For MLK Day: ‘When you rise to the level of love …’

‘So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: that within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God”, you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system’.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Loving Your Enemies’, in A Knock at Midnight. [A version of this sermon was also published in The Journal of Religious Thought 27, no. 2 (1970), 31–41.]

On being loved

thomas-merton-right-poses-with-writer-wendell-berry-left-and-the-poet-denise-levertov

‘If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility. But sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty but also in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and His unselfishness.

Both the poverty and the nobility of our inmost being consists in the fact that it is a capacity for love. It can be loved by God, and when it is loved by Him, it can respond to His love by imitation—it can turn to Him with gratitude and adoration and sorrow; it can turn to its neighbor with compassion and mercy and generosity.

The first step in this sincerity is the recognition that although we are worth little or nothing in ourselves, we are potentially worth very much, because we can hope to be loved by God. He does not love us because we are good, but we become good when and because He loves us. If we receive this love in all simplicity, the sincerity of our love for others will more or less take care of itself. Centered entirely upon the immense liberality that we experience in God’s love for us, we will never fear that His love could fail us. Strong in the confidence that we are loved by Him, we will not worry too much about the uncertainty of being loved by other men. I do not mean that we will be indifferent to their love for us: since we wish them to love in us the God Who loves them in us. But we will have to be anxious about their love, which in any case we do not expect to see too clearly in this life’.

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

[Image: Thomas Merton, right, poses with writer Wendell Berry, left and the poet Denise Levertov. Photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Institute 193 Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard. Source.]

Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

ismail-al-rifai-motherA sermon preached at Box Hill Baptist Church, 13 November 2016
Text: 1 Kings 17.8–24

It is not for the first time, but what a dark world we have entered – a world where hate and xenophobia and misogyny and the rape of natural resources is given free reign; a world poisoned by self-interest, and where contempt for the rule of law grows louder. It is not for the first time, but we are living in a world where what is being violently compromised is any sense that if we are to flourish and not flounder as human community then we simply must find ways to befriend the stranger and to celebrate the dignity of our differences. This world has a name: fear.

Little wonder then that not a few parents are writing letters to their children apologising for our inability to protect them from the growing horrors, and to renew their own daring determination to fight the powers of death wherever such rear their heads in the desperate hope that while the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, it does finally bend towards justice. Such letters, it seems to me, are a profound act of desperation born of faith and, more importantly, of love. It also seems to me that those who stand on the side of life will need to get used to writing such letters, and will need to ask again and again ‘How then shall we live?’

So we gather to hear the living Word of God. Our text today is part of a pattern of the presentation of very many lives of mostly unnamed women in the Bible who are contending with forces that threaten life and trade in death. From the Hebrew mid-wives back in the days when Israel was enslaved to the foreign powers of Egypt and their resistance to Pharaoh’s call to slaughter their own children; to the tragic story of a young woman in Judges 11 who was victimized by the stupidity of her father Jephthah against whose violence she had to carve out for herself a space where she could affirm her dignity in the face of impending and unnecessary death; to Naomi and Ruth, two widows threatened by famine and who became vulnerable migrants who find a way, against all the odds, to preserve life and to endure; to a pregnant teenager desperate to find a safe place to give birth to a child whose name was given by angels but whose arrival was greeted with a mixture of unbridled joy, confusion, and as a threat to the ruling powers. The women in the Bible find themselves ensnared in a hostile world that is stalked by death and in which they are called to preserve life.[1]

This story from the Book of First Kings about a widow and her encounter with the prophet Elijah is not an altogether unplayed track. She is, it seems, a religious person, but her God goes by a different name than does Elijah’s. And she is living in Zarephath in Sidon, deep enemy terror for Elijah because it is the home of Jezebel and the land of Baal. This means that she represents something of a risk to this unkempt stranger, this ‘man of God’ (as she calls him) from the wilderness. Her vulnerability too speaks of risk, a risk that the word of God presents to those who confront it. Will he harm her? Will she tame him?

This unnamed woman who has already survived the death of a spouse is now grasping for hope in a time of literal and of emotional drought. In the economies of the ancient world, people like her had few choices – to carry the shame of returning to their parent’s house, or to become a beggar, or to find employment in the oldest profession in the world – whatever made survival a possibility.

