“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.

Biblical evidence on divorce challenges notions of power, not convenience

divorceOne of the most controversial issues in church and culture is that of divorce.  Even in an age that focuses on non-traditional relationships, divorce abounds and marriages are still as fragile as ever.

This year, the Supreme Court will look at the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.  I think somewhere along the way, people got it into their minds that married folks needed defending, but I know far more marriages that end in divorce than split due to some outside influence.

Divorce is too convenient, too ubiquitous.  It is an easy way out and reflects our propensity to escape hardship whatsoever.

As an old-fashioned kind of guy, I’m on the side of saving a marriage even if it means enduring a few years of suffering and hardship.  Every marriage has its difficulties and dry spell, but some issues are harder to work through than others, like adultery, abuse, and manipulation, to name a few.

There are times when divorce is unavoidable and times when clergy have turned a blind eye to the horrors that exist in many a marriage.  I’ve met many women who’ve endured being told by their pastors to “submit to their” violent husbands because of a church’s dogmatic, legalistic views against divorce.

Yet, the Bible, ever God’s holy word, still speaks to modern marriages even if our notions of the institution have changed.

In Matthew 5:32, Jesus condemned divorce except in situations involving adultery.  In the Gospel of Mark (10:1-21), however, Jesus condemned divorce but did not give an addendum about adultery; rather, he pointed out the deeper issues that led to divorce.

In the Gospel, pharisees and legal scholars challenged Jesus in a debate about divorce.  Jesus quickly pointed out that divorce was never God’s intent, it was Moses’ way of accommodating humanity’s “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5).

Furthermore, in the ancient world, divorce was something that husbands initiated.  A wife, not so high on the social ladder, had little say in the matter.  A divorced woman was, therefore, vulnerable and shamed; in other words, unable to bring honor to her family.

Jesus sided with women on this issue.  Divorce was wrong not only because it went against God’s intent, but because it left a vulnerable and powerless people group out in the cold.

Jesus hit the nail on the head: the real issue behind divorce was the abuse of power.  We sense this because, not minutes after this debate, Jesus welcomed children–another vulnerable people group in ancient society–into his arms (10:13-16). Like women, antiquity preferred children to be neither seen nor heard.

After that, a rich young man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (10:17-31).  The man followed all the rules and fulfilled what was expected of him, but Jesus said he lacked one thing: “Sell all your possessions, give to the poor and then follow me” (10:21).

The rich man refused; and, later, Jesus responded,”But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31). Again, Jesus went to the heart of the matter: power, humanity’s abuse of it, and God’s deep commitment to correct it.

For Jesus, being righteous was not about the legalities of marriage or divorce, but was about one’s ability to temper power in a way that kept the most vulnerable in a place of honor and dignity.  Jesus’ disciples best followed God when they lived by an ethic in which they put “the last” first in life even at their own expense.  Even they had to become vulnerable, “as a little child,” to enter God’s kingdom (10:15).

There is no doubt that divorce is full of complexity.  Perhaps the root of all our discussions, however, shouldn’t be whether to divine what God might say to this couple or that, but should be to get at the heart of where we wield–and, at times abuse–power within our relationships.

Perhaps the only defense our marriages need is the defense against our baser, selfish, and power-hungry selves.  After all, we too are susceptible to a “hardness of heart.”

Song of Solomon: Scripture that makes you squirm

I can’t pinpoint any one embarrassing moment in my life, but I can say with all confidence that attending the movies with my parents was a comprehensive experiment in the art of embarrassment.

Whenever a bad word was uttered, my father would groan like a frog.  I always thought it brought more attention than the word deserved, but he considered it a thorough warning.   When we saw Goodfellas, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

You could only imagine how embarrassing it was when we saw a romance scene.  Oh, how I hated those moments.  Awkward.

I am sure that’s how Jewish boys and girls of old felt when it was Song of Solomon day at the local synagogue.  They probably squirmed in their seats when the rabbi read something like, “With great delight I sat in my beloved’s shadow, and his fruit was sweet…” (2:4).   For its time, it was as graphic as any R-rated film that, according to the Oxford Study Bible, was likened to a “feast for the senses.”

The Song of Solomon is still one of those books preachers rarely preach on, and it is an oddity in scripture since it defies all biblical genre.  It is not prophetic or wisdom literature.  It is not history. There is no mention of God anywhere.  At best it is a duet in which a groom and bride celebrate their love for one another.  A book that was, according to feminist scholars, penned by two lovers in search of divine oneness.

That describes the English version.  The original Hebrew captures all the nuances and word plays that would even make Hugh Hefner blush.  No wonder ancient rabbis considered it “forbidden.”

Yet, it was included in the Bible by the skin (no pun intended) of its teeth, so the Church had to sanitize it somehow.  Medieval scholars found that interpreting the Song as an allegory (a spiritual message) of God’s love for the church was the best option.  It wasn’t about physical romance after all, they argued, and a long, thankful sigh could be heard from parents everywhere.

With that taboo out of the way, the Song became rather valuable during the medieval era.  One scholar, Origen, wrote a ten-volume commentary on it.  French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached some 86 sermons on the first two chapters alone.  Jewish mystic Rabbi Akiva compared the book to the Holy of Holies and argued that it sufficed as a temporary sacred place for long as the temple remained unavailable.

Whether the book was a literal duet or an allegory of God’s love, there is still a fresh word in this amazingly contemporary book.  It’s dialogue expresses a type of faithfulness and fidelity for which we all long.  In our fly-by-night sex-saturated society, a fresh poem that speaks to God’s eternal love might be the type of gospel-message we need these days.

Come to think of it, there is something in the Song for everyone.  For married couples, its rich vocabulary has the power to ignite the embers of intimacy and fan the flame of passionate romance from an earlier time.

The Song reminds singles of their faithful attention to a God who comes to all of us as Spouse.  It also celebrates the type of purity that St. Paul championed in his letters to the Corinthians.

For people who despair over love lost, the Song resonates with broken hearts and the pursuit for wholeness: “Upon my bed,” the Song’s bride wrote in grief, “I sought him whom my soul loves…and found him not” (3:2).

For all of us, the Song can bring us some good seat-squirming experiences now and then as it reminds us just how intimately God longs to be with each of us.  Allow our love for Him to be the second part of the duet in all our hearts.