Community

It’s inevitable, really. Whenever I join a new group of friends, or even whenever an older group gets to know me well, I get singled out as the group monk. Maybe it’s my lack of love life, maybe it’s my pursuit of knowledge, maybe it’s my dedication to God — or maybe it’s all the above (or none of the above). Whatever the reason(s), someone will eventually decide I would be a great monk. As one friend remarked a few months ago:
“It could be you. ‘We’ve not heard from Chris in a while.’
“‘Oh, yeah, he’s been reclusive learning the words of creation from a book of exalted deeds.'”

It’s funny, you see, because it’s true.

But when we talk about monks, we need to remember there are two categories of major monastic traditions. Anchorite monks, such as Saint Anthony of the Desert, are solitary hermits. On the other hand, cenobitic monks live their lives in monastic communities. Even though the word “monk” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “solitary” (monachos), it would seem some of those solitary figures realized a Christian life must still be lived in community. The life of faith cannot rightly be lived out alone in the desert.

I think we all have an innate grasp of that reality. We realize first that humans are gregarious creatures; we are social animals. One dimension of the imago Dei is the relational image. Like God, then, we are relational beings, and our lives are meant to be spent in relationships with others of our own kind. I specifically say “with others of our own kind” because some attempt to replace relationships with other people with pets or machines or some other surrogate (Crazy Cat Lady, anyone?). But none of them are equivalent replacements for another human soul, another being made in the image of God. As much as we’d like to believe Fido can understand every word we say, he’s incapable of expressing his doggy views on campaign finance reform, soteriology, and Mrs. Nesbitt’s low opinion of your casserole at the last potluck. Can we love such creatures and have a relationship of sorts with them? Yes, but it is the love and relationship of a greater to a lesser, a master to a vassal. It cannot serve as a substitute for the love among equals, for genuine human relationships and real human community.

If it’s impossible to be fully human without being part of a community involving other people, why would we think we can live a life of faith estranged from other Christians?

Recently I attended a dinner for one of our Sunday School classes. I have a standing invitation to their get-togethers, so I hastily made some macaroni and cheese (not the kind that comes in a blue box, either, but the real deal) and went to supper. Sitting at the table and listening to everyone swap stories, I was struck by two thoughts. First, I realized how much I myself missed being around the same group of people on a daily basis (a staple of academic life). Second, I wished each of our classes would do something similar. It doesn’t have to be a supper, although a common table has been the hallmark of Christianity since the time of Jesus. It could be a trip, a party on game day, anything. Anything which would bring people together and give them a chance to share their lives with one another. In the church of all places, we need those moments, those chances to rejoice, to weep, to laugh, to simply be present with each other without worrying about what comes next.

In an age defined by digital distractions, being mentally and emotionally present is increasingly difficult — and increasingly rare. We can all tell stories of going out to eat and seeing every person at another table on their phones. None of them were willing to be as present soulfully as they were physically. Things like that have repercussions. For one example, we use things instead of people as babysitters, and it turns my stomach. I admit I have no children (monk, you know), but it seems to me if you truly valued your children, you would spend time playing with them, teaching them, discipling them, disciplining them. You wouldn’t say, “Here’s my phone; now shut up and leave me alone.” You wouldn’t let an iPad raise your child for you. (Yes, you need time for self-care, but is that truly the best way to achieve that?) It’s a new form of absentee parenting: Dad didn’t leave, he’s just on the couch playing video games while the toddler sits glued to the tablet. There’s no interaction there, no community, only two strangers sharing space and a bloodline.

If parents can’t even live in community with their own children, it will take an act of countercultural revolution to get Christians to engage with one another on a personal level. Fortunately for us, Christianity has always been countercultural.

To live out this new counterculture, to reclaim the community which has been lost, we need to revisit a favorite verse we always quote for something else and add its context. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We’ve all seen v. 25 used to tell us we should be going to church — and rightly so. But v. 24 adds another dimension to it. We come together to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” That can happen at a class supper, a lunch meeting, a trip with friends, a weekly time to check in with one another. It may find its fullness of expression on a Lord’s Day, but it needn’t be limited to corporate acts of worship. It is about living out our faith in a community of faith — the church. It is about being a part of a body (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). After all, a single body part can’t live on its own; it needs everyone else.

As the physical body, so the spiritual body. We cannot live out a vibrant Christian faith without being connected to a larger community. We can’t go off into the desert; we have to live and laugh with other people. Without others around us, our love grows cold, and without a love for others, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). So go be social. Live life in community. Be fully human, fully alive, and fully connected to God.

