Love

Patrick Foto/Shutterstock.com

We need something like a mother's love in our churches. Patrick Foto/Shutterstock.com

In my Santa BarbaraCalifornia neighborhood, which we sometimes call “Leave it to Beaver Land” for its seeming serenity and peace, a new practice has become evident: Children no longer walk alone to our neighborhood elementary school. Every morning, a parade of mothers and fathers accompany their children the short distance to school, dogs in tow and cellphones in hand. It looks like the practice of safety, but it’s also the practice of fear. You just never know. It could happen anywhere. It could happen here.

These parents know about something we call “school incidents.” They know the statistics about the number of American children that are shot, stabbed, and killed in our schools each year. Like the rest of us, they know about the big ones, from Columbine to Newtown to Chicago to Pittsburgh, and they know there are so many more stories that never make it to CNN.

The soundtrack for the story of childhood in America reverberates with gunfire and the sobs of stunned classmates and grieving parents. It’s the soundtrack of fear.

Fear is our newest neighbor, even in sunny “Leave it to Beaver Land.”

Tyler Francke 4-11-2014
ArtFamily/Shutterstock.com

I’m seeing that the issue is not doctrine; it’s attitude. It’s not theology; it’s posture. ArtFamily/Shutterstock.com

“You are not only a coward but a non-believer as well.”

It may not quite be at the level of Captain America’s vibranium shield, but my skin is a lot thicker than it used to be. When you start a blog that promotes something as insanely unorthodox as the idea that the author of Genesis 1-3 might have (like most other biblical authors) made use of a metaphor here and there, you come to expect that some fundamentalists are going to call Father Merrin and start reaching for the holy water.

It’s unfortunate — and, often, perplexing — but you learn to get used to it.

Even so, there are times I receive emailed messages like the one quoted above, and it hits like a punch in the gut. I know I should just ignore such trollishness. Usually I can. But not always.

Don’t worry, though. This is not a whiny column about how mean the conservatives are to us open-minded, forward-thinking progressives. Instead, it’s about how messages like this are helping me rethink almost everything I thought I knew about the Christian faith.

Adam Ericksen 4-10-2014
Palms fashioned into a cross, Ricardo Reitmeyer / Shutterstock.com

Palms fashioned into a cross, Ricardo Reitmeyer / Shutterstock.com

Make no mistake: the Gospel is political.

Politics refers to “the affairs of the city” and “influencing other people on a civic or individual level.”

Throughout his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is political. He influences people to live into the Kingdom of Heaven. For Jesus, Heaven is not essentially some place off in the distance where you go after you die. No, Heaven is a way of life to be lived right here, right now. We see this clearly in the prayer he taught his disciples:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey on Palm Sunday, he was performing a political act. But it was a political act unlike any other.

Ben Sutter 4-10-2014

Joshua Jank, creator of the "Red Diamond Days" movement, with his mother, Brenda. Photo courtesy Reddiamonddays.com

At 5 a.m. on a Friday last August, 20-year-old Joshua Jank’s condition was worsening. Nurses at his hospice home in Fort Wayne, Ind. told his mother to gather anyone who wanted to say a last goodbye.

“Josh spiraled downward very quickly,” Brenda Jank told Sojourners. “In less than two weeks he went from being at home without oxygen to being in the hospice house. He just hit it – a perfect storm.”

It was in the midst of that perfect storm that a movement was born.

Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com

Resurrection of Lazarus by A. Badile. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: This post is adapted from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Nixon.

Some of us have stood at a tomb, faced an open grave, scattered the ashes of one beloved. We know what it’s like to be confronted with the stark reality of death and the flood of conflicting emotions that comes with it. I’ve stood at different sites at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho, and the Veteran’s Cemetery next to it, to bury my father, my brother, my nephew, my step-father and-step sister, my brother-in-law, not to mention my beloved piano teacher, and a dear high school friend. Not so long ago I stood by the open grave of Patrice Heath as her casket was lowered into the ground. We prayed and wept and celebrated her life, but it is not an easy thing, under any circumstances, to lay a loved one to rest.  

The ancient story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in John 11:1-45 is just such a situation. It’s also another occasion to encounter Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. It’s a long, complicated story. You have heard it read. I will not attempt to unpack it all.

