Thursday, March 27, 2014

Loving the Haters

I don't know what to add to what's already been said about the death of Fred Phelps. There have been many eloquent words written----and some not so eloquent.

I've mused that his vitriol was so over the top that surely he was a performance artist, using his life to show the logical conclusion of excluding any group of people. Of course, I don't believe it. There are too many other examples of this sort of hatred, both currently and from history, to really believe it.

But he did show us what hate looks like, how ridiculous it could be. Luckily, he never achieved any power to take it beyond his picketing nonsense (which was hurtful enough). Current conditions of LGBT people in Uganda and Russia (to name two places) shows a less ridiculous logical end of hating people.

Still, I do think he helped LGBT folk in the United States. All his effort and money thrown at us LGBT folk created more sympathy for us than anything else. I think people who were on the fence about LGBT folk decided they did not want to look like Phelps. So in a backhanded sort of way, we have a debt of gratitude to pay.

That doesn't change the fact that his name goes down in history as a petty, mean man who got way more publicity than he deserved. He joins the likes of Roy Cohn and Anita Bryant in the books on LGBT rights.

Which is, really, a pretty good definition of a wasted life.

Still, I don't rejoice in his death. Some have and do, and I can understand the impulse, but I do believe my faith must look at the man and search for the Image of God that he carried. I grieve, in some small measure, that he apparently didn't ever know the loving God I encounter in the same scriptures he misused.

Do I love him? Or his surviving family, who carries on his hate? Or the people in Uganda who set gay men on fire or the bullies in Russia who beat gay men until their faces are barely recognized as human? (I'm focusing on LGBT people in this post for obvious, personal reasons, but there are certainly other subsets of humanity in similar dire straits around the world.)

If I say I love these people, I simultaneously that it's a cheap love. It's a love I proclaim because I think I should, but it's a love without cost to me. I don't have to spend time with any of them, personally.

So, I don't know what to do with Fred Phelps. I don't know what he did that I might speak well of him. Everything I know of him denies all attempts at sympathy for him.

I will say I don't believe there's a literal hell. I don't think he's in hell. Whatever happens after we die, I feel he is going to be, at the very least, offered grace and redemption and reconciliation.

For all the venom he spewed in his hating life, I still believe he's been surprised by a joy that none of us can understand until we join him.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hearts and Flowers and Hungry Sheep

My Facebook status on February 14:

True story: I'm 50 years old and have never (best i can remember) had an actual date on a Valentine's Day, and still my life is filled with much love.

Of course, there's all kinds of angles on that statement, some leading to light, some to darkness, but writing it, and then thinking about it, set my head to pondering Love. And hate. And all the ways we mean those words. 

Of course, it's difficult for us English speakers. We don't have words to differentiate the kinds of love we might experience. The Greeks at the time of the gospel writers did (for those who do not already know, that era of Greek is known as Koine Greek, which is different from Classical Greek or modern Greek). 

I'm always amused at interpretations of the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John that rely only on an English translation. This is the post-resurrection story of Jesus meeting his disciples on the beach and eating breakfast with them. Then he turns to Peter and asks, "Peter do you love me?" Peter answers, "Of course I love you." Jesus replies with something about feeding or tending his sheep. This happens three times and Peter's feelings get hurt a little bit.

What's missing in our readings in English is the Greek nuances. In Greek, Jesus asks, "do you agape me?" Do you love me, no matter what, unconditionally? Peter answers with "I phileo you." I love you like a brother. Different loves.

And therein lies the disingenuousness of my Facebook post. I was playing with the ambiguity of "love" in our language. On Valentine's Day, it's all about hearts and flowers, and indeed, there has been very little of that in my life. There is, however, much love that is like a family or, more to the point, friends. I do not lack for affection in that area.

Then, of course, there is the constant, steadfast agape that hits me now and again, the signs all around me of God's gracious love.

I get Peter and his shifting of focus from agape to phileo. The latter is so much easier to comprehend and act upon.

But feeding those sheep . . . there's just so many of them! That is one seriously big flock

Jesus ends the exchange with, "Follow me."

