January 21, 2014

The other Sunday I was called in as an emergency preacher for a friend who has been very sick. I love his congregation and always enjoy preaching there, so I jumped at the chance. Of course it was Friday when we worked it out and I didn’t have time to write a fresh sermon, so I pulled out one I had preached a couple months before at another place. A sermon on God’s love. 

I will admit that sometimes I have an internal reaction to hearing “God’s love” spoken again and again. It brings up so many memories of people who claimed to be acting in God’s love when they did horrible things. Or it brings up the TV image of a football fan holding a poster board that quotes john 3:16 over the end zone at a game. Or it conjures up the line of signs I see each month as I head out of town to a meeting, signs which start with “God is love” and end with “You are going to hell.” And somehow in between we move from love to judgment in less than a half mile. 

This isn’t a blog about hell and judgement though. It’s a blog about love. And not about just this surreal, fantasy-like, taken-for-granted type of love, but about a love that I now know is more real than the air that I breathe. Let me first share with you some back story:

I grew up in the church. Baptized and raised in it and for that, I am thankful. Cut my teeth on the Bible and the hymnal. My parents took church very seriously and so it seemed like whenever the doors of our church were open, we were there. They took it so seriously that they gave the ushers and the choir permission to watch and discipline us on the occasion that we had to sit alone because my dad was working and my mother was singing in the choir. So if we sat in the front, the eyes of the entire choir were on us and if we dared sit in the back (a treat for us!), the ushers were ready and waiting to step in should the four of us get a bit too ornery. I remember one time when they did step in: we were encouraging our little brother to slam the hymnal book shut to make a loud banging sound. With each slam, he would say “Firecracker! Boom!” And my sister, brother and I would giggle each time and tell him to do it again- this is how older siblings are to youngest ones. We nudge them on doing the “dirty work.” There was one last “Firecracker! Boom!” and a split second later, my little brother was swooped out of this seat from behind and carried out of the sanctuary by one of the ushers. He was returned to us, red faced and wiping tears away and we sat quietly the rest of the service. 

But since I grew up in church, I heard a lot about God’s love. At least I’m sure I did, but I really don’t remember. In many ways, the message that God is love was drowned out by the endless lists of what we should do and not do, the tireless theology of what “being chosen” meant for behavior modification. And besides that, I really think that until we experience genuine love, it is hard for us to really recognize it. I knew in my head that I was loved, but I didn’t really know what it was like to be loved. 

Too many messages about “worthiness,” “being good,” and other things cloud my memory of those years growing up. And until the last few years, those messages actually crowded out the drumbeat of God that I now know echoes down the lines of Scripture: God is love, God loves us, God loves you… 

It’s no wonder that when the bottom of my world fell out in 2009, I was gripped in the fear of the possibility that God may indeed be more interested in me acting a particular way than in showering me with his affection. It has always been ironic to me that this season of my life took place in my hometown and I got to drive by my childhood church almost every day. This church that is filled with wonderful memories of friends and experiences that is also the source of much theological confusion in my early adulthood. Looking back now, I know that I had to wrestle with and come to terms with those theologies, which the darkness of that season of loss allowed… or forced, really. 

And when you experience loss and death and trauma and sadness, it can be hard to really open yourself to the possibility that you are dearly and deeply loved, even (or perhaps especially) in those ugly places of life. 

When I finally met my new spiritual director in the fall of 2011, I was in that ugly place. The fearful place. That place where I wanted to hide all I was from everyone. And I sat on this woman’s couch in her little office in her beautiful home and I dared to open up the door to the fear and pain I had experienced and was continuing to experience about God. 

This little woman didn’t judge me. She didn’t tell me to snap out of it. She didn’t tell me I was a pastor and should know better (the truth is, many pastors do not actually know that they are completely and fully loved by God despite their all preaching and teaching about it… many, many of them struggle with the same doubts and fears that I did). Instead, my spiritual director loved me. She saw me- all the ugly, scary, fearful, angry, hurting- and she didn’t run away from me. She looked at me without judgement and without doubt and she loved me. And she wasn’t afraid. 

1 John 4 whispers to us that perfect love drives out fear. In my spiritual director, I saw this- perhaps for the first time, or at least the first time I noticed. Perfect love drives out fear. Christ in her, the hope of glory, loved me out of that place. Loved me out of my significant fears of God. Here I was coming to the end of myself and all that I had known and believed, and I found that I was held, kept, loved. Through her gentle leading, I came face to face with a God who has never answered my questions about that season of pain, but has looked at me the same way my spiritual director did. And loved me- the beautiful and ugly, the bold and the fearful, the organized and messy, the confident and doubtful. I learned for real the love of God. I learned for real that God is indeed the very embodiment and definition of love. 

