Sunday, February 23, 2014

Loving the Stranger Beside You

The Wedding March, Theodore Robinson, 1892, Paris
Last Sunday my husband Whitney and I gave a talk for our church’s Marriage Alpha program. The topic was The Impact of Family - Past and Present, and one of the areas of discussion was differences: ways our families of origin differed, and how those differences can cause stress or conflict.

Preparation prompted some helpful reflection and thoughtful conversation about the ways our families, and experiences of family, were different. His family made a big deal about Christmas; mine did as little as possible. I’m from a long line of do-it-yourselfers. His family saw little delight in building shelves, ripping out bathrooms, refinishing furniture.

Along the way, I came across an interesting observation by ethicist Stanley Hauerwas that set the whole discussion in context: 
We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the “right” person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage . . . means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.  
Looking back across our more than 36 years of marriage, I note with amusement the truth of Hauerwas’ comment. In many ways Whitney and I have become each other: I was the driven student, meticulous multi-tasker, aware of every penny spent, type A before I knew the term. I’m now far more casual about record-keeping than Whitney might like, far more likely to wander off bird-watching while he edits his latest writing project. Some of that is the way experiences and job demands have shaped us. Some of that is about gaining space to relax into our truer selves.

I’ve been struggling this month to come to terms with the word “love.” It’s a small overused word asked to stretch in too many directions. What does it mean to love this person next to me? I watch him with affection, sew on his buttons, listen, as well as I can, to his stories or thoughts about his work.

The Greeks had multiple words for love: agápe, éros, philía, storgē, ludus, pragma, mania, philautia. Those words tried to capture aspects of love and box them into neat little subsets: 
  • Agápe is unconditional, gift-giving love, often equated with God’s love
  • Eros is sensual, or romantic, or passionate
  • Storgē is the love between family members, the devoted love between parent and child
  • Philia is the kind of love between brothers or sisters, or the slow, steady love between long-term friends
  • Ludus is playful, maybe in a competitive way (as in “a player,”), or in a childlike way (teasing or silly)
  • Pragma: practical, mutually beneficial love, as in a long, settled marriage
  • Mania: obsessive, jealous, extreme
  • Philautia: love of self, self-esteem shading toward narcissism   

Double Portrait of Paul and Max von
Mila, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, Germany
Do the categories clarify, or confuse?

Or do they simply demonstrate that one word, eight, a dozen words, are not adequate to capture the complexity and importance of love?

Where’s the word that captures the sense of safety and warmth found in the presence of a loved one?

Or the word that captures the panic we feel when a loved one is in any kind of danger?

Or the word that illuminates the tension when a loved one struggles, the desire to intervene, the knowledge that struggle is sometimes needed for growth, the temptation to be the hero, the hope for a long-term good?

Words fall far short.

The Greek words try to convey the difference between love of spouse, love of child, love of friend.

Where’s the word for love of God?

Love of neighbor?

Love of enemy?

The synchroblog topic last week, Loving Your Enemies, prompted much soul-searching about what it might mean to love anyone at all, not just an enemy.

My own fall-back definition of love would be determined, self-giving pursuit of the other’s flourishing.

When I read 1 Corinthians 13, that’s what I hear: 
“Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 
I can love in a determined, self-giving way for minutes on end. Hours sometimes. Maybe – rarely – days.

But always? Not likely.
The Artist's Children, Friedrich Wilhelm
Schadow, Germany, 1830

And here’s where I get stuck: I can love in a determined, self-giving way those closest to me - my husband, my children, my grandchildren.

Intermittently. Imperfectly.

If needed, I can muster that kind of love for extended family – for a limited time.

And for select friends and their families – if it fits my schedule.

If I set the bar a bit lower, I can extend the circle a bit wider.

If love is a willingness to expend some energy, once in a while, for someone when it fits my schedule, well then yes, I love my neighbors. I’m willing to shovel an extra few feet to clear their sidewalks (if the snow isn’t too deep). Willing to watch a cat or some fish for a week or two. But am I willing to spend creative energy to see my neighbors flourish? I'd like to. But do I?

