This weight came over me like the heaviest, most comfortable blanket you could imagine. It spread out over me, and it was filled with every moment of love I've ever experienced, small or large. It was stuffed with memories from long ago. It was stitched with affection and care, with intention and thoughtfulness. As I felt it drape over me, invisible of course, three words came to mind, clear and crisp: i am loved.
...I wish I were good at being alone, at feeling comfortable only in my own presence. But that is when the void of my loneliness, inadequacy, and insecurity is most present, tangible, palpable. I feel more and more like the authentic me, and it's hard to celebrate the goodness there when my mind sees the cracks, the flaws, the shame and the pain.
The reality is this: we are all needy. If we believe in the notion of being made in the image of God, and if we truly believe that at God's core, God is a relational being whose existence is rooted in God's relationship between God, Son, and Spirit (at least in a Christian, Trinitarian sense), then it only makes sense that we as humans have an inherent, intrinsic need for others—this hunger to love and be loved, to care and feel cared for, to give and receive. Healthy relationships are comprised of balance.
Our job, first and foremost, is to love. No conditions. No agenda.
We love because people deserve it. We speak out in the face of injustice. We name power and the ways it is destructive. We tell, no, we show people just how amazing they are. We make them believe that they are truly and unconditionally God's beloved. And we do it until we're blue in the face. We do it until we have no physical, emotional, or spiritual energy left. We do it until the Kindom comes. That's our job. Nothing more. Nothing less.
However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?
This is one of those quotes that, for someone like me who does his best to be intentional about everything, shakes your world to its core. When you sit and think about it, and I mean really think about it, you cannot help but be changed by the meaning of these simple words.
Still, I was angry. I was envious. In that lobby, I leaned into my friend for an embrace, but this was different for me. While he wrapped his arms around me, for the first time ever I think, I could not return the gesture. Instead, my arms were straight at my side, fists clenched, body shaking. I was holding back the fury building within me, scared that if I let the door open even remotely, there would be no stopping me. In a similar Steel Magnolias fashion, he offered to let me hit him, to unleash my pain outwardly on him, and while I appreciated the gesture, I wouldn't do it. When you grow up in a family where physical abuse is commonplace like I did, you take no pleasure in releasing it upon anyone else, especially anyone for whom you care deeply.
Yesterday, after spending most of my morning and afternoon working on one of my last papers for the semester, I asked my friend Abe over for dinner. A former seminarian, fellow contemplative, and previous classmate from college, I love spending time with him. We only recently reconnected, but even in such a short time, I've become incredibly grateful for our conversations. Besides, I rarely turn down the chance to cook for someone else.
I shared my most recent blog post with him, the one that was actually a journal entry written after our last conversation. We talked about what matters in our lives, and we both agreed that more than anything, love matters. This led to him asking me how I defined love. I took a second, thought, and responded stream of consciousness style...
Love is a willful decision to give of oneself without expectation of reciprocation...
In my previous post, I asked myself whether love was something we could do of our own accord or something with which we needed help doing, most likely from a divine source. Abe challenged me on this question as it related to my definition. My response: both. There are times I believe that we have within us the power to choose to give of ourselves, and there are times where we need a divine kick in the arse to get us going.
I've said for sometime that I understand love to be, more than anything else, a choice, an act of will. Up until last night, I don't think I knew what the choice entailed, but after our conversation, I think I have a better understanding, especially as I contemplate how my definition of love compares to my understanding of God.
God is Love. It's simple. It's biblical. It's succinct and concise. While we have Paul's list of love's character traits in 1 Corinthians, he doesn't really make it practical. Sorry, Paul. Yes, I agree that love is patient, kind, non-envious, non-boastful, etc. But ontologically, in essence, what is love? If we say that God is Love, what do we mean? What does this statement say about God's character? Does Paul's definition of love accurately measure up to our scriptural understanding of God? It's hard to say, and I certainly don't have many or all of the answers, but I do have some thoughts.
Think about Jesus. When we look at the Gospels, Jesus lived in such a way that he was always giving of himself. Words. Food. Healing. Questions. Thoughts. Affection. Sympathy. He was always giving. When he tells the rich man in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 to give up everything and then follow him, he's defining love. He doesn't say you need this fluffy, comfy feeling inside. He says you have to let go. Look at Luke 9. Jesus says that holding onto our lives will cause us to lose them, but letting go of them will help us to find them. I don't believe he's talking about some pious form of asceticism. Instead, I think he's defining love. In the end, it's about choice. No one can force us to let go of ourselves, to give anything to anyone else. We have to choose to do so.
One of my favorite quotes about love comes from C.S. Lewis.
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.
Towards the end of our conversation, Abe and I started talking about a passage in Ephesians, specifically 2:8-10. Most often, we hear people refer to v.8-9 when explaining the connection between grace and salvation. But when one goes on to read v.10, it changes things. Here's the entire passage:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (NRSV).
