Love isn’t love if not freely chosen.
Love isn’t perfect until it sets the beloved perfectly free.
So the ability to choose not-love is absolutely necessary for love to exist…
…which means the evil done in the world is really proof of love…
Have I overstated this? Maybe. Not sure. Increasingly don’t think so.
Since we’ve been writing on cave walls, evil has been a problem. Why do we do what we do? Why is it done to us? A whole branch of philosophy, theodicy, is dedicated to justifying God’s existence in the presence of evil…a real problem for those who believe in only one God. Polytheists can have good gods and bad gods—problem solved. Atheists have no problem at all, of course, and agnostics just shrug. Monotheists have Satan, but that doesn’t let God off the hook; buck still stops at God’s desk. If there is only one God who is all powerful and all good and yet evil exists, pick any two, but you can’t have all three. If God doesn’t stop evil, he’s not all good; if he can’t, not all powerful.
We grieve and rage over the evil we see in the world and in our families for good reason—we cry to God to relieve us of the evil that we and others create as if it never should have existed in our universe. Evil is always painful, sometimes unspeakably so, but what would a world really look like without evil ever chosen? Only place you’d ever find absolute uniformity of choice would be where there is no choice.
Choice is the key ingredient, the part of us created in God’s image. Without a free choice, love is not love. If it’s coerced or purchased in any way, it’s a violation at worst, a transaction at best, but how is it love? And if Merton is right, if love is really identification with the beloved from which all loving behavior and emotion flows, then the choice to see ourselves as intimately connected, one with each other and God, must be no less free.
If we’re really not preprogrammed, if our choices really are free, then it is a mathematical certainty that some will choose one way and others differently. That’s the nature of choice. I know how Genesis reads, but as idiomatic Hebrew expression of God granting the beginning of choice in the Garden, seems to me the possibility still exists that people choosing all sorts of different paths was also part of the plan. That the evil we create is a necessary component of the interaction of faith and love, that wounding at the hands of life’s evil is essential to the endurance that produces a perfect result—a depth and maturity as James describes at the beginning of his book. And though it’s characterized as a curse, it’s not God doing the cursing, it’s just us in our fear, not yet ready to make choices in love.
In other words, the evil we create in life is actually proof of the possibility of perfect love…proof that we, as beloved, really have been set perfectly free to choose. The only way to know a choice is free is to have freely chosen every alternative. And once we’ve freely chosen, we learn for ourselves which choices point in the direction of life.
What if God really is love?
What if love really is the perfect freedom to choose to connect, to identify, to hold the beloved in the same breath we hold ourselves? To see beauty instead of weakness or risk in the vulnerability necessary for connection? What if real love can or will only create that which is equally free? Free to love back. Doesn’t mean our unloving choices are not evil. Just necessary. Proof of freedom.
Proof of love.
And what if we believe this enough to actually live it, become free enough to set free?
What if what we create is also free enough to choose other than ourselves?
Then maybe we become living proof of love.
And evil will continue. But so will love.
Faith and feet. The feet of faith…now there’s an association we don’t normally make–dots we wouldn’t imagine connect. Faith and heart maybe…faith and mind, faith and church, creed, religion…but feet? We venerate our Hebrew heroes of faith in scripture, read their stories, try to emulate them without ever coming to understand the nature of their faith, what they meant by having faith, or the great gulf between our notion of faith and theirs. When it comes to faith, we vote with our heads; our Hebrew heroes voted with their feet. For us, faith is what we think–it’s about what we think we believe or agree to believe. For ancient Hebrews, faith is what we do–it’s about how we live and the quality of our lives. For them, faith was never where your head could take you; it was where your feet could take you when your trust and confidence in God were secure. Faith was never relegated to spiritual or other-worldly meditations, but rooted and expressed in the flesh and blood moments of daily life.
And only there.
The Hebrew word aman means to believe and have faith, but only through trust: it means to support, nourish, confirm, make lasting. Related to aman is emet, which means truth, but only through firmness, sureness, reliability–and emunah is faithfulness as in constancy, steadfastness, stability. The word amen that we use untranslated comes directly from aman–to affirm what we believe is trustworthy, reliable, solid, lasting. Scriptural faith has nothing to do with thought and everything to do with consistent, confident action.