If love is simply a desire that you be warm and well-fed, then yes, I love you all: known, unknown, near, far. Have a good life. Be happy and healthy. May the road rise up to meet you.

But, as James reminds us: love in word only isn’t much love at all: 
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
I was struck by aSynchroblog post last week, EmKay Anderson’s Loving While Angry
If I watch my own emotions and actions for signs of anger, hurt, contempt, or even just the tendency to see people as their role rather than as real persons (whether "the grocery clerk "or "my mom"), I can use those signs as a spur to find a way to both really listen and to take real action on behalf of that person's well-being. 
Loving while angry (or impatient, or annoyed) strikes me as a practical spiritual discipline that forces attention both toward myself (why am I angry? impatient? annoyed?)  and toward those around me. That discipline
is the cultivation of prayer in asking God what that person needs from me.  It is the cultivation of margins in my own time and attention and money so that I can afford to pay attention and give time or other resources.  And it is the practice of actual empathetic conversation, in which I let my own dislike or pain or disagreement be the very trigger that let's me remember to bracket that reaction, pray for understanding of both my reaction and of that of the other, and then reach out to converse and listen and maybe even be changed.
 This practice is not comforting.  It pushes me out of safety into war zones regularly, and it breaks the artificial bonds of alignment with others through relationship or sociological circumstance or ideology.  Much of our shared life is built on the unwritten rules of any subculture.
 But this practice does give me the spiritual workout I need to grow strong and to stay strong, and it does allow me to cultivate a practice of the presence of God.

Mother and Child, Mary Cassatt,
Pennsylvania, 1890
Today, I’ll be helping make, serve, clean up a meal for eighty or so people in my church. Hearty soup, hot roles from the oven. I’ll feel aggravation, irritation, impatience. Mostly with myself. Food for many is not my strength. I do it out of love for the strangers in my church: those who rarely eat a hot meal, those who have few conversations through a long, lonely week, new college students, unconnected families.

And I’ll pause to wonder: how can I build more margin into a simple task, so I have time to pause with the child who wants to help stack chairs, to talk with the slow-moving gentleman waiting between me and the serving table, to focus on something other than the task at hand, to love the stranger more attentively?  

I will never love perfectly: not myself, not my husband, children, siblings, friends. I fall far short, and recognize every day my own lack of patience, wisdom, insight.

But as I invite God to open my eyes and ears, to keep me attentive to the needs around me and the ways I pull back out of fear, indifference, irritation, anger, I can grow.

And as I grow, as we grow, that love for us – strangers ourselves – becomes more evident, in, through, around us. And we, and the other strangers around us, find refuge, comfort, and safety in that love. 

But the stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.. . .Leviticus 19:34  

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this is the last in a four part exploration of love.  
  1. What's It Like to Be You?
  2. Ice Shards that Pop Soap Bubbles of Comfort
  3. Circles of Love
Please join the conversation: just click on   __comments below and add your thoughts.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Circles of Love

Apollian Gasket Nested
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
   (Edwin Markham, The Shoes of Happiness, and Other Poems, 1913)
I was a young teen when I first came across Edwin Markham’s simple poem and memorized it.

I lived in a world of tightly drawn circles: economic, racial, social, religious. There were staircases in my school that were dangerous to walk down; rules about who to say “hi” to and who to ignore.  Smoke from the fires of the Bronx was visible from my bedroom window, a grim reminder of an angry, inequitable world.

I walked a tightrope between circles. Although our home was in the “rich” part of town, I wore hand-me-down clothes and dragged a shopping cart down the hill to the nearest grocery store.

I grew up with the “white” kids, but my last name (Capra) and coloring (basic brown) linked me to a group still marginalized by the wealthy WASP community. “Wop” and “dago” were words still in use, whispered epithets strong enough to spark an after-school fight or a sudden, permanent exclusion.

