Sunday, January 10, 2016

What I'd Give: Living into Love

My goal this Epiphany season is to dig into a topic I’ve been thinking of lately: the important gifts that aren’t ours to give.

“What I’d give you if I could.”

My plan for this week’s topic was “Awareness of Love.” God’s love. So deep and wide and high and long that we need his grace to grasp even a tiny hint of it.

But this week my head has been full of something different, a project that has grabbed and shaken me and is busily filling my calendar, inbox and brain.

If you had asked me when I left youth ministry five years ago if I’d be getting involved in PA politics, I would definitely have laughed.

And if you’d asked me a year ago if redistricting would be my top priority I would most likely have said “no.”

But I’ve learned along the way that love leads in strange directions.

Love for the beauty and brokenness of creation me led me down a path of “shale gas fractivism.”

Concern for loved ones struggling with food led me deep into research on poorly-tested, poorly-regulated, poorly-understood innovations in our daily diet. 

Love for a group of kids I spent time with in Philly during my youth ministry days led to a dive into our dysfunctional criminal justice system, and advocacy on the inexcusable inequities in our school funding system.
And all of those trails led me back to our dysfunctional political environment, the broken systems that hold it in place, and the ripples of dysfunction fueled by misplaced anger and misguided decisions.

I was tempted to set aside the topic of love and focus instead on partisan redistricting and our new Fair Districts PA coalition.

But I find myself back at the text I meant to start with: Ephesians 3:  
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
For years I had that passage posted inside my kitchen cabinet door, where I could pray it, for myself and those I love, at odd moments in my day: waiting for water to boil, or listening for the ding of the microwave oven.

How do we become so rooted and established in Christ’s love that it becomes the controlling reality of each day?

How do we live so deeply in that reality that it becomes visible to all who know us?

Paul’s prayer makes clear: knowledge of God’s love is a gift, one that we can’t give, although we can fervently ask it. God can strengthen us from the inside out, give us power to grasp something far beyond our grasping.

And yet, I wonder if there are ways we can hasten that work, or position ourselves to embrace love more fully.

This morning, turning again to Paul’s prayer in Ephesians, I read the parts of the chapter before it: “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles . . .  I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.”

In a way, Paul’s experience of God’s love seems closely connected to his willingness to serve it, his willingness to set aside his own privilege and priorities to become both prisoner and servant.
St. Paul in Ephesus: earliest known depiction

In 2 Corinthians, he phrased it this way:  “ For the love of Christ compels /guides / rules / controls us.”

Which comes first: ability to grasp God’s love, or willingness to set our own agendas aside and live as servants compelled and ruled by love?

And what is most likely to keep others from seeing and knowing and embracing that love: their lack of interest, or our own unwillingness to serve that love more fully?

I posted before about prayer ministry in our church: the practice of listening to the needs of others, then placing a hand gently on the person’s shoulder or hand, and praying on the other person’s behalf.  That was a formative part of my youth ministry experience, and my husband and I still serve in that way once a month during our worship service.

That simple willingness to intercede for someone else has taught me much about God’s love, deepened my willingness to serve it, but also expanded my grasp of its magnitude.

When we serve, we stand in a front corner of the church, an awkward spot, and wait as people walk to the front to take communion, then pass us on their way back to their seats.

The whole thing feels awkward: standing there, waiting as people walk by. Yet, as someone chooses to walk toward us, I often feel a warm welcome welling up inside me. And then, as we pray, I am often almost overcome by a sense of love pouring through me.

Sometimes it’s so strong I find myself shaking. Often I find myself fighting back tears. Whatever the need, concern, request, the prayer often is surrounded by a shattering experience of love: God’s love flowing through me, God’s peace, joy, forgiveness, mercy, healing enveloping me and the person I pray for. Sometimes it’s clear the person feels it, receives it.  Sometimes it’s clear only hints of it get through. Always I know that love, flowing through me, is far greater than I, or the other person, can grasp.

Often I go back to my pew with a deeper burden for the need of the world, a fuller vision of God’s love, and a sobering sense of gratitude: I have been given far more than I deserve. I am willing to be shaped and directed by that love.

I see the link between love and service most clearly when I pray, but it leaps out at me at other times: when a friend calls and asks “do you have time to help me?” The first thought is always: “Now? Are you kidding?” But love intervenes, and my day and its rearrangement become part of ongoing prayer.

The same is true in other ways: this political involvement I find myself pursuing. It’s costly in time and energy and brain-space. It’s leading me far from any comfort zone, into challenging arenas where I need God’s wisdom for every next step.

I am a servant of love.

That sounds lofty, overly grand.

Maybe a little ridiculous.

Yet, I've learned that my awareness of God's love is intrinsically tied to my willingness to serve, to live into that love.

So I throw my calendar open. Set my ragtag gifts at God’s disposal. 

Acknowledge and marvel at his love for the kids in underfunded schools, the prisoners locked in solitary confinement, the teachers maligned by profit-driven maneuvers, the legislators buffeted by intractable political agendas.

I pray that his love rebuilds broken lives from the inside out, melts through disillusioned hearts, shines so brightly that it silences the voices of condemnation and judgment that dare to speak for God.

I pray that God’s people will live so deeply in this love that churches awaken, oppressive systems change, communities are restored.

And I pray, that you, and I 
being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
St. Paul Writing His Epistles; att. Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century, France
During this Epiphany season (from the beginning of January until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 10) I’ll be blogging about those things I would give if I could.
January 3: What I'd Give You