Agape at agape

 

If love longs for response, does that nullify the purity of the love?

If love is truly self-forgetfulness … yet the lover yearns to be loved back … how can we say it forgets itself? It might be perfectly natural – but can we call it pure?

Are humans even capable of agape, the unconditional type of love? Not even the best intentions of our heart are unmixed with self-interest. God understands this: He builds self-interest into His appeals to us. Even the most altruistic person, giving their life for their child or partner, must surely count the cost – and have their about-to-be-cut-off future flash before their eyes. Even Jesus asked that if possible, the cup might pass from Him.

I wonder if maybe pure love then is not so much restricted to Level: God, but that even in the face of cutting off all possible futures, or in the face of unrequitedness, or crucifixion, love, having counted the cost, scoffs at it and persists. Jesus, in that agonised moment where He maybe couldn’t feel love enough for us (catching Z’s in the background while He sweated blood), loved and trusted and sumbitted to His Father, who had previously set the joy of human redemption before Him. When you can’t remember all of why you go on, you fix on one sure thing. For Jesus, it was His Father’s will, and wrapped up in that was the why of the will: Their love for humanity and the display of Their glory as Love demonstrated its true colours to all realms. Maybe the purest love is simply the doggedest. If three things remain – faith, hope and love (the greatest) – maybe they remain because they just don’t know when to quit. They say, “I will go to my deathbed believing in you. I will go to my deathbed hoping you’ll respond. I will go to my deathbed remaining there for you, whether you appreciate it or not.”

I wonder if this is what the Prodigal Son’s father experienced. “One day, he’ll come back. One day, he’ll come to his senses. And when he does, I’ll be here, and I’ll meet him with joy.” Certainly this is how God treats us, in this interstice between the Resurrection and the Return. The massive, incredible gift of His heart sits unopened on many a mantelpiece. And He waits.

I hear a lot about how love is a verb: it’s not what you say or what you feel, but what you do. It’s less about attraction and more about commitment. There’s a great deal of truth in that, though I think the very best love encompasses all three. The point there is that love, like a bank balance, either finds expression or is redundant. But sometimes … in some circumstances … I think love waits, and that waiting is a kind of action as well. Waiting sounds passive. But sometimes action is denied us. Or, we’ve done everything in our power and the ship has sailed anyway. So we must wait. But in the waiting, when all our faith and hope and love are bent toward the subject, we’re praying for their wellbeing, we’re blessing them, we’re ensuring our setup is good to go, we’re offering for God to change us where necessary. And we’re seeing an opportunity to expand our own heart. How else can we grow in love, unless love is stretched past its comfort zone? If my long-range value is that I wish to become a more loving person, then in each moment, who am I choosing to become? Someone who sniffles at the sunset, or someone who sets her face to the sunrise?

Oh, but it’s not easy. I absolutely do not know where the line is between being the ultimate “there for you” loving person, and sticking up for my non-doormat self because Scripture expects me to love myself as well – and because I am not, after all, made of stone. I hurt. The simplest answers can be the hardest to live out. But today, in this moment, I’ll give it a red-hot go.

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Bridge Song

Been talking
Been walking out
Every day

Enfolding
Been holding out
Anything at halfway

Apple blossom, olive branch,
All you see’s an arrow
It’s my aim to love you
But I fear you just feel harrowed

Been balking
But been walking out
Every day

Been trudging
Been judging me
And falling shorter

Been crying
Been trying to feel
Outside my corner

Longer this goes on,
Your analgesic tolls on me
And yet, where is it written
That these crooked roads must meet?