Here in this lenten season, we examine again our discipleship. I'm thinking a lot about love and the different kinds thereof. I'm overwhelmed by the sheep.

Follow you? Jesus, have mercy on a straying lamb. I'm 50 and still getting lost. Thank you for your shepherd's voice that keeps pulling me back into the fold, where I am fed and sometimes I feed.

I love you Jesus (English language ambiguity lending me some sort of ambiguous safety), but what I'm trying to say is: I am a hungry sheep, too.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Love Songs and Prophetic Words

To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. When this comes—and come it will!—then they shall know that a prophet has been among them. (Ezekiel 33:32-33)

Came across these words last night. They catch my eye and give me pause.

The "speaker" of these words is God to the prophet. God has just spent, in verses previous, warning of coming disaster, the "word" that the prophet is to pass on to the people of God. There is nothing beautiful about it.

Then God says, "and they'll come listen to you, and talk about you around town and even invite their friends to come hear the prophet. But to them all this warning is received like a love song?


But . . . I wonder. It seems to me that since my childhood in the 1970s, the culture has become more violent. Of course, we had our violence then, too, but now it feels more pervasive, more acceptable, more taken for granted. A sociologist could tell you if I'm right or wrong about this, but it feels this way to me.

And I think we take all this violence and destruction and treat it, if not like a love song, then certainly as entertainment. Yes, the entertainment of our time is violent, but in general, violence seems to be received as entertaining. Whether fabricated by Hollywood or reported on the news (some might say there is less and less difference), we see the signs of destruction and we're just entertained by it.

Love song or slasher movie, it's all the same to us.

Is that what God is saying to the prophet?

I'm reminded of a few lines from Joni Mitchell, released on her Dog Eat Dog album in 1985:

No tanks have ever rumbled through these streets
and the drone of planes at night has never frightened me
I keep the hours and the company that I please
And we call for the three great stimulants
Of the exhausted ones
Artifice brutality and innocence

Are we so comfortable in our "peace" that we wish to be stimulated by what is fake, what is brutal, what is perceived as innocence?

It seems counter to our evolutionary self-interest, but there is something in us that wants to have the adrenaline rush. We are addicted to it and like most addicts, we reach for ever higher dosages. Maybe not individually, but as a culture.

As always, I'm mostly left with more questions than statements but here I am with this:

What if we could wean ourselves off the adrenaline rush of violence? What if we were able to tell stories that inspired the pleasure of kindness, gentleness, and peace. What if even our prophetic utterances were more about the possibilities of love rather than the threat of destruction?

As I've asserted before, we need to tell new stories. The survival of our planet requires we begin to tell new stories.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Loving the World

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. (I John 2:15-16)

 Like my previous post, I start with a troublesome verse. There are Christians who see this and use it as an excuse to detach, abuse, over-use. It can lead to crises of resources and guilt over natural attraction between people.

That's not to say that the verse is completely wrong. A certain amount of detachment from the things of this world is a good thing. If desire is a part of the human experience, it can also become a ruling drive in our lives, making food, money, sex, or (in my case) books an obsession that throws other concerns out of balance. (I swear, I buy fewer books than I used to.)

I would that we not read this passage as a warning against loving the beauty and sensual (in the broadest sense) pleasures of the world. They are gifts. If there are times we feel it getting out of balance, we need to take a step back (sometimes we may need help with that).

I would rather us read it as a variation of the great commandment: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Blessing from the Enemy

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. (Luke 6:22)

What a troublesome verse.

I feel like I see people doing hateful things, often in the name of "taking a stand" on one thing or another with no room for giving an inch. Then, when they receive "hate" for their stand, they get to quote this verse.

I may have done this a time or two . . . or three . . . and perhaps the counting is not done.

But I think this teaching requires some discernment. I don't think anyone calling me an ugly name or even attacking me physically necessarily means that I'm right, justified, or blessed.

I certainly don't think it means we can yell this verse back at our attackers and continue on our way, feeling smug about having been attacked.

