Value-added, Christians in the world

Love is not a gooey, “Come, kiss my boo-boo because I hurt myself.”

Love is not a warm-fuzzy blanket to wrap yourself when you’re feeling blue.

Love is not Valentine’s Day chocolates wrapped up in a big red bow.

That is, not love according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love can be many things. In our world, love has masqueraded in many forms. Do we even have the energy to reflect, talk and most importantly act in the love-sense of the Gospel?

The text from 1stJohn begins with an address to the “beloved”.[1]This is a better English translation than others that start with “Dear friends.” The word in the original Greek is agape. As the first readers and listeners to this word were, so we are addressed, the “beloved.”

This word appears several times in this text. Can you count them all?

And none of them mean what the world, and our compulsive, fearful selves might first imagine.

Agapeis a self-giving love. It is a love that reaches out for the good of the other, despite what the giver wants to do. “Not my will but thy will be done,” Jesus prays to his Father in heaven moments before he is arrested.[2]

I continue to be perplexed by Mother Theresa’s confession on her way to India as a young girl. From the start, when God’s call to go there was beginning to grow within her, I wonder if she really wanted to go.[3]If it were up to what she wanted alone, I don’t believe she would have sacrificed her whole life to the cause of the poor. And yet, we know of her incredible contribution to help the vulnerable and homeless on the streets of Calcutta over the decades that she lived there, served there, loved there.

And what a paradox it was. She discovered, in the giving, that she was being most fulfilled. It wasn’t a sacrifice in the sense of self-denial, self-hatred even, or repression. She was one of the most human of souls on this earth, say those who met her. She discovered that her greatest needs were met, in her self-giving.

In the Star Wars spin off TV series, “The Clone Wars”, a story is told of how Jedi younglings are trained in the Force in a ritual called “The Gathering”. In order to become full Jedi, they must build their own light sabers. Their light sabers are unique to the individual. Each one is built around a crystal which they have to retrieve on an inhospitable, cold planet.

A group of younglings is dispatched into an ice cave to harvest their crystal. In order to succeed, they must meet and overcome their deepest individual fear and greatest weakness: Fear of heights. Fear of monsters. Impatience. Being left behind. Their crystal becomes available to them once they endure this personal challenge, each to their own.

What is more, the clock is ticking. They must find their crystal and exit the cave in a few short hours before the entrance to it freezes over. Otherwise, they would have to wait a couple of weeks trapped inside without help until the next rotation of the sun would allow the ice entrance to melt open again.

It begins as an individual challenge. But it can only succeed as a group effort. Before sending the younglings into the cave, Jedi master Yoda gives them their final instructions: “Trust yourself and trust each other you must.”

For some, this is the biggest problem. Most of the younglings run into the cave and work together in smaller groups, at least in pairs. One helps the other, and vice versa.

But for Pedro, the young upstart, know-it-all youngling boy, he rushes in at breakneck speed and abandons the group immediately. He forges ahead giving the others the impression, again, that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Before you know it, he finds his crystal. Or so he thinks. He is the first one back outside the cave. But when Yoda inspects the crystal, it melts in his hand. It wasn’t a crystal he found on the tip of the cave’s stalactite, just some frozen water.

Pedro needs to go back in and do it all over again. But now, time is against him.
While he runs back through the main entrance of the cave, others are returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Pedro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass-like ice wall.

Ketuni had been rushing herself to get to the entrance after finding her crystal. She had followed what she thought was a short-cut from one of the larger caverns. Just as she was coming up the narrow passage leading to the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the translucent, ice wall. Neither did she have enough time to find another way around.

Ketuni is just about to give up, getting used to the idea of spending days alone in the cave when she notices Pedro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Pedro faces her through the glass wall. “But I haven’t yet found my crystal. I can’t help you. I have to get going.” And so, preoccupied with his own agenda and needs, he darts off.

But seconds later, perhaps with a change of heart remembering Yoda’s initial instructions to work together, Pedro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Pedro takes a sharp rock and breaks a hole through the glass wall big enough to let her out. “Thank you! I’ll help you find yours, now quick!” Ketuni says.

“No, No, you go. There isn’t enough time. Please, get yourself out!” Pedro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Pedro notices a crystal glimmering in the broken ice from the hole he made to help Ketuni escape. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Pedro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from paying attention to the needs of the other as the way of discovering your own gift. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Love, no matter how you define it, is relational. A healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you.

Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.[4]That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in any loving relationship is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of living out our faith, in the world: Our deeper needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

Giving and receiving. Like a vine that is connected to the source. Any part of that vine (the stem, the leaf, the sprig, the sprout) is at any given time both the receiver of nutrients and the giver. It is a conduit. There is constant motion. Stasis does not compute in this picture, this dynamic. Any part of that vine must know what it is like to be both receiver and giver, giver and receiver.

If you can’t trust another to give you help when you need it,

If you can’t receive the love of another, no strings attached,

Then, how can you give it?

Both receiving and giving. Mutuality is thus a hallmark of the agapelove strewn throughout the stories in the Bible.

And flowing in the life of the church today.

We are the beloved. And we are a conduit of that love to the world. Christians are called the world over to ‘add value’ to society. And that value and worth resides in each human being. William Sloan Coffin, in his reflection of love some decades ago, wrote, “God’s love does not seek out value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved. Because we are loved, we have value.”[5]

God does not love us after we prove somehow that we deserve it. God does not love us after we already prove our worth or value. God’s love in the world creates value in each of us and in those we meet whenever we share God’s love.