And there is a child involved as well, a fatherless son. They are, together, Bible shorthand for the most vulnerable and at risk members of the human family. And there is a famine in the land. Certainly this woman and her son are up against it, their lives profoundly threatened in a world and a system that seems to conspire against them. For them there is no social security, no hardship funds that they can tap into, and no food.

Their lives are caught up in a conflict between the powers and the gods around them to which their lives mean nothing. That’s why there’s a drought – because Baal and his promoter Ahab, and Yahweh and his promoter Elijah, are embroiled in an arm wrestle over who’s god can control the weather. It is all very well for the gods to try and out-manoeuvre and out-muscle one another, but caught up in the conflict, implicated in the struggle, is this widow and her son, helpless victims of divine warfare. And as with previous stories of widows at risk there is a scene of great poignancy at the heart of the narrative, as in this case our nameless mother is pictured gathering sticks in order to make a fire to prepare a last meal after which she and her thin and listless son will lie down and die.[2]

What an image this story offers us for our world today – a vision of a reality in which life itself is at the mercy of social and political and economic and natural and spiritual forces and powers that threaten us and threaten a kind of death of creation itself. Here is an image of a world that makes victims of us all, and a world that mocks our grand pretensions while tempting us to look to our own idols of technological sophistication and to the allure of a neo-capitalist machinery for liberation.

Up against this tide of death and seemingly-unbridled violence, it is just so hard, isn’t it, to keep believing in life; indeed, to keep believing in anything at all. It seems impossible, or worse, to imagine a way out, a way that ends with anything other than the experience recorded here in vv. 17­–18, with the pitiful death of this widow and her son, and with the brute accusation that this prophet of God, this religious nutter, had in fact been complicit in the death of this boy.

Thank God that there is another word here; that there breaks into this pathetic scenario four words – four crucial words that reverberate throughout Scripture, four words that promise another possibility, another ending, another future; albeit one almost impossible to imagine from what we know of the history behind us and from what we can see now on the horizons in front of us. But let us be as fools and risk hearing them anyway, these words recorded in verse 13: ‘Do … not … be … afraid’. ‘Do not be afraid’, says Elijah. Just as Isaiah spoke to exiles languishing hopeless and helpless before the mighty powers of Babylon, so too does Elijah dare to speak such insanity to those diminishing under despair and the abuse of power. ‘Do not be afraid!’ – the same words echoed many years later by an angel to a teenage girl about to relinquish all control over her life in giving birth to a son.

‘Do not be afraid!’ – words spoken in the sure knowledge that there are indeed forces at work in the world that leave us helpless and impotent, and that would destroy us. And these words are also spoken out of the promise that there is an incommensurable power at work in the world, a power that works not against us but for us, a power that leads us not into destruction but into well-being and into the flourishing of life in all its infinite forms. There is indeed some good in this world, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us; and it’s worth fighting for. It is the power of grace – grace that produces flour that does not give out, and oil that does not fail; grace that speaks life – strange and unexpected – in defiance of death.

Here is this widow on the brink of starvation with her last drops of water and her last handful of flour and her last dribbles of oil and Elijah asks her to give the first portion of it all to him, and she does. Why? Why the hell would someone do that? Such a selfless, generous act makes no sense at all. It’s a pattern played out again today in so many parts of our world, where the poorest among us – the Lebanese, for example, who have taken in over a million people from Syria, and the Turks who have welcomed 2.7 million Syrian refugees – extend hospitality while many of the richest and most powerful among us shut the door to the other – to those like the Syrian man Rabia and his family who were kidnapped and tortured by their own government, and then threatened by and forced to run and hide from various other terrorist organisations, and who had their business ransacked by gunmen, and who have been waiting and hiding in Lebanon for over two years after applying for an Australian refugee visa because our elected government told them that ‘If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door’.[3]

There are certainly no easy or painless answers here. The Lebanese, for their part, have certainly not forgotten the 29 years, between 1976–2005, when they lived and died under Syrian occupation. Here too the life-giving power of grace enters the world in ways that appear foolish and counter-productive and that require irrational amounts of trust.

The Bible has another word for all of this; it’s the word ‘love’ – love which perseveres, which believes all things, which hopes all things, which presses on in faith and hope towards the healing of all things, which looks up towards the horizon for the coming of the untameable promise of God.

