On February 10 I posted about how some people were not comfortable with how I speak of God, because my language isn’t traditional enough and doesn’t reflect enough orthodoxy. This morning I received a beautiful, if short-lived apology from one of those to whom I had been referring in that post. Only it went on. And on. It became at first philosophical, and then a bit forceful, and finally culminated in the following:
Actually you’re in the perfect place to think about such things Most of us are distracted much of the time from anything that Truly matters…Yes you are in the struggle of your life we all are in the midst of a great struggle.… You’re missing the purpose of your own. I recognize that you are probably dismissing me and any concern Or insight or truth I think I may have. You’re always online and Commenting and you are not able to do that much right now so I thought maybe you would be up for it Being a pastor and all I will promptly Remove you from my list of friends since There seems to be no point and I don’t want to be tempted to comment anymore in response to your postings.
This was promptly followed by:
101 other things I could do today and would like to do..just felt led by the holy spirit to take that time this morning. I can’t explain it…i’m not nutty..how about considering providential love!
I wanted to publish this to try to unpack all the things I am asked to accept here, and how it illustrates a vision of Christian spirituality that, though it purports to be loving, is in fact dramatically missing that most important ingredient. I am writing, of course, from a deeply personal perspective, having been hurt and devalued by these comments so recently. The reason this is post-worthy at all is because I think it is perhaps the dominant way Christians understand their faith and the obligations of our relationship to one another. In my opinion, it is deeply broken. I started Wildwind Church, in fact, to teach an entirely different way of communicating our fundamental message of love. What follows are four ways evangelicals miss love in the way we have traditionally approached others.
1. We miss love by presuming to be experts on the lives and experiences of others
First, after having asked the person to please back off and understand that I’m not in a place right now to have theological or abstract conversations, I am told actually this is the perfect time to do so. My sense of the sacredness and vulnerability of this moment in my life is ignored, as someone else thinks they know better. (This approach, unfortunately, is Evangelism 101 in much of the church.) Forgetting entirely about Christianity and the Christ of Love for a moment, this is not a good relational principle in general. In connecting with others, we must always begin with the validity of the others’ experience from that person’s perspective. If we begin by challenging that, we cannot hope to come to any agreement on anything later. Each of us needs to be understood as the unparalleled expert on our own lives, emotions, and experiences. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a great deal to learn, but each of us alone lives in our own skin.
2. We miss love by telling people they are lost
Second, I am told I am missing the purpose of my own suffering. Of course the struggle suffering presents, always, is the very struggle to find purpose in it at all, and sometimes the sufferer never gets there. It is hard for me to imagine a more presumptuous thing to say than that he/she has missed the purpose of his/her own suffering, that he/she is lost. Suffering is so personal. We experience suffering as life itself when we are in that place, and to be told we are missing the point of our suffering is to be told we are missing the point of our lives — right at the moment we are most desperate to know what the point is. Forceful phrases such as “you are missing the point of your suffering” or “you are lost” will nearly always prompt only defensive responses. Our aim should be not to intellectually convince a person he is lost, but to create a space where, if he indeed is lost in some way, he can discover this for himself. If my wife thinks I’m lost and tries to force that on me, my tendency will be to try to save face by resisting her. The best-case scenario for her is if I can come to realize I am lost. Once I have discovered this, I will naturally begin seeking to be found. In order to do this, we must be comfortable with the idea that the work of finding people belongs to God and not to us.
3. We miss love by speaking bluntly into the lives of others without permission
The writer assumes that because I am a pastor, I will and should be up for this rather forceful discussion, where one person presumes to interpret my life and experience to me. I have seen this tendency in the church for years, where we assume that we have permission to speak into the lives of people we barely know. We often do not earn the right to be heard, a right which is always earned by listening, loving, and investing over long periods of time. We thereby tend to establish ways of being whereby we are constantly violating the sacred personhood of other individuals. Pastors often miss love this way when correcting their flocks. Church people often presume to have the right to correct one another and point out each others’ flaws. Congregations often presume that it is their right and responsibility to correct their pastor and make sure he/she is free of errors and flaws.
4. We miss love by arguing even the love and presence of God
After lecturing, scolding, cajoling, and pushing, the writer suggests that it is the loving spirit of grace itself that has prompted her words. We miss love when even God’s love becomes just one more thing to be argued over and ultimately forced onto me. The question we must ask is if there is something in human beings that knows when it is being loved and responds naturally to it. This seems to be the response Jesus invoked in people. He didn’t have to convince them he was speaking in love, even when he was saying things that may have been hard to hear. But love is communicated only by presence. Without being present to the other, we cannot communicate love, and therefore have nothing left but to merely assert it.
Next post: Unforced Love (a.k.a., “Love”)