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Love Story

I’ve talked too much politics recently, and for that I apologize. I suppose today, on St. Valentine’s Day, I’m obligated to talk about love (or wuv, twu wuv, if you prefer). With that said, I feel like most of us have a working, orthodox theology of love. We understand it from the biblical perspective — not as unconditional endorsement or an apathetic tolerance, but as a genuine care of the other which requires grace and discipline both. And so while I could go on about the various forms of love and whatnot, I’ve decided to go another route today.

I’ve been re-reading a bit of narrative theology lately, a school of thought which resonates with those of us with degrees in literature. Sometimes story can convey truth more readily than textbook-esque syllogisms; if you don’t believe me, ask your valentine tonight which he or she would rather hear, “I love you, and here’s what you’ve done to mean so much to me” or “When I look at you, my body increases output of testosterone/estrogen, adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin with the result I feel emotional attachment to you.” One is the story of your life together; the other is what’s happening on the biochemical level. (Trust me: the story means a lot more.)

Perhaps that’s why love stories mean so much to us. We don’t care about the physiology so much as the emotional content. Yes, it’s grand someone’s thoughts swing one way as key neurotransmitters are deployed, but I’d rather see them sacrifice for one another, make loving gestures, that sort of thing. We all prefer Romeo & Juliet (a teenage romance resulting in multiple deaths) to the BBC’s explanation of the chemical reactions in your brain (unless it’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and then it’s even money). The deeds, the action, the romance, the tensions, those are why we enjoy love stories. They tell us tales about people like us living lives like ours but to whom something extraordinary happens, an extraordinary something we’d all like to happen to us. It captivates both heart and imagination in ways raw data cannot.

Unless they’re sad love stories, of course. In which case women leave the theater crying as men wonder what just happened in the last two hours, both in the heart of his lover and on the screen (because, let’s face it, no man is going to be paying rapt attention to a chick flick).

Perhaps this is why the Bible makes use of love stories as often as it does. And not just love stories — love poetry. Reading Song of Songs in Hebrew may make one’s head hurt more than reading a Shakespearean sonnet, but we can’t remove Solomon’s work from Scripture. It’s one of the greatest ancient portrayals of romance still existing today. Nowhere else in the Bible can we find such beautiful depictions of love and sexuality. Sometimes readers will wonder how on earth it made it in there in the first place, but again, we all love a love story. We all understand what Solomon and his Beloved feel for each other. Song of Solomon helps us to recognize that such feelings are gifts from God.

In the great debate about sexuality, we’ve forgotten to emphasize that point as much as we should. We omit love to discuss sex. We forget about the God who created both. Maybe that’s because we blush when we read Song of Songs. Maybe it’s because we as Christians have misrepresented sex as something shameful and dirty for so many years. Whatever the reason(s), we need to reclaim eros just as surely as we need to embody agape. The God who is holy love, unconditional love (whether you call is agape or caritas [“charity” in the KJV]) is also the God of eros, of erotic, romantic love.

A brief caveat here: don’t confuse the romantic/erotic with the lustful. God did not create lust any more than He created anything else sinful. Lust is the perversion of love, the pale imitation of the real. Love for another is holistic; it is care for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves of the other. You cannot truly love someone if you don’t care about their mind, just as you can’t fall in love with a soul which is darkened and twisted. Lust says otherwise. It relies upon biochemical sympathy to say “my body wants your body” without caring about any other dimension. It ignores the personhood of the individual and offers a reductionistic identity correspondent to their physicality. And that’s a problem. Bodies don’t last. Sometimes minds don’t even last. But love will care for the whole person, not just a single component of them. Lust never can and never will be able to offer anything more than sexual attraction.

Love offers a lifetime of devotion and dedication. That’s the kind of love God gifted us. He wired us to love one another in this way, designed us so that we would be able to care for one another on a romantic level. Such is the goodness and graciousness of God.

Now, this isn’t to say the single are “less-than.” It’s not to say the love which we pursue defines us in any way other than to point to our humanity and the Divinity which created it. We can enjoy life and personhood and a relationship with God without being married or dating. Paul even refers to it as a preferred state. So those who have the gift of romance can never look down upon those who do not. And those who do not should not feel envy or bitterness towards those who do. All rely on the provision of a sovereign God (and more than a little human initiative). All experience love, no matter the form it may take.