Been grudging
But been trudging out
Every day

Been falling
Been calling out
Over the rush

Been stranger
Been changing now
Drowned out by the hush

In my hands a heart on offer
Naked in the wind
Laid out in the centre
Where I’ve chosen to be pinned

Been stalling
But been calling out
Every day

Clipboard

There’s a man who follows me ’round with a clipboard
.    Takes off points when I mess up
All day long, they come off wrong, I come on strong
.   And at night, I have to ‘fess up

What I wouldn’t give for 24 hours in a row
Without the need to apologise
What I wouldn’t take to be sure I’m not alone
To look the clipboard man in the eyes

There’s a sign hanging over my head like a verdict
.    Too uneven, not parallel
No relent, constant repent, can’t pay this rent
.    Bar keeps moving closer to hell

What I wouldn’t give for 24 hours in a row
Without the need to apologise
What I wouldn’t take to be sure I’m not alone
To look the clipboard man in the eyes

And blink
And breathe
And think
At ease

Admissions

 

“Dear Abby” Van Buren once said, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” As I begin my therapy journey today, I feel very much like the proverbial patient. I’m asking myself ridiculous questions, such as, “Should I put on makeup so I have at least one thing to feel good about? Or will I just cry it all off anyway? Should I wear a naked face to help me undress my heart?”

I’ve never had a problem appearing “naked” before God. I was raised on the twin ideas of inherent sin and an omniscient God; there’s never been any point hiding the Real Me ™ from Him. He sees me to my spiritual bones. I’ve never had too much of a problem baring my soul to my friends, either. I’m not gifted with a mask, so I gave up trying to create one, except for times when it’s plain my honesty will be inappropriate or weigh someone down. I’ve tried hard all my life to avoid the label of “Christian hypocrite” by opting for transparency instead, even to the point of answering “How are you?” truthfully. In the immortal words of Indigo Girls, “Maybe there’s no haven in this world for tender age/ My heart beat like the wings of wild birds in a cage/ My greatest hope my greatest cause to grieve/ And my heart flew from its cage, and it bled upon my sleeve.”

But today I am about to show the ugliest parts of my inner self to a psychologist (and I’ve picked one I know, one who understands my theological point of view). I’m a little nervous about the social implications of that.

Imagine – suspending the obvious issue of modesty – if we all went to church in hospital gowns. Maybe the Salvos have it right: uniform is a great leveler and reminder of who we are. Picture this: you arrive at the church door and are ushered to a changing booth, where you doff your street clothes and put on your hospital gown. You spend the entirety of the church service with your back exposed, as does everyone else. The songleader wears a hospital gown. The preacher wears a hospital gown. Everyone in the room is a patient.

Someone walking in is not going to be met by a cadre of well-dressed, successful, “be-like-us” professional-looking Christians. Instead, they are going to know themselves (a) in the company of people who all acknowledge that they need help, and (b) in a place where help is offered, no matter how long it takes you to get well. Anyone can ask for help. Nobody can hide their status. Everyone is in an attitude of awkward humility, but also sharing in the camaraderie of all being in this unusual boat together.

Of course we can’t wear hospital gowns to church, and most of us will recoil in horror at the very idea. But the point stands: we will reach a whole different set of people with less gloss and more grit.

The idea, then, is to find a way to be fully dressed as well as fully drossed. Here’s what I want to honestly say as a member of my church.

I may not have the best testimony because I am not an unqualified success, or my miracle hasn’t happened, or hasn’t happened yet, or I never had a watershed moment. My life has been two steps forward and one back, lather rinse repeat; and I’m still living with xyz and I have no answer for why. Hearing people give their shiny testimonies about how, unlike me, God delivered them from their deal in an instant, makes me want to punch them. I mean, I’m happy for them, and glad their words help some; but I can’t accept the idea that if you just had enough faith you’d get your healing too … ergo, your sickness is your fault. Make no mistake, there’s healing here. But if, like me, your miracle hasn’t come overnight, well, there’s love here too. Love looks to the long haul. And the failure to break through is not because you don’t have enough faith: Jesus said you only needed a tiny bit. So don’t tell yourself you’re disqualified. Yes, look into other factors, but know that there are people here who will journey with you whether you get your miracle or not. Because we don’t just celebrate success. We celebrate a God who loves us no matter how unsuccessful we are. He died for us in the midst of our terrible failure, because we needed Him to. It would have been pointless if He’d done it as a reward for what we could achieve with our own positive thinking & action.

