Oh my, it’s Thursday. Thursday can be a special torture… so close to the end of another week and a herald of the weekend, and yet so far away from that coveted rest. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me today, on this glorious sunny Thursday, but I can’t wake up. It’s several cups of coffee, a hot shower, two pop tarts and my drive into work later, and I could still close my eyes and drop right back to sleep where I sit at a nearby Starbucks.
But it’s worth waking up! This day is mine, given by God’s grace and pregnant with meaning and opportunity. It’s nothing special in and of itself, just another Thursday. But when I stop and imagine the prayerful love, the intention learning, and the healing service to which I can give this day… it makes me sit a bit straighter, take another sip of coffee and pray sincerely, “Wake me to love, wake me to learn, wake me to serve.” I repeat it. I chant it. I write it. I even take a moment to put it in a nice graphic for my blog.
I’m not always so sure what my human mind and human body are doing. I’m not totally sure why it can be so difficult to wake up on a Thursday like today… maybe I didn’t sleep as well as I thought I did, or I have some stresses I need to face and relieve, or the barometric pressure is different and my body is sluggish while it adapts? But I do know that on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and even tomorrow on Friday and then on Saturday, my prayer remains and moves me: love, learn, serve.
From the joy of a sincere and happy greeting to the healing of honored dignity and worth, this is a day of love, learning and service. This is not a prayer to win anything, outdo anyone at something, or prove a single thing. This is a prayer that strips away the false and selfish hopes which wear me out day after day, the wanting and the buying and the hoarding. It’s an embrace the joyful servant of Christ, the Jesus of washing dirty feet, touching outcasts, eating with the unpopular and refusing to condemn even the blatantly guilty.
When I most need that boost into a day, a reason to stretch and make myself get up and get moving, there’s a daily prayer for just that thing: Let me love. Let me learn. Let me serve. It’s worth waking up to give a day to the increase of love. It worth waking up to embrace a day with eyes and ears wide open to the truths and insights all around me. It’s worth waking up to offer a hand or heart of service to my friends, my family and the most needful of my neighbors.
I’m waking up, because it’s worth it.
I must confess something to you: I’ve always doubted, at least a little, John’s statement that we cannot love a God we do not see if we do not love a sister or brother we can see. It always seemed to me that an opposite principle would be truer, that loving what can be seen is far easier than loving what is not seen, and not loving the seen is also easier. I mean, I see the failings and suffer the injury of these seen brothers and sisters, don’t I? I also see their beauty and goodness at times. So then, how can my love of God be doubted by my lack of love for other people, especially when they can sometimes be seen as not very deserving of that love?
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears
has not reached perfection in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, “I love God,”
and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister
whom they have seen, cannot love God
whom they have not seen.
21 The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4:18-21
Have you ever read some of the old prayers of saints gone by, the prayers that are rich hymns of love for our unseen God? Those prayers have drawn me like a moth to the flame for years, and also left me a bit confounded. How do these prayers come into being? How do I love an unseen God that way, and not just be celebrating the ideas of that God which I’ve been taught?
Let us pray…
“I entreat thee, dearest Saviour,
come and reign over my heart.
Far from me for ever be all other loves but thine,
my Supreme Good.
Burn me with the fire of thy beauty,
O sovereign of my heart;
to thee I sacrifice all, even my inmost being.
Jesus, lord of my heart, mighty and strong, all hail!
O Saviour, reign absolutely over this heart of mine.
Oh! How happy I am to think
that thy reign can have no end.
Thousands of hearts have loved thee tenderly,
thousands of hearts will cherish thee in time to come.
Would that they were all united with mine
to love and cherish thee as thou deservest.
Would that I could make thee sought for and loved
by all the sons of Adam, Lord who art all lovable!
Triumph, my love, my beginning, and my all!
I want thee only, desire thee alone!
My joy, my great joy is that thou art God,
a God that is good, perfect, immeasurable,
infinte, just, wise, powerful.
I love thee for thy own sake, and I rejoice
in thy favours for the sole reason that they are thine!
I throw myself into thy arms, Jesus,
with all the fervour of my soul.
I sing for joy that all of the angels
and saints adore and praise thee.
Oh! That I could love thee in proportion as thou art lovable!
But since this is impossible for any creature,
let me at least love thee as much as I can and ought.
Fill my soul with thy love, my God,
so that I may die in its embrace,
wholly devoured and burnt up in its flame.
How much I repent having loved anything else but thee!
Oh! Would that I might have my life over again,
and drown it in thy love!
Sweet life of my soul, let my heart faint away in thee!
What else can I desire in heaven,
what else can I seek on earth,
I have asked of thee one favour alone,
and it is all that I shall seek, Lord, at thy hand:
to dwell in thy house all the days of my life.
May my last breath be a sigh of love.
May I die of thy love, my God.
May my life, if it did not begin with love,
at least end in it;
and let my last act be an act of love.”
from the Aspirations of Cardinal Bona
I have prayed these aspirations with the good Cardinal many times over the years, always caught and entranced by the deep poetry and power of the words. This morning as I was praying my own small daily aspiration “let me love, let me learn, let me serve” I was reminded of this prayer of love and I turned to love God with my whole self. I turned all my inner strength to focus on loving my God, my unseen God, my hope and center of faith. From that exercise of loving God, straining to love and embrace the unseen, I felt another door open, a door to a treasure room of strength to love the people around me.