Most importantly, all know the love of God. A God who sent His Son to die on a cross for us, simply because He loves us and want us to love Him.

Now that‘s a love story.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The Beatles may be famous for singing “All You Need Is Love,” and Bon Jovi may have thought “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but I have to wonder if it’s possible to truly understand all those “love songs.” As much as I love my native tongue, English can be infuriatingly limited at times. Just consider how to properly pronounce the following sentence: “I have read red books, but I want to read red books not previously read.” Really? This is the best our language can do? Tenses orthographically identical and a weird pastiche of homophones? Then we have to face the fact English simply doesn’t have words other languages do. We (well, maybe only I) laugh when someone trips and falls. In order to describe that particular feeling of “HaHA!” we’re forced to borrow “schadenfreude” from German, a word roughly meaning “pleasure from others’ misfortunes.” It’s all too easy to understand, then, that English has a single word for love — which is, oddly enough, “love.”

Think of the way we use that word. It’s common to hear the word used for any particularly strong feeling of attachment to something, and it’s far from unusual to hear it used for even a fleeting admiration for something else. “I love my wife.” “I love your earrings!” “This book is amazing; I love it!” See what I mean? “Love” is used so incredibly broadly its meaning gets diminished much of the time. When it’s used accurately, however, it’s arguably the most powerful word in the English language, capable of saving marriages, friendships, and even lives. (Never underestimate the power of saying “I love you.”)

Biblical Greek is a bit more flexible on the subject, and there are multiple words used to denote various shades of loving. There’s a word for the love between friends, for example, and there are words for romantic love, family love, and others. The word for God’s unconditional love for us — and for the type of love with which we should love those around us, incidentally — is agape (ah-GAH-pay). When God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son, it’s “For God so agape-ed the world” (well, the verb form of that noun). When we read “God is love,” it’s “God is agape.” The love of God towards us is limitless and unconditional. There is nothing we can do to destroy that love. God will love us even when we don’t love Him.

Using that sort of love as a basis, many Christians (particularly evangelicals) love the saying “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (see what I did there?). I don’t want to get hung up on the phrase itself, but I do want to discuss the distinction it makes. You see, the vast majority of people in our world, or at least in America, seem to think unconditional love means we love everything someone does. It moves beyond a love for just the individual herself/himself and encompasses every belief and action the person believes and does. It is for this reason so very many well-meaning Christians are branded homophobic, for example. The world doesn’t believe it possible to love a homosexual while considering same-sex activity to be sinful.

But it is.

Since God is agape, we look to the divine nature as the paragon of unconditional love. Every action God performs is done as an act of unconditional love. And yet the Bible clearly describes a God who hates sin. This is a holy God, a God in whose presence sin cannot stand. He cannot sin; He is holy; He is love. When we read passages such as Hebrews 12, then, we must keep these truths in mind to understand what’s really going on. Hebrews 12:4-10 says this:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

The word again is agape: “For the Lord disciplines the one he agape-s.” Unconditional love, then, means caring so much for the person that you can’t sit by and watch them do things which are self-destructive. Any parent can tell you that. There’s not a mother or father in the world who truly loves her/his children and would let them deliberately play in traffic, or lick a light socket, or point a loaded gun at their heads. Why? Because parents love their children.

How much more, then, does a holy God, the Father of all, love His children? And how much more will He act to preserve His children, disciplining them and shaping them into a path of holiness? That’s true unconditional love: caring so deeply for someone you wish them to be holy as He is holy. (Maybe, just maybe, unconditional love is holy love.) So when we can say we love homosexuals but don’t approve of same-sex marriage, or we love mothers who have had abortions but want abortion outlawed, or even we love addicts and murderers and rapists but not drugs or bloodshed or rape, we’re not lying. We’re not stating we can do the impossible. We’re saying we love those people with a holy love, a love which absolutely cannot give tacit approval to sin, sit idly by while it destroys them.

I’d even argue the converse is true: a laissez-faire love which will let anyone do everything isn’t love at all. It’s apathy.

This is not to say we should pass judgment on the immortal soul. It’s not to say we should launch one-person crusades against all of our friends, sending texts every five minutes about how they really shouldn’t have told that one guy to shut up or that a particular shade of lipstick is an abomination unto the Lord. But I do believe all Christians are called to speak the truth in love, sharing the love of God while calling our neighbors into a relationship of holy love with the God who is love. Only then will we truly be able to show the love of God — and His holy hatred of sin — to a world which has forgotten both.