Four essentials of a church: love

Love is like heat. So many things in life seem wonderful — pizza, a shower, a cup of coffee, a seat by the window, an iron — until you realize they’re cold. After all, what do you call a morning when you step into the shower and find there’s no hot water? A bad way to start the day.

Love is the warmth of life. It sustains us, inspires us, redeems our weakness, revives our hope, restores our strength, and animates our relationships. Inversely, its absence is its opposite in effect, which is why love matters in a church.

A friend was visiting a seriously ill relative at an out-of-state hospital. After a week-long bedside vigil, she excused herself on Sunday morning to find comfort and encouragement at a local church with a friendly website. Sixty minutes later, after no greetings, zero eye contact, eight songs, and a trendy talk on gender identity, she made her way to the door. There, she was handed a plastic egg with a note inside: “Join us next week for Easter!!!”

A bit of love would have found more traction.

So, where is all the love? There’s nothing more important than figuring this out. Scripture delivers sturdy reminders on the topic. Without love, spiritual gifts mean nothing. Knowledge means nothing. Faith, generosity, and sacrifice mean nothing. Toil and perseverance and discernment and endurance mean nothing. Love must come first.

On the positive side, who wouldn’t want to belong to a group known for its patience, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, humility, and grace? Who wouldn’t welcome friends and family who see the best in you, believe in you, root for you, pray for you, honor you, accept you, care for you, serve you, forgive you, build you up, bear your burdens, comfort your soul, lift your spirits, and do you good? Sign me up!

If this is all true of love (which it is), where is all the love?

First of all, there’s plenty of it throughout the church. One sad story doesn’t mean there’s no love anywhere. But it’s not always easy to find, and it’s even less easy to practice. Love is costly, and for most of us (including myself), it needs to be learned. What is the meaning of love? Where does it come from? How does it work? What’s the right way to do it? Are there wrong ways to do it? How do you know you’ve loved well, even when it isn’t reciprocated? How do you keep loving when your tank runs dry?

These questions are worth answering because love can be learned. After all, it’s a byproduct of walking in the Spirit. But it requires intentionality.

Back in the day we heated our house with a wood stove. Fuel was everywhere (we lived in a forest), but felling, cutting, carting, splitting, stacking, fetching, arranging, igniting, and cleaning up the mess were neither easy nor natural. But once the effort was made, it brought warmth, satisfaction, self-confidence, strength, and legendary tales of log-splitting exploit. Plus, “free” heat!

The church that learns love will be a church without enough seats. But that’s OK. I’d be willing to stand in the back of such a church.

A picture I’ll never forget

Cal

On this day last year, after 63 years of marriage, my dad kissed his high school sweetheart goodbye. By the kindness of God, Beck and I were there — it was the final day of our annual visit.

The three of us kissed her one last time, gathered her things, and drove home. When we got there, Dad found a pen and wrote on his kitchen calendar. Then he stood there, lost in thought. That’s the picture I’ll never forget.

When I called him today, he was still thinking about her. “More than ever,” he said. “She was a special lady.”

Yes she was.

1d

 

Love and war

Those who discover love in the crucible of testing see through its facade. Genuine love is real. It has a will and finds a way. It is strong and good.

I was moved by these expressions of love from a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan (see War, by Sebastian Junger). Observe the weight behind these words:

The coward’s fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body. The inability to participate in others’ lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death (page 191, quoting J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors).

The shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists . . . slowly came to understand was that courage was love (page 239).

Brotherhood is the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the group. That’s a very different thing from friendship, which is entirely a function of how you feel about another person. Brotherhood has nothing to do with feelings; it has to do with how you define your relationship to others. It has to do with the rather profound decision to put the welfare of the group above your personal welfare. In such a system, feelings are meaningless. In such a system, who you are entirely depends on your willingness to surrender who you are. Once you’ve experienced the psychological comfort of belonging to such a group, it’s apparently very hard to give it up (pages 275-276).

The stories recounted in the book feature strong young men living — and dying — for one another. It’s deeply moving. However, this remark gave me pause: The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire. Those who follow Jesus Christ are no strangers to love. Consider these quotes from and about Him:

Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (Jesus, from The Bible, John 15:13).

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (The Bible, Philippians 2:3-8).

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor (The Bible, Romans 12:10).

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love (The Bible, 1 John 4:8).

Consider that last quote. God is love. If God embodies love, He also defines it. So what is the biblical definition of God’s love? It’s this:

Agape love is not an impulse from feelings, it doesn’t follow natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some attraction or relationship is discovered. God’s love is seen in the gift of His Son. This is not the love of complacency (easy to give), or affection (motivated by attraction). It is not drawn out by any merit in its object. Rather, it is an exercise of the will in deliberate choice, made without cause save that which lies in the nature of God. God is good, and He loves because that is what is good (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Volume 3, page 21).

According to the Bible, God is the source of love and Jesus is its human expression. Perhaps Mr. Junger, an excellent writer and gifted observer of human nature, has never witnessed as clear a demonstration of love as he observed in the ultimate test of character: war. That’s very possible. Few of us have.

For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, our master demonstrated love in life and through death. It’s something we must learn from Him. Perhaps the best way to love is to remember that we are at war.