Last week, we started a new, 8 week series called Training in the Studio of Love. It feels so great to kick this new year off looking at love. It’s a word we hear about, talk about and orient around a lot as people who think about faith—and who try our best to live out a life of faith with Jesus at the center—but maybe less often, consider it something to train for. Our series is inspired by an old friend of our church, Brian McLaren (author, and in the pastorate), who has spent a lot of time thinking about just how we are called to lead a life of love, and he has come up with a curriculum of sorts to help us also think about it!
So last week and this week we will look at what love of neighbor looks like. Steve over the next two weeks will talk about the unselfish love of self, and then we’ll follow with love of the world, and wrap up our series with 2 weeks on the love of God.
If I think back to the first time I remember hearing the word “God”. I also remember hearing the word “love.” “God is love,” “God loves,” “God is loving.” “God loves you.” And it did indeed feel like God was wrapping me in this “great banner of His love.” This direct association, that I picked up on at an early age suggested to m, that if I were to become interested in following God, that I, too, might just want to lead a life full of love and loving others. It was so compelling. And at this young age, it seemed easy enough to do—love seemed like something God gave “freely,” “without an agenda,” “for everyone”—a love that made me feel warm and special (an experience of love).
And this stayed true, until I turned, like… 5. And the unfolding of just how quickly the words “God” and “Love” could become intertwined with structures and systems started to occur in family, organizations and churches—it augmented my original association of “God” and “love,” to something much more complex.
It seemed to me that that “His banner over me” as love, became graffiti’d with extra words – extra bullet points of what “love and God” could mean.
At different points along my faith journeyI became entrapped in some of these meanings—but also at points, I ushered the meaning out as gospel:
Love meant I should be passive.
Love meant I should take on a certain set of political and social views.
Love meant following very specific religious beliefs.
Love was meant to be wielded as a weapon.
Love meant truth at the cost of exclusion.
And I learned how quickly words can take on all our human flaws and frailties!
And how quickly the free-floating banner around us as “love” comes crashing down to become a wall—a barrier between just who Jesus calls us to love: our neighbors, ourselves, and even God.
This is why I’m incredibly excited about this series. Because I’m more and more convinced that we, indeed, are helped by practice and training in this radical love that Jesus professes as the most central meaning and source of life: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our being, with all our strength, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
It is not a platitude to hide behind, but our most powerful way to live.
Training in this studio of love may just help us resurrect, His banner over us as Love.
We love stories
I have this deep inkling that many of us really like stories. Is that true? Do some of you like stories? I think we do. We love to tell stories. We love to hear stories. We love to watch stories (insta-stories on Instagram). For years now this has been the marketing strategy of most advertising firms—put more stories out there for people to connect with a product. We at Reservoir are not excluded from this with our own “stories” section of our website! (it’s really good you should check it out). We really love stories, and we love to create stories too!
I always thought I was really bad at telling stories. When my kids were little this was often part of our “play” routine or “bedtime” routine. There was always a “tell me a story” request. I was terribly uncreative in this vein. Most often the bedtime stories I would create were full of the things little kids nightmares are made of: “One day as baby skunk was leaving the house to meet her friend at the playground, Mommy skunk said ‘make sure you go the route by Mrs. Badger’s house so you can water her flowers’ and baby skunk disobeyed and went the short route over the bridge to the playground.”
And then baby skunk got “eaten by a troll”.
Sweet dreams. Nighty-night.
I wasn’t ever creative enough to deviate from the theme “always listen to your mother,” but I was generous in letting my kids choose their own animal character!
So, it’s actually true, I’m not great at creating bedtime stories.
But I’m actually creating stories all the time—in my head and subconscious—of the world and people around me.
Last week Steve spoke on Jesus’ radical call to all of us to “Love our neighbor as ourself.” We started with love of neighbor because it stretches us, it pulls us outside of ourselves, and helps us think about what love really is and isn’t.