4-07-2014
Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.
Shane Claiborne 3-14-2014
giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis greets people in St. Peter's Square in the Pope mobile. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

A year ago yesterday — March 13, 2013 — Pope Francis officially became pope. Since then he has fascinated the world. 

He didn’t don the snazzy red shoes and fancy papal attire. He chose a humble apartment rather than the posh papal palace. He washed the feet of women in prison. He touched folks that others did not want to touch, like a man with a disfigured face, making headline news around the world. He has put the margins in the spotlight. He refused to condemn sexual minorities saying, “Who am I to judge?” He has let kids steal the show, allowing one little boy to wander up on stage and stand by him as he preached. 

Tyler Francke 2-25-2014
Love illustration, diplomedia / Shutterstock.com

Love illustration, diplomedia / Shutterstock.com

I hate the phrase, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”

To be clear, I don’t deny that God hates sin, or that it has dire consequences, or that it exists, or that everyone does it, or that it’s the reason Christ had to come to earth and be crucified in the flesh. I affirm these beliefs. They are not the reason I hate “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”

I hate the phrase because I think it’s a totally screwed-up, backwards, un-Christlike, and unbiblical way to approach ministry and the world in general.

It may be a corrupted bastardization of Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum,” a quote from a letter by Augustine of Hippo that can be roughly translated as “With love for mankind and hatred for sin.” I have fewer problems with that construction; unlike its modern-day successor, it does not create a subtle but virtually insurmountable divide between speaker and those spoken of.

Christian Piatt 2-14-2014

I’ve done the Valentine’s Day thing in the past. And with two school-age kids, I still make the annual pilgrimage to the card and candy aisles in the grocery store to buy sufficiently benign greetings for them to hand out to every kid in their class, whether they like them or not.

But my wife, Amy, and I don’t do Valentine’s Day. In fact, we don’t even do Christmas anymore, in the way the culture tells us we should, at least. We’ve stopped buying presents, cards, and other trinkets for each other on these obligatory days, opting instead to surprise each other with gifts or other gestures of affection throughout the year.

One of my biggest objections to Valentine’s Day came from a friend recently who was commenting about the coming date. She was excited, she said, because her husband “always gets me something good.” Nothing about spending time together. Nothing about love for one another. Nothing about doing anything for him. She was excited to get something cool.

I know I’m sounding a little crusty and cynical right now, and if couples choose to observe such days with the exchange of gifts or a night out, I hope they do it joyfully and without any sense of obligation. But the “Hallmark holiday” mentality in our society has swallowed the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to reducing love down to a materialistic, forced transaction.

Yes, Valentine’s Day is about love, but the kind of selfless, dangerous sacrificial love it recognizes is trivialized by lacy cards and chocolates. Though there’s disagreement about which priest the day venerates exactly, the legends stretch back to the Roman rule of Claudius II, some 1,750 years ago.

A 1924 wedding ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Harris & Ewing Collection via Library of Congress. Via RNS

On Valentine’s Day, American husbands and wives of every age, faith, and region will shower their beloveds with symbols of undying affection — flowers, chocolates, moonlit dinners, kisses.

The annual Feb. 14 lovefest is also a popular time for elaborate engagements, with picturesque proposals and pricey jewelry.

But any link between love and matrimony is relatively recent, said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

And a radical one at that.

Omar Sacirbey 2-03-2014

“Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy” book cover courtesy of Beacon Press. Via RNS

Oppressive. Boorish. Misogynist: Those are the popular images of Muslim men and how they treat women.

But there’s more to it than that, thought Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, the editors of Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women.

Many Muslims welcomed the two women’s 2012 collection of 25 stories as an overdue conversation starter. Soon they got flooded with requests for a male version.

They initially dismissed the idea, assuming men wouldn’t want to write so openly about such intimate matters. But as the queries kept coming, the two editors decided a Muslim male version wasn’t that far-fetched, and given the stereotypes of Muslim men, much needed.

Cindy Brandt 1-24-2014

My friends and I have shared time over coffee and spilled all the deep, dark secrets. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Overheard on a Facebook conversation last week: “There is really not much difference between compassion and pity when it comes to being on the receiving end of it.” This thought gave me pause as I consider compassion to be a central tenet of biblical justice, and yet, I experience this to be true. We use the fancy spiritual term of “compassion” when the gist of the sentiment is, indeed, pity. 

