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Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them . . .–Acts 4:32-34

“Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy . . . See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.”–Tertullian (AD155-220)

Perhaps nothing confirms my Christian faith more than the behavior of Christ’s followers in the days following Easter.  They changed in surprising ways.  Suddenly, they were fearless spokesmen for the Gospel, despite ridicule and persecution.  Suddenly, the possessions they owned weren’t for their own benefit, but viewed as how they could be used to help others.  They had nothing to gain and everything to lose, but suddenly their lives and possessions paled in comparison to spreading love, kindness, forgiveness, and mercy, always giving credit to Christ and taking none for themselves.

I had a conversation recently with a church member about alleged tortures inflicted during interrogation of terrorist detainees.  I believe in protecting the safety and security of our country.  But I wonder how we  justify inhumane treatment of any person, even our enemies.  How does that make us different from the people we’re trying to protect the world from? (Note to anyone poised to make “bleeding heart liberal” comments: I am a registered Republican who voted for Reagan and both Bushes as well as John McCain, although I wish President Obama well in leading the country and think the First Family’s dog is very cute.)

Camp Concordia lies a few miles from my home.  A Midwestern prisoner of war camp during World War II, Camp Concordia housed nearly 4,000 German officers and enlisted men from 1943-45.  Many of the Germans served in work details on local farms left shorthanded because their own sons were in Europe fighting against, and being killed because of the human rights violations inflicted by Germans.  Yet in this little Midwestern community, the German POWs were mostly treated in the spirit of the Geneva Convention: “Prisoners of War . . . must at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity . . . prisoners of war have the right to have their person and their honor respected.  Prisoners who refuse to answer questions may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment whatsoever.”

Camp Concordia

Camp Concordia

Sadly, I’ve interviewed American POWs held in Germany and Korea who suffered horrific treatment.  Yet, in Kansas, the enemy forged friendships with local farmers and businessmen, some that spanned decades, writes Lowell May in his book “Camp Concordia: German POWs in the Midwest.”  

“I am now convinced that the POW camp at Concordia has had an effect on the future of Europe, and, for that matter, the world.  A large number of the POWs became professors, diplomats and business leaders in Germany.  I firmly believe that what they saw and learned while POWs in the United States influenced their thought, and thus helped keep Germany in the Western cause during the Cold War.  More Importantly, how these POWs were treated here has helped bring the two countries closer together.”  Lowell, by the way, is a Command Sergeant Major, Retired, US Army, who served tours in Vietnam and Germany and spent much of his Army career in the military police, working in corrections.

May’s book includes a “secret” letter written to the camp in 1944 by the US Adjutant General:  “The detention in the United States of ever increasing numbers of German prisoners of war creates an unprecedented opportunity. These men will some day be repatriated, and as a group, will have a powerful voice in future German affairs.  Their opinions and feelings concerning America may determine, in a large measure, future relations between Germany and the United States.”  The letter announces the establishment of a program “to create and foster spontaneous responses on the part of German prisoners of war towards activities and  contacts which will encourage an attitude of respect on their part for American  institutions, traditions and ways of life and thought.”

Jesus boiled that memo down to “love your enemies”, and backed up his words with actions when he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, from the cross.

It’s not that hard to go to church and claim to be a believer.  What counts is how we are changed by what we believe.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”–Matthew 22:37-39

Okay, I have a very un-pastoral confession to make.  There have been people in my circle of family, acquaintances and co-workers through the years that I haven’t liked very much.  Some are self-centered, obnoxious bores. A few are catty, malicious, and negative in general.  A couple spout opinions I find bigoted or just plain wrong.

Only two things keep me from unloading on these people with both barrels.  The first is the commandment Jesus quotes from Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The second is a comment my mom made one day after dealing with a particularly trying relative: “Sometimes the unlovable need love the most.”

Religious people through the centuries have spent much time deliberating what Jesus meant by “neighbor”. I think he meant exactly what he said: Show love to those near you.  Most of the time that will mean your family and friends and co-workers, who, God knows, can be a handful at times.  (My dad’s favorite saying was “familiarity breeds contempt”.)

Jesus said to love your enemies.  Who knew we’d be related to so many of them?

Truthfully, it’s much easier to love strangers. That’s why we so eagerly send money to foreign missions, while passing judgment on our neighbor down the street on welfare. Or, carrying on a family grudge for decades.  Or, develop ulcers fretting about that co-worker we just can’t stand.

I hope the people I don’t like believe I’m their friend and someone they can count on.  Loving someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or their choices, or even like being around them.   Loving someone means you hope your actions on their behalf work for their benefit, to build them up.  Maybe even change a few of their bad attitudes.

But, if you want people to listen to you, first you have to show them you care about them.

Sometimes, I admit, there are people I can only love in close proximity for very, very short periods of time.  I find myself repeating the Apostle Paul like a mantra: Love is patient, love is kind.  It is not rude. It is not easily angered.  It keeps no record of wrong.  (God, I’d really like to keep just a little record of wrong.)

If love is an action verb, loving the unlovable is like the Olympics of Christian behavior.  We try.  We try to do better.  We practice.  We train.  Sometimes we earn the gold.  Sometimes we’re disqualified for unsportsmanlike behavior.

But we love, because God first loved us–and God knows, we’re all pretty unlovable at times.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

(Jesus) said to him, `You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”–Matthew 22:36-38

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“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”–1 Corinthians 13:4-8

It has been a difficult week to feel loving.  Yesterday alone, 1) I received an email insisting I vote for a Christian candidate because the opponent “is an openly gay man”; 2) Had a conversation debating whether it’s a sin for a woman to proclaim Christ’s gospel; and 3) Made the mistake of watching the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update parody of the presidential candidates.  There have been other incidents as well: a story about a church that refused to host a nondenominational Thanksgiving service because women would be participating in leading worship;  attempts by friends to draw me into petty arguments;  people laying blame on others for their own bad behavior.

 

Lincoln's Tomb, Springfield IL

Lincoln

A few years ago when we visited the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield Ill., I was struck the most by an exhibit of newspaper articles, editorials and cartoons from the time.  Hateful drawings and diatribes against Lincoln, sharp criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation, and, as men started dying in the Civil War, quick turnarounds from people who were supportive of the end of slavery–but not if it meant they were required to make sacrifices for human beings that were of a lower class and intellect.  I find it most poignant that the people who were supposed to be standing up for the rights of the oppressed and those treated harshly–the Christians–were sharply divided over the question of slavery. 

 

In 2,000 years, we’ve learned little about loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We are particularly happy to ignore at least one of  Paul’s descriptions of true love: it does not insist on its own way.  We have done a great injustice to 1 Corinthians 13, shuffling it off as a nice little wedding scripture, but nothing that has to do with Christ’s commandment to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

What is love?  Love isn’t an emotional high, a warm fuzzy feeling of affection that goes away if someone doesn’t act or believe the same way we do. Love was never meant to be about us–it’s an action verb that describes how we’re to treat other people.

Love means respecting other people’s experiences and beliefs. Love means giving kindness without expecting anything in return. Sometimes love means allowing people to face the consequences of their actions without becoming irritable or resentful.  Love means believing and hoping for the best in others, and never writing them off as beyond God’s grace and mercy. Love means accepting that you’ll find yourself around people who may make you uncomfortable, but they are people who want understanding and respect and friendship, just like you.

God didn’t send Jesus because we deserved a Savior, but because He knew we could never earn salvation on our own.  If God loves us that much, even when we’re behaving badly, who are we to claim that we follow God–and then withhold love and respect and kindness from others?