The friends of Jesus see themselves in this widow, for like her we are called to lean into the counter-intuitive, apparently counter-productive and foolish ways of love. The friends of Jesus are summoned, like this widow, to demonstrate that love works its way into the world by strange but determined means. The friends of Jesus are called to witness to the world that violence will not defeat violence, that killing is not the way to overcome the forces that threaten life. The friends of Jesus are baptised to be peace-makers in ways that will never make sense to a world dominated by powers committed to work in other ways. The friends of Jesus are those who, in hope that what is promised is really coming, exemplify forgiveness, and reconciliation, and patience, and cheek turning; they model a pattern of life that in the amphitheatre of death appears as futile as a starving widow giving her last scraps to a foreigner. And the friends of Jesus are also a bit like Elijah as well – wild and untamed by circumstances, and committed to living a life that would make no sense where it not for the word of God itself. And when accused of bringing about the death of innocence, rather than defend themselves they do all that they can to try to find ways of bearing that death themselves, crying out to God, and then, as we read in v. 21, stretching themselves out upon the body of death, taking some responsibility for it, and waiting for the impossible – for life to emerge from the ruins. I am here reminded of words from the poet Arnold Kenneth:

The fuse as long as love, the burst a birth,
A second world after the blackout’s done:
And out of my debris you timber heights,
And into my despair you hammer grace.[4]

This was the kind of courageous vision that spurred the work of the great American priest, anti-war activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan who died earlier this year. It was his conviction that

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.[5]

In her time of drought, a widow holding her lifeless son opened her life to an unwanted stranger. In doing so, she may well have discovered that where she was, was where God is found: in prolonged absence, and – inescapably – amidst the stench of death, broken and abandoned on the cross – not for God’s self but for God’s enemies. The cross is where God goes in order to enter into the madness, and pain, and shame, and confusion, and fear, and darkness, and hypocrisy, and terror … and every hell of the world. ‘Where we are and who we are is the furnace where the Son of God walks’.[6] And because the cross is not an event locked in the past but is the eternal present of God in the world, perhaps the faithful Creator has not abandoned this world after all, but is here – hidden in impossible possibilities, and with the determination to not leave creation orphaned. If this is indeed so, perhaps there could be nothing more important to do today than to go out and plant a tree. Amen.

–––––

[1] Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to some reflections on this passage from Lance Stone’s sermon ‘The Power of Grace’, preached at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge, 11 November 2012.

[2] ‘Caught between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine, she reacts with an oath and fatalistic resignation’. Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987), 110.

[3] See Josh Butler, ‘Syrian Refugee Family Waits 27 Months For Australian Visa’.

[4] Arnold Kenseth, The Holy Merriment (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 61.

[5] Daniel Berrigan, Love, Love at the End: Parables, Prayers, and Meditations (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 76.

[6] Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Lion Books, 2003), 98.

[Image: Ismail al-Rifai, ‘Mother’]

That love which ‘shifts the boundaries of our being’

old couple

Nothing can explain this adventure – let’s say a quirk
of fortune steered us together – we made our covenants,
began this odyssey of ours, by hunch and guesswork,
a blind date where foolish love consented in advance.
No my beloved, neither knew what lay behind the frontiers.
You told me once you hesitated: A needle can waver,
then fix on its pole; I am still after many years
baffled that the needle’s gift dipped in my favour.
Should I dare to be so lucky? Is this a dream?
Suddenly in the commonplace that first amazement seizes
me all over again – a freak twist to the theme,
subtle jazz of the new familiar, trip of surprises.
Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing,
this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being.

– Micheal O’Siadhail, ‘Out of the Blue’, in Poems 1975–1995: Hail! Madam Jazz and A Fragile City (Bloodaxe: Newcastle upon Tyne, 1999), 124.

Do you love me?

