Tag Archives: love

Hope For This Season

From the first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. For Christian faith lives from the rising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. – Jurgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 16)

I have to admit that I’ve been pretty fearful as a result of recent events. From the terrorist attacks around the world to recent fear filled political rhetoric from a certain presidential candidate. I’ve watched on the side of the road as many I know and love have been captivated by this atmosphere of fear, fear not necessarily there to begin with, but cultivated in people in order to control and convince them. Fear, as we all know from experience, is one of the most powerful human emotions. It motivates human action like nearly nothing else can do.

This, however, makes it prime real estate for oppressors to set up shop in the human heart. If they can convince you to be afraid – whether of physical or emotional violence, the future of your children, or even your own personal fate – they’ve got you locked in to doing as they please. Of course, there are legitimate things we should be afraid of. I’m not trying to say that fear doesn’t have any positive role to play at all in our lives. For one, I think it is perfectly legitimate for us to fear the consequences of those who use fear to control others. I am afraid of what the Donald Trump phenomena means. I’m afraid for those who have been trapped by his seducing ideology of fear.

While there are many horrible, just awful things happening in our world, I do not think we should ever entertain the thought that fear has the last word – or even the first! Christianity is notably different in this manner. Our faith is one marked by faith, hope, and love. Fear isn’t in our vocabulary. “Perfect love,” we read, “drives out fear.”

Love should rule how we relate to all of creation. As simple as it seems at first, Jesus taught us that the old way of retaliation and revenge, of “getting even” is not his way; we are to instead love even our enemies (surely that precludes killing their families!). In Christ there is no “us” or “them” for either one to be fearful of the other. No “them” to keep away from “us”. No “them” who don’t belong with “us”. Love rules out all of those ways of relating with our neighbors, regardless of whether they are undocumented, poor, disabled, rich, unclean, black, or different from us.

From Paul, we learn that Christ has torn down all of those dividing walls that we have set up in our sinful ways. Speaking of the formerly hostile relations between Jews and Gentiles (perhaps a placeholder for the “other”), he writes, “Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…reconciling both groups to God in one body.” While it may seem like high-strung theology, Paul is quick, as usual, to demonstrate the implications of these beliefs: “so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens (talk about a path to citizenship!) with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Love makes no distinctions in the ways that humanity has routinely divided itself up into all sorts of categories and attached varying degrees of social status or privilege to each. This is the way of the world, not the way of love. To see Christ in each one of us, our enemies – yes, especially them – is what it means to love. We are never closer to resembling God and following Jesus than we are when we are loving those whom the world has deserted and left for dead. We may even be called to lay down our life for another, as John proclaimed was the culmination of love.

There is hope in this love. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are there to continually remind us that our nationalism is likely more idolatry than it is patriotism. We can and we must support the well-being of our neck of the woods, but the logic of empire, imperialism, domination, the strong-man (i.e. “I alone can solve your problems!” – Trump), and war is not the way Christians are to live out their faith in the public sphere. The prophets were always necessary to remind us that we do not serve God by legitimizing empires but by protecting the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. This, is what a country should aim for. The health of Israel was never measured in God’s eyes by how large its borders were, how high its walls, how much the majority was protected from minorities, or how much law and order there was in its streets, but by how well they cared for those most likely to go without help in the world.

There were to be no strings attached to their love of the oppressed. God doesn’t limit his salvation to those who can pass a drug test or actively seek employment, as many social welfare laws do (or people might want them to do). God’s love, and in turn the goal of our own, is unconditional – without conditions, no boxes to check first! We are not to love those who look, speak, and act like us. Remember, that’s what Jesus called out the religious leaders of Israel for doing. Instead, Jesus taught the Israelites that the Samaritans were there neighbors – and therefore Israel was obliged to love them just as their own even though they were considered foreigners, had different beliefs, and looked different from them.

christ in hell

A Medieval depiction of Christ descending to, and liberating those in, hell. Credited to a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th century, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The implications of this love taught by Jesus go all the way back to the origin stories of Israel. God tells us through Moses that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Again, as the sinful people we are, this is still timely in our own day. The first century Christians dealt with it as well. As Gentiles were being converted to the faith, recently liberated Jews wanted to put the “yoke” of observing all the law onto these new converts. It’s just something about human nature that when we are free we too often use our freedom to oppress others. Paul responded, along with the Jerusalem council, that this would be too much of a burden to the new believers who were still relishing in the freedom they had received from Christ (this is, by the way, a lesson when trying to subdue enemies with “law and order”).