Whenever we receive love and give love, love is truly the energy that keeps the world going ‘round.

 

[1]1 John 4:7-21, NRSV

[2]Luke 22:42

[3]Greg Pennoyer, ed., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Chalice Press, 2015), p.114-115.

[4]Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31

[5]William Sloan Coffin, “The Courage of Love,” (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p.11

Better together

The story is told of a wide-eyed enthusiast who visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Over the last century, Mother Theresa has been admired by Christians worldwide for her dedicated, self-giving work for the poorest of the poor in India.

The young man approached Mother Theresa and said, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what you do.”

Mother Theresa, not missing a beat, replied, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what I do either. I do this because I was made to do it.”

When we speak about the Holy Spirit in this season after Pentecost, we speak about the breath of God breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” 

Breathing is one of those automatic, biological responses that we don’t even have to think about. It is natural and does not really take any effort at all. We are seldom aware of our breathing. And yet, it is vital to our health. Breathing is critical to our very life and purpose.

You could say, we are made to breath.

And yet, though breathing is integral to our life we may forget the gift that is in us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. We forget that living in the Spirit is as natural as breathing.

The Spirit of God is like our breath. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” (1) 

Breathing is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. When disease, shock or accident leaves us without breath. When breathing becomes laboured. When oxygen levels are critically low in our bodies. When something we have taken for granted for so long no longer works, then what?

The way to arrive and remain in the Holy Spirit of God is both very simple and very hard: We have to remain in love. Breathing the Spirit of God’s love nips negativity, hatred and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining our initial thoughts.

We can’t risk walking around with a negative, or resentful, or gossipy, or critical mind. Because if we let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, we aren’t going to breathe the Spirit of God. We won’t be breathing. We can’t be God’s usable instrument. 

That’s why Jesus commanded us to to love. It’s that crucial for life. Like breathing. That love can begin in the mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt apparently said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” (2)     

In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.

We cannot confine God in one place as much as we cannot contain breath. We cannot point to one specific place and say, “God is there!”, turn around, point in the opposite direction and say, “And God isn’t there!” We can’t dare try to close our lips over breathing and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.

It is the great mystery we enter into when we follow Jesus. Someone said, “life is a mystery to embrace, not a problem to be solved.” God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.

But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received. Waits to be engaged. In bold acts fuelled by love for the other.

The late Swedish Lutheran bishop, New Testament scholar, and pioneer in Lutheran-Jewish relations, Krister Stendahl, gave helpful advice in this regard. How is it we can love others who are so different from us, so unlike us? Because it is easy to ignore, write off, dismiss and be critical of them.

To Christians living in a diverse and multi-religious environment, Stendahl encourages us to cultivate an attitude of ‘holy envy’ (3) towards the other. That is, we first recognize the gifts, the positives, that the other offers by their life. Rather than thinking first we need to persuade them that ‘they are wrong’, we first seek understanding based on admiring a gift they have. What does the other offer that I/We do not have? Because others have gifts I/We do not have. So, what is it the other has, that is good?

In such a way we begin to see the image of God reflected in creation — in others who are different. We begin to practice seeing Christ in the other. We begin to see the unity we share in the purpose of God, the mission of God. It takes us working together, each with their gifts, to make it happen.

This mysterious God we worship chooses to self-reveal as the Trinity — three persons in one. In other words, this one God we worship is a holy relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit must function together by nature.

So, too, we must learn, practice, be intentional, about being in relationship with one another: working together, breathing in together and breathing out together the love and purpose of God on earth.

Once there was a Washer-man (a man who washes others’ clothes for hire) who was raising two donkeys. One he called Donkey-A and the other Donkey-B.

Donkey-A felt he was more energetic and could do better than the other donkey. He always tried to get the Washer-man’s attention by taking more of the load and walking as fast as he could in front of him.

Donkey-B was just a normal donkey. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t carry as much as Donkey-A or impress the Washer-man by walking in front of him.

One day Donkey-B was crying and asking Donkey-A to help. He said, “Dear friend, it is only the two of us. Why do we compete against each other? If we worked together we could carry an equal load at a normal speed.”

Donkey-A became even more competitive after that. The next day he boasted to the Washer-man that he could carry more and run faster than Donkey-B, and he did.

Under the pressure Donkey-B collapsed in great fatigue and quietly passed away. As a result of the collapse, Donkey-A felt like he was on top of the world, having proved his superior skills and abilities. 

But now he also had to carry Donkey-B’s load.

For a short time Donkey-A was able to carry both loads, but he eventually became fatigued and weak. Finally the day came when the Washer-man was tired of this fatigued and no good donkey. He put him to pasture, and went searching for some other pack donkeys to get his work done.

The moral of this story is, you can’t do it alone. If we are made to breathe the Spirit of the triune God, we are by nature ‘relational’. It is important to learn how to work well together.

Worrying more about individual performance, taking all the credit and trying to do more than you are capable of doing eventually comes back and bites us one way or another. Christians, at their best, are team players.

Donkey B may not have been the strongest nor the fastest, but he was consistent. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. And so do you. Just because you may be different from others, doesn’t qualify you or them to be in competition nor be shunned.

Stronger together. Better together. This is what we were made for.


(1) Henri Nouwen, “Bread for the Journey; A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, May 18

(2) cited in “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Centre for Action and Contemplation, May 19

(3) cited in Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching: A Christian Rationale for a Transformative Praxis” Fortress Press, 2014,page 4