And we’ll continue today with this love of neighbor and take this greatest commandment to the fullness of it’s design and message—to “love our neighbor”—yes those close to us and the ones we are already in relationship with —but to also love our neighbor who we regard as the stranger, the alien, the one that make us feel uncomfortable, the outsider, the misunderstood, the outcast and the enemy.
*We have neighbors. Physical neighbors, directly flanking us on both sides.
And we’ve definitely had our ups and downs with loving them (some more than others). I’ve spoken before of one neighbor whose small, wire fence I ran over two times, out of anger.
But I’m not going to talk about that neighbor today. We are cool (mostly).
But I want to talk about our neighbors on the other side of us.
These neighbors: Do not like us and they are mean. We’ve lived in next to them for 13 years now. All of our conversations have been prickly, our interactions weird, awkward and laced with assumptions.
Every ball that has ever gone over our fence into their yard, has never been returned.
They never shovel their piece of the sidewalk.
And so many more examples… in those 13 years.
And I realized I’ve been telling a pretty epic, dynamic story of these neighbors, for a long time. And I realized this more recently when it culminated in a conversation we had with this neighbor. Some pieces of information you should know. We have one chicken. Her name is “Tiny.” She had two sisters originally—but one got eaten by a raccoon and the other met her demise by an errant, but forceful soccer ball kick in the backyard.
This conversation with the neighbor centered around our chicken. Our neighbor believes that all the coyotes in the town of Milton—ALL the coyotes from the BLUE HILLS—migrate to our street because of this one chicken.
WE are the coyote-whispers… because of our chicken “snack”.
And I was just like—these people are crazy. Like actually nuts. And exhausting. Brian McLaren says that the greatest way to set someone up as your enemy, is to tell their story starting with point #2. My starting point with this story of my neighbor has always been, (it’s how I told their story to you just now), that “THEY DON’T LIKE US AND THEY ARE MEAN”.
So in the 13 years that we’ve been neighbors, that has been the starting point of my narrative with them, and it has had its consequences, its real effects. We have never invited them into our house, not even in our backyard. We have all the nice neighbors over that we love on our street—that are easy to relate to and who we’ve created warm, peaceful narratives of—over to our house.
But I’m clearly entering into their story not at point #1 and that allows me to write/draw conclusions about who these people are.
And then that allows me to set up what “love” looks like for them.
Love looks like I avoid these people.
And that I keep telling this story of them. Perpetuate the story of meanness. Create more distance. And if someone asks, I will tell them that our neighbors are “mean and they don’t like us.” I will do the work of setting up division and dehumanizing our neighbors to others(and to our kids).
And this can feel small scale.
But this seems to be the birthplace of all prejudice, misunderstanding: to create stories, tell stories and listen to stories where the narrative begins at point #2.
And it often starts in these tinier, personal/interpersonal ways—tiny story-tellings. But soon it can become generations of story-telling, communicating a particular narrative, about a person or groups of people. And that sets up in our institutions and systems as agenda’d ways …….not to “Love”……, but to “other” our neighbors. To put parameters around who our neighbor is… and we start to use words like “safe” and “wise” and “prudent”. … right? How much can I safely “love my neighbor”? What’s the wise way to love here? And we reduce love down into something that is very far from what Jesus offers us in loving our neighbor. We reduce love to an agenda.
You see in the center of every narrative we create that succeeds in “othering” our neighbor are the seeds of hate. Hate and love both occupy our hearts. Who knows—their seeds might lie right next to each other in our hearts. Both of them seem to aim to grow into similar ways, with the hopes of multiplying, decentering and taking priority over anything else!
The difference though, is that:
Love isn’t an agenda. Hate is.
When we start putting forth agendas around “Loving our neighbor”—
We are no longer speaking in terms of love; we have intermixed the word “Love” with our agenda. An agenda may be framed in words of “Love,” But really it’s often, the “love” of our rightness—to love the position of rightness that makes us feel superior to someone else, to love our “security,” our “certainty” and “comfort”—but clearly lets no actual effect of love be felt. And isn’t this the test of love—not the stated intention, but the actual effect of that love in action?
