The Simple Power of Love…

I find myself speaking about love, so much so that it begins to sound a little clichéd.  I remember in Scripture classes at primary and high schools, my main goal was for the children and young people to know that they were loved – by us adults and by a God they didn’t necessarily know.  I wanted them to be able to grasp that being loved was the most significant reality for each of us.  I wanted them to recognise that they were loved beyond anything they may have experienced amongst family and friends, although all love is mediated through relationships in some way.  I realised that some of these children and young people didn’t understand love because they hadn’t experienced deep love within their families.  Some came from dysfunctional homes and broken relationships.  Some were not valued and sometimes you could recognise this in the way they presented themselves and through their poor self-esteem.  I wanted them to know that they were loved by God, infinitely, profoundly and for who they were rather than what they felt they should or needed to be.

I used stories and spoke of Jesus reaching out to all people.  I loved stories like the prodigal son who turns on his father, wastes the inheritance even before his father had died and then in desperation seeks forgiveness and a place in the household – even as a servant.  The father waves off the confession and embraces the lost son – he was dead but is now alive, lost but now found.  Through tears and love the father welcomes him home to where he belongs – so with us!

I never tire of this message of love but sometimes it feels thin.  Sometimes on my lips it sounds like a broken record, a cliché that runs the risk of sounding tedious.  I often wonder whether it is too simple – ‘Love’.  I speak of love as being the only true solution to the world’s crises; love as the only way to transformation, personal and communal.  I lay a great deal at the ‘feet of love’.  But I wonder whether we truly get it – myself included?  Do we seek something harder, more complex, bound by structures that require much work to understand and employ?  Do we seek something that has more obvious power and might, something that is big, strong and dominant – a power for good that stands over and against all that we perceive as bad or evil?

When I speak of love and being people of love, it sounds so simple, even simplistic.  All of a sudden my mind fills with the hit parade of love songs and the never-ending supply of movies that reverberate with ‘love’.  Much of it is romantic love but sometimes pop culture transcends its own superficiality and throws up a profound story of deeper love that is self-sacrificing and beautiful.  We are moved, perhaps inspired.  Beyond the Beatles’, ‘All you Need is Love’ and the plethora of other anthems that form the soundtracks of our lives, love echoes, inspires and calls out to us.  Love is the constant yearning of our hearts, the place we seek to belong, in relationship and community.  We yearn to be in a place where we are valued for who we are and freed to become what and who we are meant to be.  We want, with all our deepest hopes, there to be a ‘Love’ at the heart of the universe, a Love that will not let us go.  We hope and yearn for a Love that is for us, not just affirming our prejudices or fallacies but a Love that will embrace us, liberate us and draw us into deeper knowing and being.  This Love sometimes seems fleeting and uncertain.  We grasp it in a story or a moment.  We remember it in a funeral or voice it at a special occasion.  When times are tough and we hurt or fear and feel lost in the swirling whirlpool of life’s chaos, we know Love in the patience and embrace of those who stand with us.  We also cry out into the infinite space beyond our being, beyond the vastness of the universe, we cry out to a Love that transcends human life and material, physical existence, longing for more than the fading echo of our desperate voice.  It is into this mystery and uncertain wonder that we encounter Love.  Like the first gentle rays of morning light softly embracing the world in tender glow, Love flows out from the Divine Heart gently surrounding the world with life, hope, peace and joy.

It is this Love that touches our life in myriad ways, small and profound, known or in fleeting glimpse that kindles love within us and enables us to know, feel and give love.  It is this transformative Love that reveals itself as the way of true life and inspires our heart to dream and hope.  This Love is the source of all love and the fundamental basis of our self-worth and a healthy ego.  It is the only true way of peace in our world – and it is hard!  It is very, very hard!  Whilst it may not be hard to love those very close to us, love invites us to embrace others who are different and those who do things against us – perhaps who hate us!  Love invites us to respond to the hostility of the world with grace and love!!??!  Love says that this is the only way.