What brings God glory? He is no doubt glorified when people tell of the wondrous things He’s done for them. He’s done a few for me, too! But here’s the most wondrous thing I’ve seen Him do for me and my family: He has stuck with us. And that is my testimony. I’m still on my journey toward breakthrough – let me not at all diminish your hope that yours is coming too! – and  I don’t have to go it alone. My brothers and sisters are walking beside me, because we’re all just walking each other home anyway. And He’s with us to the end.

I Also Ran

Lately I’ve been sitting with my daughter while she does her Year 12 assignment on Tiananmen Square. We talked about quality of life issues and human rights, and I described the paranoia we had in the ’80s over Communism, and the terrible things done to Christians behind the Iron Curtain. She asked me if I would die for my faith, or recant under torture, trusting in God’s power to forgive.

I wanted to say, “Yes, absolutely” – but I had to admit that I didn’t know. I would like to think I could stick it out to the bitter end, but I know perfectly well that I’m not a very courageous person. I’m far more reed than rock. Put me in a room where there’s even a verbal confrontation, and my mojo evaporates! A quick flick through Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs is a very confronting thing. I’m totally intimidated by saints, both ancient and modern, who have suffered for their faith. For me, it would take a special, 11th-hour, God-given sort of backbone to endure under torture. No amount of working up to it seems to have benefitted me. I remember trying to toughen myself up, from as far back as the age of 12, but all it seems to have done is (a) give me a sharp and bitter tongue, and (b) feed a persecution complex. In short, trying to be someone I’m not, results in ugliness. So I’m going to have to once more place my reliance in the Holy Spirit, because I don’t think I have what it takes, and I’m going to have to be okay with that.

I’m kind of in good company here. Saint Peter didn’t start out brave; he started out bravado. Put a sword in his hand and he’ll wave it about; but put him in a courtyard next to the place where his notorious best friend is being ruthlessly shredded, and, well … who wants to be next? In that moment he can totally understand why Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea only ever came to see Jesus on the sly. They had so much more to lose; maybe, he thinks in that awful heartbeat, they were the smart ones.

I don’t know if they were smart or not. Nicodemus, a Jewish man with a humanist “people power” Greek name – I imagine him as urbane, educated, used to moving in the best circles, treading a tightrope between the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and the Romans – brought his questions to Jesus under cover of night. Joseph the tin merchant was a wealthy businessman who believed but was sensitive to public opinion, so he is described as a “secret believer”. These weren’t people who stood up for their faith in Jesus “and consequences be damned”. They were hedgers and, to some extent, cowards … like me.

So can a cowardly person do anything good for God? I have good news for you. Yes, they can. You might not be the magnificent Deborah, leading the armies of Israel against the oppressors of Canaan. But you might be tentwife Jael – married to a turncoat, but a girl who knows how to nail in a good tent peg. You might be Nicodemus – not very brave, but you’ve got influence in high places when you need to use it. You might be Joseph of Arimathea – precious about your reputation, but you’ve got money at your fingertips. You might be Peter, who’s either all talk or brash action, but who freezes if he lets himself overthink.

Let me tell you about what these frightened people did. They were the lever that moved the world. Their actions – done off-stage for the most part – were pivotal moments in God’s plan. Jael assassinated the Bin Laden of her day, because opportunity knocked and she simply used what she had in her hand. Nicodemus prompted one of Jesus’ best sermons, which includes the world’s most famous Bible verse; and as my pastor Nick pointed out today, was so moved from darkness to light that he provided twice the burial spices for Jesus that the average royal person received, underlining Jesus’ status as the King of Kings. Joseph took the gospel to Britain, and Britain took the gospel to all of Europe and beyond. Spotlight-hating Peter preached to several thousand people on the Day of Pentecost. He worked among the Jews to show them that their Messiah was suffering servant, Passover lamb AND coming King. He was martyred, but by then his courage and humility were such that he insisted on being crucified upside down, saying he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as Jesus. He was the fisherman who shook the world.

Scared? Intimidated? Self-conscious? Brand-protective? Don’t have a kick-ass testimony? Feel like you’re not a very good Christian? Think you’re not hero material, that you’re just an also-ran? It doesn’t matter. God has always used the foolish things to shame the wise, and the visionary things to shame the tangible. Don’t be paralysed by what you see as your disqualifications. Worry about being brave later. Today, just have a look and see what’s in your hand, and do what you can. See where it takes you.

