For the Bride: The School of Love

The last time I was on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, I noticed the community had published a new brochure about themselves, their ministries, their daily schedule, etc.  It was entitled, “A School of Love.”

When I returned home, I researched the phrase and found that monastic communities have referred to themselves as schools of love.  In those early days, the word school was one way monks bore witness to the communal nature of the monastic life.  But beyond that it was an indication that we only learn to love in community.

The main reason is simply that love does not become challenging until we actually have to love someone!  Until then, love is a romantic concept.  But in reality love is a relational challenge.  The person whom we are called to love never crosses our path in perfect shape.  There is always some effort required if we are to love the other–and all the while, they are thinking the same about us.

Moreover, we must not think that we are living as well as we possibly can.  So, like grades in a school, there are degrees of love to learn, and the best way to do it is by submitting to the counsel of our elders and by observing the ways they are living in love.  The request if novices to desert mothers and fathers, “Give me a word that I might live,” was always rooted in a desire on the part of the novice to grow in love, toward God, toward others, or both together.

A school of love–a communal maturation in the life of love little-by-little.  To be in a school eliminates the need for growing by leaps and bounds.  School is always in session.  We will come back tomorrow to pick up where we left off.  But as the monks have wisely reminded us for twenty centuries, the curriculum does not change.  It is learning how to love–yesterday, today, and forever (John 15:12; Hebrews 13:8)

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In-Sight: In Good Hands

As I move through my 67th year, I am disciplining myself to read Scripture asking, “What does this passage have to say to an aging adult like me?”  Often, I find small nuggets of insight; at other times, the entire reading speaks an important word to me at this age and stage of life.

Psalm 23 is a recent example–and one I am using this very week in my teaching ministry at a Bible Conference here in Florida.  This well-known psalm has unfolded along the theme, “In Good Hands ”  I see David, having walked with God as a mature adult himself, writing words born of life experience.  And he sees God’s hands to being good hands for us as we age.

To begin with, they are Yahweh’s hands.  David chose the most-often used word for God to begin the psalm–the word which speaks to us of God’s redemptive purpose.  God is for us!

And God’s hands are caring for us right now, and doing so as a Shepherd who guides and guards his sheep.  Every aspect of our lives is cared fir, so that we lack for nothing in God’s providential love.

God’s caring hands lead us to places of rest and refreshment–places where we are restored and renewed in righteousness.  God’s hands are signs of the Spirit’s presence–the Father’s nearness, protecting us with the rod and staff, preparing lucious and secure grazing lands, healing whatever wounds come upon us, and giving us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

Looking back over the years if his life, David invites us to look back over the years if our life, and when we do, we ill see that goodness and mercy have accompanied us.  On the basis of God’s steadfastness, we have hope that we will remain in God’s hands forever.

And if course, all that David wrote about in Psalm 23 became incarnate in Jesus, the Good Shepherd–the one of whom we can declare thatvwe are in good hands.

This meditation only scratches the surface of the psalm’s insights for those of us who happily carry our AARP cards, and who realize that every stage of life is sacred because God has created it and walks with us in it.  As John Wesley exclaimed as an old man on his dying day, “The best of all is, God is with us!”

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Journey: Upside Down

Read:  “A New Identity”

With laser-beam clarity and power, McLaren shows how counter-cultural Jesus was from the outset of his ministry.  The Beatitudes–those seemingly benign invitations to godly happiness–first pierced the egoic balloons of those who thought they could have “God and country” with little or no disruption of their civic and ecclesial status quos.

And by the end of his chapter it’s clear that things have not changed all that much since Jesus preached his inaugural sermon on the hillside just outside Capernaum nearly two thousand years ago.  We still want a blend of cultural religiosity that leaves us inspired but unchanged. 

We still head out to find a “Jesus” (or preacher) who will make “being comfortable” in churches with folks like ourselves the essence of the Gospel and the goal of discipleship. And if we can download our version of the gospel (notice the shift to a small “g”), to our favorite dark-monied political party, all the better.

But the real, incarnate Christ will have none of it.  He even speaks of happiness in ways that shred our charades of it, but miraculously offer us abundant life at the same time. Jesus turns everything upside down–or so we think.  But we forget that it was the Fall in Genesis 3 when the world was turned upside down by sin.  When Jesus turned it upside down the second time, he was actually turning it rightside up!

A walk with Jesus (to quote Clint Eastwood) turns us every which way but loose.  And those who demand status-quo spirituality will always walk away (John 6:66) and re-up their membership in versions of faith that never require us to adopt a new identity.

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For the Bride: Amazing Love!

In early Christianity the synonymn for love was perfection.  Far from being a psychologized word (which could become pathological perfectionism), it was deeply theological–the best synonym the early Christians could find to describe when our lives are most like God.

This helps explain why later Christians like John Wesley and others in the holy-living tradition called the entirely sanctified life “perfection in love”—“love filling the heart”–and other similar phrases. Because  God is perfect love (e.g. John 3:16–to all people, at all times, and in all places) we know we are moving farther into Christlikeness as we develop perfection in love.