A few thoughts:

Feeling hated, excluded, reviled, or defamed will not feel like a blessing, at least I don't think so.

Answering hatred with this Bible verse does not make one blessed, neither does it conclude any argument. In other words, the fact that one knows this verse proves anything.

Tha Abbas and the Ammas of the 4th Century Egyptian desert had many sayings about humility, that it is the one thing needed to love, the one thing that evil cannot match. If the above Bible verse becomes a weapon against our enemy, it has become an agent of hatred and there is no humility in the quoting of it. We cannot love our enemy while using scripture as a weapon.

If we are to love our enemy, we are to, read carefully, love our enemy. If we are attacked and this verse comes to mind, realize it is a comfort to us and nothing else Also realize that the blessing may be a bruised, limping blessing like Jacob's.

Loving our enemy will leave no room for our enemy to use the above Bible verse in their defense, either. Loving our enemy will not look like hate, exclusion, revulsion, or defamation.

At least, these are the thoughts I'm thinking this evening. These are the thoughts I hope will rise whenever I feel hated, excluded, reviled, or defamed.

God grant us humility to love.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Emotional Masters

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Luke 16:13)

I'm not going to talk about God and mammon. I'm just going to use this verse as a jumping off point.

We are emotional creatures and these emotions can rule our lives. I'm probably stating the obvious.

Supposing in place of "God and wealth," we substituted "Love and hate." Or more accurately, since the English language is limited in this regard, "Agape and hate."

We have become a culture that serves hate, loves hate, cultivates hate. As just one example, a Facebook friend shared a link today that was all about how some celebrities don't age very well.

And I bet the site gets plenty of hits. We, as a culture, love the snarky, the mean, the denigrating. We support magazines and other media that do little more than publish photos of stars looking "bad" in swimwear, who are dressed in frumpy clothes (because maybe they want to be comfortable when they're not working?), or who have gained weight.

If it stopped with the rich and famous, I suppose that would be one thing, except it doesn't. We seem to take our cues from these magazines and websites as acceptable behavior for how we treat one another. A cutting remark gets us laughs---our reward. We look to the media again for more examples of how to get these laughs at the expense of others. I see it in families, I see it towards homeless downtown, I see it among pretty much all age groups.

Then it gains speed and volume as it turns into bullying and violence.

I'm not going to talk about world rulers and war. I'm taking about us, on the street, in our daily lives, our families and friends. We do this hurtful, angry, mean, hateful thing---and we expect a reward of laughter, popularity.

I would like to think we can do better. I think there is room for effort in this regard.

What I think I want to say is: this behavior becomes a kind of slavery to meanness, to hate. I feel the shackles now and then. I want to let loose on a few public figures, and sometimes I do.

And it's wrong. It denies the Image of God in these people---and it's easy to forget that they are people, that they are Images of God, however filtered by the latest fashion.

I cannot serve Agape while denigrating anyone.

So, can we find a way to live together---even argue together, because there are serious things to hash out in the world---without resorting to a cutting remark? Can I find this way?

We cannot serve Agape and hate. We will eventually value one and not the other.

So my mind today is on this: How do I move through this culture of meannes as a servant of Agape?

Let us turn away from the urge to be mean, let us turn to love one another.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Love and Hate

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you/"

Who is my enemy? How do I hate them? How do I choose love?

What is the fast I should choose?

Pastor Wayne G Gillespie (ELCA) posted on Facebook today: "As you're thinking about what you are going to "give up" during Lent, reflect upon the words of the God who says, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'"  

Honestly, Ash Wednesday has only 120 minutes left and I have not decided on a fast. I may still, and when I do, I won't post about it. That goes against the instruction of Ash Wednesday's Gospel lesson about fasting in a public way, that is: don't. 

But lent, being a penitential season, a season for reflecting on the things that separate us from holiness, a season, as my priest said tonight, that we observe in full knowledge of Easter, I hope to publicly reflect on love, the goal of the Christian life. 

:Love and enemies. Sacrifice and mercy.

So begins this year's journey through the cross.