June 21, 2020
I’m not sure this gospel passage does a great job of really encouraging a love for God. As I read it, it sounds like something of a threat, and I don’t see how anyone has ever succeeded in gaining love by offering a punishment if it doesn’t happen. Maybe you’ll get fear, or maybe compliance, but not a heartfelt love.
On Wednesday night our “Midweek Boost” had us consider the question, “Is your God lovable?” Richard Rohr again was our speaker and he talked about the Christian notion of “Original Sin,” suggesting that it’s been understood in some pretty unhelpful ways by the dominant traditions of our faith. It caused Luther to describe humanity as “manure,” and Calvin to insist that our nature is, “utterly devoid of goodness,” and “prolific in all kinds of evil.” Rohr’s concern with these suggestions is that if this is our starting point with God it can be hard to get to the point of ever really liking or loving God. If we begin with our guilt and our badness we’re likely to think of God as the One whose expectations we never fully meet, the One who is perpetually disappointed in us, never actually liking us, and only ever begrudgingly loving us. He suggests that Original Sin was a 4th century innovation and prefers a notion of “Original Blessing,” rooted in God’s repeated proclamation in Genesis 1 that God created “and it was good.”
My thought about Original Sin is that it refers to something essential about us – that original to our make-up is an incompleteness apart from God. In our design is a core contingency upon the love of God to make us who we are. I think of the book, “The Shack.” God and Mack, the main character, are admiring the beauty of a bird. Noting the ease of its flight, God says, “That bird is meant for flying.” Then God says, “You, Mack, are meant to be loved.”
The Adam and Eve story (the Biblical source for Original Sin), as I see it, is really more descriptive than prescriptive. It shows how we behave, not how we must behave because of our nature, but how we do behave because of our brokenness. It shows how we seek to be our own god, how we listen to others who would do the same, and how we suffer isolation and discord for it.
So, where we start matters; our core assumptions about God make all the difference. Here are mine: God exists in a state of perpetual fulfillment and dynamic love. God doesn’t need creation (and therefore, us) in order to be happy. Yet, out of a gracious desire to share the “goodness” of God’s self, God creates and calls us into being. God offers us God’s self, yet we find ways to avoid God. So, God comes to us in Christ and though we reject that gift too and put him on a cross, God remains tenaciously self-giving and Christ rises from the dead in order to return to us. And then, of course, in the absence of Christ’s person we are given God’s Spirit as an expansion of God’s generosity.
In other words, the basic outline of the gospel story is the best starting point we have, and when we start here we see the opposite of a disappointed and begrudging God, but rather one of determined, insistent, and extravagant love. It’s from that lens that we are invited to read scripture, read our lives, and look upon the world.
With apologies to the folks who attended Wednesday’s “Boost” and already heard this story, I would like to share the testimony that’s part of the study guide that accompanies our videos. Actually, it’s the testimony of the study guide’s author, Danielle Fanfair.
She writes, “Born to young parents in a volatile relationship and sent to live with my godparents, my very existence felt inappropriate. Young Danielle believed that she was a mistake and therefore tried very hard to prove that she belonged.
I used good grades, being clean, making jokes, and blind obedience to earn my place in the classroom, my family, my church.
My worldview did not grow as I aged. I employed my “be good” strategy as an adult. Always be the bigger person. Never make mistakes. Do not miss a gathering, meeting, or service. Your feelings and desires do not matter if they do not align with the greater good. Sickness or tiredness is weakness.
Warped Christian messages confirmed the voice of my inner critic. I needed “amazing grace” to save a “wretch” like me. I was the “pile of manure” Martin Luther described, in need of the “snow” of a Savior. It was a perfect narrative to accompany my belief about my inherent wickedness.
This belief system worked in the short term to keep me out of trouble. I didn’t get pregnant during high school or college (which was everyone’s fear). I never got drunk or failed a class. While at Baylor University, I protested college parties and even quit my sorority because of my religious convictions. I felt pretty Christ-like. A spiritual smug-ness even.
“What my beliefs did not bring me was real joy. Beneath the veneer of a humble missionary, there was a rolling boil of anger. I was angry at the state of the world. Angry that God did not reward my goodness. Pissed off that “bad” people still seemed to be blessed and rewarded, which was so unfair.
I joined the pastoral staff of a spiritual movement and cultural arts organization when I was twenty-two years old. I was going to be the change I sought in the world. Twelve years into operating with my belief system and a long list of rules left me exhausted, feeling abused, and ashamed of being away from my new baby for too long and not bringing nearly enough back.
Something had to change.
I began a journey of Contemplative Prayer. In my time of stillness, silence, and solitude, the criticism I had for myself would disappear in the presence of the Divine. The voice of God would speak to me about my goodness. The nudges of the Holy Spirit weren’t harsh or even corrective; God was gently working out from within me incorrect beliefs about my goodness.
My perspective on myself became more compassionate. More positive. What happened next was the inevitable, remarkable thing that happens to humans who work to grow into loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength—a softening toward humankind that allowed me to begin to love others as well as I loved myself.”
It’s that last line that really speaks to me. “What happened next was the inevitable, remarkable thing that happens to humans who work to grow into loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength – a softening toward humankind that allowed me to begin to love others as well as I loved myself.” We see what is at stake in having a lovable and loving God. We see the difference to ourselves and to our approach to others when we learn to love God.
Though our gospel passage may not be the most inviting of passages, it does kind of hammer home the urgency in learning to love God. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” We miss the mark if we subordinate God to these other loves; in fact, our love for these others is made more whole and beautiful, and therefore more powerful, when they are grounded in a love for God that unites us in a divine generosity and goodness.
I was watching an interview with the musician Ferrell Williams about the push to make Juneteenth a national holiday, which evolved into call for the country to join in rejecting the racism against black people that’s generated such widespread social imbalances in our country. He said, “Do it because you love us.” “Join us because you love us.” …Those are my thoughts too, that our engagement, our learning and our acting, might be an expression of our love. My thoughts are also that this makes our love for God at this moment all the more important. It will fuel our love for others.
That, in part, was my thinking in sending out those vigil emails with opportunities to “pray the scriptures.” It wasn’t so much to know what the bible says; rather, it was to encounter through the bible a God of life-giving love.
Did you see the one with the icon of Christ “Pantocrator”? He was holding a book and gesturing what looked like a peace sign. As I took the 5 minutes to meditate on that image what I noticed beyond the calming and inviting stillness was the combined effect of some subtle facial features. Christ’s left eye was bigger and darker than his right. There was a slight crease above the left side of his upper lip and a bit of shading on his cheekbone. The effect for me was the hint of a smile. It was the great secret behind “Christ Almighty” breaking through, the message that behind a God of unfathomable mystery is the singular motivation of unfathomable love, even affection and joy, even for me, and even for you, even for all God’s people. My friends, let’s get serious about loving God. Now is the time.