 

Christians are called to love unconditionally. To drive out all fear by their love. There is no fear of the “other” for Christians. We are all in this together. Even Leviticus, of all places (!), knew this best: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners” (19:34).

Love, as we find out from the New Testament is really the most precise definition for God. “God is love,” we are told. It’s the stuff God is made of. It’s what Jesus embodied as the Logos, the perfect image of God, on earth. It’s what Christians who take seriously the call to follow Christ should ever strive to be as well. Although many of us come from different and unique backgrounds, have diverse jobs, hold varying theological or political beliefs, we are all united by this singular mission of Christ’s body, the Church: to be love in our love-less, fearful world. “Our vocation is love,” as St. Therese of Lisieux would joyfully declare.

What have I been saying? As we approach this election season, full of its normal divisiveness, let us work to promote togetherness knowing that Christ has torn down all the walls of separation we build up between one another. We don’t look for a political messiah who will magically solve all of our problems through dictatorial rule; we only have one Lord, Jesus Christ. When our world is full of mockery and hate, let us strive to restore the dignity and value of those whom politicians try to downplay. God humbles the proud and raises up the lowly.

But more than anything, let us remove fear from our vocabulary. Although it is powerful, our faith and our love cast it out of our lives. There is no place for fear in the Christian life – whether or not it is directed towards what one may think are “legitimate” ends. Especially this week, I have been constantly tempted to respond to Trump’s fear-mongering and inciting, with fear of my own. Even when that fear motivates me to work even harder for the cause of justice for the oppressed and the unconditional equality of all persons, we are all better off, and ultimately much more powerful when we respond to fear with love. This is where our hope lies: in our ability, with God’s help, to love in spite of whatever others, or the events of this world may be encouraging us to do.

Christian love is not primarily inwardly-directed, to ourselves and what will make us safe or comfortable. It is directed toward those who are needy, oppressed, poor, and broken. It’s sent out to the Samaritans and the Gentiles, metaphorically speaking, of our world today, not just the white Christians who have historically been the ones in power and control in our country. Love is more purely so when it is given to our “enemies,” in doing so, it turns them into friends, to brothers and sisters. Remember, we are all in this together. Choose hope not fear. Leave hate behind and embrace love.

I will close similarly to how I began, with another quote.

Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it… Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’ because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. – Moltmann (Theology of Hope).

Theology of Everyday Life: Anxiety

Sorry for the long delay in-between posts; I’ve been busy transitioning/moving to life in Connecticut. I hope to be back posting frequently at least until my fall classes begin, which will probably reduce my posts to once a week for the semester.


“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18.

When one uses the word “anxiety,” they could mean many different things, especially within the context of Christianity. For Protestants or Evangelicals, this has usually meant anxiety in the face of eternity. It’s a derivative of the “fear of God” that looks upon the final day of judgment with immense anxiety. Preachers will often use the tactic of reminding the unbeliever of the ten commandments, e.g. “Did you ever steal money from your mother’s purse when you were a child?” “Have you ever told a lie, even when meant to spare someone from the harmful truth?” etc. This is designed to create a feeling of anxiety so that one runs (sometimes literally) towards Christ so that guilt may no longer be their defining characteristic before God. Using the biblical story from Matthew 7, this concept is even applied to “Christians” who profess Jesus as Lord, but whose actions speak otherwise (ironically, the Bible is also full of reassurance that anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord will be saved, see for example Rom. 10:9). Will I be one of those whom the Lord says, “Depart from me, I never knew you?” These two concepts of anxiety are closely related.

However, I do not wish to really say much about this preacher/hellfire produced anxiety. I have in mind something much closer to worrying about the everyday circumstances of life. As humans, we are sometimes primarily marked by this form of anxiety. We wonder whether our job will still be there in a few months, we are torn by thoughts of our significant other leaving us for someone else. Our anxiety consumes us when we think of a big-event in our life happening in the future. Anything with an outcome outside of our immediate control can be a cause for anxiety (sometimes caused by our desire to play God and control everything for our personal benefit). A lot of the time, we are anxious about what others will think of us, whether it is our parents, teachers, or closest friends (sometimes even people we don’t know).

