“God is Love”

god_is_loveAlthough there is a prevailing myth that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, the most consistent thread that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments is that God is love (1 John 4:8).

Throughout the Old Testament, God is constantly calling a people back to Himself and reclaiming a covenant to bring them in right relationship.

There is a refrain that meanders through the historical, prophetic, and poetic books of the Old Testament: God is praiseworthy because God shows “everlasting love” (or, in some translations, “loving kindness”).

The term used in this refrain and elsewhere, “hesed,” is a Hebrew term similar to the Greek term found in the New Testament, “agape.”  Both words are hard to capture in our limited, English translation.

The terms go beyond platonic or emotional forms of love.  The terms even go beyond the type of love newly married couples express to one another when referring to their commitment to one another.

“Hesed,” is an idea that expresses sacrificial love.  It is love that gives and a love that envelopes a recipient in a promise of an everlasting union.

We humans try to get at this type of love in the vows we make to one another, but we often fall short.  We are fickle creatures, and some days we don’t live up to that commitment.  On other days, we love passionately, but even then our promises seem shallow.

But hesed is about the actual nature of God, of who God is.

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day.  I was reflecting on the vastness of our cosmos and the expanse of the heavens.  I was also thinking about where God fits into all of this.

I learned long ago that God is not literally above us, but rather that God embraces us as spirit and walks with us in the person and presence of the Risen Savior.

I got a sense that I had it all wrong: I am still trying to understand God by my own limited faculties.  I then imagined that God is so big and God’s love so vast, that it is as if our entire cosmos fits within the palm of God’s nurturing hand.

Ever been in the middle of the woods where you are unable to see the vast landscape that makes up the entire forest?  You are so small and the forest so big, you only take up a fraction of space.

I came to the conclusion that we are in the middle of woods, and God is that great, grand forest so big that we can’t even see God if we tried–there is no spaceship large enough or fast enough to get us away from God to see the entirety of God from a distance.

All of those theologies we use to try and figure God out are mere trees, if not twigs, in the scheme of who God is.

Then I imagined that God’s love was that vast.  Every day, we are distracted by the things that we think are important.  We have to get our way; we get offended if someone wrongs us; our petty conflicts and arguments create rifts between friends and family alike.

Our issues, however, are often smaller than we are, and so they are but bits of dust in that grand scheme of love that should imbue every area of our life.

There is no fight or conflict worth destroying a friendship.  There is no situation–even those as tragic as the taking of life–that cannot be confronted with forgiveness and reconciliation.  There is no sense of uncertainty and anxiety that cannot be offered unto God in prayer because God is bigger than all of these.

God is love, and God cares.  This week, as you go about your day, remember the magnitude of God’s love.  Then remember that you can overcome any obstacle if you put that love into action.

The Sluggish Journey of Christian Formation

Mid-term elections have come and gone and, despite apocalyptic campaign adds, the world did not end after all.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  The rotation of the earth still takes a full 24 hours, and New Year’s Eve will fall on the 365th day as scheduled.

In the days to come, we will see if our elected officials can turn cheap talk and bitter rhetoric into actual legislation.  Many of them will find that, despite the excitement of campaigns, the daily grind of governing is not all that spectacular.  Much of it is downright boring and routine.

This reminds me of the Christian life sometimes.  When we become a Christian, we most likely make the decision in the throes of lofty, redemptive rhetoric.  Our conversion experiences and baptisms, first communions and commissionings are exciting events.   Enthusiasm runs high.  We read our Bibles with fervor.  We can’t wait to share the Gospel with everyone we meet, even our pets.

Eventually, we realize that our journey of faith is not always so emotional.   We have to do the hard work of living out our salvation on a day-to-day basis where our jobs, families, neighborhoods, and hobbies intersect.    We put one foot in front of the other in the midst of messiness and conflict, fragile families and failing economies.

The difficult task of walking with Christ can get mundane.  We can easily forget to pray or read our Bibles.  Our ancient, sacred traditions do not always relate to our current culture.   In all honesty, even clergy can become bored now and then.

Like politicians who must eventually govern in spite of the excitement of an election season, we must eventually get to the place where we relate to Christ with unyielding love despite emotional whims that come and go.

