The Only Thing That Matters

So here we are, some four month into the greatest worldwide disruption I have experienced in my lifetime.

It has not been easy, has it?

One thing I am thinking about a lot recently is what really matters. When the normal routine of life is upended, when regular measurements of success and productivity are no longer useful – how do we count our days? The removal of routine and ritual leaves a clean slate that exposes the truth – and it’s not been an easy or comfortable revelation.

I work for a Christian church, and my personal life is centered on the moral teachings of Jesus and my belief that he was real, he is supernatural, and that there is transformational power connecting me to the Divine through my understanding of who he is and how I live as his apprentice. In short, I’m a Christian. I follow Jesus.

And let’s be honest here; political slings and arrows aside, we have to admit that it’s been pretty easy to be a Christian in these United States, in the 21st century. We attend church freely. There are robust sub-cultures of music and media and festivals and conferences and accessories and even clothing to help forge our identities and declare our loyalties. We have access to tons of content – virtual, digital, hard copy. It’s never been a problem to accumulate and assimilate the cultural trappings of what was needed to “be Christian”. Go to church, send our kids to Mega Camp and mission trips, feed hungry people, make friends, celebrate rituals like weddings and funerals, etc; we freely did all the things we could think to do, as we discovered where God seemed to be working, where our energy was needed, how to be part of making the kingdom come to earth.

It kept us busy. It kept us focused. And it kept us “good Christians”.

And then the rules changed; what “kept us” fell apart.

And what remains? What does it mean to be a person of “faith” in these days?

I think many of us are scrambling a bit. Last week, my friend shared these words about how easily we move into areas of expression to establish and define what it means to be faithful, in human terms:

Faith, expressing itself through judgment…the person that uses their knowledge as a weapon of enforcement to right living.

Faith expressing itself through politics. …there are people who will say, publicly, that if you don’t vote this way or that way, you are not being faithful to God. For this person, the epitome of faith’s expression is in the political arena.

Faith, expressing itself through self-reliance…expressing itself through the scorecard.  It says, “God has blessed me…and the blessing is FOR me.” 

Faith alone divides people. Faith expressing itself through love unites because it knows that we are all equally and infinitely valuable to God, even if we don’t see the world the same way.. 

Faith alone talks a lot.  Faith expressing itself through love listens and seeks to understand. 

Faith alone draws lines, erects barriers, and creates us versus them thinking.  Faith expressing itself through love does what Jesus taught…turns the other cheek, goes the extra mile, serves others even when they treat us poorly. 

When I look around on social media, I see lots of people are showing their ‘faith’ right now, but doing it without love. 

And the bottom line is that faith expressing itself in any way other than through love is incomplete at best and is often harmful. It allows people to hear your words about God, but see your life demonstrating something other than God.

..the Bible makes this crystal clear. John, one of Jesus’ disciples, said it plainly: “God is love”.

God is love. That’s clear and concise and easy to understand. But, like everything, it’s a matter of perspective: What do you mean? What does “love” encompass for you? What’s your definition of love? What is your experience of love?

It’s complicated. It’s become painfully obvious that we struggle  to understand and find agreement on the most basic of things; we disagree and argue about the expression of one simple four-letter word. To quote one of the greatest films of all time:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

That’s the question for those of us who call ourselves “Christian”:

What do we mean when we keep using that word? 

It’s an important question to ask on multiple levels, but speaking strictly in terms of my immediate, local community, it’s essential. This morning, I listened as a beloved friend tearfully shared the pain that follows her home from her church as she grapples with encounters with friends and fellow believers that display a loss of civility and, to quote her directly, “a lack of common sense”. There’s no judgement from her – just a deep sorrow from the pain she feels as opinions and judgements and condemning words are tossed about freely, with no thought to the consequences. 

In an arena historically defined by things like, “the last shall be first”, “blessed are the meek”, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control”, “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry”, we are struggling with a heart-breaking cognitive dissonance.

And yet…there are answers. There is a way to move forward. All is not lost, we are not hopeless, we are not abandoned to despair. Here’s where I found it this weekend, as we gathered in person and online for a one-hour experience of church; in the music that we sang – even in real time – I sought context. As I struck the chords and sang the words, I was simultaneously praying for clarity and direction and something other than my own (or someone else’s) opinion. I sought divine clarity.

And I got it.

We sang “God So Loved”, and in the middle of the almost-Caribbean vibe of the rhythm, I sensed the powerful wave of assurance in these lyrics:

For God so loved the world that he gave / his one and only son to save

Whoever believes in him will live forever

They resonated not because of some head-knowledge or evangelical promise; no, in that moment, those words rang true as I looked at the family filling the second row, fully aware of the empty seat usually filled by the patriarch of the family. He died two days earlier. Faith that our belief system supernaturally supersedes what happens in this world and encompasses whatever is on the other side of death made room for hope and peace and even joy in the midst of grief. In that moment, faith was expressed in love.

We sang, “Who You Say I Am”, with loud declarations of identity and security; and as my mouth formed around the lyrics of the bridge – over and over – faith expressed in love and an inexplicable hope sank deeply into my soul.

I am chosen, not forsaken / I am who you say I am

You are for me, not against me / I am who you say I am

Those words are powerful affirmations of identity, but in that moment they were more deeply resonant for a loved one for whom I have great concern. As she navigates illness and identity and expression of self, and as I try to support and care for her, I am reminded:  She is chosen, not forsaken; she lives under protection from the One who created her and sees her and knows her and is for her.

We sang “King of Kings”, and as the sweet nod to the nostalgia of the Christmas story expanded to include the ridiculously powerful truth of the rule-wrecking divinity of Jesus, faith expresses itself in love that there is more to all of this human experience than what I will ever see or understand; and that the divine power behind it all is worthy of my attention and my affection and my trust.

And the morning that you rose all of heaven held its breath

Til that stone was moved for good, for the lamb had conquered death

And the dead rose from their tombs and the angels stood in awe

For the souls of all who’d come to the father are restored

And the church of Christ was born, and the spirit lit the flame

Now this gospel truth of old shall not kneel, shall not faint

Churchy words, to be sure; but in that moment they were deeply, powerfully true in the face of all that is swirling around in our current daily reality.

This is why I go to church; I expect to be changed, to walk out of the room differently than when I went in. Because my deepest desire is to fully understand and live out this simple, yet complex, notion: That God is love.

I start – every day – with the one thing I know for sure, which is that I don’t know much and that there’s always room to learn something new, and that if I believe that God is real, then it stands to reason that there is always something more for me to discover about who God is and how I can best live my life in that context. I follow the teachings of Jesus – not the concept of atonement, or the intellectual understanding of his existence, but the actual things he did and said and taught, in order to seek understanding of myself and others. And in this, I find hope. I find peace. I find within me the distinctly uncharacteristic ability to hold things loosely and relinquish control and admit that I don’t (and may never) know it all. I release the need to be right about anything. 

I try to take the following seriously, and to pursue a grace-filled life that would reflect this to the world around me:

Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. – James 1.26-27, The Message

As I understand it – as best I can, in this moment – this is faith, expressing itself in love. And if I take my faith seriously, I have admit and embrace the fact that this is the only thing that matters. 

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