Stanley Hauerwas is always worth listening to. Here he is preaching on Jesus’ words, ‘Do you believe in love me?’, at the recent closing convocation at Duke Divinity School:

Following Jesus means learning to say both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

yes noOver the years, I’ve learnt to be grateful – really grateful – for anyone who helps me to take more seriously what it means to follow Jesus. And part of what I’ve learnt – and need to keep learning – is that to follow Jesus means not only learning to say ‘Yes’ but also learning to say ‘No’; not only learning to say ‘I love’ but also learning to say, with equal discipline, ‘I hate’. Yes, I agree, ‘hate’ is a word that ought be used sparingly. And yes, I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right to insist that only love can drive out hate, and that Frederick Buechner is spot on to observe that pure ‘haters simply lose themselves’. But ‘hate’ is not, for these reasons, a word that ought to be completely outlawed or which is out of place in faithful and loving speech. In fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. So, for example, it’s because I love my partner that I hate all that threatens to diminish our relationship. It’s because God loves marriage that God hates divorce (Mal 2.16; and, yes, I know that there are alternative renderings of this verse).

But back to ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. The Barmen Confession, more explicitly than perhaps any other Reformed confession, reminds us that genuine confession of faith is always both an affirmation of truth and a denial of untruth. Elsewhere, Barmen’s chief author put it thus: ‘If the Yes does not in some way contain the No, it will not be the Yes of a confession … If we have not the confidence to say damnamus [what we refuse], then we might as well omit the credimus [what we believe]’ (CD I/2, 631, 630). Of course, that there is a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ to be said (and acted upon) doesn’t rusticate the ‘Maybes’. But that there are not only Maybes means that to be a response-able human being is to live other than on a fence. Luther’s famous ‘Here I stand’ speech comes to mind here, as does Kierkegaard’s Abraham. And so, for example, it’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to the Father whose face is made available to me in Jesus Christ that I must say ‘No’ to those church liturgies which replace/mimic the triune name with a set of functions. (Isn’t it a no brainer? God has a name. God went to a lot of trouble to tell us that name. So use it!) It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to Christ that I must say ‘No’ to Caesar. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to the ploughshare that I must say ‘No’ to the sword. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to life that I must say ‘No’ to life’s enemies. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to personhood that I must say ‘No’ to individualism. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to prayer that I must say ‘No’ to distraction. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to faithful tellings of the gospel that I must say ‘No’ to the way that the likes of John Piper and Mark Driscoll sometimes spout theological bullshit in the name of Christian truth (and ‘No’ to the way that so-called Christian publishers profit from their verbiage).

So back to ‘Hate’. While those who live in – and so are formed by – Facebookland are dis-encouraged to feel so strongly about anything that they should ‘hate’ it, or even ‘dislike’ it, human beings are not called to live lives constituted by Mark Zuckerberg but by the event of God’s decision to be human among us, an event that calls everything into question. Some of those questions will be met by a ‘Yes’ and others by a ‘No’, some by a ‘Love’ and others by a ‘Hate’. And I was reminded of this recently when watching this wee clip of Uncle Stanley (who is one of those who has helped me to take more seriously what it means to follow Jesus) talking about the things that he hates.

Reading Gillian Rose

There is something healing about happening across a volume so intimate, so heteroclite, so linguistically unwasteful and conceptually unselfish, and so intelligently mature – both philosophically and emotionally – that you feel not only that you are reading the world’s only available copy but also safe enough to weep in the author’s presence, to dwell in the broken middle, and then to emerge hopeful of being a better lover. It is, ironically, probably not the kind of book you would ever loan to anyone else, but you simply know that you will spend your remaining days both promoting and betraying its gift. Gillian Rose’s memoir, Love’s Work, is everything like that. Here’s a few lines on the book’s main theme – love:

‘However satisfying writing is – that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control – it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving. Of there being someone who loves and desires you, and he glories in his love and desire, and you glory in his every-strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears, again and again, surprising you with difficulties and with bounty. To those this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. There can only be that twin passion – the passion of faith.

The more innocent I sound, the more enraged and invested I am.

In personal life, people have absolute power over each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.

Love is the submission of power …

To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.

Exceptional, edgeless love effaces the risk of relation: that mix of exposure and reserve, of revelation and reticence. It commands the complete unveiling of the eyes, the transparency of the body. It denies that there is no love without power; that we are at the mercy of others and that we have others in our mercy. Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon’.

– Gillian Rose, Love’s Work (London: Chatto & Windus, 1995), 54–55, 98–99.

Hauerwas on Mother’s Day, and other idols

I’m not sure when Mother’s Day became part of the Church’s calendar (I obviously missed the memo on that one), but Stanley Hauerwas, who is always such fun to read, and whose latest collection of provocative and stimulating sermons and essays, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, reminds us why we ought to lament the fact that so many did get the memo.

