Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Radical Love

Christianity is about love. People who say that it's about judgment, righteousness, morality, belief, or even grace have all named aspects of the religion but not its heart. Christianity has judgment tempered by love, righteousness and morality fueled by love, belief that leads to love, and grace that comes from love. Without love, none of the rest of it makes sense. Jesus himself told us that the whole thing boils down to two commandments: 1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. The wonderful thing about these commandments is that they support each other. The more we love God, the more we want to love people because God loves them. The more we devote ourselves to loving each other, the more we understand and appreciate the God who loves us.

There is nothing more important in a Christian life than love. Nothing should take precedence over it. But if we look around us, we see all kinds of things coming between us and love. Cultural values like privacy, independence, self-sufficiency, pride (or self-respect as we call it), and even some standards of propriety become walls between us and our neighbors that limit how we interact with them. We hold people at arm's length because we are afraid of so many things. We don't want others to see our innermost thoughts and feelings because they might judge us. We don't want to ask for help or be asked to give more than we think we have to give. We're afraid of wasting time or energy. We're afraid of getting hurt or letting someone else down. We're afraid that getting close to someone will upset our social structure or community. We're afraid of being seen as presumptuous or nosy. We don't want to interfere or do something that could be perceived as inappropriate. We don't want to risk devoting ourselves to people who might not reciprocate. And I'm not saying that those fears aren't valid or important—but I am saying that they are less important than the absolute necessity of love.

Loving, intimate, and personal relationships with other people teach us about healthy spirituality and being in relationship with God. We learn to trust and to accept and to work together. We learn to give and to take, to admit when we need help and to ask for it. We stop being so afraid when we know we have a network of close friends to support us. We become more generous. We're more willing to take risks and to grow. That's what Christian living is about. Christian love is not the kind of love that pats you on the head and tells you you're perfect just the way you are. It's the kind of love that challenges you to keep striving towards the best possible version of yourself both for your sake and the sake of the people whose lives you touch; it's the kind of love that says "It's going to be hard and it might hurt, but you'll be better for it, and I'll be there to hold your hand and support you every single step of the way." It's the kind of love that doesn't let us sit in our pews thinking about how lucky we are to be saved—instead it sends us out into the world to discover that the treasure we've been given is even greater than we had imagined.

When Jesus came into this world, he was considered by his society to be a radical. Although his message was based on Scriptural themes people were already familiar with, he was taking them to a whole new level. Today's American Christians are used to being mainstream, and it's time for us to remember what it means to be radicals. There's a hymn I love whose refrain proclaims "they'll know we are Christians by our love." Will they? If we want to stand out from all the rest of the mainstream "decent" people, we need to love more passionately, more radically than basic morality demands. We can't just stop at the boundaries of social convention—we need to be willing to break the rules if they get in our way. Right now the only Christian radicals people are talking about are the ones who are screaming about how people are going to Hell because God hates them for their sins. That's not what our religion is really about: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) That's the real point. That's what we need to be radical about. God loves us, and He wants us to love each other.

What does this mean? It means that we should be actively working to have more close friends and to be more open and honest with them. It means that we should be finding ways to go out of our way to be kind and helpful to other people. It means that we should be actively supporting our fellow Christians in their faith. It means we should be trying to get to know the people around us on a more personal level and taking more opportunities to tell them how special and beloved they are. It means that we should take the same loyalty we feel to our blood relatives and apply it to every person who reaches out to us. It means we should be thinking more actively and consciously about what's most important in our lives and going beyond what feels comfortable. We should be asking people to help us and offering to help others, including with very personal things. We should volunteer to comfort those who are mourning, celebrate with those who are happy, and support those who are working hard for God. We should be working together with one another to ensure that no one in our community feels alone or unsupported. Be a friend. Be a neighbor. Be a brother or sister in Christ.

If this is starting to sound like a lecture, it's only because I'm excited. The truth is that what I've written here is a message of hope. I am here to tell you that more is possible than we ever imagined. Relationships that we don't yet dare to have could one day be more rewarding than we could ever have predicted. Connections and growth that our cynical minds deem improbable are possible with the help of God. We have not even dreamed the wonders that God has in store for us, the marvelous experiences He is offering for the nourishment of our souls. God wants us to love each other because He knows we will benefit from it. He knows that love will make us happier and wiser and stronger. He will bless our love and make it fruitful in all the corners of our life. We needn't limit ourselves for the sake of fear or social conventions. When we break the rules for the sake of love, for the sake of God, God will support us and carry us far beyond the derision of the world. Don't settle for "good enough". Don't give up. Don't be afraid. There's more. I promise.

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