And so, the ‘Verba Seniorum’ (the sayings of the desert fathers and a few desert mothers, published about 550 a.d.) begins with the section “Progress in Perfection.”  In fact, the word monk (meaning “singular”) is a sign these early Christians knew that the life of love (as expressed in the two great commandments) is “Job One” for every disciple.

A look at the sayings of these first monks shows us that love is the basis for the entirety of our attitudes and actions, and that love is the defining word for the formation of our character (holiness of heart) and the expression of our conduct (holiness of life).  As we make this our all encompassing intention, we have the mind of Christ.

Unfortunately, we use fallen-world filters to read about the centrality of love.  We caricature the life of  biblical love as cheap grace and sloppy agapé, when the fact is, it is the most radical way to live. 

Why? Because it begins with the death of the false self (egotism) which deceives us into thinking that we can rationalize an “I love you, but________” attitude and actually (and correctly) decide whom we will choose to give or withhold love..  Egotism does all it can do to keep us from acknowledging that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  Our pseudo love makes everything hierarchial, and we get to make the list and control it!

But biblical love is horizontal. To be rooted in love means, among many other things, that we always meet and relate to others as God’s beloved children, with ourselves being their brother or sister, and ourselves as their servants for Jesus Christ’s sake (2 Cor 4:5).

When everyone relates to everyone else this way, it creates an amazing fellowship–one in which the early Christians believed that the person standing before them could be the Messiah in disguise.

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In-Sight: Asking Fish About Water

Chances are, if you asked a fish about water, the fish would reply, “What do you mean by water?”  One of the amazing things is that we tend to lose touch with the surroundings we are in all the time.  We become desensitized and become comfortable with familiarity.  Our “is” soon becomes our “right.” We are the last to recognize anything could be wrong with our water.

In that sleepy state, the cries of others seem excessive and startling.  Who are “they” to tell me something is amiss in “my” world?  Prophetic voices are intrusions. 

So, to justify our disregard of them we quickly define their words and actions as disloyalty, writing them off as trouble-makers and upsetters of our sanctified status quo.  We impugn their character and declare them to have once been one of us, but now are gone over the slippery slope to the dark side.

We don’t realize that as we do this, we are saying more about ourselves than we are about those we reject.  We don’t recognize that we have become comfortable in “our” water, and we don’t want anyone calling it into question.  As one popular writer put it some years ago, we do not want anyone to move our cheese.

But that is what reformers do.  Start with the Old Testament prophets, move ahead to Jesus and the first Christians.  Travel with the monastics, touch lepers with Francis and Clare, walk with Catherine of Sienna,  stand with Martin Luther, saddle up with John Wesley, march with Dorothy Day and  Martin.Luther King, Jr., and follow where Thomas Merton and Wilda Gafney would have us go.

Everyone of them keep asking fish to pay attention to the water.  That’s what reformers do.  In the short run, they are villified, shunned, and booted out of the camp.  Like Wesley, they are told they cannot preach inside a church, so they go outside and preach on a tombstone.  And long afterward, most of them are seen to have been women and men sent from God to keep the fish from dying in contaminated ponds.

The fish who pay attention when someone asks them about the water are the ones who survive (Isaiah 43:19).

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Journey: Do We Dare?

Read:  “Making it real”

This week, I read McLaren’s fascinating portrayal of Mary trying, on the one hand, to put her experience of Jesus into words–and doing so in a way that invites her listeners to consider him for themselves.

This is the essence of Christian witnessing–taking The Story and making it our story. When we follow Jesus, people not only see him, they see us. We become identified as his disciples. It is clear that Mary, the mother of our Lord, did this herself. And her decision is an invitation for us to do the same.

The final words of the chapter speak for themselves, so rather than write a meditation based on McLaren’s words, I ask you to meditate on his own words…

“Do we dare to step out and follow Jesus, to make the road by walking, to risk everything on an uprising of peace, an uprising of generosity, an uprising of forgiveness, an uprising of love?  If we believe, we will make it real.”

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For the Bride: Turning the Page

When we turn the last page of the New Testament and move from the biblical era to the early Christian period, the next page in the book of history is not blank.  The first page of the Didache reads thus…

“The path of life is this–first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, thy neighbor as thyself, and all other things that thou wouldst not should be done unto thee, do not thou unto another” (1:2).

In other words, the first thing the early Christians wanted to base their faith on was the very thing Jesus said everything hangs on–the two great commandments–the way of love.  And they made it clear that love is the path of life.

Putting ourselves in the shoes of these early Christians, we remember that they had come to realize the return of Christ was not going to happen as quickly as some had originally thought.  They understood that the faith had to be passed on, but in ways that would not only perpetuate it, but also keep the succeeding Christians ready to receive Jesus whenever he came back.

When they decided how to do this, they chose the way of love–to describe the essence of faith, the path of life, and the disposition of our hearts to be ready for Christ’s return.  We are now twenty centuries beyond the days of The Didache, entering into the twenty-first century, and like all Christians before us, still seeking to live in a way that expresses faith, embodies expectancy, and enables to live in ways that will cause Jesus to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”. 

We have our marching orders, now as then, in the way of love.

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