Perhaps this is why my speaking of love often sounds so simplistic because we are always looking for ways to excuse loving others.  Perhaps we look for excuses to feed our envy or competitive instincts.  Perhaps we seek something that will justify our self-righteous feelings or prejudices or even racist, exclusive attitudes.  Perhaps in fear we hate those who commit evil more than the evil itself and want to lash out in power and might to destroy those who commit evil.  What does Love mean in all of this?

This week we hear some simple and profound words of Jesus that come not too long before his death.  The story comes from John 13:31-35.  In it he speaks of love and invites the community of those who follow him to ‘love one another as I have loved you.  When you do this everyone will know that you are my followers – if you love one another.’  The beginning of love is to love each other – those close by and part of the deep connections and relationships we have.  It is to create communities where love is a tangible experience and God rests gently in our midst. It is a community of love where there is grace, respect, freedom to be who you can be, where the transformative power of Love runs amok with gracious abandon liberating people to grow into their fullest expression of who they were created to be.  As we live in such love we know ourselves to be loved unconditionally and are enabled to love.  We are drawn into a deeper expression of what it means to be human and to live more deeply into the Divine Image in which we were created and which is our essential being.  Such love is the brightest light that enlightens life with hope and peace.  It creates communities of freedom and joy and such communities are oases in a troubled world, places of rest, renewal and healing.  They reach out beyond themselves into a world that longs to become what it can be.

Love one another as I have loved you! – Jesus of Nazareth

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By geoffstevenson

Transformation Into Love and Vulnerable Life

One of my favourite authors, a teacher, writer and speaker on spirituality, is Henri Nouwen.  He was a Catholic Priest who was internationally renowned.  He taught at Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools and was very successful in terms of popular appeal, influence and being a sought after speaker.  Nouwen approached his 50th birthday with a grinding conviction that all was not right.  He experienced depression, a psychological symptom of burn-out.  He became more isolated and shut off from people and activities.  He felt an increasing sense of being spiritually dry and desolate.  His life moved towards crisis as he continually sought out further success and was preoccupied with being relevant.  The further he went, the more he felt he was dying inside, spiritually dying, and losing his soul.

This crisis grew into a full emotional breakdown that engulfed in the bleak darkness of despair and depression.  It was through this period that Nouwen reached out, searching for something that he was missing in his life.  He had been to South America and the poorest places to offer himself as a missionary.  These were deeply moving times as he lived amongst the poor and learned from them what love and life were really meant.  Nouwen had returned to Harvard, realising that he was not called into the missionary life in South America, and to the gruelling schedule and pull of academia.  Thus the crisis continued to swallow him despite the brief respite.  It was in the midst of his deep despair and feeling of being lost that he received a visit from one of the staff of the L’Arche Community.  This movement meaning The Ark is a series of houses and communities for people who live with intellectual disabilities.  They share the house together and live as an open Christian community of love and grace.  Nouwen was given a few days of gentle and gracious care and love – meals cooked, chores done and whatever help and support he needed was offered.  He waited for the inevitable request to do something in return but it never came.  Henri Nouwen received and experienced pure grace!  Nothing was required of him, it was pure gift, generous and lovingly given.  This experience of grace changed Henri Nouwen and he left academia and the life of expectation, success, ambition and privilege.  He went as Chaplain to the LÁrche Daybreak community in Toronto, where he lived for the remainder of his life, serving amongst those with various intellectual disabilities (and other disabilities), other staff and volunteers.  He had special care for a young man, Adam, who could do nothing for himself and Nouwen got him up in the morning, washed him, dressed him, fed him, cleaned his teeth, combed his hair and sent him off on his day of therapy.

Henri Nouwen’s life was transformed amongst these people.  He experienced grace and learned how to give and receive love.  He came face to face with God in a more profound manner than ever before and he emerged from his deep despair and depression.  Nouwen found life and joy in the service of others.  He received such grace from people who were not able to do anything – people like Adam, whom Nouwen said gave him more than he was able to give.