He once addressed a group of young people with these words:

I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not at all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example:

—How many of you worship in a church with an American flag?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1st as the “New Year”?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many of you worship in a church that recognizes “Mother’s Day”?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

I am not making these claims because I want to shock you. I do not want you to leave the Youth Academy thinking that you have heard some really strange ideas here that have made you think. It is appropri­ate that you might believe you are here to make you think, because you have been told that is what universities are supposed to do—that is, to make you think. In other words, universities are places where you are educated to make up your own mind. That is not what I am trying to do. Indeed I do not think most of you have minds worth making up. You need to be trained before you can begin thinking. So I have not made the claims above to shock you, but rather to put you in a position to discover how odd being a Christian makes you.

One of the great difficulties with being a Christian in a country like America—allegedly a Christian country—is that our familiarity with “Christianity” has made it difficult for us to read or hear Scripture. For example, consider how “Mother’s Day” makes it hard to compre­hend the plain sense of some of the stories of Jesus. In Mark 3:31–35 we find Jesus surrounded by a crowd. His mother and brothers were having trouble getting through the crowd to be with Jesus. Somebody in the crowd tells him that his mom cannot get through the mass of people to be near him. Which elicits from Jesus the rhetorical question “Who are my mother and brothers?” which he answered, noting, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Even more forcefully Jesus says in Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” When you celebrate “Mother’s Day,” the only thing to do with texts like these is “explain them,” which usually means Jesus could not have meant what he plainly says.

Of course, the presumption that Christianity is a family-friendly faith is a small-change perversion of the gospel when compared to the use of faith in God to underwrite American pretensions that we are a Christian nation possessing righteousness other nations lack.

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011), 116–7.

And while I’m drawing attention to brother Stanley’s latest publication, let me quote another passage, this time his wonderful wedding sermon opener. The target? The sentimentalisation of love:

Christians are required to love one another—even if they are married. That may be a cruel and even heartless demand, but it is nonetheless the way things are if you are a Christian. From Paul’s perspective marriage is not necessarily the context that determines the character of love or our ability to love and be loved by another. Rather, Paul seems to think we need to learn to be loved by God and so to love God, and then pos­sibly ourselves, and if we have gotten that far we may even discover we can love our neighbor, who may be our enemy, which often turns out to be the necessary condition for those who are married to love one another. (p. 139)

Why should we love our enemies?

Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is pretty obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies” [Matt. 5:44], he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation’. – Martin Luther King Jnr, Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 53.

‘Love Is the True Pain’, by Geoffrey Bingham

Love is the true pain: true pain is the love
That lives not for itself, but for the love
Which has come to it. In God is pain.
God’s pain is not the anguish that destroys
The searing harshness that comes to Him
From the rebel spirit of Man
And celestials become demonic,
Leaving their first estate.
It is not the pain of jealousy
Made bitter by holy lips that press
Or teeth divine that bite
On acrid aloes of Man’s sin.
It is not the irrational anger
Against gods destroying the beauty
Of the original Man.
This is not pain divine,
But pain Man reads upwards from himself
Into the Eternal Love—Himself Who’s love,
As Love Himself.

Love is the true pain that searches out
The beleaguered spirit of lost Man,
That reaches out to where sin has confused,
Where will in its acrid anger—
Misplaced against the Deity—
Burns in its own acidic rage
Baffling its inward search and outward reaching
To what is the image in itself
Of the Divine Real—the true God,
The Being that is love Himself
Who in His heart implores all day
And into the reaches of eternal night
That Man return to Him, come home
To the Divine love that gives itself
On the timbers twisted by Man’s hate
Into Cross shape and Cross rages,
And Cross rejection.

On the Cross is the true pain, yet it began
Before even the creation of the
Purposed peerless Man, and the utter glory
Of the commanded creation. It always was
Without beginning, as it always is
Without cessation. Futurity
Is love come to the now-time,
And love taking what it loves
To the eternal time of love.
Love is the pain that kills
Forever all pain that brings to birth anew
That which had died to love—the spirit loved,
Breathed into Man until he glowed
As the living image, destined to become
The palpable glory of the Living God
From time into all eternity.

