Twin discoveries from our life of love group: 1. Every week the topic of “loving ourselves” has come up, and 2., I have some inner resistance to that phrase. Oh, wait: discovery three: If I loved myself in the way that God loves me (or if I, in other words, allowed God to lead me in how I think about myself, feed myself, forgive myself, etc. etc.), I and everyone around me would be better off. Ouch. “Let me ‘splain; no, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
Have you ever said to someone who was in some destructive habits, “Take care of yourself” and really hoped that they would? I think that’s what God is saying to all of us, at least that’s what I’m hearing at our LOL group. Think of Jesus crying out to Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you were not willing!” And I am apparently part of the “unwilling.” Yes, I am at least somewhat inwardly opposed to believing that God desires above all to just let him (through some of our own choices) take care of us. I’m reminded of how the NT teaches husbands to love their wives as they do their own body, “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” Really? No one ever hated his own body, Paul? Paul obviously didn’t live in the modern West or grow up in the churches I grew up in. But seriously, did you catch that? The logic is obvious: Paul assumes and affirms that we would “love” our own bodies; that we’d feed and care for them, and not disdainfully on the one hand or indulgently on the other, but as Christ does the Church. If your spirit just says, “Of course; duh, T!” then count yourself blessed. Cuz I’ve not been trained to think that Paul would affirm folks “loving” themselves, certainly not their bodies–we’re supposed to hate/tolerate our bodies in Christianity, right? Apparently not. But you know, I freely admit that I need progress in love in the way of Christ, and it turns out the first place God has highlighted has been accepting his love for me in greater measure, and seeing more clearly how he does “love.”
God busted me as I was contemplating a typical food choice the other day: “If I loved myself the way God loves me, I wouldn’t just eat whatever I want, I’d take care of myself through eating; because that’s what God wants to do–take better care of me.”
What’s really going on here is the depth and scope of my belief, or disbelief, in the grace of God toward me. Again, I’ve been programmed to hear “grace” as “forgiving my sins” but God’s grace is all the undeserved kindness that God wants to show me, all the ways he wants to take care of me, merit notwithstanding. It’s too easy for me when I hear that we are to pick up our cross and follow Christ to even unconsciously say, “Yes, yes, because I deserve some hardship for my failings; and God wants to give me some.” But that’s not the cross that Jesus picked up, nor the one he asks us to bear.
God wants to care for us, and the whole world. He’d like to pull us into that vocation, even as it concerns our own selves. Yes, God wants me to “love myself” but not the way the world loves, so that I just give myself whatever I want, but to “care for and feed myself,” to seek to do good to myself and even my body, because that’s God’s desire for me.
In my experience growing up in evangelical circles, generally speaking, repentance was understood as an individual choice that was done or not done in a moment. The power to make this choice came, if at all, directly from God (the Holy Spirit) to the individual. That’s simply what repentance was and how it happened. One sealed the deal by walking an aisle, or raising one’s hand (with all heads bowed and eyes closed) or telling someone about our decision. Then it was up to whatever measure of individual, God-given willpower one had to “walk it out,” just me and Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to deeply appreciate in 12-step/support group wisdom and practice is the recognition that repentance–real change of one’s life that sticks–is generally neither instantaneous nor ‘lone-ranger’ style; it’s slow and, more importantly, communal. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 12 steps are themselves 12 “steps” to effective repentance and that the meetings are there to “support” each person in this most challenging of all processes.
Here’s my question to my fellow church folk out there: How do you do repentance? Solo or communal? Do you have a Christian community, large or small, that actually encourages you to admit failures and take steps to repent/change without shaming you? In other words, do you have a community to run to for help as you are faced with your failures, or do you generally attempt to implement/pursue change alone?
There’s a long story here, but I’m going to skip to the end (maybe give a pre-quel later). 🙂 The other day, I was emailing a friend, Pat Loughery, and said this in response to a question he asked me:
The actual shape of my life day to day matters so much more than I used to think. Realizing this has brought me to more of a “one day at a time” approach, and makes me more appreciative of friends who support me in really pursuing a life of love.
When I typed the last three words, an idea–and a strong motivation–to start a support group built around the purpose of pursuing a life of love, in the way of Christ, hit me hard. I spoke to a few close friends about it, and a couple of other folks that I think the Spirit highlighted for me. We had our first meeting this last Tuesday, and I was really, really encouraged, and I think many were.
For those who aren’t familiar with support groups, the below outline may not give a clear enough idea of what we do (and why and how), but I figured I’d post it anyway. I’m a little jazzed, too, that after having just our first meeting and giving out this outline, someone else volunteered to facilitate the next meeting. Here’s to Love.
