It must be love…

For a long time I have been pondering what it means to love God.  Contrary to some obscure what kind of “defective personality test are you” test I took randomly on Facebook (why take such things you may well ask? At least I didn’t publish it!), I am not wooden, but nor am I given to gushing emotion.  I am not one to splash the “I love you”  words around liberally.  And so I have come to wonder about God and love.  What and how do I love him?  We often sing songs at church about loving God.  “Jesus I am so in love with you” one song-writer croons.  But are we?   For me the “in love” phrase conjours up the domain of romantic lovers, exciting and passionate for sure.  But this love, for all its fire and energy, lacks depth, commitment, the burnished resilience that only the gritty journey of life together can forge.  It passes, is readily kindled and extinguished.  I don’t love Jesus in this romantic way.  However, I am not decrying intimacy with God.

I am reading Michael Frost’s book “Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post Christian Culture” at the moment.  He takes an interesting meander through the old testament’s language of God and love, and while the analogy is often used of the relationship between a man and a woman, it is always unflattering.  A relentlessly tragic story of unfaithfulness, the language often sordid and emotive.  A sad story of God remaining faithful to a people who continue to betray.  (Song of Solomon is a notable exception and probably an unecessary digression for the discussion here).

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  And the second is like it.  Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Frost asserts that this passage “underscores the fact that for Jesus, it is impossible to love God apart from expressing that love physically and practically into the lives of our neighbours.”(p308).

Now this is something that resonates more for me, it is loving as a verb rather than some feel good sensation in my heart, stomach or whatever is the culturally acceptable seat of emotions.

Frost goes on to list nine different ways we can “love God”, beginning with a piercing quote from Rowland Croucher – “You love God just as much, and no more, than the person you love least.”  Here are the nine headings:

Love God by loving others

Love God by obeying Jesus

Love God by lingering in God’s company

Love God by speaking about the things of God

Love God by longing for the return of Christ

Love God by forsaking all other gods and idols

Love God by laying down our life

Love God by loving what he has created.

Love God by forgiving others.

I think Frost is onto something here.  There is much to unpack in nine sentences that holds a light to  the ways in which I love God, and the ways in which I fail to.

So then, of what shall we sing?

pointless but beautiful

I have just finished reading Tim Winton’s latest book “Breath“. The book is a coming of age tale with unsurprisingly, a strong theme of breathing and its association with the strangely entwined experience of both seeking to feel truly alive and soliciting death. A lesser theme that resonates in the background as consistently as the rumbling of the sea venerated by the book’s narrator is the notion of something being pointless but beautiful. Winton raises the idea that there is little room in our culture for men to engage in something that is pointless but beautiful. That apparently, is the domain of women. Except for the relationship between men and surfing. Winton’s romantic descriptions of the sheer exhilaration and beauty of catching a wave are enticing. There is something entirely wondrous and magical about being in a wild sea with the sun dancing on glossy waves. Not to mention the thrill of inter-mingled danger and beauty. I love being out in the sea with my surfboard. I can’t say I love surfing, for I would not call my messy relationship with waves and fiberglass surfing. However, I don’t think proficiency is required to understand Winton’s interest in pointless beauty. Oddly, I sense God’s presence deeply when I am being tossed about in the ocean. A strange sense of both smallness and bigness.

I agree with Winton – our culture doesn’t mind a little shallow surface beauty for both men and women – the lifeblood of the fashion industry. But beauty that invades the soul is another thing altogether. I think that this is part of what it is to be human. And maybe, it is part of what it is to reflect God. I am not saying that God is pointless but beautiful”, but to say all that God is and does (as far as we can grasp this) is all about function, achievement and outcome driven purpose seems empty. One only needs to spend a little time in nature to witness beauty that is perhaps beautiful simply for the sake of the pleasure of the beholder.

I wonder if there would be less angst in our culture, greater depth to our spirituality, and more complete expressions of man and womanhood if we allowed room for pointless beauty. Get out your surfboards, paintbrushes, guitars or walking shoes. Whatever it is that gives you glimpses of beauty.

loosing and binding

I have been a Christian for a long time.  I couldn’t count how many sermons or seminars I have sat through, some with eagerness and many with barely disguisable boredom.  I am sure I have heard more than one deal with the subject of “loosing and binding”.  Usually to do with spiritual warfare.  For those of you who read my blog who may be unfamiliar with these terms (and a few more that follow), a quick play on Google or visit to the wiki will catch you up.  I have always been taught that loosing and binding was to do with managing supernatural nasties.  Enter Velvet Elvis.  I am part way through this thoroughly enjoyable book by Rob Bell, who has managed in a few short pages to challenge more than a few assumptions.   Loosing and binding has precious little to do with demons and such like, according to Rob.  Rabbis used to (and probably still do) sit around and rip through the Torah, arguing the finer points, challenging traditional interpretations, and master rabbis would make their mark by defining how something was to be understood and applied.  This may mean that some past understandings were discarded, and new applications put into force.  This process was referred to as “loosing” and “binding”.  A rule that no longer applied was “loosed”, and the fresh interpretation was considered “bound”.  This is the process that Jesus was referring to.  Jesus certainly did his share of “loosing” and “binding”.

Probably not as exciting for sermon material as loosing and binding spiritual powers,  but I for one am rather glad to be set straight on the matter.  Or rather my old understanding has been “loosed”.  And there is something rather exciting about the process.  The Scriptures are to be engaged in, tossed around, teased out, debated hotly, always searching for life-giving meaning, with a bit of “loosing” and “binding” thrown in there – a dynamic process that is continually revisited.  The bible is never “done and dusted”.  When I get time, I plan to do a bit of research of my own into the phenomenon of “loosing” and “binding”, to see if I reckon Rob has “loosed” and “bound” rightly.