Was it that Man saw in the Reality—
In the One Whom he imaged—
The impossibility of no-pain,
The essential nature of the essential love
That must inevitably—though of free choice—
Reveal the mystery of its Being
In the timbered Cross, in the love-pain
That redeems the created beloved? Did Man
Know the full Nature when the serpent moved
To beguile the woman and entice through her
The knowledgeable man who chose
The path that would never know pain?
Was it rejection of love that is pain
Until that love brings through to no-pain
What it has created? If this be so
Then deception was deceived.

Love is a mystery—love that has pain—
And pain is a sad sorrow where love is refused,
When sharing in the divine Nature is rejected,
When Man seeks to kill pain out of his own sources
And turn the earth to manufactured anodynes
And tranquillising measures. Man fears pain,
But—deeper—fears the love that loves
Man in his pain, his deep distress self-wrought
And making spirit all awry in the matchless beauty
Of the granted gift—the joyous creation.

Faith leaves it there, even when the brain
Ponders the great imponderable;
Ruminates in the cud of the mind
The mystery that veils itself until it’s seen
On Calvary’s peerless hill. Here the true anger
Burns against evil, is a high furnace
That dissolves the dross: is a raging wrath
That knows love’s hate against the dread evil
Of the love-rejecters—both celestial and mundane—
Until all evil’s judged; until the pain
That wracks Man’s spirit is forever gone,
Banished into no-being and no-pain.
This is the love that is the true pain.

We then, who love, dare not escape—
Nor would we—from the heart of love.
This only moves us to the perpetual giving,
The never asking in return. Rageless we range
The hurts and haunts of men with the Divine balm
That brings its healing salve
To the lost and helpless spirits
He once encapsulated within his heart
That suffered the eternal pain
In the infinite compassing within the finite time,
All that was human lostness, human death
And human unknowing of the love that’s pain.

– Geoffrey C. Bingham, ‘Love Is the true pain’, in All Things of the Spirit (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1997), 106–08.

‘Joy is the serious business of Heaven’

This morning I was at St Margaret’s in Frankton (part of the Wakatipu Community parish) where I met some wonderful folk, resisted going fishing, and preached on Luke 15:1–10. The sermon was partly inspired by these words on joy by CS Lewis, and those of Karl Barth on the miracle of the love of God:

‘I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?: No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’. – CS Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Collins, 1977), 94–5.

‘God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness. In His revelation it seeks and creates fellowship where there is no fellowship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … This does not mean that we can call the love of God a blind love. But what He sees when He loves is that which is altogether distinct from Himself, and as such lost in itself, and without Him abandoned to death. That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 278.

Here’s how I concluded:

If these two parables teach us anything at all about repentance, it is that the whole of our life is ‘finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other’ [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 39]. The Gospel is the announcement that God finds us not in the garden of improvement but in the desert of death. It’s precisely from death that we are brought home. And these parables are about coming home. They speak to us about the nature of lostness, and about the necessity of experiencing lostness if we are to experience homecoming. ‘Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home’ [Marilynne Robinson, Home, 102]. So they teach us something about the nature of God.

They also give us a hint … of what history is about: that history is the time that God creates in order to find and to restore the lost. And, finally, these parables give us a hint about how that time will end, offering us every hope to believe that our stories do not end at the grave. Even hell is no obstacle, for this is a God who, in Jesus Christ, comes not only into the far country in search of us, but who also descends into the very depths of hell in order to carry us home. This is the God of relentless grace – the Hound of Heaven – and it is he and not death or any human decision who will decide how history ends. This is what it means to call God the judge of the living and the dead. Like the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 who searches for the lost and rescues them from all the places where they are scattered, Jesus’ work is not done until all come home. He keeps seeking the lost, even in the grave. He seeks those who have refused his love. He seeks those who have abandoned his love. He seeks those who have never known of his love. He seeks those for whom life has ended prematurely. In Christ, there is no such thing as empty time, or ‘dead’ time, for all time is filled with Christ’s lordship over the living and the dead, and filled with experience of the Spirit who is the giver of life …

And here in Luke 15 we are given a picture of the nature of God, an insight into the purpose of history, and, I believe, a glimpse of how history ends, of how your life ends and my life ends – of how the lives of those we love and of those who have made life hell for us, will end – with celebration, with a banquet, with the extravagant joy with which God welcomes the found and eats with them, … with homecoming.

