The Transforming Power of Love

It’s likely, unfortunately, that you will hear of our little town on the news this weekend. After the trauma of a KKK group arriving for a rally last month, the White Nationalists and Alt-Right are coming from the 4 corners for a rally this weekend. They say they’re coming for a peaceful demonstration, but the ideology is anything but peaceful – and some of their videos and posters are truly disturbing. A number of groups have planned a variety of responses: from direct action at the park to education to community building to events to keep people away from the boiling cauldron. There’s been murmurings of subterfuge and violence from (what I hope are) fringe groups on both ends of the spectrum. From what I hear, the National Guard should be arriving Friday night. A tempest is brewing.

Though I would never want such a moment for my home, I’ve hoped that this chaos might yield a strange mercy, the opportunity to truly hear the pain of our neighbors, to own and then mend the ongoing effects of our beloved nation’s racism. However, I’m concerned that we run the risk of merely being hardened by the rage, that we might surrender the only true power that can yield heart-deep repentance and a genuine national healing. I fear that we might have given up on the transforming power of love.

I’m not talking about a wimpy, refuse-to-feel-the-weight love. I am talking about a love that defies the temptation to outrage-gone-violent (either violent actions or violent postures or violent words). I am talking about a love that refuses that old and tired but very powerful temptation to think in terms of enemies. I am talking about a love Dr. King knew when he said, “I have decided to stick with love; hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I am talking about a love that would stand with the oppressed while weeping for the oppressor. I am talking about a love that knows deep in the bones that if we don’t get to redemption together, then it isn’t redemption. I am talking about a love that sees in every single human a beloved sister or brother, a child, a parent, one who is more than their actions or ideologies, more than their fears. I’m talking about a love that would rather surrender a thousand arguments than dehumanize another beautiful person carrying God’s very breath in their lungs.

I’m talking about a love that would carry Jesus to a cross, a love that would empower Jesus to say, in what must have seemed the ultimate act of foolishness: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” I’m talking about a love that can melt a Roman guard to tears, can turn a crucified criminal into a friend, a love that promises to recreate the world.

Perhaps this seems like the zany musings of a dreamer, recklessly naive. So be it. I’m belligerently on the side of love. I’ve thrown my lot in with the dying, forgiving Savior. Surely this transformative love seems a pipe dream. But I remember them saying something similar just before Easter morning.

He Really is a Prophet

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.

The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.

He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.

Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”

Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.

Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”

A Legacy of Joy

As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.

It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.

No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.

The One Necessary Thing

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Whether we find ourselves in places of crisis and despair or elation and confidence, whether we know rage or desperation or triumph or sadness or joy or debilitating fear – wherever we find ourselves, the one thing we must do, the one thing we must pursue, the one thing we must cling to is what Jesus insisted was the great, essential commandment: love. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Love upends us all, corrects us all, makes space for us all, holds out hope for us all. Love, as St. Paul says, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love is not merely a means to some other end, some trite sentimental ideal that can be discarded when the stakes are high or the path impenetrable. “Love is the upmost,” Rilke wrote, “the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” Another wise one told us that even if we gave our life defending the poor and even if we enacted monumental works of faith or courage or justice – even if we gave ourself into the martyr’s flames – if we don’t have love, we have lost the truest thing.

Of course, love, stripped of its tenacity to enact goodness and neutered of its fierceness, its staunch rejection of evil and defense of the vulnerable, isn’t really love at all. Likewise, love, separated from its open, hopeful posture for the person in front of you (even the person you staunchly dislike or disagree with or believe to be disastrously wrong) or love overwhelmed by disgust that closes the possibility for relationship or the ability to see complexity and beauty in another isn’t really love at all. Love, we’re finding out, is immensely difficult work.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian of the past century, wrote (and, interestingly, in the preface to one of his heady theological tomes): Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them. And I think we could also say the pastor must listen to them; the writer must listen to them, the mother, the father, the activist, the friend, the politician, the anti-politician.

We need lovers, people grounded in the gritty work of love, now – right now. We need people who refuse to buy into the lie that some moments are so dark or are careening out of control so fast that love is no longer practical. Love has never been practical. However love, modeled by the strength and tenderness of Jesus, has always been our only hope. Love never fails.