I am challenged by this remarkable story of Henri Nouwen and the transformation of his life.  There are many points of connection that I (we) have with Henri Nouwen.  We are formed by and engaged with a world that drives us through ambition, being relevant, popular, acceptable, to have power and success, wealth and status.  We constantly struggle with whether we are acceptable people, whether we have achieved sufficient, have enough are good enough…  This constant stress to conform and become is responsible for pandemics of depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem – and spiritual lifelessness.

I was fascinated to read that Henri Nouwen was challenged by our Gospel reading this week – John 21:1-19.  Along with another reading this week (Acts 9:1-20), we read about the transformative power of God in people’s lives.  BUT, this transformation takes us in the opposite way to that which are normally moving, that which is obvious from our societal expectations.  It seems to be a counter movement, a backwards movement into simplicity to learn and receive from the poor and marginalised, those who are disdained by the world.  Nouwen found life and grace and the face of God amongst the poor and then the intellectually and physically disabled.

In the readings this week we hear of the Risen Christ encountering the disciples who had returned to their former lives after his death.  They went back to what they knew, business as it was.  Into this life of daily struggle where they failed to make a catch for the night, the Risen Christ tells them to try the otherside and they catch so many fish they can’t haul them in.  They eat breakfast on the beach and he engages Peter who has denied him.  Peter is asked three times ‘Do you love me?’ Three times he answers ‘Yes, you know that I do.’  The response of the Risen Christ is to commission him to feed the sheep of God’s people.  Peter and the disciples have their lives thrust into new directions.  Business as usual will not be their way.  Their way is the way of Jesus and the way of God – to share love, grace and live for justice before the powers of the world.  They are vulnerable and little ones through whom God will work to transform the world.

In the other reading we hear the story of Paul’s conversion – the well-known ‘Road to Damascus’ story.  Paul (called Saul at this point) is on a zealous mission to eradicate the region of the Christians who are defiling the law with their loose ways and altered laws.  Paul is a strict Jew of the Pharisee Party, a pious group of Jewish people who studied and revered the law.  He held the law up as sacred and the true way of God.  When he encountered those who transgressed the law, he was angry and violently persecuted them through imprisonment.

On the way to gather the Christians Paul has an arresting vision on the road.  A bright light and voice stopped him in his tracks:  ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  It is the Risen Christ in a vision confronting and challenging him and leaving him temporarily blind.  Saul becomes Paul and is transformed as Christians pray over him and scales fall from his eyes so that he begins to see – not just physically but spiritually – he gets it!  Paul leaves the life of power, legalism, religious might and enters into the vulnerable place of serving God and the world, enduring the struggles but living with joy and wonder as he spreads the news of God’s deep love for all people and lives out love and grace as did Henri Nouwen!  What is the call of transformation on your life?  Where is God working in you to change your heart, mind and spirit?

By geoffstevenson

When Love Overcomes Fear!

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”  (John Lennon).

Fear is a major force within our society, a major motivating force in our lives.  We are constantly being nurtured into fear.  We are told to fear terror.  We are told to be afraid of the economic disaster that always seems to be imminent.  We are told to fear crime rates and violence in the streets.  We are told to fear illness and the ever present possibilities disease brings.  We are told to fear immigrants or refugees or those who are different.  We fear unemployment and a variety of social issues that surely threaten us.  Fear, it seems, follows our every step and lurks behind every door, ever threatening our well-being, our shalom (deep peace) and our very lives.  Fear and anxiety quietly work their way into our psyche where they settle and then unsettle us.  We become anxious, angry, reactive and irrational as fear engulfs us and influences our thinking and reaction to the world.  Fear.