We were made "for good works." Grace isn't about what we believe. It's about how we live. No matter what we say we believe, actions truly do speak louder than words. This takes us back to 1 Corinthians:
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing (NRSV).
So is love just about action? No. Is it just about emotion? No. It's both. Love must be made manifest in body, mind, and spirit. We have to do it, think it, and feel it... at the very least, we have to try. We must choose to let love enter into us, and we have to choose to let it flow out of us into our surroundings.
As Abe and I were talking about the Ephesians passage, I struggled to remember from my New Testament course whether or not the letter was considered a disputed or undisputed letter of Paul (whether or not scholars think it was actually written by Paul). Abe asked me, "What difference does it make? Does knowing whether or not Paul wrote it make you love better, love more? Does believing in a literal seven-day creation? Does believing in a global flood?" The questions could go on. When we wrestle with theological issues, the most important question we can ask of ourselves and others is, "How does this make you love better or love more?"
"You see, loving people isn't about what they can do to meet my needs; it's about what God has done in my own heart to enable me to see them as He sees them." Rudy Rasmus, Touch (p.73).
The first time I read Touch was in 2010 during my first year of seminary after attending the Christian Educators Fellowship Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Pastor Rudy was one of the keynote speakers at the conference, and later in the weekend I had a chance to sit down, hear a little more of his story, and share some of my own with him. My encounter with the braided-beard man compelled me to learn more of what he had to say about his understanding of ministry.
If there was one word I would use to describe Rudy's understanding of ministry, it would be vulnerable. Engaging a world that has experienced deep brokenness and suffered severe wounding takes risk and a willingness to encounter one's own brokenness and wounds more intimately. We cannot hope for a restored, redeemed world if we aren't willing to see just how much restoration and redemption the world needs, which includes understanding our own individual needs for restoration and redemption.
Throughout his book, Rudy places an emphasis on selflessness, on putting our own needs and desires aside for the sake of understanding the needs and desires of those whom we serve, but even more importantly, of learning and understanding how it is God wants us to be a part of meeting those needs and desires. In other words, how do we learn to put ourselves last and others first? This by far is Rudy's greatest challenge to me individually.
As an only child and only grandchild, well, egocentrism comes easy at times. I try to be aware of how I'm putting myself first and to tone that tendency down, but I don't always succeed. In reading Touch, I don't hear Rudy telling his readers that ministry is about burnout and complete self-denial. Instead, I hear him saying that doing effective ministry has to start with an internalized shift in paradigm and perception. We must move from seeing the world through our own eyes to seeing it through God's. This takes a certain level of self-denial, but not to the point where we become worthless; rather, by seeing the world through God's eyes, we learn to see ourselves through the same lens and to understand how our needs are similar to and different from those to whom we minister.
Rudy and I have both experienced our share of brokenness in this world, and I believe that we've learned some similar lessons from those shared experiences. Primarily, I believe we both understand how desperately the world needs to experience unconditional love, but not in a coercive manner. Humanity often thrives on the necessity of choice, and it can be no different with love. Just as I have a choice to love myself and accept the love of my Creator and others, so also must someone else have that same choice. In the same way I choose to touch, someone else must choose to embrace being touched.
"People who fight against racism but fail to connect it to the degradation of the earth are anti-ecological—whether they know it or not. People who struggle against environmental degradation but do not incorporate it in a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy are racists—whether they acknowledge it or not. The fight for justice cannot be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for life in all its forms." James H. Cone, Whose Earth Is It, Anyway (p.138)
Over the last couple of years, I've become more aware of my own white privilege and what I might call my human privilege. As a middle-class white male, whether I know it or not, I've played a part in the oppression and dehumanization of persons of color. As a human being, I've played a part in the ecological harm caused to the Earth. As a person aware of both forms of oppression and destruction, I am called to fight for justice for both.
In Whose Earth, Cone seeks to challenge both those engaged in the black freedom movement and those involved in the ecological movement to see themselves through the lens of the other. He believes that both movements have something to learn from and offer to each other. Personally, I agree with him. In fact, I would go farther and claim that any isolated justice movement that doesn't engage other similar justice movements is doing harm. If I fight for equal rights for LGBT persons but do not engage the battle against racism, then I am culpable for harm done on the basis of race, even if I am not the one actively doing that harm.
Most fights for justice, from my perspective, have a tendency to focus solely on one issue. Rarely do they tackle the intersections of oppression that we talk about in seminary. If we think about it, race connects with gender connects with class connects with ecology and so on and so forth. Segmenting ourselves into these little components denies the holistic message of the Gospel for complete restoration, not just of humankind but of the world entrusted to it. There is a larger fight to be fought, and it needs to find a way to bring all the pieces that go into being part of God's creation together.