Please Oh Please

There’s something in all of those who believe in God, that wants to please Him. I’ve written before about getting all our veges in a row, only to find that they’re the wrong currency. But there’s a big fat clue in Hebrews which says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Why is it so impossible?

Well, for starters, “whoever comes to God must believe He exists.” This is the part I’ve always thought was emphasised: you can’t approach someone who’s not there. So, a lot of sermons and apologetics have focused on “yes, there is a God, we’ve got kind-of proofs here, and here, and here; and in any case there’s no better or less fanciful explanation for this, and this, and this.”

The second part of the verse comes in for a bit of neglect: “and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” The only time I’ve really heard much on this part was when the unspoken question, “Why do I feel God disapproves of me?” has been self-answered with, “You obviously haven’t sought Him diligently enough … He said He would be found by you if you searched for Him with all your heart. ALL your heart. So, if you’re having trouble finding God, guess what? You’re at fault. Again. Big surprise.”

(Yes, I know. Very negative self-talk. We’ll get to that. Sometime this year, I believe.)

But back on the topic of faith. Whenever I’ve thought about praying for things with faith (miracles, healing, character transformation) I’ve thought that the faith He’s after is my faith in His abilities. If I ask myself the question, “Is God capable? Is God competent? Is God powerful?” then the answer always has to be “yes”. Of course the God who made the universe is sublime and brilliant and incredible. He has to be. But despite the seeming guarantees of Scripture, what we like to call the “precious promises,” large numbers of us remain unhealed, unfulfilled, and ratty – and I have no explanation for that.

But lately I’ve been thinking along different lines. Likely this is an “and” situation rather than an “or” one. But here’s my thought. Instead of focusing on CAN God, what if I asked myself WON’T God?

Last year I felt that God was challenging me to see Him as a generous Father. “You don’t ask big enough,” He said. “It’s like you don’t really believe I’m a good dad who’s, ahem, dying to bless His kids.” Now there are reasons for this: strong childhood inculcation against Greed, Idolatry, Mammon, Ambition, Selfishness. But I’m no longer a child. The schoolmaster of the Law has left the building (though his influence rightly remains). And either God is a good, good Father, or He isn’t; or, His ideas of good are radically different from any “good” as we define it. This last is what I believed most of my life: let God be true, and every man a liar; denial, denial, denial. But there is no use in a good that isn’t good. That itself is idolatry – to worship a “good God” whose goodness looks remarkably like badness or indifference. I don’t believe either that that’s who my God is or that this pleases Him (though a determination to stick to Him whether we get our own way or not, may). I do believe that it may be legitimate to look at my misfortune and shake my head and smile and say, “Come on now, Lord. You love me much more than this.” That’s not entitled. That’s faith.

But here’s the thing. My faith needs to be not in the abilities of God, but in His character. And He is a self-confessed lover. “God is love,” the Bible asserts. He Himself is Love, capital L, agape, the unconditional, benevolent, transcendent love. This is not something about Him: it is His structure, if I can put it that way without reducing the complexity of His personhood to one ephemeral virtue. God is Love in the sense that He is composed of it, it’s all through Him like a tissue in a glass of water and water in the fabric of the tissue. It is His modus operandi, and it is also the state in which He Himself exultantly lives in His internal community of the Trinity.

So why did God not say, “Without love it is impossible to please God”? He could have, you know. The statement is more or less true. The two greatest commandments are all about love: for God, for neighbour, for self. (Yes, you heard me: you’re expected to love yourself.) I do believe (and I’m on shaky ground, so hold the phone) that it makes God happy when we love well. He loves love (though I’m not talking about eros) and as John Piper has pointed out, He loves Himself, because He is not an idolater and cannot fail to value what is supremely valuable. The fact that He goes on to love US should make us feel very encouraged, therefore, about the value He places on us.