The church of my childhood offered a wider range of racial and social strata but drew tight lines on behavior, theology, gender. Easy enough to fall outside the lines by asking an un-endorsed question.

Life today is in some ways different, in some ways depressingly the same. There are other racial groups held to the fringes, other, equally inexplicable points of division that mark the boundaries of our turf.

Miroslav Volf explores this world of exclusionary circles in “Exclusion and Embrace,” a book well worth reading. Descriptions of the book offer this summary: 
Life at the end of the twentieth century presents us with a disturbing reality. Otherness, the simple fact of being different in some way, has come to be defined as in and of itself evil . . .
 Increasingly we see that exclusion has become the primary sin, skewing our perceptions of reality and causing us to react out of fear and anger to all those who are not within our (ever-narrowing) circle. . .
 Exclusion happens, Volf argues, wherever impenetrable barriers are set up that prevent a creative encounter with the other. It is easy to assume that “exclusion” is the problem or practice of “barbarians” who live “over there,” but Volf persuades us that exclusion is all too often our practice “here” as well. Modern western societies, including American society, typically recite their histories as “narratives of inclusion,” and Volf celebrates the truth in these narratives. But he points out that these narratives conveniently omit certain groups who “disturb the integrity of their ‘happy ending’ plots.” Therefore such narratives of inclusion invite “long and gruesome” counter-narratives of exclusion—the brutal histories of slavery and of the decimation of Native American populations come readily to mind, but more current examples could also be found.
Circles of exclusion are obvious and everywhere, with sharply defined boundaries, vehement defense. I still find myself walking the edges, no longer convinced of Markham’s blithe belief that “Love and I had the wit to win.”  

There are moments when I can see the walls melting away, short seasons of shalom when I catch glimpses of blessed unity. Then, even in places where unity should be most possible, the walls go up again, the circles draw in tighter.

The depth of our dividedness baffles me.  How can I love my enemy when that enemy deflects every overture of interest, denies any possible middle ground, demands agreement on an endless list of positions (political, theological, economic) before discussion can begin?

To continue quoting from the description of Volf’s book:
Most proposed solutions to the problem of exclusion have focused on social arrangements: what kind of society ought we to create in order to accommodate individual or communal difference? 
Volf describes the "universalist," minimizing differences and promoting common values; the "communitarian," celebrating difference and promoting heterogeneity; the "postmodernist," proclaiming the radical autonomy of every individual. Then he explains:  
These proposals . . . entail important perspectives about persons who live in societies, but their main interest is not social agents, but social arrangements. In contrast, I want to concentrate on social agents. Instead of reflecting on the kind of society we ought to create in order to accommodate individual or communal heterogeneity, I will explore what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others. My assumption is that selves are situated; they are female or male, Jew or Greek, rich or poor - as a rule, more than one of these things at the same time...often having hybrid identities...and sometimes migrating from one identity to another. The questions I will be pursuing about such situated selves are: How should they think of their identity? How should they relate to the other? How should they go about making peace with the other? . . .(20-21)
The will to give ourselves to others and 'welcome' them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any 'truth' about others and any construction of their 'justice'. This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into 'good' and 'evil'." (Volf, 1996, p. 29).
Volf’s discussion challenges me on many levels. He offers a compelling vision of embrace of the enemy, and the possibility of that embrace in light of God’s forgiveness. In the video linked below, Volf offers a summary of his view.

Miroslav Volf Part 2: Loving enemies - dangerous & absurd from CPX on Vimeo.

I'm intrigued by the notion of love of the enemy as a way to return the other back to the good, and I find myself repeatedly drawn to the question of "what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others."

Yet - even Jesus himself, shalom incarnate, did not live in harmony with all during his time on earth. 

There’s something in Volf's discussion that reminds me of Markham’s poem: “Love and I had the wit to win.” Volf’s situated self extends the embrace, negotiates peace, draws the new, larger circle.

I'm no longer sure that's possible. 