Cone's greatest challenge to me is to be engaged in the holistic fight. As a single solitary young white gay male, nine times out of ten, when faced with the existence of yet another form of injustice, I feel helpless to do anything. I feel burned out by the fight before I even step into the ring. But that's the thing I have to realize about justice: one should never try to fight alone. Solidarity is a powerful tool for combatting injustice, one not to be ignored. I might not always be engaged in every single fight simultaneously, but even then, I can provide support, encouragement, and resources for those who are on different battlefronts than myself. I believe Whose Earth offers a great challenge for any person engaged in a fight for justice, a challenge I personally hope I can accept.
In the opening to one of my favorite films, Angels in America, Meryl Streep pays the part of an aged Jewish Rabbi presiding over the funeral of a woman he did not know (as often happens with clergy of various sorts). He speaks of how her journey is one that cannot be repeated in the modern era of rapid travel. Simultaneously, he speaks of how her remaining family members carry within them a piece of her, of her journey, of her triumphs and her hardships.
Later in the film (or more accurately, miniseries), Louis, portrayed by Ben Shenkman, is beckoned by his ex-lover's best friend Belize (played by Jeffrey Wright), a nurse to speak the Kaddish over the recently deceased infamous closeted lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Louis, a secular Jew, struggles at first with the traditional prayer for the dead, but finds himself supernaturally assisted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also played by Streep). His only personal addition comes in his referring to Cohn as "you son of a bitch."
Death and legacy are common themes in the popular-play-turned-HBO-miniseries. Personally, I try to sit down and watch the entire six hours of the film in one sitting at least once a year. Every time, I find myself learning something new about myself during the process. My primary reason for mentioning this film pertains to tonight being All Hallows Eve, followed by tomorrow being All Saints.
I've lost a number of family members over the course of my life thus far, the most recent and important of which was my grandmother nearly a year and a half ago. Tonight, in the pagan tradition (the religion of my partner), is the holiday of Samhain (pronounced so-wen), a night that recognizes the presence of our ancestors in our lives.
There are too many people to list who have influenced me being the man I am. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny. My great, great-aunt Blanche. Several of Nanny's siblings and in-laws (Kathleen, Ira, Evelyn, Pansy). Tonight I seek to honor them and their journeys. Tonight I give thanks for the ways in which they loved and shaped me, gave me strength. Together, and separately, they taught me the importance of family, of perseverance, of selflessness. They taught me the value of a home cooked meal, of time around the table sharing story and self. They helped me understand what it meant to take pride in your work, and to do everything with a sense of significance, worth, and value.
As I sit here in my living room lit only by candles and the glow of my computer screen, listening to various movie scores and the sound of a relaxation fountain, I wish I could down with them all. I wish I could see their faces and their smiles, hear their voices, feel their arms embrace me. I would I could tell them thank you for loving me so deeply and unconditionally. I wish I could be certain they knew how much they meant to me, how deeply they changed me, even if they didn't necessarily understand or agree with my identity and relationship. I loved them, and I know they loved me.
I miss Christmases with Aunt Pansy, who always bought a box of Zachary's chocolates every year and shared it with anyone. She made sure I got the vanilla creams. I miss being in the kitchen with Aunt Blanche, a woman who could cook for an army without breaking a sweat. I miss the coziness of Aunt Evelyn's kitchen table, a place where we could sit and talk for hours. I miss Uncle Ira's laugh, even on days where he was grumpy or cynical. I miss the drive to Aunt Kathleen's house at the end of what was, for a very long time, a dirt and gravel road, and how I could always count on her having some kind of baked good ready for consumption upon my arrival. I miss sitting in Nanny's living room watching shows like NCIS, CSI, Law & Order (you get the jist), or being with her in the kitchen, cluttered around the stove making a simple but ever-filling meal.
These are my ancestors. Yes there are many others whose names, faces, and voices I did not or can not recall, and just as these are the ones who shaped me, so were they shaped by the ones before them. Their blood runs through me. There are some I did not know so well who passed before I got a chance to do so. However, given their influence on the ones that shaped me, I am thankful for them and I honor them. I sit here letting the words "We do not grieve as those without hope" run through my mind. I've moved beyond thinking I know what happens the moment a person exits this life. I do not know where these aforementioned family members are now, but regardless, part of them is still here... inside me... guiding my actions and choices. I pray that I can honor them by the way I live and, in doing so, I can honor the One who made us all for the purpose of love. I can hope and pray that, one day, I will leave a legacy similar to theirs. I hope to change lives as they have changed mine. One day I will be counted as an ancestor of someone else, and I hope that one night very much like tonight, they can sit among the candles, the water, and either silence or music, and be thankful for how I've changed or transformed them.
The primary male lead of Angels, Prior Walter (a man diagnosed with HIV in the late 80s), ends the film with this: "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and we'll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The great work begins."
I pray this for everyone I meet... more life. We are all in this great big mess called life together, and we will all leave a legacy. I pray that mine is one of transformation, restoration, and healing... that the ones who come after me know that, even if I never meet or know them, I love them and offer a part of myself to them for the betterment of their lives. Tonight I honor my ancestors, my saints, and I say a prayer for those for whom I will be an ancestor, a saint...
More life... the great work begins...