Belief is not dependent upon conformance to the Law. Belief is the process needed to make God’s command to Love a reality in our lives.
Believe what? That there are angels? That Jesus died on the Cross for our sins? That all the miracles in the Bible actually happened? That the tribulation is coming? That abortion is a mortal sin? That marriage must be a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman? That only men shall be ordained into the ministry? That God somehow anoints the beliefs or agendas of one person or group over those of another? That our particular understanding of our faith excludes all other understandings, especially those we don’t understand?
We all are constantly confronted with the choice of what to believe, and how. Do we believe literally all that the Bible says? And, what does “Literal” mean? Literalism presents us with many challenges and contradictions that are impossible to resolve; so, do we instead believe the scriptures through viewing them as metaphor and allegory? Do we ignore the passages that we see as outmoded, focusing on those that seem more relevant? Or, should we go even farther, perhaps picking and choosing what seems nice from the smorgasbord of other beliefs, traditions, and wisdom that we encounter everywhere in today’s world?
I love what the Author of Hebrews has to say about all of this in this morning’s reading. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” So, it seems plain that there has never been a single voice deciding what is or is not to be believed as part of our faith. The Author of Hebrews is acknowledging that the prophets don’t all agree with each other, often speaking in ways that seem contradictory, or at least are hard to reconcile with other sacred writings, especially when taken literally. And this is in fact deliberate; since the goal of the prophets was to disrupt conventional wisdom and accepted practice, the very purpose of their words was to challenge our understanding.
Every author of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible see and portray God’s word in different ways, and then there are the 73 books in the Catholic Bible, and the 81 books in the Ethiopian Bible. So, not only is there disagreement between various scriptures within our Protestant Bible, but disagreement between various branches of Christianity as to what scriptures are part of the Bible at all – not to mention the tens of thousands of variations found within the most ancient scriptural texts we have at our disposal. There is no single “right” Bible, and never has been. So, how can there be a single “right” reading of scripture? Therefore, there is no single universal scriptural standard by which we can judge what is “right” to believe, or not.
But that’s OK, because belief is not about believing the right thing! We will not be condemned to hell for believing the wrong thing. Belief is not a certainty that there is a perfect, eternal and unchanging truth upon which all knowledge and all reality depend. (In fact, that belief is a teaching of ancient Greek philosophy, not Judaism.)
I admire those who are pushing for equality in this area. It does make me feel uncomfortable, but that’s OK: change tends to make all of us uncomfortable. But we’ll survive, and we’ll adapt. Things will be just fine, and our society will once again prove itself to be much more resilient and adaptable and compassionate than we imagined.
Now, intellectually, I recognize that going topless should not be an issue, regardless of gender, gender orientation or gender expression – and frankly, treating two groups of people differently because of something they have no control over always disturbs me: it just isn’t right.
On the other hand, this is a society that sexualizes women’s breasts; and – from an emotional perspective – the prudish old fogey in me recoils at the idea of actually seeing a woman’s bared breasts in public.
Such signs say far more about the persons holding them than they do about their intended target. Expressing God’s love in ways these people and I can both agree on is a difficult challenge, because it requires that I be just as open to being changed by that love as I hope they will be. It would be far easier, and less challenging to my own peace of mind, to simply shut the door to relationship by dismissing such people as not worth listening to – which is what those signs are attempting to do in terms of their bearers’ relationship with me – and our President – after all…
Like you, I’ve seen signs like this posted by relatively conservative groups and individuals on social media and elsewhere. While I understand the impetus behind such signs, that I understand does not imply that I agree with them – far from it!
For one thing, we must remember that our President IS a Christian. Until shortly before his election to the Presidency, he and his entire family regularly attended worship at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest and most dynamic churches within my own denomination. In fact, more than a quarter of a century ago, our future President made a conscious decision to become a Christian when he joined that church after being, as he put it, a “religious skeptic” for many years. (One should also note that Trinity Church’s motto is “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” …And as an organization serving a community deeply and continuously affected by racism and injustice in this society, how can their motto be otherwise?)
Now, I am a Minister in the tradition of the United Church of Christ (UCC), and for over three centuries members of my family and our ancestors have been faithful members of a church that is now part of this same Protestant Denomination that Barack Obama chose to become a member of at age 26. Obama is one of three presidents who were affiliated with this same religious tradition that the UCC descends from (Congregationalism) at some point in their lives. So, I see signs such as this being evidence that their bearer does not believe I am a Christian, either.
Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts be open and receptive to the Word you have for us here, today. Amen.
The story of the “Canaanite Woman” in this morning’s reading from Matthew 15, and also in Mark 7, is a narrative that crosses all sorts of boundaries.
To begin with, the setting isn’t located near any of our other stories about Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus has journeyed with his disciples to “Tyre and Sidon.” Doing so means he has left behind the familiar comforts and safety of his native land, moving across Israel’s frontier into the Gentile lands to the North. He’s in a new and strange place. But, is it strange for him, or strange for us?
Based on the thoughts I surfaced in a recent post (and elsewhere) regarding what I see as God’s call to Unconditional Love, I’ve had several folks ask me questions along the lines of “Does that mean I have to love the person who [abused or hurt or seeks to control] me?”
Let’s answer this one carefully.
Love them? Yes.
Have a relationship with them? Well, that question requires a nuanced answer…
To begin with, let’s make one thing clear: Love and Relationship are not the same thing. We can choose to love another, even if the relationship we have with them is nonexistent (or nearly so). Loving another means building a bridge between another and you, opening a door to a better future, a better relationship. But just because that bridge exists does not mean you have to cross it, or that they will cross it, and you certainly should not cross it all the way to the other side!
Relationship is a two-way street. A relationship will exist in some form – after all, relationship is part of the very fabric of our existence. So, you do have relationships with others, all others. However, the extent and quality of that relationship is attenuated by the limitations we bring to the table. Love makes it possible to have a better quality and more balanced relationship with another, but only if they are willing and able to return that love. Love enables you to get to the midpoint of the bridge, but it is up to the other as to whether they’ll meet you halfway, or not.
We often hear that God loves us unconditionally, and that we are called to love everyone we meet in the same way. Matthew 22:37 & 39 give us the two Great Commandments, which are founded upon this principle: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ St. Paul dwells on this topic in the well known “Love Chapter” of First Corinthians (1 Cor 13).
Unconditional Love is central to the Christian Gospel.
What struck me in reading Kohn’s work is his thoughts on what “Unconditional Love” means, and it’s importance in becoming the well rounded, stable and (spiritually) healthy individuals we are meant to be.
For one, he points out that if we demonstrate our love for another only when we meet their expectations, then our love is conditional. Unconditional love “doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.”
He also states that if we love children just as they are, then they learn to “accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short.” This in turn helps them to be freer to accept other people just as they are, and helps them to flourish, instead of being lost in a sea of judgment and rigidity.
Kohn also says that “Conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.” This is true of conditional love of any sort. Paul says it best, in Romans 7:22-24: For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
In other words, we are inherently good (or, at least we yearn to be “good”) says Paul – and Kohn – and Jesus. But, if we do not learn to love unconditionally, if we choose to see the flaws in others before we see what God sees in them, then we are allowing the sin that is in our flesh (as Paul describes it) to obscure the goodness within us, and within others. We then fail to love others unconditionally, as we are called to do, because we have not learned to see beyond what a person does to embrace who they are – a beloved child of God, just like everybody else, including us.
Ultimately, “…The choice between conditional and unconditional parenting is a choice between two radically different views of human nature.” Are we essentially economic robots – our behavior is purely the learning that love is earned in return for correct behavior?
If we are primarily automatons that require incentives to behave well, then how can we be authentic people – authentic in terms of understanding who we are, and authentic in our dealings with others? Our love is conditional if we accept others only when their behavior is acceptable. This also means that we can only accept ourselves if the person we seem to be meets whatever standard we’ve set for ourselves. We will be distancing ourselves from God’s unconditional acceptance of that inner person we try so hard to hide from everyone else, including ourselves.
Why do we need to create a false “self” that others will find acceptable? When we do so, we can never be the person we are meant to be – we will always be a façade, a mask behind which we hide (and often lose) our true selves in the name of finding acceptance.
Kohn goes on to say that “Unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge … [that love] does not have to be paid for in any sense. It is simply and purely a gift …. to which all … are entitled.”
This is echoed throughout the Bible, and especially the New Testament. God is seen as “our Father.” We are called children of God, and members of the “Family of God.” Paul says it in a different way at times, describing us as members of the “Body of Christ.” God’s love is a gift, one that will never be taken away, one that is always there, not given as a result of anything we’ve done.