With Jesus there’s no agenda in love. Love is what matters, period. The radical love of Jesus offers us a more durable force, a soul-force that is not as fragile as hate. Radical love means that neither “beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered everything else; love relativized everything else; love takes priority over everything else – everything” (McLaren p 42).
Go and love your neighbor.
So simple, yet so challenging. It’s like doing that exercise—the plank. It seems like laying on your elbows is something I could do for like 15 minutes, but after 20 seconds, my entire body is shaking. This too, is the feeling I have when I try to love to the extent that Jesus calls us to love our neighbor.
But Jesus says, “oh no, you need to do this to strengthen your core of love!” And this is it, this is your training plan!
I want my coyote-conspiracy theorist neighbor to not fit into the ‘love your neighbor’ command. I want to disqualify the neighbor, to perpetuate the story: “too weird, too scary, unhinged.” But really, that’s all my self-preserving agenda at work.
And my agenda is nestled in hate. It really is.
Mercifully Jesus is really great at helping us correct narratives that we’ve created, and agendas that we’ve run wild with.
And here in the Gospel of Luke, the scripture that you find on your program, he spells out a pretty detailed training plan for us:
How do we correct our bad story-telling? “Love our enemies”.
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
40 The student is not above the teacher. But all students will, once they are fully trained, be on a par with their teacher”.
These are words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, (compared to Matthew’s account: The Sermon on the Mount). Jesus is standing on level ground with his newly chosen disciples, and he is writing a new story here—a different narrative than the one that they’ve known! He’s dismantling and “decentering old things – the religious rules, temples, sacrifice, hierarchies and the like and recentering the tradition on love..” (p. 46). And tipping it all by saying that anyone who is willing to step into this new training studio of love can become a teacher of it as well! (v. 40): “But all students will, once they are fully trained, be on a par with their teacher.”
It’s a challenging picture of love and we can quickly say, “Oh this is how we love our enemy.” It’s a distinct teaching on this specific way to love. But I think Jesus could be making the point that this is actually the training guide for how we love, period. That the people we already love or want to love—we can only love them as fully as we can love our enemy. And how we lead a life of love, and it hinges on our capacity to love our enemy.
We are going to need training to “up” that capacity.
I’ve talked before on these verses of “turn the other cheek, give your coat and walk the extra mile” as a passage that is powerful in its context and for us today of non-violent resistance—to uphold human dignity and to strive for justice—not a picture of passivity/doormat quality.
But today—I’d love to draw out two elements that surround these verses, that I think are essential and significant spiritual exercises that we need in becoming teachers of love-in-action that Jesus says we can be. These are: Proximity and Forgiveness.
I heard a story a couple of years back about a white nationalist, Derek Black and an orthodox Jew, Matthew Stevenson. Maybe you are familiar with this story too… but I think it highlights these elements of proximity and a heart with a generous posture of loving.
Derek Black & Matthew Stevenson
Derek Black was the chosen heir to the white nationalist movement: the son of Don Black, founder of the massive hate site, Stormfront.org and godson to former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke—perhaps the most known white supremacist and racist. Derek himself was the creator of a website for “proud white children” and the founder of a 24-hour radio network for white nationalists.
His ancestry dictated his beliefs. He embraced the stories he was told, and these narratives became the platform by which he saw and interacted with the world (and how he framed “love”), and how he ran for a political sea—a local committee seat in Florida at the age of 19, running on the narratives that at least from my vantage start far beyond point #1. He ran on the belief that black people were more likely to commit crimes and had lower IQs than whites, that Jews controlled media and finance, that immigration and affirmative action were leading the country toward a “white genocide,” where white people in America are victims, not perpetrators, of racism. He won the seat, but declined it and went to college in Florida.
Here, it wasn’t long before his ideology was outed—and as a result the campus exploded in outrage with active moves to get him expelled.
The short of this story is that a fellow student, Matthew Stevenson, who is an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to his weekly, Friday evening Shabbat dinners, which Derek agreed to and attended for 2 years.