Hmmm.  This has to be the most times I have used quotation marks in a post in all my  blogging years.

Generous Orthodoxy.

I always knew that there had to be an alternative to having a pat answer for everything. That it was possible to know some things for sure, hold others in tension, and respectfully consider everything else, with a view to learning from what seems “other” without having to be utterly persuaded by it. This is what Brian McClaren achieves rather brilliantly in his book “A generous Orthodoxy“. If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you do so.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with everything Brian writes, only read with the attitude with which it has been written – grace.

This book challenged me.  Much of ‘Christianity’ seems consumed with what it does or does not stand for – both in regard to doctrine and practice.  We believe this but not that, practice ‘a’ but not ‘b’.  Condemn one behaviour and uphold another.  These distinctions serve to define who is in or out.  Who is saved or damned.  Who is a Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal etc.

Brian spends much of this book looking at how different traditions etc contribute to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  The amazing thing is that while some “brands” may seem really ‘out there’ and different, they also have incredible potential to enrich our understanding and living as disciples, if only we can be generous enough in our ‘orthodoxy’ to see it. Brian doesn’t call for open slather relativism or disollution of the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but rather an acknowledgement that our faith can be enriched by other disciplines and perspectives.  Ultimately, who amongst us can claim to have worked out all there is to know, believe and practise about our God?  We can’t reduce God to our finite capacity to know.  And we need to be open to the fact that God may have revealed different aspects of himself throughout his creation, some of which we have not even begun to grasp in our little spiritual patch.

I expect to write a bit more here about this book, as it has certainly got me thinking….

How big is your sin?

Here’s my second instalment from Leo Tolstoy’s “Divine and Human”. It is about two women who go to an old saint to learn from him. One woman thought of herself as a terrible sinner – she had cheated on her husband when younger. She told the old man about it, and felt that she could never be forgiven. The other woman said she couldn’t think of any particular sin to confess. She had live by the law, and not committed any serious sin. He told the first woman to find the biggest stone she could carry and bring it to him. He told the second woman to find as many small stones as she could carry. The women did as he instructed. The old man looked at their stones and told them to put them back where they had found them. The first woman with the large stone found this easy – she knew exactly where she had got it from. The second woman didn’t have a clue, so she returned to the old man with her sack of little stones. Here comes the clincher. The man says to the first woman as she remembered where the big stone came from, likewise she remembered her great sin, and bore reproach from herself and others. She was humbled and therefore could be forgiven. The second woman could not remember where she found each stone. He said to her,

“It is the same with your sins. You have sinned in small ways many times. You do not remember those sins, did not confess them and grew used to a life of sin. In addition, through condemning the sins of others, you have sinned more and more.”

Ouch. Most of the time I think of myself as a basically good person. I don’t feel weighed down by sin in my life. I have repented and sought forgiveness for sins along the way, but right now I think I would be like the second woman – nothing stands out exceptionally to me. I think I would have gathered smallish stones, not really being aware of the need to gather a boulder or two. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. Could we be inoculated against sin? This man raises a valid point – if we are used to sinning in “small” ways, we could become accustomed and blinded to them. Hmm… a bit like the pharisees whose sins were hidden and of the heart. Interestly this is a bit of a stumbling block at times to people who do not know Jesus. “Why should I be saved?” they may ask. “I am a good person”. We are pretty sensitive to the so-called big stones – infidelity, murder, theft etc, but rather numbed to the “smaller stones” – of greed, selfishness, sins of the heart. Jesus was not. He made a point with stones too.

How can you look with love…?

Tolstoy - Divine and Human

I am reading a book by russian author Leo Tolstoy called “Divine and Human and other stories“. It was written around the time of the 1905 Russian revolution. Overall the book has thus far not been a real stand out for me, however, there are a couple of stories that seem blog-worthy for me. The first is one page long, and I shall reproduce it here in its entirety as it expresses sentiment worth considering in our current religious global climate

“The Archangel Gabriel”.

“Once apon a time, the archangel Gabriel heard the voice of God speaking from paradise, blessing someone. Gabriel said, ‘Surely this is some important servant of my Lord, God the Father. He must be a great saint, or hermit, or wise man.’

The archangel went down to earth looking for the man, but he could not find him, neither on earth nor in heaven. Then he addressed God and said, ‘Oh Lord, my God, please show me how to find the object of your love.’

God answered him, ‘Go to this village. And there in a little temple you will see a fire.’

The angel went down to the temple and found a man praying before an idol. Then he went back to God and said, ‘Lord, how can you look with love upon this idol worshipper?’

God said, ‘It is true that he does not understand me properly. Not one man living is capable of understanding me as I am. The wisest of the whole human race are just as far from really understanding me as this man is. I look not at his mind, but at his heart. The heart of this man searches for me, and therefore he is close to me.’ “

I have thought about this story a lot. I can imagine Christians all over saying there is only one way to the Father, through Jesus. I would not dispute them. However, it struck me that while Jesus opens the door for us to enter into relationship with our creator God, there is more than one path leading to Jesus. Every person who enters a relationship with Jesus has their own story, their own journey to that place of revelation. God is not limited to drawing his people to himself through Sunday services or big Christian crusades.

Chicken soup for the blogger’s soul

Most of my posts on my previous blog were critiques – of church, theology, movies, politics. Perhaps not dissimilar to some of the blogs that I read. On Saturday night I had dinner with friends who introduced me to the RealLivePreacher. They also lent us his book, a collection of posts. The preacher does look critically at himself and life around him, but there is also optimism, posts with heart. Stories about things we might miss. A little more thoughtful than "Chicken Soup for the Soul" style stories, but a similar capacity to capture the essence of what is good and to be celebrated in life. Hopefully some of this will permeate my musings…