A Dangerous Prayer
A DANGEROUS PRAYER
Twelve years ago I went for a walk in the rain. I fell to my knees on a dock of a lake on the campus of the College of William & Mary. And I prayed a dangerous prayer;
“Lord Jesus I cannot stand on my own any longer. Come into my heart and teach me how to love.”
“Teach me how to love.” That’s a dangerous prayer. I prayed it not really knowing what I was getting into. Perhaps the past twelve years has been an experience of the Lord working out that prayer out in my life. As Jesus teaches us in this passage it is love that holds this entire journey of faith together. Everything, the Law and the Prophets, the purpose of our lives, our very existence, can be summed up with this simple statement;
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Love God and love people doesn’t seem like that hard of a concept to get. But I have found in my walk of faith that I am constantly reminded how little I know about loving God and loving people. I see this passage differently than when I first read it twelve years ago. I will probably see it differently a year from now. Perhaps we can never be perfect at loving God and people, but if we let the Spirit be our teacher, perhaps we can come closer than we were yesterday.
I think an important part of biblical interpretation is defining our terms. And a very basic question we come upon in this passage is what is love? What does it mean to love God and to love my neighbor as myself? Part of the problem is that in the English language we have only one word for love. Therefore I can say, “I love ice cream,” and “I love my wife”, and perhaps be talking about two different types of love, at least I hope you love your spouse in a different way than you love ice cream. In the Greek there are a variety of different words that are translated with the English word “love”. The word being used in this text is agape, which throughout Christian tradition has been considered to be unconditional love. I agree with this interpretation yet in my research I discovered that agape was a rather obscure word in Greek literature that Christians adapted to describe the love of God. As much as I can discern the Greek root is perhaps related to a word that means, “much” or “more”. Thus we get a sense of a word for love, that includes all the other forms of love, and exceeds them. Perhaps unconditional and all encompassing love would be a better translation.
Still, the problem with translating agape as unconditional love is that we still don’t have a definition for what love is. Is love a feeling or a choice? From my experience and biblical study I think love can be defined by five basic principles;
First, Love is Presence. 1 John 4:8 is one of the greatest equations in the Bible, God is Love. The Bible also teaches that God is omnipresent , thus God is the ultimate expression of love, because God is with us, Jesus is Emmanuel. One of the things I think we mean when we say, “I love you,” is that I am with you, and I will be with you.
Second, love is covenant. Covenant, is a Biblical word for commitment. The Hebrew word connotes carving out an agreement, literally or figuratively in stone. The scriptures tell us that our God is a God of Hesed, a word that is often translated as steadfast love. This is a pursuing love that also allows for freedom. This is the good shepherd who will leave the 99 sheep to go after the one lost sheep. As any marriage counselor will tell you love isn’t just a feeling, many days it is a choice, a commitment to pursue the better of the other.
Third, Love is Connection. Anyone who says love is just a choice and does not involve an emotional and spiritual connection are perhaps hardhearted towards all those trapped within dysfunctional and abusive marriages and relationships. Likewise, the scriptures do not describe an abstract clockmaker, ground of being God, who winds of creation and then says, “good luck with that.” Instead, the scriptures describe a God who is jealous for us, a God who is a consuming fire, a God pursues from the heights of the mountains to the depths of the sea, a God who will allow for no other competitors, a God who calls for our love, with all our hearts, souls, and minds. There are many days that we choose to love, many days that we choose to have faith. But doesn’t Jesus say if we have even a little faith the mountains will move? It seems faith, the hard choices, these are designed to lead us into times of fulfillment.
Fourth, Love is Action. Love is a verb. Growing up I didn’t really believe that God was love. Because frankly, in my opinion, God hadn’t done anything for the world lately, so how could God be love. But then I read this in Romans Chapter 5: 6-8. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die-but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God is a God who is working through history. The prime example of this is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Finally, love is listening. Have you ever noticed in the Bible how God asks people questions? It is not like God doesn’t already know the answer. But God loves us so much that he wants to lead us into his Will by asking us the right questions. Take the book of Jonah for example. Jonah is a man who is running from God and the mission God has for him. When he finally relents and goes and preaches the shortest sermon in history, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” is the sum of it, the entire city repents, and God relents from destroying Nineveh. Well Jonah isn’t very happy being made to look like a false prophet, mainly because the punishment is death, so he goes off to mope in the desert. God provides a plant to provide Jonah shade, which Jonah thinks is pretty cool. Then God sends a worm to kill the plant. And Jonah proceeds to have his own little pity party. God responds, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And Jonah said, “Yes angry enough to die.” Now if I was God, I would leave Jonah to die in the desert at this point because he obviously doesn’t get it. But how does God reply, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right from their left, and also much cattle?” Love listens. Even when we don’t.
