Defining Love


I am at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan, NY, this morning (location of the church). The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day, are Acts 10: 44 – 48, 1 John 5: 1 – 6, and John 15: 9 – 17. Their services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

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My notes on the 6th Sunday of Easter will be posted later today.

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I am at the end of a three-week journey as a lay speaker. Two weeks ago I spoke about the continuation of the church and how, among other things, how the local church is part of the community (“Passing the Torch”). Last week I spoke of the encounter one has with Jesus (“A Chance Encounter”). I mentioned that I felt that each person’s encounter with Jesus was unique and that one should not necessarily expect others to have an encounter like their own nor should they expect their encounter to be like someone else’s encounter.

Our personal journey with Christ is just that, a journey and a personal one. Our role as individuals and as a church in all of this is to be of assistance, to help the journey begin, to help with the encounter, and to help after the encounter. It is simply a matter of being there.

For no matter where your journey may lead you, it is not always going to be an easy one. There are going to be rough times as well as good; there are going to be moments of sadness as well as joy. And while we would like to just have the good times, we have to realize that there will be bad times as well. And we need a place where we can share the joys and find support for the bad times. And if the church is not there, where will many people find the support and comfort needed on their own journey? How will people find that support and comfort? Where can people share their joys and sorrows?

For me, one of those bad times was the spring of 1969. Not much had gone right the previous few months and I had just completed the worst quarter of my academic career, one that effectively killed any hopes of receiving any sort of academic honors when I graduated from college. I was not failing by any means but sometimes failure is a selective standard and I was not at the level where I wanted to be.

The pressure that I felt internally was increased by pressure from my family and compounded by questions about the draft. For the record, I was not nor am I necessarily opposed to military service; how could I as the son of an Air Force officer and the grandson of an Army officer? I just didn’t, and I still don’t, like the idea of a draft. The idea of the draft seemed, to me, undemocratic; if you want someone to serve in the Air Force, Army, Navy, or Marines, give them reasons that make sense; don’t force them to join.

Now, because of how I began college, I turned 18 one month after the start of my sophomore year in college and I dutifully attempted to register for the draft. At Christmas that year (1968) I found out that I had not, in fact, registered for the draft when I thought I had. And while I corrected that matter rather quickly, I spent the better part of the beginning of 1969 worried that I would be called into service. And with the poor winter quarter grades that I received, I was certain that I would be in Army by the summer of 1969, a future that I did not want or even envision.

It did not help matters much that by 1969, the justification for the expansion of the war in Viet Nam was fast disappearing. The arguments being made for the war at that time were no longer being accepted by the American people and they could not or would not view the combat losses as acceptable losses (an interesting counterpoint to today’s society, to say the least). So I became involved, or it would be better to say that my involvement in the anti-war movement on my college campus increased. It wasn’t a big movement as it was on other, far larger campuses, but it was there, though not readily accepted by the college administration or the town. Truman State, then known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, was and is in the heart of conservative farm country and most people felt that it was your duty and right to serve in the Army and to do so without questioning the reasons or the rationale.

Do I follow my heart and mind or do I follow the crowd? That’s one of the great questions that every college sophomore, in fact every person has to answer at one point in their life. I found the answer myself because one of the things that I learned at Truman was to think and to think independently. And while I found support for my decisions in the pastors of the college community churches, including the pastor of the 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville (Marvin Fortel) and the pastor of the Wesley Foundation (Dick Todd), I also found a part of my soul as well, something I will come back to in a moment.

And so it was that as Mother’s Day, 1969, approached, amidst all the turmoil in my life, I had to come up with something to give my mother for Mother’s Day. And it happened that I discovered an organization called “Another Mother for Peace”. They made a necklace that had on it the statement “War is not healthy for children and other living things”. It was a statement of the times, it was a statement that I could believe in then and now, and I thought it would be a good gift for my mother. And for the record, “Another Mother for Peace” is still active today and has its own web site at www.warisnothealthy.org.

But after my mother received this gift from the heart of her oldest son, she wrote a very stern letter indicating a disapproval of my extra-curricular political activities (you should have heard what she said when I was involved in a civil rights protest later that same spring but that is a story for another time and place (see “Side by Side” and “Side by Side” if you can’t wait). But, and what is so important to the meaning of today, she told me that she would keep the necklace because I was her son and she loved me.

Later she would tell my niece, her third granddaughter, in an interview for a high school project that she was relieved that neither my two brothers nor I were drafted and required to go off to war.

If I were to define love, it is with the understanding that it will not be done from the traditional standpoint of the three definitions from the Greek word for love. That is a philosophical exercise that has been played out too many times in the past. Rather, it has to be done within the framework of my mother’s reaction to that 1999 Mother’s Day gift.

