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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How to love well

After my sermon last week, in which I once again exhorted my brothers and sisters to follow Jesus' commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you", a parishioner came up to me and said, "You know, I liked your sermon, but I feel like I have been hearing that exact same thing for as long as I have been coming to church, and it is getting a little old".

He has a good point.  For 2000+ years, pastors have stood in the pulpit and preached some version of the theme of "Love one another".  I for one have never heard or delivered a sermon on the that theme that has made me say, "Huh, I never thought of that".  The irony is that it is such a simple instruction and yet if you take a quick fly-by of the last 2 millennia of Christian history, the one thing that might strike you is how consistently we have failed to do just that.

The flaw is not within Christianity itself, a point I have made a number of times before.  Christianity, like every religion and philosophy, has no ill intent, but it has been wielded poorly by individuals and groups over the centuries.  The flaw, I think, is in individuals and groups, and how they wield their faith.

The conversation with the individual mentioned above continued.  This person went on to say something that on the surface may sound self-evident, but after thinking about it all week, I realized it is not.

He said, "What I need to know is how to love".

My immediate reaction was bemusement.  "Well, isn't that obvious?", I thought to myself.  But after taking some time to reflect, I realized he was right.

I think every single Christian throughout history would claim that they are a loving person.  I think every Christian would probably say that Christianity is a loving, if not the most loving religion there is.  But let's just name some of our darker manifestations and submit them to the "is it loving?" test:

Most of the Crusaders would likely justify the immeasurable suffering the Crusades caused by saying they did it for the love of God.

Most of the Inquisitors would likely say the same thing.

Most of the priests and nuns who worked at residential schools in Canada and the US would likely say they oppressed Aboriginal culture, language and religion out of love for them.  Remember they thought that by "Christianizing" them, they were saving their immortal souls.

Even today, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church picket events holding up signs saying that God hates homosexuals (although they use gutter language), and when pressed in an interview to explain why they hate gays so much, their matriarch responded that they hold up these signs because they loved gays and wanted to save them from everlasting damnation.

On a more personal level, you often hear of people who resort to physical, emotional and psychological abuse of their children, spouses, parents, friends and co-workers, and some weird how, manage to think of this as a loving behaviour.

You have Christians who shame other people for being immigrants, refugees, having mental illness, having addictions, being a single parent, being divorcees, being overweight, being underweight, being gay...the list goes on.

I guarantee you, we all know someone who loves poorly, and we have all at one time or another loved poorly.  We have all, at one time or another, made another person angry, sad or hurt.

But what complicates matters is that sometimes you have to do things that make others angry, sad or hurt.  Don't get me wrong, abusive behaviour is always bad.  But for example, parents need to discipline their children, to show them the difference between right and wrong.  Children often respond to discipline with tears or anger, and many is the parent who has slunk away in guilt after sending a child to their room, but that is part of parenting.

Sometime, children, spouses, friends or parents need to be alerted that they might be headed down a dangerous path, despite the defensiveness we are likely to receive in return.  Sometimes, in all good conscience, we need to let people know that we disagree with them or that they have failed to meet our expectations.  On the one hand, a formative person in my life was fond of saying that I had no right to expect anything from anyone because no one owed me anything, but Dennis Miller once wrote, "The most degrading thing you can do to another human being is to have absolutely no expectations of them".

All this to say, how we love one another is not as clear as we might think.  Sometimes it is hard to tell if what we are doing is loving or not, as a friend, as a parent, as a Christian.

So how can we know?

After pondering on this for the better part of a week, I have what I think is at least a line we can follow.  I am not saying it is clear and foolproof, but after reflecting on how Jesus loved his disciples and comparing them with examples of loving poorly, I think I have a starting point.

1. Is what we are doing or saying going to build people up or tear them down?

One thing that was characteristic of Jesus' love was that it was a love that built people up, rather than tearing them down.  For example, as far as we know, he never shamed Mary Magdalene.  He never shamed the lepers he healed.  He never guilted some of his disciples for being manual laborers and tax collectors.  Even when he knew Judas was about to betray him, he placed him at the head of the table, rather than guilt him.

Chances are, if someone is doing something bad, they have enough shame, thanks.  So maybe pointing out an highlighting the source of their shame is not the best strategy.  Rather, Jesus seems to have focused on their gifts and talents, rather than their shortcoming.

2. Is what we are doing or saying showing the person that they are worthy of being loved, or is it telling them there are conditions attached?

But I think the thing that most exemplified Jesus' love, and perhaps the way we ought to try to love others, is by helping them see that they are worthy of love.  As far as we know, Jesus was not constantly telling people he loved them.  I think the reason why he focused on people's positive points, and the reason why he made it a point to hang around those whom the rest of society reviled, was that he was trying to demonstrate to people that they were worthy of love, that they had been born beloved by God, and that was something that could never be taken away from them.

You remember that old saying, "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime"?  I think if you tell someone you love them, they might feel loved for a day.  Teach someone that they are inherently love-worthy, and they will feel loved for a lifetime.

I am not saying you have to agree with everything everybody does, but sometimes focusing on the negative aspects tells the person that they are not worthy of love unless they do what you think they should be doing.  I think back to a family I knew whose daughter got pregnant out of wedlock, and this upset her parents.  They heaped shame and guilt on her for what they considered to be a sin.  At one point, she had had enough and said, "Your guilt and shame doesn't change the fact that I am pregnant.  So you need to choose: are you going to love me and your grandchild, or make us feel guilty the rest of our lives?"

This opened the door to some great conversation, and today, the whole family is thriving and loving one another.  But sometimes we need to get over our impulse to say, "I told you so", "How could you?", "What were you thinking?" and other similarly useless questions.

Sometimes, we just need to let people know that they are loved, no string or conditions attached.

3. Is what we are doing or saying helping another become the person they want to be, or are we trying to make them into the person we want them to be?

As mentioned earlier, we all have expectations of others. We see potential in others, and we think we know what they should be or do.  But do we stop to consider that their expectations might be entirely different?  We might think our sister should become a doctor because she is brilliant, but maybe she feels called to start an organic farm.  Who are we to say that one is better than the other.  Who are we to say where another's heart will be at home?

We can't, and so sometimes we need to set our expectations aside and ask how we can help our loved ones become the people they want to be, and not the people we think they should be.

Like I said, this is not a foolproof methodology for loving well, but it is a start.  Today, may we all love well.

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