I find my thoughts turning to a painting that comes closer to my own experience. The artist who created it, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), knew first-hand the challenge of conflicting circles: so light-skinned he could “pass,” yet legally defined as “Negro.” Son of a minister and bishop in the AME church, and of a woman born into slavery. An American who could only experience freedom and opportunity as an expatriate in Paris. A man of deep faith in a dismissive milieu.

His middle name, “Ossawa,” was an abbreviation of Osawatomie, the town in Kansas where John Brown and his men raided and killed several supporters of slavery.

The painting that draws me is Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
Daniel and the Lions, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896, Paris
At first glance, there’s no love in this painting. Daniel is captive, bound, imprisoned, in danger.

As are the lions: held against their will, in a world not of their choosing.

Despite the tension between them, they are embraced by light, enmity silenced by a will and grace, beyond them.

And in the light that holds them, there's a hint of something more, a whisper of fellowship, or concern, between Daniel and the lion nearest him. 

When I think of loving my enemy, that’s the image that comes to mind: attentive, submissive, intending no harm, willing to will the other’s good, but not yet able to make that happen.

Bound by my own perspective, I am not yet capable of embracing those able to harm me. 

Enough, maybe, to stand beside them, unafraid, acknowledging their perspective as well as my own, affirming their place in the circle of light, knowing I am not the one who draws the wider circle.

This post is part of the February Synchroblog: Loving Our Enemies. Below are other links on the same topic:

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this is the third in a four part exploration of love.  
  1. What's It Like to Be You?
  2. Ice Shards that Pop Soap Bubbles of Comfort
Please join the conversation: just click on   __comments below and add your thoughts.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ice Shards that Pop Soap Bubbles of Comfort

Philippians 1: And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.  Philippians 1:9-11
Somehow, despite a half-century of experience to the contrary, I still find myself clinging to the idea that growing in love will somehow be easy. I set out to expand the reach of my own compassion without weighing the cost, or pausing to review what’s already clear: love demands surrender of our own agendas, our own self-protective impulses. Our own self-sufficiency.

Last week I asked “What’s it like to be you?”

Then plunged into a week of being me that stirred a host of new questions, a tsunami of revelations.

The week started with a snowstorm. A predicted four to six inches dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow, disrupting plans, demanding attention.

Then came ice. The ominous tinkling of falling ice late Tuesday night was soon joined by the groaning of tree limbs, then wild, cracking sounds and the thud of falling limbs.

Then darkness, as the bedside clock went black and the neighbors’ porch lights vanished.

We’ve never lost power for more than twenty-four hours, so expected to have lights and heat back soon.

Despite warnings that more than 80% of our county had lost power, that repair would be hampered by wind, ice, and cold.

One day stretched into two, and makeshift attempts at normalcy gave way to next steps: daylight hours spent elsewhere. Nights in the cold, blankets piled high.

Two days stretched into three. A plea to friends for a warm, well-lighted guest room.

While lights went on in neighborhoods around us, ours stayed dark. Apparently a very large tree, loaded with snow and ice, took out a crucial utility pole and the network of wires surrounding it. When we finally discovered the web of downed wires, draped across snowy sidewalks and streets, persistent hopes that the power would be back any minute gave way to more thoughtful plans for facing the days ahead.

This post is being written in a corner bedroom in a lovely home twenty minutes from my own, with coffee, wi-fi, all the comforts of modern life provided by gracious friends who two days ago were wondering when their own power would be back on.

I confess, in the middle of disruption, it’s hard to care about anyone else. Which makes me wonder: is compassion a luxury for the comfortable?

Another confession: I have never expended much thought on those whose lives are disrupted by war, tsunami, hurricane, drought. Yes, I listen to news stories, think “how awful.” Give a nominal contribution to those hard-hit by disaster. Join the prayers of the people on Sundays when we pause in our worship to pray for those in trouble.

But I’ve never invested much imagination in picturing lives unexpectedly derailed. Never spent much time in genuine prayer or thoughts of assistance for those plunged into the misery of not knowing where the next meal will come from, or exhausted by lack of a safe, quiet place to sleep.