I know that neither of my parents approved of my anti-war stance nor my civil rights stance but they never stopped loving me. My journeys in life would take far from my home in Memphis but never far from the heart of my mother.

Love isn’t always the automatic acceptance of someone but the ability to accept what they do. My mother’s love was unconditional.

It was part of the foundation that she laid down for each of us, my two brothers, my sister, and me. She laid the foundation so that we could choose our own path, knowing that no matter where it may lead, we would be supported in our efforts. In our Momma we knew there was a home to come to in times of strife, struggle, and celebration.

When I married Ann in 1999, Momma rejoiced. She jokingly told Ann that now she, Ann, was stuck with me and that I couldn’t come back home. But in a more serious vein, Momma told Ann that she was happy that I had found someone to love and care about me; that now she didn’t have to worry so much about my happiness.

Momma was patient with us, teaching us right from wrong. Rewards came when we did well. We were encouraged to, if you will, do our own thing. This doesn’t mean that we could do just about anything that we wanted. If we did wrong, we could expect punishment. It was sometimes harsh, sometimes hard, and sometimes stern but always, always with the understanding that we were still loved. Still, we had to eat the Brussels sprouts that were every so often a part of the supper meal.

But against that was the incident somewhere in Louisiana in the early 1960s when we were traveling from Texas to North Carolina. We had spent the night in a motel and were ordering breakfast. Breakfast on the road was a treat for us because we got to order what we wanted. Each of us, my two brothers, my sister and I, each ordered something (though I think my mother ordered from my sister who was only two or three at the time) and we anxiously awaited this joyous repast to begin our day of travel.

Each of us received the breakfast that we had ordered but each plate also had on it a mysterious white, gelatinous-like substance on it. In a single voice, my two brothers and I asked, “Momma, what’s that white stuff??” To which she, a Southern born and bred mother, replied, “Those are grits; you don’t have to eat them.” A mother’s love can be expressed in many ways and allowing us the privilege or opportunity to not eat grits that morning in Louisiana was one such expression.

Were my parents perfect? Far from it; there were times when we thought they were the most horrible and terrible parents one could ever imagine. Did we want them to express their love in perhaps the more traditional ways, say by buying us a car or new clothes when we didn’t need them? Of course we did. And there were times we would have liked to have heard it stated more clearly that everything was going to turn out alright or that we had done a fine job or made a valiant effort. Every child wants to hear those words. But in the end, what our parents did was give us the opportunity to be who we were to be, not who they wanted us to be.

But I know of too many parents today where love is conditional, where receipt of the love, in whatever form it may be wished, comes with a price, a price that sometimes cannot be paid. There are many parents who will say to their children that they must go to this school or get this degree or marry this person if they want their parents’ love. And there are many children who feel that they must do something like that if they are to gain their love and support.

Such love is a far cry from the love that Jesus expressed in the Gospel message for today, an unconditional love that reaches out, that creates and demands respect, that lifts people up and offers them hope. The love that we are to have is a love that is an expression of our love for God. Remember what John called those who would say that they loved God but did not love their brothers and sisters? He called them hypocrites. He reinforces that sentiment today. If we love the one who conceived the Child, then we will surely love the child who was conceived. The proof is in our ability to keep God’s commandments and the first of these is to love others as you would have them love us (yes, I am paraphrasing several thoughts).

But I fear that today we have forgotten how to love in this way. We find it so much easier to hate. We find it easier to put labels on people that enable us to make them a second class or lower. There are those who would have us create a society much like the Old Testament with clear lines of demarcation between peoples, a society in which the chosen are protected and the others are cast aside. They would create a society where God’s gifts are only available to a select few and not the many and where they, the select few, get to decide who will receive those gifts.

Look again at the reading from Acts for today. Those who had come with Peter that day could not believe it when “outsiders” received the Holy Spirit in the same manner that they had. I can imagine what some of those in the Church of England must have said when Wesley reported on his work in the prisons and the mines, in the mills and the countryside. But I also can imagine how those who received the Holy Spirit that day recorded in Acts must have felt and I am sure those who heard Wesley’s words and the words of others in the Methodist Revival of the 18th century must have felt when they were told that they were loved by God through Christ as much as those who lead the rich and privileged life.

There are many today who have heard the words of the United Methodist Church spoken at the General Conference held the past two weeks. They heard the words of hatred and ignorance, words that would seek to expel people from the arms of God because they are different. Growing up in the south, I have heard those words before; one cannot help but remember hearing people who say they are Christians speak of other human beings as lesser persons because of the color of their skin or the nature of their religion. Those who say they are Christian but act this way go to great lengths to twist the words of the Bible and science to justify their policies, policies which have and continue to lead to the death of thousands.