Fear is an ever-present reality in human life.  Fear is a means of warning against danger.  There are particular biological responses that fear initiates within our bodies.  Adrenalin makes us edgy and ready to react through the fight or flight response.  We don’t think logically so much as defensively, ready to defend ourselves and fight off the enemy or run away from danger.  Lennon speaks of fear and love as two basic motivating forces.  The Biblical notion of love casts out fear.  Love and fear can’t co-exist and love in its raw strength overcomes fear.  This is what people like Martin Luther King jr, Ghandi and others worked with – generating the power of love within people so that fear would not hold them back.  When they learned the way of love, they overcame fear.  Courage and bravery find their voice, their place in the midst of fear.  Nelson Mandell says:  “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

The story of Easter and the aftereffects of a people encountering one who is dead but alive in their midst in this mysterious new way, speaks into fear.  The initial response to Jesus’ crucifixion was fear.  The followers of Jesus were afraid.  They feared those who had the power over life and death and could do to them what they did to Jesus.  Their fear overwhelmed their responses and they hid themselves away behind locked doors.  They hid from the world so that those who had power could not get to them.  In a very strange and mystical account, John speaks of this Risen Christ entering the locked room and materialising in their presence.  They were afraid of Jesus, this vision and experience of the Risen Christ in their midst.  They were afraid.  They built walls around themselves and their fear locked them away from life and living.  They put all life on hold, gripped by fear, anxiety and uncertainty.  The defining motivation, the force that drove them, was fear and it was very powerful.

I wonder how we are gripped by fear.  I wonder how fear holds us and locks us into a way on non-living, of helplessness, powerlessness and deep anxiety that is paralysing.  What do we fear?  What is it that initiates the biological reaction in our bodies and locks us into fight or flight; to defensiveness or escape?  How much of what we fear is real?  How much of what we are told to fear is rational and actual?  Are there any alternatives to fear?  What responses can we make that no longer restrict hope but unleashes life, with joy, love and peace?

Into the midst of the frightened, fearful disciples the Risen Christ appears and says: ‘Peace be with you!’  He showed them the scars of death, the signs of violence and the metaphors at the heart of fear.  These wounds and scars had no lasting power.  Life triumphs death and hope is eternal – for those who will take up love and cast aside fear.  This Risen Christ breathed on them and the breath of God touched them with life and the Spirit of Christ was in them, through them and around them.  This is the Spirit of Love that transforms fear into life and hope.  The disciples stood up, took a deep breath and began to live again.  The mysterious One in their midst was the presence of God, who is Love and fear cannot inhabit the same space as love.  The disciples and followers of Jesus came alive!

This is a story of resurrection – the resurrection of hope, life, love and of courage in the face of fear.  Jesus proclaimed forgiveness and commissioned the disciples to forgive.  This is the way of reconciliation and peace.  Forgiveness is the beginning of the way of new life, of freedom from the shackles that bind us in fear and conflict.  Barriers built up are torn down when forgiveness flows, given and received.

This is a strange and beautiful story but it is also one that is difficult to embrace in the cut and thrust of everyday life.  Those who control and tell the stories of culture do it very well.  They narrate an ever-present story of fear and angst.  They portray our world as caught in the grip of powers that threaten the heart of material life, which seems so important.  We are drawn into their rhetoric of fear.  We feel the anger and violence courses through our veins in response – angry words and violent thoughts; violent actions – fights, wars, murder… As individuals and nations we respond to fear out of the narrative that surrounds the telling.  Fear generates more fear, more violence, more hopelessness.

Jesus’ story, the story of God in our midst, is an alternative story that offers another way.  This way is what John Lennon yearns for in the quote above.  It is for people to embrace life and love as a way that quenches fear and overcomes violence through forgiveness and peace.  When Jesus breathed on the disciples and offered them forgiveness and peace, he was saying that they are loved by the Love at the heart of the universe, a profound, eternal Love that transcends all else.  They were no longer alone, no longer helpless or hopeless.  Nor were they powerless because God was in their midst and in them.  They could believe.  In the midst of doubt and uncertainty, confusion and fear, they could believe.  In believing they could respond and act and rise above fear to be Love in the world!

By geoffstevenson