We think that to have faith is to have no doubt, as if faith and doubt are polar opposites. We may also think that to have courage is to have no fear, as if courage and fear are opposites. But faith and doubt are no more opposites than courage and fear. Courage is the ability to act in the presence of fear–without fear, there is no courage. And faith is the ability to act in the presence of doubt–without doubt, there is no faith. Doubt defines faith, makes it real. When we shift our faith from our heads to our feet, the opposite of faith is no longer doubt, but paralysis–the inability to move our feet. When we can move out in life as if certain things are true, even when evidence is absent; when we can live life as if all is well even when evidence is contrary; when we can look past the doubtful, fearful thoughts in our heads to see our feet still moving, carrying us toward the land God has promised, then we can place our feet in the circle beside those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Haven’t been feeling particularly blessed last few days. It happens. Tempted to pray for God’s blessing as always when feeling disconnected, uneasy, overwhelmed. Seems we’re always asking for God’s blessing to change things we don’t like or to stave off things we don’t want. We bless hospitals and houses, babies and midterm exams–we bless our food before we eat it as if to transfer God’s holiness and goodness to something that doesn’t already have it. But Jesus and his followers never understood blessings this way. To ancient Jews, when God made the heavens and earth, he looked and saw that they were good…you can look it up in Genesis 1. Over and over, each and everything he saw was good–couldn’t be otherwise; it was part of him. To Jews, blessings don’t transfer holiness, they are the permission or authority to partake in the abundance, the goodness that is already present all around us. When a Hebrew father gave his eldest son his blessing, it meant he now had the authority to partake of his entire estate.
We bless our food before we eat it. Jews say their blessings after they eat. A superficial difference? Profound. To bless before in order to make something pure or holy as opposed to blessing after as thanks for participation in abundance is as different as night and day. A glass half empty or half full. Is the world a dark and evil place awaiting God’s bulldozers in the last days to come scrape it clean and start over? Or is it a place of light and life and abundance at which right now we are all being called to table? In trying to placate his eldest son, the father of the prodigal says, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” What part of everything don’t we understand? How can we ever get more than the everything, the allness, we already have? All good, all God…all the blessing that’s ever going to be done has already and always been completed from the very beginning.
To find a stump of carrot in an open field is a real blessing. Are we trying to bless it again?
Or simply allowing ourselves the blessing of enjoying the inconceivable blessing already in hand?
The purpose of a preacher is to persuade.
The purpose of a teacher is to make students ready to engage.
I’m a teacher.
Ultimately, I don’t care what you believe. But I care deeply how your beliefs affect your behavior and the quality of your relationships–that is, the quality of your life and every life you touch.
Belief is overrated; it’s only idea, the representation of reality small enough to survive the filter of your worldview. But what your beliefs allow you to do consistently is what we call faith–not what you think, but how you act–and how you act repeatedly over time creates the repeated experience we call trust.
Belief is idea. Faith is action. Trust is experience. Belief is only as important as the faith it makes possible and faith only as important as the trust it makes possible. Because trust is what makes relationship possible.
Always approximate, no one has a completely accurate belief system. No one. Yet we preach and persuade, denigrate and excommunicate over thoughts we can’t even know for certain are true. And all the while, what is concrete and inescapably real are the choices and actions we absolutely know are true or false by their ability to connect or divide our relationships.
It’s not my job to tell anyone what to believe. Belief merely received is untested, and untested belief is untrusted, has no ability to connect…but can certainly divide. What I teach is what I’ve become convinced of, what I’ve tested for years in the laboratory of my life, risked my choices and actions on and proved to myself whether it has power to bind relationship. But reduced to words, these convictions become belief again, idea again in the student’s mind. Untested. Untrusted.
All I can tell you is what I am convinced of. Go become convinced of what you are convinced of.
Because persuasion is overrated too. The only person we will ever convince of anything is ourselves, living the truth we believe we believe until we experience its truth in the nature of our relationships. And if the way you express your truth is different than the way I express mine, no matter. It’s not important that we see eye to eye, only that we can stand shoulder to shoulder, connected to each other and everyone we meet along the way.