The above conversation rose out of a discussion on the viral story of Pope Francis kissing the disfigured man. The media reporting the story highlights the compassion of the Pope, how his actions are pushing outside the box of the papacy, and how revolutionary his love was. Other than a brief medical description of the disfigured man’s disease, there is no additional information on who he is, where he lives, or whether he has a family. We are not even given his name. The buzz generated by this story arises out of an awed respect for someone who could even consider touching such a pitiful, nameless person. I can’t help but wonder how this man feels to have the world captivated by somebody showing love to himself. It seems to me his deformity has been made into a public spectacle.

Stephen Mattson 1-22-2014
Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that do matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I'm sick, and you bring me a meal, I don't care whether you're a Calvinist or Arminian

Joe Kay 1-20-2014
Lighting display, Champiofoto / Shutterstock.com

Lighting display, Champiofoto / Shutterstock.com

Light is important to us. Those of us who live in the Midwest are reminded of how much we need it during this time of year. The sun sets early. On so many days, our sunlight is tinged with gray as it seeps through the clouds.

Light seems to be in short supply.

All of the festive holiday Christmas lights have been put away, leaving the darkness unchecked. We recently had religious celebrations that involved lighting candles on our menorahs, on our advent wreaths and our dinner tables. Many people celebrated the birth of a Jewish rabbi who urges everyone to be a light to the world.

Don’t wait for someone else to bring the light. Be the light.

Elaina Ramsey 1-16-2014

People go to great lengths for those they love, especially when it comes to immigration reform.

Lightspring/Shutterstock

Trauma can be an isolating experience. It's only through relationship that we can be most fully healed. Lightspring/Shutterstock

I wasn’t really expecting painful things to happen to me.

I knew that pain was a part of life, but — thanks in part to a peculiar blend of “God-has-a-plan” Southern roots, a suburban “Midwestern nice” upbringing, and a higher education in New England stoicism — I managed to skate by for quite some time without having to experience it.

After a handful of traumas in the last five years, things look different now. Trauma upends everything we took for granted, including things we didn’t know we took for granted. And many of these realities I wish I’d known when I first encountered them. So, while the work of life and healing continues, here are ten things I’ve learned about trauma along the way.

Jim Rice 1-05-2014

Yousef Bashir: Victim of violence, advocate for nonviolence. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University

"When someone is faced with a gun and chooses to respond with respect and love, that's hope."

Christian Piatt 1-03-2014

Illustration by Ken Davis

Where do our ideas about hell come from?

Photo courtesy of Odyssey Networks

Mourners remember the shooting at Sandy Hook. Photo courtesy of Odyssey Networks

After learning about Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old who died in the Sandy Hook shooting a year ago this Dec. 14th, I’m thinking about scratching out the name Jacob in Psalm 146 and writing in Jesse.

Psalm 146, verse 5 says, “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God.” I’m wondering if scratching out Jacob and writing in Jesse, at least in these upcoming weeks, might be a way of praying to transform anger and resentment into love and forgiveness. 

Jesse was a pretty amazing six-year old who loved adventures, mud, a golden yellow bear, and his big brother. His mom says he was “full of courage and strength,” so much so, that in the midst of the unfolding tragedy Jesse stood still and told his classmates to “Run!” In so doing, he lost his life. 

Scarlett Lewis, Jesse’s mom, returned home after the unthinkable tragedy only to find something wonderful Jesse had scratched onto the kitchen chalkboard: "Norturing, helin, love."  His mom knew immediately these were Jesse’s last words to her: Nurturing, healing, love. In her book, Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness, Scarlett tells the story of her journey to forgiveness and hope as a legacy beyond anger and resentment. She begins, of course, with Jesse’s story.

Joe Kay 12-09-2013
Mary Jane Cannon/Shutterstock

Mary Jane Cannon/Shutterstock

The Beatles first performed “All You Need Is Love” in 1967 as part of an “Our World” global television link, the first of its kind. The song was perfect for the occasion and became a hit. It’s got a catchy lyric and the chorus makes for an interesting debate even today.

Is it true that all we really need is love?

Many of us don’t feel that way. Many of us have a lot of other things filling our lists of what we need and value the most: self-sufficiency, independence, money, privilege, career advancement, our country, our family, our religion.

Many religions don’t see it that way, either. They dote on theological constructs and codes of conduct for their followers. They devise lists of who’s in God’s favor and who is not. Their do-and-don’t lists rarely say much about love and its ramifications.

They love rules instead.

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