I think now that John was actually saying something along these lines… that we can’t have truly given ourselves to the act of loving God, a God we do not see, if a greater love for those who are seen around us has not been manifested in our lives. He’s not essentially contrasting the ability to love what is seen versus what is unseen, but he’s teaching a principle: Turning our hearts to God in a deep stream of affection and love will automatically cause us to have a deeper affection and love for the people around us made in the image of God and so beloved by God. If I’m not loving people, and I find it so difficult to do so, then I need to turn back to applying myself to loving God, for that love is being lost.
In truth, in living the religious life, walking in faith for years, there are many pitfalls that can sneak in and replace my love of God: love of self, feelings of correctness, personal piety, personal giftedness, pride, anger, impatience, fatigue. Love takes effort. Remember how our scriptures tie the love of God and the love of other people together in several ways, from this passage in John’s letter to the famous summary of Law and prophets that Jesus gives in Matthew 22:34-40 that is repeated by Paul in his letters: 1) love the Lord your God and, 2) love your neighbor as your very self.
But somewhere past simply agreeing that those two commands constitute a summary of the Law, past agreeing that these are two important streams of love, there is a reality that John’s seems to hint at for us, that there is an intrinsic connection between those loves. Instead of getting caught up in arguing with John about ways to love those seen and unseen, I need to immerse myself in loving the unseen so that the tidal surge and burning sweep of that love may overflow to the people around me. May I love my God in such a giving of myself, such a visceral application of my strength and being, that when my eyes move to those around me my eyes still see only God. And then I not only am loving the people I see, but my cherished unseen God suddenly has a face as well.
As we enter into February and the Lenten Season, let’s pray for a mutual love to deepen and expand among us, against all odds. Each week we’ll dig into a single biblical author’s thoughts or account of mutual love and we’ll re-affirm our own commitment to the love that should be growing between us.
It’s going to be my personal prayer this month that I will be able to grow in deeper love for the people who are least like me and think least like me. I believe I have more often been taught to try to change those people, or at least to avoid them. If I wasn’t taught to do so, then I have certainly learned through experience that this is usually the easiest course.
Perhaps with some prayerful creativity and reflection I can discover ways to listen to them better; I may even find some ways to more fully offer them the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, I will imagine some new ways for us to maintain our unique experiences and perspectives, but still coexist in harmony and shared love. It seems that when Paul was speaking to the church in Rome he fully expected them to be a diverse people, but never released from that debt of shared love.
Let’s just go ahead and accept it: we won’t awake tomorrow to find that everyone thinks and believes like we do, even in our own families or congregations. So, what’s next? Without a universal agreement on all doctrine and faith issues, may we still maintain a sense of mutual love and shared harmony? Without our complete similarity of conviction, may we nonetheless value and support one another’s spiritual journeys and affirm the mutual love and things we do share in common? It may go “against the grain” by some human sense, but that may just be the signal that we’re moving into a truly transformative practice. Lord, teach us to pray.
I realized today that with the drama of Snowzilla last Sunday, I forgot to make a Weekly Grace! I mean, wow. I haven’t missed one in a few years. So, I wanted to make sure we finished and finished well this month of intention based around civility.
It’s an election cycle year, and it’s a pretty heated race for all concerned. That’s one reason I wanted to start the year on civility. Another reason is that sometimes it’s so hard to keep my words flowing from love. It’s so easy to let something else step in and drive my speech.
In our focal passage written to the church in Corinth, Paul says that nothing is as important as love. Nothing should be allowed to take it’s place. There’s no miraculous spiritual gift, no self-denial, not even any great knowledge or correctness that surpasses love. This is not a message that religious people like to hear. We are very enamored of our personal gifts and, oh my… our correctness? We often like to stake our very salvation on it or deny another person theirs.
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Paul says that his ability to understand every question and mystery is nothing if he does not have love for others. The capacity to love matters more than the capacity to be right. I won’t belabor this point too long, but come on! I think it’s one of the clearest passages that teach us that we should let our love help us understand more often than letting our understanding teach us to love.
Our civility will grow as we move more fully toward letting love take it’s place of preeminence in our lives. Our words will grow to reflect that we have matured past the idea that our own perceived correctness gives us license to fight, humiliate, defame or condemn. We will listen better, with more desire to understand one another. We’ll ask good questions, meant to free and not to trap. We’ll grow together as we share and understand one another better. This could be a good year, even with a presidential election.
I’ve been so wearied and heart sick from the on-going violence and hate speech across our country and world. Most days I say something like “Well, my sinuses are acting up” when someone questions me, but the truth is that I’m simply soul fatigued by the darkness that is so often heard exploding from stages, pulpits and the barrels of guns. Preparing for this day’s Advent message on Love, I am reminded that there is a remedy for the hate. There is a prophetic voice that answers the bigotry and fear. It is not a fight fire with fire kind of answer or a choice to out-shout, out-hate or out-bigot the worst that we hear on a daily basis. It is love. Love released, love shared and love unfettered among us.