In this sermon that I preached, I reached out for the hand of a saint named Brennan Manning. Brennan died recently and my world became a bit less bright with the news of his passing. He was an ex-priest, who wrote some of the most amazing books I have ever read. Books that make me weep every time no matter how often I have read them. Books that grab at the deepest parts of me, reaching into the cracks of my soul with the power that makes my heart leap into my throat over and over again. Brennan has become one of my spiritual companions, especially these last few years. One of his most famous quotes is this: 

“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity- that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain- that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves you without condition or reservation and he loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be.”                                                                 (All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir by Brennan Manning)

A few months ago, I was at a small group bible study and we were discussing 1 John 4. And as inevitably happens the conversation turned from the love of God to the concerns that other people take advantage of God’s love too easily. And from there the conversation became about what people “should” be and do, rather than what God is, according to John’s writing. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of time. My memories of childhood in church include this same conversation over and over and over again. I am probably guilty of participating and even leading in such conversations many times over. 

As I listened to this turn in the discussion that night, I was struck by this thought: it seems so often we who follow God are so concerned that someone else might abuse God’s love that we forget that God is love. And that it’s not our job to police God’s love. He gives it freely to anyone and everyone. If some take advantage of it, it’s up to God to deal with that. The only thing that’s up to me is my willingness to receive this gift of intense, raw, passionate love and to allow it to transform me in such a way that I return his love- clumsy and weak though I am- and extend his love- as limited and imperfect as I can be. That the “shoulds” and “should nots” are not part of my vocabulary of love. I need to leave those up to God. Because perfect love drives out fear, and having once been a horribly fearful person, I want my story to be about that Love. That Love that still catches me up without any reservation or pause even when I’m at my worst. At the very least, shouldn’t we Christians err on the side of love? If we err, God will make it right. But I would rather err on the side of love than the side of fear, of condemnation, of ungraciousness. 

For a long time in my childhood and even as an adult, I worried over the questions God would ask me when I am face to face with him. I imagined these questions would include whether I was a “good girl,” whether I used all the gifts he gave me well, whether I had been faithful to the point of death, whether I had had trust that grew so strong. And I knew, and still know, that my answers to all these questions are “no.” No, I haven’t always been a “good girl” (whatever that nonsense means), and no, I haven’t used all his good gifts to me well, and no I haven’t always been faithful, and no I haven’t always had faith. 

I don’t know what God will ask me when I am face to face with him, or if he will ask me much at all, but Brennan Manning again comes to mind. He believes this: 

The Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question: Do you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice? The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus. I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it. But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our church going are going to have to reply, “Well frankly, no sir. I mean, I never really believed it. I mean, I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact I gave quite a few myself. But I always knew that that was just a way of speaking; a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on. And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land. No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love. But at the same time, no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us. Do you see why it is so important to lay hold of this basic truth of our faith? Because you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God. Do you remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? “God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment”? We often make God in our own image, and He winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow minded, legalistic, judgemental, unforgiving, unloving as we are. In the past couple of three years I have preached the gospel to the financial community in Wallstreet, New York City, the airmen and women of the air force academy in Colorado Springs, a thousand positions in Nairobi. I’ve been in churches in Bangor, Maine, Miami, Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle, San Diego. And honest, the god of so many Christians I meet is a god who is too small for me. Because he is not the God of the Word, he is not the God revealed by it in Jesus Christ who this moment comes right to your seat and says, “I have a word for you. I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship. And my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are, and not as you should be. Because you’re never going to be as you should be.”                                                                                            (Brennan Manning:

Being loved has changed me. It hasn’t answered my questions. It hasn’t changed the past. It doesn’t lessen the sadness I still can feel for all that we experienced. But it does change things. It changes the way I walk through this world, the way I parent my son, the way I pastor and preach, the way I respond to the people around me, the way I hear their stories and shames, the way I see the world. I have so much more to learn in this. But I believe with Brennan that grasping this basic foundation to our faith is so much more important than anything else. In fact, I believe that until we are loved- opening ourselves to this raw, powerful, intense and intensely personal love of God- we are incapable of truly loving others in the way we are called to. Sure, we talk a good game, but we struggle to play it well until we know we are secure in the love of a God who doesn’t always make sense, but who doesn’t easily let us go from his heart which is throbbing with the immensity of his love for us. 

God longs to release us from fear. And so he is love, becomes love, offers us love- no strings attached and certainly not insisting that we “should” be something different. I believe that love will change us, but change is not a condition of love. 

A couple years ago, I was preaching a different church (not the one I mentioned before) and after I preached, the worship team came forward and began to play the song “How He Loves” by David Crowder Band. I was slightly familiar with this song but not really sure of the lyrics. And I listened in awe as people all over the room rose to their feet and sang strong, “He loves us, oh how he loves us, oh how he loves us, oh how he loves.” A middle aged man in his suit wept at the words, “If his grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking” and a woman wrapped her arms around her fiancé as we sang, “And I realize just how beautiful you are and how great your affections are for me.” There was a man in a wheelchair lifted his one good arm with tears streaming down his face “Oh, how he loves us, oh how he loves us.” And his companion, an older lady, face bowed and swaying, “How he loves us, oh.” 

I was moved. Not by the music, but by being among people who without speaking a word knew what I had recently come to know. Love. True, pure, perfect love. In all our frailty and faults, in all our ugly and mean, in all our faithlessness and doubt- love. And I knew in those moments, and in many moments since, that that Love matters more than anything else. That that Love makes us different more than anything else could. That that Love changes everything. If only… if only… we would be open to it. 

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