This is quite a story! It’s a redemption story, a forgiveness story, a brave story—it’s a story of love. And I think we might love “love stories” the most. But we can tend to simplify love stories.
And I can imagine that an easy takeaway from this story is that everything will be hunky-dory if we just have more meals with people. Differences and evil will disappear, and we can move beautifully forward. And I think there’s some truth in this! But there’s more.
This too, is often how forgiveness is regarded: “I’ll forgive you and then we can just move on and forget”—that’s what Christians do.
Forgiveness, though, is a love story nestled in this great banner of love. It’s much more powerful than that—not just a sentimental outpouring. I can imagine that forgiveness was on the table at these Shabbat dinners. I can imagine that Matthew was able to forgive Derek, to recognize that the evil represented in this enemy-neighbor, sitting across from him, might not be his whole narrative. Matthew Stevenson said himself “I had to come to the table believing that the image of the creator might be somewhere inside of Derek.” And he was willing to see if there was a different starting point of Derek’s narrative, and willing to suspend his own agenda.
I think neither Derek or Matthew would say that this story was about forgetting, silencing or ignoring any evil – because of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation.
Forgiveness is not an invitation to discard our healthy boundaries. (especially when we are speaking on terms of feeling safe).
Forgiveness is the way forward in the studio of love.
Forgiveness is movement, in our hearts and relationships.
Forgiveness allows more space in our hearts for Jesus’ way of love to take up residence.
Forgiveness allows us to create and build new stories.
Forgiveness releases hateful agendas.
Forgiveness puts the power in the hands of the victim (Swan & Wilson, Solus Jesus). And is the best form of “self-interest, because it allows you freedom to no longer be tied to the one who’s done you harm” (Desmond Tutu).
Forgiveness, in the ways that Jesus shows us in these verses, replaces the in-kind system that we want to enact when we are hurt—an “eye for an eye,” “tooth for tooth,” “Slap on the cheek, for a slap on the cheek”—with mercy, compassion and kindness, even if the offender, as was true of Derek, asserts their innocence.
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. Where there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us”(pg. 45 – Strength to Love). Forgiveness allows us to entertain this—that our enemy might not be completely evil—and that we might not be completely holy.
And forgiveness doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing justice. Derek Black says that he often gets worried that his story will be told as a piece of evidence that the only way to change people’s minds is to have friendly conversations, but he says it’s essential to speak up loudly and to pursue that which you seek justice for.
Forgiveness is not justice.
*Disclaimer on forgiveness: If you’ve been abused—please know that I’m not purporting that forgiveness is a prerequisite for healing. The ways that you might feel resentment or anger or even loathing for the ones who brought harm to you is normal – and is not a reflection of whether you have adequately “dealt” the abuse.
And all of this takes training—takes practice! Because it goes against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.
(Studies show us what our brains look like on revenge: it hits the same spot that a brain who’s thirsty or hungry does when that craving is met. And we need training to help rewire this.)
But Proximity helps in the re-wiring. The examples Jesus uses in this Sermon on the Plain—to love your enemy— require us to be close enough to feel the hurt/pain and hate (The sting on our cheeks) dealt from our enemy, and close enough for us to demonstrate love (for them to see it and witness it, but also to feel it). And proximity is so important—Jesus says, “double down on your efforts in that regard” (Give your other cheek, give your shirt too, walk the extra mile). To be a teacher of love, you must be close to your students.
Derek Black was asked what moment transformed him. What made him renounce this hateful ideology? And he said it wasn’t a moment, “ it was 2-3 years of little events,” 2-3 years of intentional, proximal dinners with others,2-3 years where Matthew suspended hate, judgment and condemnation, 2-3 years of potent doses of radical love that probed and dismantled and shook Derek’s heart.
And he says what shook his heart the most was that he received the pictures of mercy, kindness and love from the one that was ostensibly victimized by his ideology. Closeness matters. And loving those who do not know love matters.