It’s like practicing scales repeatedly on a musical instrument.  It is tedious work, but it allows students to master both the instrument and the notes.  By the time the student performs, she knows those notes so intimately, she makes playing the instrument seem easy.  The regimen of a committed life fully transforms random notes into prayerful music–a work of art made in honor of art’s Master.

In Luke 7:18-23, John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus whether or not Jesus was the messiah, God’s anointed one, who would usher in a new era of God’s salvation.   Everyone back then, John included, expected the messiah to come on the scene in a blaze of glory, raising an unstoppable army to overthrow the Roman Empire.

John had his doubts about Jesus because Jesus did not raise an army.  Jesus did not campaign to raise funds from the aristocracy.  Rather, Jesus spent time with the poor and powerless.  There was no demonstration of military power, only an anticlimactic Gospel message that emphasized reconciliation and forgiveness over violence and retaliation.

Jesus’ was a sluggish movement that inspired a consistent work ethic instead of heated speeches.   Consider that Jesus’ ministry took place over a three-year time span that began after thirty years of preparation.  The four evangelists–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–only record the most exciting moments in this history; the rest was just daily grind stuff–Jesus changed the world with baby steps and a simple dedication to God’s will.

We often move from one experience to another, overdosing on entertainment, over-stimulation, and sugar-highs.  The Christian life, however, is one lived out in conformity to a God that is not always so exciting.  15th-century saint, Thomas A’Kempis once wrote: “Thou art called to endure and to labour, not to a life of ease and trifling talk.”  That’s good advice in an age tall on promises but short on long-term commitment.

Keeping Promises is a Biblical Mandate

One of the worst human tragedies a person can face is a broken promise. I see the consequences of broken promises among some of the folks with whom I work. A family member will make a promise — usually to spend quality time with someone — and the time never comes to pass. I see this especially with elders and children. A failed promise to make the ball game ends in a proverbial, “Next time, I promise.”

Broken promises litter our current landscape because we are facing a shortage of time and resources. Even the once-famous “Promise Keepers” seminars have faded into obscurity because men do not have the time and money to attend as they once did.

The Bible is clear that all of us — men and women — are to be promise keepers. In the New Testament, the letter by James is full of Christian instruction, among them a command to make your “yes be yes” (James 5:12).

This echoes Jesus’ words on the subject in Matthew 5:33-37. Keeping promises is an extension of truth-telling. When we promise something and it does not come to pass, we have lied to another and to ourselves. Keeping a promise is being true to our word. Jesus tells us that when we break promises we are no different than Satan, the Father of Lies.

Breaking our promises can lead to a cascading effect that hinders relational integrity. A repeat offender diminishes trust, and, in many cases, communication withers. When family members break promises with their elders, for instance, guilt sets in. The guilt that one feels actually keeps them away from their loved ones because facing Grandma to apologize is too hard to do. In the face of broken promises, reconciliation becomes elusive.

The teachings of Jesus and letter of James offer an alternative: do not make any oaths whatsoever. The original intent of this command was aimed at Christians working in the civil and legal parameters of society, not necessarily in one’s relationships with loved ones. These two people groups — the young and the old — are people to whom promises must be met. Reliability and predictability reinforce their own sense of value and dignity, and fulfilled promises stress their importance as active contributors to society. We affirm them in the follow-throughs of our yeses and nos. When I make a promise to my daughter and keep it, my integrity empowers her to believe in the best of her father and builds her sense of trust in her little world.

Promises are important because our words are powerful conduits of hope or harm. As a writer and speaker, I know firsthand how much words shape worlds for my audience. In many instances, I craft my words based on my convictions in gospel truth and inclusive ministry. I uphold a form of promises to my readers when I ensure that my language addresses situations appropriately and accurately. Some people call this political correctness, but I call it sensitivity. Politically-correct language can go too far, as anything taken out of moderation can, but it is important to use words that express the fullness of God’s majesty.

Is not our ability to make promises representative of God’s promises to us? God, being the incomparable Promise-Keeper, made covenants throughout the Bible, including the new covenant of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This covenantal God is a model for the covenant-makers in our midst; it would benefit us to keep our promises in ways that honor God’s faithfulness to us.