Now that we have a better idea about the contours of love what can we say about loving God and neighbor? I will comment briefly on both. Let me start with love of neighbor since this is perhaps a less daunting than loving an invisible being.
I once helped an African American mother who told me this story. She and her husband at the time had been in hard times and could not buy their children Christmas presents. So the local pastor decided to bring them Christmas presents. When the pastor came she berated and shamed the Father for not being able to provide his children Christmas presents. The man was so infuriated that he kicked the pastor out of the house. A clergy person hasn’t been let back into that house sense.
I believe that love is never wasted. Doesn’t matter if the love is reciprocated, if the action changes the world, I believe that there will come a day where God will wipe away every tear, thus love is never wasted. However, over the course of ministry I have learned that there are better and worse ways to love people. In the case of this man love for him was not having other people buy his children Christmas presents. Love for him was being given the opportunity to have a well paying job so he could buy his own children Christmas presents.
During my time at Richmond Hill, the retreat center I lived and worked in for a year, I learned a lot about the classical discipline of spiritual discernment. I learned a lot about listening to God and to people. And what I discovered is that when you see the good in people and call that out, when you bring out people’s talents and gifts and help people see those things, usually they will live up to your expectations.
Can I be honest? I have been to a lot of churches, a lot of great churches, but I have never seen any church break the 20/80 rule. That being 20% of the people do 80% of the work. I believe there are several reasons for this. As I mentioned earlier, if love is only commitment, if love is only duty, than it will falter, it will only go so far. Sometimes a service that we once did with joy becomes a duty and eventually we forget what even motivated us to volunteer in the first place. I also believe that many pastors are more interested in making a name for themselves, in making a change, in being on the cutting edge, in getting things done, that they often forget to love their people. They may lead a church into growth, but so often it is growth that displaces and dishonors the people who built the church.
I confess to you that so often in my ministry I have been more concerned with getting things done, with looking good, with building my resume, than loving my people. But I don’t believe in a ministry of scarcity, in saying look at all the things we don’t have, I believe in a ministry of abundance, I believe in discerning in the spirit people’s gifts and helping them live into those gifts. Doesn’t mean that at the end of the day we all agree. But it means at the end of the day we all feel heard, we all feel loved, and we trust each other enough, to follow the path that God has laid out for our community.
On loving God, I am finding day by day, that I love God less than I thought I did. Its easy to love the gods of this world. The gods we make in our image, the gods that demand nothing of us, the gods that say, “it’s cool do your own thing.”
But in our post modern world where everyone does what is right in their own eyes we often forget that the Bible gives two basic descriptions of God. The first, God is Love, we quote very often. But in 1 Peter 1:16 we are reminded to, “be Holy for I am holy,” the “I” being God. The scriptures say that God is both Love and Holy. This is very strange because to be Love is to be presence, covenant, connection, action, listening, all the things we have described. But to be Holy is to be other, separate, complete, lacking in nothing, needing nothing, unapproachable. The Holy evokes out of us fear and reverences. The Holy causes us to fall to our knees as Isaiah did and declare, I am a man or woman of unclean lips. How can God be both Love and Holiness?
The answer we find, is in the cross, the ultimate expression of love, the ultimate expression of justice, the ultimate expression of sacrifice, the ultimate expression of holiness. At the cross God’s Love and holiness meet in perfect harmony. It is the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus that allows us to love a Holy God.
Love God, Love your neighbor. Sounds simple enough. But sometimes the simplest things are the hardest things for us to do. Because loving God, loving people, requires risk. The risk that we might be rejected, the risk that God might not answer that desperate prayer and we won’t know why. To quote C.S Lewis in his classic work, The Four Loves, “To Love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternate to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all dangers and perturbations of love is hell.”
Teach me how to love. It is a dangerous prayer.
And I dare you to pray it.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.