It’s been said that God is moved by faith, not need. I believe He is not unmoved by need – only that it’s faith that tends to get Him to act. The picture is like a kid with a skinned knee, running past his dad. The dad sucks in his breath over the skinned knee; he feels how painful it is. But until the kid remembers that Dad’s the one with the tender compassion and the Band Aids, and comes to Dad knowing that Dad will make it better – Dad sits tight. He’s probably holding his breath, though. A smart kid knows that Dad is more concerned about his knee than he himself is. A smart kid goes to Dad to put Dad’s mind at rest by giving him the earliest possible opportunity to help.

Here’s the thing. If my faith is not merely in God’s competence, but in an unshakable conviction that He is a good Father who delights in delighting His kids, setting them up to succeed and grow and flourish and remain lovingly connected to Him as their source – then everything shifts. If I believe that God is not passive or unmoved but actively rewards those who seek Him, because He loves us and loves us to come to Him – then through His competence all things become possible.

God cannot love you a little bit. He cannot love you a medium bit. Love is not like an array of coffee cup sizes at Zarraffa’s. Love, by definition, is all in. It’s more like a switch – it’s either on or it’s off. It’s either fully committed, or talk-to-the-hand. God loves you completely. He cannot love one person more than another. He can have elbow room to move in their life to different degree than in yours, but it doesn’t mean He loves us unequally. Love is not quantitative; it’s qualitative, and it goes all out in a tailored direction or loses its definition.

This means that if you have faith in God’s love, and that faith is as small as a mustard seed, that is all you need to tap into the full, rich, deep, high, broad ENTIRE SEA of love that is God. Because with God’s love, an inch is as good as a mile. It’s not a bigger faith you need: it’s a bigger God, and they don’t come any bigger. Of course, if you do happen to have bigger faith, you’ll find the immersion experience in that sea far more thrilling. But you don’t have to feel disqualified if your faith is small. His love is vast, and any amount of faith legitimises a claim on it. It’s not about the size of you. It’s about the size of Him.

The thing about faith is that it comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. We could quibble here a little about Jesus being the Logos, the actual personified Word, and the point would still hold. Your faith will never rise higher than your level of revelation. When we pray, we pray according to what we know. The more we know about God, the more informed our requests can be, and the deeper our praise. But the way to know more about God – and thereby increase our faith – lies in getting revelation. You get that through the Word (either by reading the Bible, which is the written Word of God, or by spending time with the Word – Jesus, the embodiment of the testament of God). You get it also through hearing new things mined out of the Word by experts, the best of whom lives in you in the person of the Holy Spirit. You get it through songs and sermons and articles and soundbites and memes. But you don’t get it by passive wishful thinking. Faith is the gift of God, perhaps a treasure hunt. No hunt, no treasure. Little gems of revelation are waiting for you all over the place if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, if you are hungry for more of God. He is certainly hungry for more of you.

All The Way

This year’s Christmas offering, with hat-tip to W. Paul Young.


Some will meet you halfway

And you must bridge the gap between

They want you to struggle, and to pay

For your share … pay your fare

I see empty pockets, and emptier eyes

How could I close Mine

When you are dear to Me?

I would travel any path you take

Oh, to meet you, to be with you

You don’t need to bring a thing but faith

And I’ll greet you, and be with you

You see distance, and I know you’ve questions

We’ll take them day by day

I just want you to see I’ve come all the way.

Some would tell Me to let go

And some would say, “Be angry!”

But I put on your skin, so you’d know

I’ve been there, “Love was here”

I see My children, and the greater plan

How could I leave you out

When you are dear to Me?

Heaven to Bethlehem: the journey began

On a road that led Me to Calvary …

I would travel any path you take

Oh, to meet you, to be with you

You don’t need to bring a thing but faith

And I’ll greet you, and be with you

You see distance, and I know you’ve questions

We’ll take them day by day

I just need you to know I’ve come all the way!

(Instrumental) 

Not halfway … all the way, to be with you!

You see distance, and I know you’ve questions

We’ll take them day by day
I just want you to see … I’ve come ALL the way.
(C) 2016 Rebekah Robinson