Last July Pope Francis spoke in Lampedusa, the Italian island off the coast of Tunisia, about the thousands of asylum seekers who have drowned trying to cross from chaos to safety:
Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: "poor soul…!", and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged.
The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!
My week of discomfort has shaken my soap bubble of comfort, opening my heart, just a little, to those who live in misery: cold, hungry, unable to think beyond the next meal, the next cup of water. Mothers with small children, men and women past the age of resilience. Desperate people with no home to return to. Refugee camps, erected to provide shelter for a few weeks or months, still
housing families years, even decades, later.

Easier to say “it’s none of my business!”

But if it is my business, what then?

Pope Francis suggests a first step in compassion would be to grieve:
We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – "suffering with" others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! . . .  let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this. 
It’s not just grief that’s needed, though.  “Suffering with” demands rejection of easy answers. If we imagine that suffering only comes to “those people,” over there, it’s easy to affix blame: somehow it must be their fault? Did they do something to deserve it? If so, isn’t it okay to distance myself? To walk by on the other side of the road?

When the bubble of comfort pops, when we find ourselves asking the hard questions of “why?” the easy answers and self-protective defenses are stripped away.

Yes, some bring suffering on themselves, through foolish choices and rash decisions. But much more suffering is caused by external circumstances, invisible causes, forces beyond any one person’s control: tribal conflicts, global trade policies, chemical spills.

Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Ice storms. Tsunamis.

I repent of my indifference.

I repent, as well, for my self-sufficiency.

I hate to ask for help of any kind. But as I read through Paul’s epistles, consider the signs of a healthy community, I’m forced to acknowledge: love that imagines a one-way flow of care is something other than love.

In the introduction to his collection of essays, No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote:
Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved. In so doing, it perfects itself.
The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.
Hardest for me this past week has been the feeling of neediness. Needing help to get through the day: provision of coffee, meals, showers, warm bed. Encouragement. Advise.

A week older, and wiser, I give thanks for friends and family who have offered help, not just now, but other times, other ways.  

I give thanks that grace and generosity offered are not dependent on my own offerings of grace or generosity.

And I consider, from a humbler, more vulnerable point of view:
What is it like to be you?

To be me?

How do we continue to grow in love and understanding?
How do we give and receive love in a world where global indifference is the norm?
Is experience of pain, loss of our “soap bubble of comfort,” an essential part of our growth in depth of insight? 
If so, how do we embrace that more fully, while still longing for our own warm beds, our own safe, quiet corners? 

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this is the second in a four part exploration of love.  

  1. What's It Like to Be You?

Please join the conversation: just click on   __comments below and add your thoughts.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What's It Like to Be You?

Is understanding a prerequisite to love?

Is it possible to love your neighbor without knowing who that neighbor really is?
Grocery boy, Muskogee, OK, Russell Lee, 1939

A discussion of the teenage brain on Dan Gottlieb’s radio talkshow Voices in the Family last Monday reminded me of how difficult it is to understand one another, even those we’re closest to. Our brains are at different stages of development; our goals, needs, experiences are different, even from those right there beside us.

A dad called in to talk about his fifteen year old son, who had stopped doing homework and refused to be ready in time to catch the school bus every morning. After probing for possible mental illness or family stress, Gottlieb said:     
I would encourage you to engage him in a different way. Take your eye off the goal of him turning around and becoming the young man he was or becoming the young man you wish him to be. Make the goal understanding the young man he is - now. And always approach him with a question: What’s it like to be you? Don’t try to guide him anywhere or change him into anything else. But what’s it like? What’s it like inside your mind? What’s it like inside your heart?
 I encourage all parents, all humans, to approach people with a curious mind, and an open heart, because you don’t know what it feels like to be him, and your job as a parent is to understand, not for the purpose of doing anything about it, but for the purpose of getting to know him in a different way, and then maybe you can collaborate. Then maybe if he feels less alone in the family, then maybe he can open up and share where he suffers and what he struggles with. He’ll feel safer if you do that. We all do, we all feel safer when someone says “Tell me your story.” 
Those words resonated strongly with my reading in Romans 12 the next morning: 
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. 
Sometimes when I read scripture, I have the sense that there’s more going on in the text than our translations suggest, and this passage sent me spinning through interlinear translations, Greek lexicons, early exegesis.