LIFE OF LOVE GROUP – Proposed Meeting Format
A Support Group for People Who’s Highest Goal Is To Make Real Progress in Living a Life of Love in the Way of Jesus
- Hangout, snacks, etc.
- At the appointed time, the facilitator calls everyone to the meeting; someone reads: “The purpose of this group is to support each other as we seek to live lives of greater love in the way of Jesus. The desire for such progress in love is the only requirement for membership.”
- Someone reads a scripture chosen by the facilitator in keeping with our purpose. (e.g., I Cor. 13, various I John passages, various Psalms, John 3:16, etc.).
- If there are any newcomers, the facilitator gives basic outline for the meeting and the closing time.
- The facilitator (i) introduces a time of silence to give everyone the opportunity to stop, think and/or pray, and (ii) closes the time with a simple “Amen” or the serenity prayer or another appropriate prayer to the group’s purpose, whether scripted or spontaneous.
- If there are relatively new people, the facilitator may go over the basic rules of the discussion time, which are born out of our common purpose: +++ Respect for other members: This is a space for people to “work out their own rescue” from lovelessness in the presence of God and others. Each person is chiefly responsible for his or her own progress in love or the lack of it, therefore, each person is welcome to share or not in turn as they deem best. Feelings and/or personal experience are preferable to theory. No hard rules on length, but we want in general to be considerate so that others also have time to be heard. Listening is our primary way to love each other in the discussion time. So that each of us can avail ourselves of this time without being shamed, we do not give feedback or advice to other members unless they specifically ask for it (even then, it may be best not to give it during discussion, but rather to share your own experience and pray!). Affirmations or gratitude for what someone else has shared is always welcome. +++ Confidentiality: Everything said in the meeting is confidential, and will not be disclosed to others.
- The facilitator introduces the topic of discussion as well as the freedom (and encouragement!) to deviate from the topic. Each person is encouraged to talk about whatever they feel will help them make progress in love. If there are any (relatively) newcomers, the facilitator should ask each person to introduce themselves by first names at their turn to share. More than one “round” of discussion is totally fine, as are additional, related topics or questions by the facilitator until time is up.
- At the agreed time, the facilitator announces the end of discussion time, invites all to make note of any particular items that they want to “take away” for their own progress, allows each person a quick opportunity to share their take away or not.
- [optional] Time of singing to God. The facilitator encourages people to approach this time within the context of our goal of learning to love God and receive love from him. Try not to simply sing out of habit. Each person is free to sing, , listen, stand, sit, kneel, etc. as each deems helpful toward our goal.
- Close by leading all in the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 or other group prayer appropriate to the purpose. The facilitator encourages anyone who wants to pray further or receive prayer to do so. Same for discussion, snacks, helping to clean up, or leaving the meeting.
Have you noticed how easy it is for one’s Christianity, one’s faith, to become a side show, one hobby among many, rather than the center of one’s life and motives? For my part, I am in a stage of repentance. I cannot say that my existence of late can be best described as myself no longer really living replaced by Christ living through me. Rather, my life of late has been me largely going after what I want, doing some of what he wants, even working with him from time to time, while wearing various pieces of “Jesus veneer.” I say “veneer” because I’m disturbed at how thin the Jesus I’m wearing is, or has become.
It’s just so easy to try to live your own life for yourself. It’s right there. It seems so logical.
But I can’t keep it. It’s like building sand castles at low tide.
Lord, help me stop building everything that’s doomed to fall down. Help me give up my pursuits, deny myself, and work and rest at your direction alone, for the sake of everyone around me.
“If anyone [gay] wants to come with me, let him deny himself [the rest of you are already good to go].”
Dave Fitch is hosting a difficult and important conversation at his blog, and with much grace all around. The following is my latest comment, which I probably should have posted separately here in the first place. Sorry Dave! Looking forward to future posts in the series!
One of the things I’m getting (and liking) in this conversation is a small taste of what I hope David means by “welcoming and mutually transforming.”
By David’s and Isaac’s conversation, I’m already seeing how I have taken so many of my own practices and desires and even parts of what I consider my own identity as givens, or rather how I’ve attached to them a sense of entitlement that is beyond questioning, even by Christ’s purposes.
I find the last comment by Isaac particularly interesting (Isaac, I don’t want you to feel like you have to address it if you’re growing tired of the conversation; you’ve already given a great deal.), especially as it ends with the idea that sexual orientation seems to be much larger than sexual desire.