 

image: Lorenzo Scheda

A Life of Gladness and Responsibility

railroadThere’s more than a little pressure these days to live the grand life, to go full tilt, to know precisely where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness collide – and then to live from there. I appreciate the best expression of these reminders. Too many of us exist with a soul-numbing drudgery where we are never asked to exert anything of consequence, nothing that stirs the bones. We are never asked to ponder our true essence or to offer our unique voice. We’re never challenged to risk anything. No one ever pulls us aside to insist how essential it is that we pay attention whenever we believe something with such conviction or imagine some possible future with such clarity that we feel we might go crazy if we do not expend ourselves, even if the foolhardy pursuit likely means our ruin. Too many of us hand away the sturdiest part of ourselves, plug into the machine and acquiesce to the subtle cruelty of imposed expectations. We’re alive, but just barely.

And yet these ideals, divorced from the grit of life, become a harsh taskmaster, if not a privileged fantasy. To live from your place of deep gladness does not mean — can never mean — that we circumvent the pain of bearing a burden others do not bear or the wearisome task of seeing a possibility others do not see. To live your truest life does not mean we get to avoid the responsibilities rightly laid upon us: the responsibilities that accompany our call to love and care for others, to surrender our life, to participate in the flourishing and well-being of those to whom we have committed ourselves.

Many days, our best life means simply putting one foot in front of the other and mustering the energy to stay true for another day, another season. Sometimes the possibilities we envision will never come to fruition for us, like those old saints in Hebrews who were faithful even to death and yet did not experience all the promises. This is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?

Any life we might imagine that is devoid of cost, any life that exists only in the realm of euphoric pleasures (rather than pleasures that include toil and disappointment and the persistent need to cling to hope) – that’s a small, immature vision. This kind of untethered pursuit will not endure the long road that stretches before us. It will not yield a life worthy of the vast goodness and strength that resides in you. We were made for things truer, deeper, more solid.

Something More Than Fear

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There are a few things Jesus repeated often, as if there are a few words so essential they must be spoken again and again. Words like this: Don’t be afraid. Apparently, Jesus’ friends were prone to fear, with the powers menacing and their futures uncertain. And into these grave moments, Jesus spoke a clear instruction. Don’t be afraid.

We too are prone to fear – and the fears are often legitimate. Evil strikes at this world, and if any of are so naive as to think otherwise, the awful truth crashed upon us yet again this weekend, as it crashes upon us most every day in so many places far and near.

And yet, in the very midst of terrors, Jesus tells us to resist this compulsive urge to give ourselves over to fear. Fear takes on many guises. We may succumb to panic. We may hide, just drowning out the noise. We may go the way of machismo and beat our chest, motivated by the madness of crazed retribution. All fear. And all of this yields destruction. None of this yields life.

And to “not be afraid” does not mean that we must never feel fear, but rather that we do not succumb to it. We do not feed the fright. We choose something truer, something more powerful. It means we move toward courage. We resist the catcall of doom and ruin. “My courage is a wild dog,” says Ze Frank. “It won’t just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.”

And we do hold tight, clinging to an alternative possibility. We refuse to let our courage loose. And even when we must act with a boldness and ferocity (and sometimes love requires exactly this), we still refuse the fear. We hear Jesus again: Don’t be afraid.

 

I Wonder

clouds over tetons

I wonder what would happen if we could see into one another’s soul, if all the static between us were removed, if all I saw was your heart, your hopes, your fears, your joys? And you saw these same things in me? I wonder what would happen if I could trust that you were truly for me, that your love would not waver, your delight in me would never falter, no matter what comes? I wonder what would happen if you felt assured that my love and delight in you were secure, even as we parted treacherous waters, even as we saw the world with different eyes?

What would it be like for us if we expected the best of one another and simply refused to let that expectation go? What would change in us if a sharp word spoken in weariness or distress or a season of distance or coolness did not fluster us or prod us to draw away in anger or insecurity? What if we were comfortable with ourselves and secure in the sturdiness of love and friendship, so much so that we felt the ease to sit on the front porch and revel in gratitude for the breeze and the sunset — and what if we could simply sit there, even if the other had to walk away for a while, resting in the knowledge that goodness always brings us home?

I wonder.

