Love or something like it

During the days Jesus was apprenticing in His father’s Nazareth shop, Ovid was writing poetry in Rome.  Among his works was this wise counsel, “If you want to be loved, be lovable.”  Instead of just wishing or demanding that others love you, make it easy for them.  But in the New Testament, instead of urging the church community to attract love, authors urge believers to give love–without conditions, without qualification: love each another.  Period.  

…through love, serve one another… (Gal.5:13).  By my count, some 31 times in the NT authors either tell Jesus’ followers to love each other, or say it‘s what’s typical of them.  But we’re not given a lot of details about how to do that.  There are some like showing hospitality to believers, visiting them in prison, feeding and clothing Christians in need, but nowhere near enough material for even your basic Saturday seminar “10 Awesome Keys to Loving One Another”.

Which I guess is why Bible teachers often give practical tips on ways to love “Love is…, love isn’t…”, tips not found in the Bible.  Thanks to the sermons we end up with a list: do these things, don’t do those things.  That’s how we know we have loved.  Check.  

Then again, can we boil down love to a checklist that suggests that if we to do 6 things and don’t do 5, we’ve loved?  I still like Kenny Rogers’ music (seriously, why’s the guy still touring at 74?!).   His husky tenor turned rock, pop and country tunes into hit after hit.  The title cut of a 1978 Billboard smash was “Love or something like it”.  Love or something like it’s got a hold on me.  What he’s got ain’t nothin’ like love.  The guy in the song is cruising bars trying to pick up woman after woman.  Imitation love.

Which ours can be.  It’s flawed, but we don’t mean it to be.  It’s not corrupted like Kenny’s bar hopper, just ill-informed.  Take Van who sometimes offers to take his wife dancing.  He knows how much his buddy Doug’s wife loves dancing and so he expects his wife will too.  Somehow the very invitation seems to make her sulky.  What he doesn’t get (wasn’t he listening or wasn’t she saying?) is that his wife feels like she has two left feet and is too embarrassed to dance with others around.  Van meant well, but his expression of love was flawed.  Even though it was an expression someone else would have appreciated, it wasn’t right for her.

But since both of them treasure the marriage they work at trying to love better–by understanding how each other wants to be loved.  But it can all be very confusing.  Not so different in the church.  I see people do loving things for others.  Things not always received that way.  How’s a person know what to do unless he/she has a sermon for every occasion?  When is a hospital visit love and when is staying away love?  When is offering money love and when isn’t it?  When is speaking bluntly love, and when is it meddling?

The subject’s so vast that no preacher can preach enough sermons on how to–and how not to, love.  The good news is, we don’t have to.  In our church the best teacher is not yours truly, but the Holy Spirit.  Same in your church.  Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another… (1 Thess. 4:9).

 The God who made not only you–but me and every other member of the body of Christ, knows every motley one of us better than we know ourselves.  Knows what will be an expression of genuine love to Jessica or Mark or Danielle or Kent.  And can teach us how to tailor our expressions to individuals.  Go to the teacher who knows best: the Holy Spirit.  …and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… 1 Thess. 3:12. 

Like Joseph’s robe, authentic love can’t be reduced to one or two colors and fabrics.  But the One who inhabits our hearts waits eagerly to whisper to listening ears, “This is how you can show her Christian love; this is how you can show him My love.”  Even if not always appreciated by the individual, the Spirit can help us distinguish between love and what is “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Friday Books

Sorry, “Friday Books” left town for a while.  Today I’m plugging What is the Mission of the Church?  Two pastors (one Presbyterian, one Baptist) wrote a thoughtful book on mission creep, subtitled Making sense of social justice, shalom, and the great commission.  Seriously, if you love Christ’s Church you should read this.  Its 266 pages will give you a much greater grasp on the answer and why it matters, than I’ll be able to offer in 30-40 minutes this Sunday.

The growing interest many believers have in helping people in need should bring us to our feet in thunderous applause.  For example, as a kindness to their communities and a reflection of Christ, an increasing number of churches mobilize their congregations and spend a Saturday or Sunday doing all sorts of kind and helpful deeds.  Everything from washing windows or repairing porches, to offering motorists cut-rate fuel at local gas stations.  Then there are ongoing need-meeting ministries churches have such as food banks, thrift stores, tutoring, medical clinics, etc.  All of which get rave reviews–even by people with zero interest in faith.  Increasingly even those who couldn’t care less about the gospel themselves practice “random acts of kindness” and like when we do too.  In fact, testy voices from blogs, twitter and in newspaper letters to the editors, declare that such niceness and helpfulness is authentic Christianity–unlike brands which arrogantly pray for the souls of people of other religions as if they are spiritually inadequate.

The ingenious phrase “mission creep” was first used about 20 years ago to depict the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization” (Merriam-Webster).  In other words, an organization starts out with a mission to build cars, only to 20 years later find itself  manufacturing parts for earthmoving equipment or selling leadership seminars.  Mission creep.

Has it happened to the Church?  Have good deeds become the mission, or are these acts of obedience still in their proper place?  Acts that today may lobby either to be the mission exclusively–or be an integral part of it, include helping the poor, promoting justice among all people, and protecting the earth.  And of course, the Great Commission.  Of the many, many good things churches should do, which drives the rest?  The authors believe the church has one mission, which they say is …not everything we do in Jesus’s name, nor everything we do in obedience to Christ.  Mission is the task we are given to fulfill.  It’s what Jesus sends us into the world to do (p.29). 

DeYoung & Gilbert methodically work their way through many scriptures but it’s the early church portrayed in Acts which they think portrays what today’s Church ought to be doing.  And not.  If you are looking for a picture of the early church giving itself to creation care, plans for societal renewal, and strategies to serve the community in Jesus’ name, you won’t find them in Acts (p.49).  You may not agree with everything, but I doubt that you’ll walk away without rethinking some of the soundbites you’ve heard.  Even sermon soundbites.