It was a challenge to prepare this sermon, sort of like those occasional nights as children when we woke in the darkness and groped along for what seemed like hours to find the light switch. All we wanted was to get to the bathroom and have some relief, but it seemed so impossible in the darkness to get there. We will get there. We will love. We will keep the prophetic voice of our faith. In humility and my in own soul-weary dance, I offer this message and reminder that we have a purpose higher than the politics and brighter than the darkness. We have love.
The Second Candle of Advent: LOVE
December 6, 2015
Our scriptures are big enough and old enough and engaged enough with humanity that within them there will always be some things that confuse me, things that anger me, and things that frighten me.
But within them I also find again and again the great themes and underlying truths keep me bound to God and to Christ, such as the prophetic themes of love, justice and mercy. The theme of God’s great love that cannot be taken from us is one of the constants of our scriptural narrative and record. The theme of our essential goodness and the struggle to avoid the darkness which will hide it is another great theme which calls us to renewal. I cherish the theme of needful justice for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and then mercy for those who have abandoned justice and need to be restored.
Our scriptures continue to inspire, comfort and convict, even in the midst of the challenges I mentioned before, because they are prophetic. They are prophetic, and the prophetic voice of scripture is love.
What does it mean to say that the prophetic of scripture voice is love? When we use the word prophetic we think of oracles and predicting the future, but we also are talking of the past and the present and a voice which often loudly and coherently binds them all together in a meaningful narrative and message. Such is love. Love is our past, our present and love is our future. Love is the meaning of our effort and struggle, the hope of our need and the joy of our suffering.
So the narrative of love begins in scripture with God’s great love for us and all creation, and God’s understandable discontent when the darkness of our hatred and violence kills and destroys. But God’s love continues, and so much of the Psalms are verses singing about that steadfast and deep love. And even though God’s anger is understandable at our failure to match that steadfastness, God’s love rolls on and on.
And in Isaiah 11, the prophetic voice of love reminds the downcast and the oppressed that hope is not lost. That prophetic voice casts a vision of a coming reality when love reigns in the coexistent harmony of so many seemingly incompatible things: infants and serpents, bears and cows, lions and lambs, the wise and the old being led by children and the unlearned. Can we just stop for a moment and notice the obvious truth here, that love is more often unlearned in our species than learned? The children lead us in love for they have not yet had its light extinguished by our older fears, bigotry and hatred.
The prophetic voice of love rings in the most difficult teachings of Jesus. If we are honest with each other, and I hope we are, the most difficult teachings of Jesus for our lives are not the “stop sinning” kind, but the “start loving” kind. Love enemies. Love and pray for those who persecute. Love one another. Love God. Love neighbor. Love as he Christ has loved. (Matthew 5 & 22, John 13)
These are the teachings that often confound us, but also that shape and create a coming future in which the seemingly incompatible can exist in peace.
We live and make our way in a time of global terrorism, gun violence in our streets, schools and places of work. Domestic violence and sexual abuse scandals are not uncommon in our headlines. Bigotry seems to have become a popular political platform on which to win elections. Neighbor turns against neighbor in fear and ignorance of those Muslims, those Christians, those Republicans, those Democrats, those refugees, those gays, those, those, those…
The prophetic voice of love says not those, but we. Love is patient when patience and civility have become lost virtues; love is kind because kindness is more powerful than fear or hatred. Love isn’t envious of others or lacking in hospitality or generosity. Love doesn’t divide us into factions and parties to put others down and feel better about itself. Love isn’t proud to the point of insufferable arrogance, insult or discourtesy. Love is not rude, violent, or in the habit of making jokes about its neighbors. Love accepts others when they are different in thought, belief and background. Love is not waiting to be angry or carrying old resentments just waiting for a chance to pull them out and inflict the world with more angry hateful speech. Love is not excited by violence or thrilled by vengeance, but committed to making peace. Love carries burdens. Love believes the best of its neighbors. Love kindles hope in darkened lives. Love only grows stronger when resisted. Love cannot fail, end or be extinguished for it is the past, the now and the future. Love casts out and ends the fear that threatens our weary souls. Love is God among us, God in us and God through us. (My personal mashup of some of 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4.)
Our candle called LOVE is burning. This is our reminder and our calling to let love so burn in us. Love is our prophetic vision, our voice and oracle of all things to come, and we must not ever let the darkness hide it or take it from us. We cannot allow fear or ego to dampen it. We must answer it’s call and remain in it’s path.
May love’s Advent never end, but may the arrival continue, lighting the dark corners of our lives and the world around us. May we never lose hold of the goodness with which we are made and continually chosen by God to experience and share enduring love. May we never exchange this great prophetic voice for any other message or meaning. For in this endeavor, in this embrace of love, we join the deepest narrative and truth of scripture. We enter into the millennia old work of God to enact justice, to promote mercy and to the humbly journey together.
How could we choose any other voice of prophecy? How could we allow any fear or worry to obscure this love? How could we claim any truth above this love? How could our identity be known by any other mark?
Jesus said… “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” from John 13:31-35, NRSV