Tattooed With Love

I have lost my wedding ring. Twice. The first occasion was in the first year of our marriage. The ring disappeared at some point in the middle of a volleyball game, probably during one of my monstrous strikes where sheer power and velocity ripped the metal from my fingers. Probably. A group of friends, on hands and knees, scoured the ground with me until, to my great relief, we found the ring. The second time was years later in South Carolina. I could not pinpoint the timing, but my best guess was that it slipped off my hand while mowing the lawn. After days of searching and the kindness of a friend with his metal detector (I have very interesting friends), I conceded that my wedding band was finally gone.

We had planned to save up and purchase a new ring, but two years later we had yet to swing it. For her 35th birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo, and she requested that I get inked with her — a wedding band tattooed on my finger. Something permanent, forever unthreatened by my penchant for losing things. So long as I never tangled with the Chicago mafia, this ring should never, ever slip away from me.

At the time, tattoos were illegal in South Carolina, so we drove to Athens, Georgia to have the work done by an artist who hung his needle at the Midnight Iguana. The experience inflicted less pain than I anticipated, and the adventure provided a weekend of joy and romance with Miska. The symbol of my love and commitment forever seared into my body.

Over the years, the tattoo has launched many conversations. More than once, after a person clarifies that my tat is indeed a wedding band, they look at me with incredulity and ask, “But what if you get divorced? That’s really permanent” – as if my ink appeared in Vegas after a bender with no consideration for the inevitability that some day I’d regret the foolishness. I can’t tell you how much joy I receive from what follows. I look them in the eye and say, “Oh, that’s the point. Nobody’s getting this. I’m a goner, for life.” Typically, they respond to my effusive conviction with even more dubiousness. They raise their eyebrows. They take on a tone like a parent talking to a child about the Easter Bunny, affirming my very, very sweet sentiment. Once a hotel clerk visibly smirked, rolled his eyes and exhaled an under-the-breath chuckle laced with mockery.

I do not care. I’ve given my life away. This little patch of ink provides only one of the simple reminders.

 

Love the World. This One.

Jean-Christophe Verhaegen
Jean-Christophe Verhaegen

A Christian has every reason to love this good old world. And I do not mean love merely in an ethical sense or as an act of Christian duty. I mean we, of all people, should be the ones most ravaged by the pink glow above the Blue Ridge on a crisp morning, the ones who linger the longest in front of a canvas colored with life, the first to delight in a French Cabernet or a slice of potato sourdough drizzled with wild honey. When we read how Virgil has died in the war and how Hannah must now brave her days alone and raise their daughter who will never know her daddy, we have reason to be first to wince at the pain, the first to give thanks for the power of the story and the first to sit with a tear and at least a little awe for the one who could tell us such a tale.

This world, with its land and its people, was God’s idea. God was the Creator who, at every twist along the way, couldn’t help himself, exclaiming over and again, “Good. Good. Good.” Then, when the whole shebang was done, God clapped his hands and let out a big guffaw and said, “Well, now I’ve done it. This, friends, is real good.”

Old Uncle Jack, one of Berry’s numerous characters teaching us how to be human, how to be a neighbor, spouse and friend, “lived all his life loving solid objects.” Old Jack took God at his word.

God said, “Now, this is good.” And Old Jack answered, “Don’t you know it.”

Be loved. Be brave.

This morning around the breakfast table, we opened our box of question cards. Each person receives a card, and each person answers a question. Seth’s card asked him to state our family motto. Because Seth takes such things seriously, he needed time to consider and asked us to return to him. Midway into the next person’s question, Seth’s hands shot up, and he blurted out, “I know it! Be loved. Be brave.”

You wonder if your knucklehead parenting has done anything more than make plain as day your woeful inadequacies, if anything you have said or done has even begun to break through. And then, over sourdough and oatmeal, your son says Be loved. Be brave.

That gets at the soul of it. If the boys know they are loved, and if they hear the call to courage, I believe we’ve covered the bases.

I hope these words for each of us. As far as mottos go, we could do a lot worse.

Be loved. Be still and know that you are loved. Receive love when it’s offered – and watch for it because it will be. I know anger and meanness will swing your way, but I promise you that love will come too. Hear love in the wind. Look for love in the common kindness of a friend. But the most difficult part, as I’ve come to see it, is to let love reach us. It’s a scary thing to live awake and open.

Be brave. The temptation will be to back up or quiet down. To pull in. But we need good, solid people who will live the one life only they can live. And live it in technicolor, with an audacity that makes it impossible for the rest of us not to marvel at the goodness of it all.

Be loved. Be brave.