All of these biblical metaphors reflect an understanding of the importance of accepting and loving others unconditionally; and understanding that they reflect how God loves us. “The other” is part of who we are, and so we must learn to love others unconditionally if we are to learn how to love ourselves in the same way, and learn how to accept the unconditional love of God which is already there, waiting for us.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is not just about learning to love your neighbor, but also about learning to love yourself.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)
Jesus says something very interesting in this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John. He tells his disciples “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…”
Let’s think about that: I do not call you “Servants” any longer… but I have called you friends…
This is from the last great discourse Jesus gave to his disciples before his death in the Gospel of John. He is telling his disciples that something has changed. They are no longer like anonymous servants or slaves, lost in the shadow of the Messiah. They are no longer nameless or faceless figures in the gospels. They are now “friends” – and more than that in fact, because the Greek word we read as “friends” in this passage is perhaps better translated as “Those Whom I Love.”
Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean.
In 2000 my then-wife and daughter went to a SPCA animal shelter in nearby Lancaster County, PA and adopted a gray and black poodle that had been found and brought to the shelter nearly a month before. She appeared to have been a stray for quite a while. She had no name, so, after some discussion, my daughter named her “Muffin”. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical: Muffin was not a young dog. The veterinarians who looked at her thought she must be at least ten years old, perhaps older.
When we adopted her, she stank, she was weak, and her bones were painfully obvious to the touch underneath all of her very long and incredibly tangled hair. (Her hair was so tangled and matted that she didn’t like being touched over much of her body, especially her legs and underside. She was unable to wag her tail or move her rear legs due to the pain caused by the tangled hairs pulling on her skin. Feces were embedded in the mats of hair under her tail and between her rear legs as well.) To put it mildly, she was a weak, smelly, unlovable mess.
Despite it all, we loved her anyway: we immediately clipped off as much matted hair as Muffin would let us remove. She obviously liked the attention, stretching out and letting us work on her for several hours. we slowly worked through each mat of hair (and dulling a new pair of scissors in the process). She ate a huge amount of food that evening. Her teeth appeared to cause her pain, so we provided softer food for her.
We gave her a bath the next morning, which she relished. We spent a fair amount of time each day working away at the matted hair, slowly gaining her trust, and patiently working our way through the mats under her body, between her legs, and on her feet. Muffin ate good solid meals each day, and slept most of the time. She quickly put on weight, and her energy got better each day.
She was a sweet dog. She had obviously been well cared-for at one point. It appears that she was once in a home where she had been trained, and was allowed to sleep on her master’s (or mistress’s) bed, she begged to be allowed to get up on our bed the first time she saw it, and tried to jump-up, though her hind legs were too weak to do so. She was obviously much loved by her previous owner: she loved to be cuddled, and had no fear of people (which we thought might be a problem, given that many dogs in pounds come from neglective or abusive environments). We often wondered how she came to be a stray, and if her former owner missed her.
At first, Muffin always stayed near us as we moved about the house, and loved to be cuddled. Her presence in our family had a very positive impact on our lives. We loved her, and she obviously loved us, and returned that love. We, and especially my daughter, poured love into her from the minute they first met at the pound.
Through her whole life with us, she was a happy, joyful dog, but was definitely a tough old lady when she needed to be. In 2001 she developed into some major health problems including a severe infection of her oil glands, and so we took her to the vet: my daughter assisted in the operating room while Muffin was put under general anesthetic to have the infected area cleaned and some abscessed teeth removed. Despite her great age at the time, Muffin came through with flying colors, and I’m sure my daughter’s hard work and love had a lot to do with her successful recovery.
As another dog (Cappuccino) and then cats (starting with Misty) came into the home, and despite fading eyesight and arthritic legs, Muffin remained the queen of the roost: she was definitely the dominant personality. She lived with us until the summer of 2004: but then began to rapidly lose weight, was incontinent, and was growing significantly weaker every day. When it was clear the end was near, and rather than allow her to suffer, we put her to sleep. I held her in my arms and cried while the doctor gave her the injection. We buried her in the backyard of the townhouse we lived in at the time in Woodbridge, VA.
Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean. While healing us, He never does more than we can handle at one time, and He loves us unconditionally, no matter what condition we are in, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. All He wants us to do is return His love.
Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).