I love this image. The light is warm and soft, the materials are rich and textured, and both water and feet look clean and inviting… But as nice as this image is, it depicts a ritualized act–a symbol based on something real–not the real act itself. It’s only the real act that can convey the impact and meaning of Jesus’ example that last night at supper, stripping off his outer clothing and wrapping a towel around his waist, kneeling before each of his friends in succession, ignoring their dropped jaws and exchanged stares.
Washing a person’s feet in 1st century Judea was a dirty, disgusting task reserved only for the lowest of slaves, a humiliating duty carried out by inferiors to superiors. Washing a person’s feet in that culture would be more akin to washing someone who had soiled themselves in our own. Knowing this, Peter’s initial refusal is much more understandable, his outrage more pointed–that his master, messiah, and king should do this to him, for him. But without it, Jesus says, Peter could “have no part with” him.
Does your faith life make you feel like this?
We have a way of insulating ourselves from inconvenient or uncomfortable facts. Leaning back into the safety of ritual acts or symbolic images is like turning down the volume on a song we don’t like, walking quickly past a homeless person, avoiding eye contact. Jesus is real. Stark. Uncompromising. Full blast. He is telling us that our world is upside down. We idolize and strive for all the wrong things. We see value in glittering valuelessness and walk right past incomprehensible, but unglittering riches.
Our God, the creator of heaven and earth, is an unassuming God, a humble God, a God who washes our feet, occupies a station in our lives that we can’t and don’t even respect, let alone emulate. Coming to us from the standing height of a child, the kneeling height of a servant, our God is a God who serves us, holds nothing back–not even his own dignity–to graphically demonstrate the nature of real relationship.
And never thinking to look down, to a height lower than our own heads, our God is a God we will walk right past on our way to the lights, cameras, and action of what we believe and expect true power and value to be. It’s blasphemous, outrageous, and world-bending to see God in this way, but if Jesus and the Father are one, what other conclusion is there? Until we can learn to see through God’s eyes, we will “have no part with him…” that is, we will never experience the infinite extent of the love in which we are immersed, and we’ll never feel safe enough to show another the extent of the love that covers them as well.
Still many hours from home. Watching the dry California hills south of Salinas sliding past the windows of our Amtrak compartment…yes, you heard that right—Amtrak. As in train. We took a train to Oregon to visit relatives because our oldest son is phobic over planes and not much better with long car rides. Limits the options. Will be well over 60 hours on the train by time we roll up to the station at San Juan [very] late tonight. I thought I’d be able to stay in contact with the world we left behind, but no matter what they tell you, there is no wifi on Amtrak, and apparently not in Oregon either. At least not where we were staying.
So my vision of a week away with time to catch up on reading and blogging and other luxuries didn’t exactly scan, but time with the boys and my wife are now vivid memories, and I did manage to finish a book that I’d been working on for months: Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I had followed the digital fisticuffs pounded out on blogs and online articles when the book first came out, just as I had several years ago when Brian McLaren’s book came out on a similar subject —leading Evangelicals taking turns refuting and savaging—but I was particularly saddened this time to read one church leader saying that this book was essentially Bell’s third strike; that he had long been humored and warily rationalized as an eccentric Evangelical with a media genius and talent for reaching those on the edge of things. But no more.
Now he had gone beyond the pale, around the bend, touched the third rail, made the final cut that once and for all separated him from the Evangelical community, and that the next time he wrote a book, there would be no outcry, no attempt to refute or reconcile his thoughts to theirs any more than they would the tenets of Islam or Scientology, Tony Robbins or Lady Gaga. It just wouldn’t matter. He was no longer part of the herd, no longer a threat to a faith he had clearly left
In two words, they were giving up. On him. On trying to hold on to him as one of their own.
Recently had a fascinating email string/conversation with an old friend of mine. We go back some 25 years–used play in bands together from the early 80s. With that kind of history, it’s hard to hide much from each other. So here’s a post-Christian talking to a post-theologian in a post-modern world. My friend Chris gave me permission to post (pun unintended) portions of our string here, but it’s long enough that I published it to theeffect site instead. You can get it here.