Mother and child, Sequoyah County, OK, 1939. Russell Lee
The love Paul is describing is the love of brother for brother (phileo): lives intertwined, experiences and goals held in common. But also the love of parent for child (translated too weakly as “devoted” or “kindly affectioned”):
The word φιλοστοργος signifies that tender and indescribable affection which a mother bears to her child, and which almost all creatures manifest towards their young; and the word φιλος , or φιλεω , joined to it, signifies a delight in it. Feel the tenderest affection towards each other, and delight to feel it. 
Delight to feel the affection? Or rather - delight in the other? Delight in the differences? 

The passage goes on to define the extent of this kindly affection: attention to needs, celebration of victories, grief at the other’s grief. Not just for those closest, but in radiating circles: those we consider brothers or sisters. Those who we think of as strangers. Those we’d prefer to treat as enemies.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases it this way:
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”\
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
All of this is dependent on knowing who the other is, knowing what the other needs, understanding what the other is feeling, the kind of attention, insight, and delight a devoted parent lavishes on a well-loved child. 

To paraphrase in light of Dan Gottlieb’s instruction:
“Find out what it means to be that other person. Celebrate what he celebrates. Grieve what she grieves. Try to see the world through other eyes. Align your heart with the hearts of others. Set your own agendas aside and put your home, heart, resources, privilege at the disposal of those around you.”

Drought refugee, Polk, MO, Dorothea Lange, 1936
That’s an outrageously extreme translation, but if you look at the whole of Romans 12, I’d argue that’s what Paul is saying: in light of Christ’s extreme sacrifice for us, we should respond with our own living sacrifice. We'll never fully get there, but we can make it a goal to learn to love the same way Jesus did, entering so fully into the lives of others that they see, maybe for the first time, what real love might look like.

I find myself wrestling with the implications of this kind of love. Who can love even a few people at that level? Who can offer that kind of sacrificial attention? 

In practical terms, what would be the cost?

I’ve set aside time to be available for needs and ambitions not my own: helping a young friend fill out FAPSA forms, researching resource questions for older friends less google-savvy than myself, devoting time to helping friends in transition or stress: packing, cleaning, laundry, dishes.

And I help provide lunch once a month after our Sunday service, thinking through the menu, organizing a team to cook, set up, and clean, not because food for groups is on my list of either skills or pleasures (it's not!) but because I know how important that  time of welcome and nourishment is for some of the eighty or so who gather to eat each week.

I’ve tried to let my practices and politics be guided by what I know of the struggles of the poor, the stranger, those struggling to find affordable housing, adequate transportation, jobs that pay enough to live on.

But that simple stretch of verses holds 30 imperatives, direct instructions for active, honest love.  I sort my way through them, wondering: how could I grow in expressions of hospitality? How could I enter more fully into the joys and griefs of others? Where does my own agenda blind me to needs different from my own? When have I allowed feelings of enmity to keep me from offering blessing?

My motive in probing this isn’t guilt, or the burden of “should,” but an awareness that continues to grow: the more I try to know and love, the more certain I am that I myself am known and loved. The more I look for ways to bless, the more clearly I see the ways I myself have been blessed. My experience of love is tied inextricably, and inexplicably, to my expressions of love.

Grandfather and Grandson, Manzanar Refugee Camp,
Dorothea Lange, 1942
Paul’s other major exploration of love, in 1 Corinthinians 13, concludes here: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

May we know, and love, as we are known and loved. 

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this will be the first in a four part exploration of love.  Please join the conversation: just click on  _ comments below and add your thoughts.  
What practices have helped you grow in your understanding of others? Is understanding a prerequisite to love?