As you guys mentioned, there are several ways in which this is true. There are almost always communal bonds at stake, not just with one’s partner but also one’s “people”, one’s community and friends. People frame their identities not merely as persons having this or that sexual “desire” but also as people who are faithful to their particular communities. I wonder which pulls us and shapes our sense of identity more, especially on this issue, our desires or our ties to our communities?
As I think about all these things, I’m reminded of Jesus’ call to priortize him and following him even over our communal ties to parents or children or spouse. Not a favorite passage of mine. We often think of or present Christianity as saying “you have to give up or resist this or that desire to be loyal to Jesus.” But it’s really more radical, more exacting, than that. It’s much larger than our desires. Jesus’ call to follow him is clearly a call to subrogate our desires and our identities and the communal bonds that form and maintain them to Jesus. Everything that would come under the broad definition of “our life” (everything we would lose by death) is what is up for transformation and redirection by Christ.
But I don’t think this is what the LGBTQ sees the largely hetero Church doing or even saying Jesus is actually about in America. We have implicitly said that Jesus doesn’t have any serious correction to give to the typical American way of life, other than to add tithing and church attendance. It’s a club with a cross on the building, claiming to be formed and frequented by God himself, and it discriminates on the basis of sex and sexual orientation for who can join.
Maybe part of these discussions in real life has to be particular and personal confessions by hetero Christians of how they’ve flatly ignored Jesus’ Lordship because it has threatened this or that community bond or standing, or some other part of what we want “our” life to be like. Isaac and the LGBTQ community are right in that there is a double standard for what is required at the door of the Church, what’s required to “be Jesus’ disciple” as we’ve implicitly redefined it around us. That has to change, and it has to start with those already in the building, those claiming to be God’s friends. We’ve got to have a few more serious stories of our own about what we have given up to have the pearl. We have to reframe our own discipleship.
Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton spoke the language of this generation. And no where did he do so more profoundly as when he famously dodged a flat question with the reply,
“It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.”
I remember how shocked I was when I first heard him say that. When I look back at that quote it takes me right back to that shock. And it reminds me of the tortured way some people, even some ministers, talk about the resurrection of Jesus and whether Jesus is alive.
On that last point, I want to say one thing before the obvious central point of this post. I’ve learned some great things from “liberal” Christians, some of whom would no doubt launch into a Clinton-esque tortured exploration of “is” if asked if they think Jesus “is” alive. If my learning from such folks shocks you, let me briefly say there are several theologies in conservative Christian circles that tend to undervalue the power and genius of Christ’s teachings and example, while there are some on the left that do the opposite. Search this blog for my “Don’t call it grace” posts to begin to see what I mean. It’s not just his blood, but also his words that give (and are) life; and sometimes Christians, ironically, miss this.
But my second point is this: People who say they are Christians but want to talk about what the meaning of the word “is” is when confessing that ‘Jesus is Lord’ look just as silly as Bill Clinton when he tried that tack. There ain’t no debate about what “is” means when the scriptures say “Jesus is Lord.” In a word, we’re talking about, and affirming, the resurrection. Interestingly, Jesus himself actually makes the argument that the dead are raised by the usage of the “is” concept. The fact that Jesus “is” as opposed to merely “was” is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and a big part of what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. I’m okay with folks having honest questions about that as they peruse the faith and even as they are on the long journey of the Way. But let’s be clear what the “is” means in the original Christian creed and in any Christian creed worth having: ‘Jesus is Lord’ means in no small part that Jesus is alive.
In the first post in this brief series, I said I’d post on each word of this central, and original “creed” of Christianity. I could (and may still) end this series with a post on “Jesus.” I mentioned at the end of the last post:
I’ll leave you to the gospels, to Acts, to the letters to find out what all is in this king’s agenda and regular activities. It’s good, good stuff, though, I’ll tell you that right now.
Because of the power of this government, everything about Jesus, the one Christ-ened with power by God to lead and transform, is news. The specifics of what he does with God’s power and what he commands and empowers us to do is what makes the news good.
Who is this Jesus that God has given all authority in heaven and the earth? What’s his agenda? What are his priorities? To answer this question I urge people to read the gospels. Please intentionally try to shelve what your own tradition tells you are Jesus’ priorities. Let Matthew give you his take. Let Mark and Luke do the same. Let John. Let Jesus. Look at his actions and words and try to discern what this guy is about. Reading any one gospel only takes a half-hour or so. I guarantee that reading any one of them, if you’ve never done it, will shift your idea about who Jesus is and what matters to him.
Warning: you may find yourself wondering why your church does what it does and how.