So far I have highlighted things that seem more superficial in some ways, but anxiety hits us even more profoundly when it is of a matter of extreme importance to us. We worry whether or not we have lived a good life; have our choices been good ones? Am I recognizing my short time on earth? We are anxious about diseases that have fallen upon our family members; what will we do if they die from this? Adults feel this when they are anxious over whether or not they will be able to provide for their family during a recession.

In short, we seem to feel anxiety in a vast array of different situations, from mundane to life-threatening. All of life is filled with anxiety inducing moments. Perhaps our earthly fate is one filled with only these moments. Everyone, if honest with themselves, irrespective of their desire to appear as if they have it all together, will admit that anxiety of various kinds does affect their lives in powerful ways, even if the feelings do not appear as often as in others.

What are we to do given our situation? Should we be relegated to merely living in spite of this anxiety? Is there anything we can do about it? Is it only a problem of mindset, or is it much different than that?

Looking to the Christian tradition, there are a few answers that I would like to give. I cannot pretend to solve everyone’s problems, but I can point to a few things that have really helped me deal with moments of paralyzing anxiety.

birdFirst, Look at the birds. Matthew 6. Jesus used this example because he knew everyone has experiences with birds! None of us can say, “I don’t understand that.” The next time you see a bird, consider its life in regard to your anxiety. It doesn’t care to buy clothes so it can impress random people in public. They are not constantly worrying about huge transitions in their life. When it’s winter, they just fly south, knowing that anywhere they go there will be enough sticks and worms to build a nest and feed their children. They are not concerned about a pay raise, nor whether or not their teachers will give them an A on a paper. Yet, they seem to be doing just fine. They still tweet (albeit beautifully, not argumentative garbage like we tweet!) songs of joy in the morning, reminding the world that everything is okay for another day. The sun indeed came up.

You might wonder how birds have anything to do with theology, but theology isn’t just limited to abstract thought about the nature of God, but is concerned with the created world as well. As part of God’s creation, they can give us signs for how God designed life on earth. Though somewhat cheesy, Jesus’ example of looking towards the birds, does provide some comfort in the face of constant anxiety, knowing that life does not need to be filled with so much worry and stress. The biological classification giving rise to birds has been around the earth for many millions of years longer than humans! When the rest of the dinosaurs went extinct, species of birds remained, largely unaffected by giant clouds of ash and dust left by meteor strikes 🙂

Life can be a lot simpler than we imagine to ourselves when we cannot go to sleep at night. This is not a call to go back to the stone age, or to hunter-gatherer societies (what could cause more anxiety than having to hunt for food!), but rather an invitation to accept that the worries of life do not have to have an entirely damaging affect upon our level of happiness, nor our relationship with God, as our ultimate provider.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

Second, consider God’s love. When Paul was in Athens, following the account within Acts, he reminded the people (using their own cultural language from popular poetry) that God is the source of their existence, both initially, and for the duration of their lives as sustainer. “For in him we live and move and have our being,” Acts 17:28. Paul knew that our very being was caught up in God as the ground of our being. If even the most intimate part of ourselves, our existence/being, is grounded in the constant provision of God, how much more our everyday lives and activities that cause us undue stress and anxiety?

A consideration of providence also supports our idea that we are much too anxious than we should be, in light of our Christian faith if we want to use its resources for our everyday condition. However, I am not talking about the kind of providence that understands humans as the puppets on a string controlled by God destined for a life without independence or freewill. Nor am I talking about the kind that supposedly predestines people to burn in a lake of fire just because they had the unfortunate occurrence of their birth.

Rather, I am talking about the kind of providence that knows God’s love and presence are inescapable. It will always be there when we need it, and we will continually be truly connected to God, our source of existence, through this unconditional love shown by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39. 

Providence is believing Romans 8 to be true. It’s really believing that nothing in creation, no circumstance, no anxiety, can ever separate you from the love of God. Though trials and anxiety may come in life, we can at least rest assured knowing that our external circumstances do not affect how God loves us. Though anxiety may not be completely removed from our daily lives, understanding the nature of God’s love can help. It reminds us that our lives do not have to be controlled by our anxiety, but by confidence in the unconditional love of God.