same cashier told me that the woman behind me had been buying all of that food for a domestic violence shelter.”

Ever done something like that?  Paid for the person following you…at a grocery store, a toll booth?  Ever done something unexpected that can have favorable results?

I would hope…when we do that…we don’t do it for any other reason than caring ALWAYS has a place from us to others.

Okay.  Lots to chide about.  And, for any one of us, we can do a list—probably pretty quickly—of what chagrins us, what offends us.  Maybe even since yesterday.

However, today is Friday, Sunday is Palm Sunday the first step of Holy Week.  A special time when all that swirls life, even death, is important, for it doesn’t miss any of us.

So, take a moment or two…and list the goodness [and maybe even mercy] you have experienced this past week.  But more vital and vitalizing, keep in your mind [and heart and soul] this coming week…and look for the one opportunity—perhaps more than one—when you can do something of value for someone else.  Not to be applauded, but to know in the center of your heart and the pulsing of your soul, you have done the good thing, yes, the right thing…and even more, what it means to be doing what God wants each of us to do.