A love which overflows from fullness

The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins) is a fascinating collection of essays from a theologically and ecumenically diverse group of scholars, including  NT Wright, Gordon Fee, Jean-Noël Aletti, Sarah Coakley, Stephen T. Davis, David Brown, and others. It also includes a piece by C. Stephen Evans in which he defends a brand of kenoticism, convinced (rightly in my view) that some form of kenotic christology does most justice to the NT’s accounts of Jesus and that it is possible to provide an account of kenoticism that does not in any way abrogate the claims of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. This is precisely what Evans sets out to do in this essay.

In conversation with Stephen Davis, Ronald Feenstra and Richard Swinburne (why does he go there?), Evans proposes that God’s gracious decision to enflesh – because it is a decision fully laden with soteriological intent – is necessarily best understood as a decision to assume certain limitations. This is the shape of love. Along the way, Evans cites this beautiful passage from W.H. Vanstone, among whose many further contributions, as Jim Gordon reminded us some years back, was to ‘sell the vicarage furniture to pay for the repair of the church roof!’ (Paul Fromont also posted some good stuff from Vanstone some time back). Anyway, enough waffle, here’s the quote:

‘Trinitarian theology asserts that God’s love for his creation is not the love that is born of ‘emptiness’ … It is the love which overflows from fullness. Its analogue is the love of a family who, united in mutual love, take an orphan into the home. They do so not out of need but in the pure spontaneity of their own triumphant love. Nevertheless, in the weeks that follow, the family, once complete in itself, comes to need the newcomer. Without him the circle is now incomplete; his absence now causes anxiety: his waywardness brings concern; his goodness and happiness are necessary to those who have come to love him; upon his response depends the triumph or the tragedy of the family’s love … Love has surrendered its triumphant self-sufficiency and created its own need. This is the supreme illustration of love’s self-giving or self-emptying – that it should surrender its fullness and create in itself the emptiness of need. Of such a nature is the Kenosis of God – the self-emptying of Him Who is already in every way fulfilled’. – William Hubert Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1977), 69.

Some more weekly wanderings

And here he is with Jan Garbarek & Manu Katche:

Frederick Buechner on hate and love

love hateApologies to those who may be getting tired of the Buechner citations (you can blame Jim for planting this seed), but I’m finding his writing alluring. Here he is on hate and love:

‘Hate is as all-absorbing as love, as irrational, and in its own way as satisfying. As lovers thrive on the presence of the beloved, haters revel in encounters with the one they hate. They confirm him in all his darkest suspicions. They add fuel to all his most burning animosities. The anticipation of them makes the hating heart pound. The memory of them can be as sweet as young love. The major difference between hating and loving is perhaps that whereas to love somebody is to be fulfilled and enriched by the experience, to hate somebody is to be diminished and drained by it. Lovers, by losing themselves in their loving, find themselves, become themselves. Haters simply lose themselves. Theirs is the ultimately consuming passion’. – Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 57.

Slavoj Žižek on the nature and locus of love

Hauerwas on sex, marriage, politics and love

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

‘The dominant assumption has been that the evaluation of different kinds of sexual expressions should center on whether they are or are not expressive of love. On the contrary, the ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community. I am not denying that sex obviously has to do with interpersonal matters, but I am asserting that we do not even know what we need to say about the personal level until we have some sense of the political context necessary for the ordering of sexual activity. Indeed, one of the main difficulties with the assumption that thc ethics of sex can be determined on the basis of interpersonal criteria is the failure to see how that assumption itself reflects a political option. To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter. The hold this political theory has on us is illustrated by how readily we also accept the assumption that the private nature of sexuality does not involve issues of political theory …

‘We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful …

The requirement of love in marriage is not correlative to the intrinsic nature of marriage but is based on the admonition for Christians to love one another. We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian. We may, however, learn what such love is like within the context of marriage. For the Christian tradition claims that marriage helps to support an inclusive community of love by grounding it in a pattern of faithfulness toward another. The love that is required in marriage functions politically by defining the nature of Christian social order, and as children arrive they are trained in that order.