On day when the words from the pulpit will speak of a mother’s love for a child and a child’s love for their mother, it is perhaps discomforting to hear that we find it easier to hate. But John, writing to the people, noted that those who believe in Christ, who have experienced and live the love of God through Christ, will win.

In a world where violence and strife seem to be constant occurrence, where the words of hatred and prejudice seem so commonplace, how can love prevail?

The good news is that there are those who have rejected those words, those attitudes, and that culture. They are the ones who began a journey two thousand years ago, who traveled a path known as “The Way”. They shared their property, their gifts, and their story about Jesus Christ with all who they meet along the way. Persecuted at the beginning, they changed the world.

This journey continued when a group of friends gathered on the Oxford University campus in England to pray together, read the scripture and go forth to the mills, mines, and prisons in England. Called “Methodists” by those who ridiculed them, they wore the name as a badge of honor. And when John Wesley understood deep in his heart that he was loved by God, the movement that became the Methodist Revival swept across England and through the American colonies and changed the world.

I know two things today. I know of my mother’s love for me. I know of Christ’s love for me, even when I strayed from the path that He would lay before me. I know that were it not for the presence of 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville and its pastor at the time, Marvin Fortel, and the presence of the Wesley Campus Foundation and its director, Dick Todd, my story would be a different one today and I might not be here at all.

You will also note that the changes brought by the early Christians, the followers of “The Way”, and the members of the Holy Club who would become the founders of Methodism were not the leaders of the church. They were the people of the church who understood through their own experience the love of God and the need to show and express that love to others, no matter who they might be. They sought to open the doors that others had shut.

As I was preparing this message I found these words, written in the aftermath of General Conference.

We are called to love people and reflect God’s presence in whatever culture surrounds us. Love often involves accepting people where they are, in what they believe, and in how they live because that is where God meets each of us and calls us. That means being with and among the people, bearing their suffering, hearing their cries, celebrating their successes, laughing and rejoicing with them, and weeping with them in their pain. I will not meet a single individual today who is not precious to God. From “Reflections on Following Jesus, Culture Wars, Loving People, and Radical Discipleship”

It is clear to me that one thing that came out of the General Conference proceedings was that the top-down model that was to be the salvation and saving model for the church will not work. But then again, anyone who has ever studied how excellence is created in an organization could have told you that; effective change in an organization begins at the local level. Effective change occurs when the local church looks at where they are and what they can do and should be doing. I followed Rebecca Clark’s blogs as she traveled from Vermont to Tampa to participate in General Conference. What she wrote was often not easy to read because she wrote of the strife and struggle she and others encountered during General Conference. But out of that came an opportunity to seek and effect change. In one her latest blogs, she quoted a colleague and friend on Facebook, Pastor Deb, as saying “vital congregations cannot be legislated, or mandated, or created by statistical reporting. The Spirit has begun to empower the people.” (From “Diary of a Delegate: in the end, Hope.”)

Becca Clark also indicated that there is the making of a conversation about the nature of the United Methodist Church and what the future of and for the denomination will be. And this is being done at the local, albeit a 21st century version of the local level, with a TwitterChat. I do not Twitter but if you do or are interested look for #dreamUMC. Further information can be found in Becca Clarks’s post, “Diary of a Delegate: in the end, Hope.”

I am also going to echo some of the thoughts that she posted in next post, “I’m still here.” There are some who would have individuals like Becca and I leave this church, this denomination. She could easily leave and she has options that would allow her to do so. But she is staying in the United Methodist Church because there are others who cannot leave. She concluded her blog by writing,

I’m giving my all for a church that practices the grace we say we believe in, and that orders itself with love and compassion around Wesley’s rule to do no harm and do all the good we can, and I hope we can someday live into his invitation: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

I do not have the options that she has. I have thought about it and I have to think about the love that has been shown to me; the love of the people at 1st UMC and the Wesley Foundation that supported me in a time of crisis; the love of pastors who pushed and prodded me to continue my journey of faith. And then there is the love of a mother that sought to lay a foundation for me so that I may begin a journey.

Love is defined in many ways but it is best defined by that one verse that we as children memorized, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we could be saved.” If you have not done so, you are invited this day to know that you are loved by Christ; if you have accepted Christ this day, you are invited to open your heart and soul to the power of the Holy Spirit so that you can go out into the world and show the love of God to His Children.

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2 thoughts on “Defining Love

  1. Thanks for the reflections and ample linkage to my blog! I’m glad to be part of your thoughts and processes around where we all are post-GC, and the abundance of God’s love.

    Bless,
    Becca

  2. Pingback: Notes for the 6th Sunday of Easter « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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