We are told in scripture that without love, we’re nothing—just a bunch of annoying noise, clanging cymbals—that we can have mountain-moving faith and the strongest of creed affirming doctrines, but without love it has no meaning or value. And the same is true of what Jesus says here, too—If you love where love is already present. If you do good where good is already present – what credit is that to you? Beyond upholding your self-preserving agenda of comfort, and certainty? It seems, at least in the story of Derek and Matthew, that it would have come at a cost: a cost of transformation and healing, and growth—spiritual growth—if we don’t come close to our enemies, to truly love them.
We can’t call ourselves teachers of love if we are pouring our love out to students who have already themselves been trained. We need to get proximal with those who have not yet been introduced to the subject! This is only where love is truly alive.
Derek says “I don’t think I anticipated what impact not being around a bunch of white nationalists would have had.” The fact that this orthodox Jew would go into the realms of where palpable hate is only present—where there was a void of love—is actually the classroom that we as teachers should seek.
Jesus knew that he could take the “in-kind” way of reparation that was written in the Jewish system out of the Law, but it didn’t mean that it would be rooted out of the culture unless there were close, human interactions that demonstrated this new commandment of love. This is why we need to get proximal, to love up close, to root hate/prejudice/racism out of our culture.
In the Greek language, this radical love of God is expressed in the word agape, which is understood as “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all people. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.” (p. 46 Strength to Love).
I Facebook messaged Matthew Stevenson to ask him a few questions, like “what’s the take away here?”
I didn’t hear from him.
But I bet he would say it was this: “That the love of God operating in the human heart” is a force like no other; That at these Shabbat Dinners this is what was witnessed as the only force that is capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. It is the only force that anchors us back to the truest of narratives, that “His banner over us is love!”And this is a Double Victory: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Witness transformation, and we too will be transformed. A double victory indeed.
Luke 6:40: “All students will, once they are fully trained, be on par with their teacher”. And as we are trained in the way of love my friends – we can witness the power of it’s reach, unleashed across religious, political, ideological and cultural lines.
“We can see how Gandhi in many ways popularized this radical love of Jesus, with nonviolent resistance, which is later picked up by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, and then spreads to Muslim liberation theology through leaders like Farid Esack” (McLaren, Spiritual Migration)—and is also embraced by neighbors like Matthew Stevenson and, maybe somewhere in that story line, me and you.
This love spreads to a Hindu, then to a Christian, then to a Muslim. This seems to be the beauty of not reducing Jesus down into a theological formula, but taking on his meaning and source of life as radical love.
This does not deny or compromise the meaning of Jesus, but it extends and grows and moves it forward, fulfilling the potential of all that this “law of love” can provide.
I’m in training, my friends. Actually, I’m just at the start of drawing up my training program to reorient my heart and mind.
I’m trying as a starting point to observe more of my neighbor—not like creepily, with binoculars, but to pause and take notice with love.
It widens the narrative, and allows me to see them as a human being with human dignity. And this is a great starting point that might just suggest that the neighbor in front of me bears no resemblance to the way I have portrayed them in my script.
So how many reps/how many sets/how much time do we put into this training? All. the. sets. All. the. reps. All. the. time.
The training in this studio of love is intense and yet grows in us this brawny muscle of love, this soul-force that gets us back to the original narrative of God and Love. “God is love” without limitation or discrimination. So may His “banner over you as love” be less a flag that you have to wave to declare this as true, but rather a way of life that demonstrates that love, and makes it visible to all of your neighbors.
May it be so.
A Tip Whole-life Flourishing
Meditate this week on Jesus’ phrase to you, “My banner over you is love”. As you go about your days, pay attention to the “neighbors” you normally would avoid or regard as your enemy. How does this banner of Jesus’ love affect your soul, your heart, your actions?
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Practice the Welcoming Prayer
Identify a hurt or an offense in your life.
Name any feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations and commentaries in your body.
Welcome God in all of these, by saying, “Welcome.” This could be anger, grief, sadness, etc.
Let go. Hand over all the pain – yours and the world’s – over to God. Ask God for grace, compassion, forgiveness, or a word that resonates for the pain.
Resources: Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, by Emily Swan and Ken Wilson