Moreover, Christians should see that the family cannot, contrary to [Bertrand] Russell’s claim, exist as an end in itself nor by itself provide a sufficient check against pretentious rationalism. Such an assumption is but a continuation of the liberal perversion of the family and only makes the family and marriage more personally destructive. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families which demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form and limit the status of the family. If the family does stand as a necessary check on the state, as Russell and I both think it should, it does so because it first has a place in an institution that also stands against the state – the church …

‘ … the ambivalence of the church toward marriage is grounded in the eschatological convictions which freed some from the necessity of marriage – i.e., singleness becomes a genuine option for service to the community. This is a dangerous doctrine indeed, for it is a strange community which would risk giving singleness an equal status with marriage. But that is what the church did, and as a result marriage was made a vocation rather than a natural necessity. But as a vocation, marriage can be sustained only so long as it is clear what purposes it serves in the community which created it in the first place. With the loss of such a community sanction, we are left with the bare assumption that marriage is a voluntary institution motivated by the need for interpersonal intimacy …

‘Many want to treat sex as just another form of communication – like shaking hands. I suppose in response to such a suggestion one can at least point out that sex is often more fun than shaking hands. However, the reason that we seem to assume that sex should be reserved for “special relations” is not that sex itself is special, but that the nature of sex serves the ends of intimacy. But intimacy is indeed a tricky matter to sustain, and that may be the reason why many have argued that marriage is necessary to provide the perduring framework to sustain intimacy.

Moreover, once the political function of marriage is understood to be central for the meaning and institution of marriage, we have a better idea of what kinds of people we ought to be to deal with marriage. Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the “right person.” Even if you have married the “right person,” there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called “happy marriages” are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve “love” by preventing either from changing.

This law is meant not only to challenge current romantic assumptions but to point out that marriage is a more basic reality than the interpersonal relations which may or may not characterize a particular marriage. Indeed, the demand that those in a marriage love one another requires that marriage have a basis other than the love itself. For it is only on such a basis that we can have any idea of how we should love’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and “Human Sexuality”‘.

Barth on love

Rembrandt, 'The Jewish Bride'. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt, 'The Jewish Bride'. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

‘Love does not question; it gives an answer. Love does not think; it knows. Love does not hesitate; it acts. Love does not fall into raptures; it is ready to undertake responsibilities. Love puts behind it all the Ifs and Buts, all the conditions, reservations, obscurities and uncertainties that may arise between a man and a woman. Love is not only affinity and attraction; it is union. Love makes these two persons indispensable to each other. Love compels them to be with each other’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (trans. A.T. Mackay, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 221.

What love has in view …

george-macdonald-by-william-jeffrey-c1852e2809360

 

 

‘For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object’. – George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II and III (Whitefish: Kessinger, 2004), 10.

Eugene Peterson on believing without loving

Thoroughly enjoying Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places of late, and spent some time yesterday reflecting on this passage – on its ramifications for nations, for local communities, and for me.

‘No matter how right we are in what we believe about God, no matter how accurately we phrase our belief or how magnificently and persuasively we preach or write or declare it, if love does not shape the way we speak and act, we falsify the creed, we confess a lie. Believing without loving is what gives religion a bad name. Believing without loving destroys lives. Believing without loving turns the best of creeds into a weapon of oppression. A community that believes but does not love or marginalizes love, regardless of its belief system or doctrinal orthodoxy or “vision statement,” soon, very soon, becomes a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9)’. – Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), 261.

Advent Reflection 12: Not an ethereal figure

‘So deeply is this need [for love] rooted in human nature, and so essentially does it belong to being human, that even he who was one with the Father and in the communion of love with the Father and the Spirit, he who loved the whole human race, our Lord Jesus Christ, even he humanly felt this need to love and be loved by an individual human being. He is indeed the God-man and thus eternally different from every human being, but still he was also a true human being, tested in everything human. On the other hand, the fact that he experienced this is the very expression of its belonging essentially to a human being. He was an actual human being and therefore can participate in everything human. He was not an ethereal figure that beckoned in the clouds without understanding or wanting to understand what humanly befalls a human being. Ah, no, he could have compassion on the crowd that lacked food, and purely humanly, he who himself had hungered in the desert. In the same way he could also sympathize with people in this need to love and to be loved, sympathize purely humanly’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; vol. 16; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 155.