Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” (Matthew 5:43-48) What does it mean to love my enemy? I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. It seems appropriate to talk about as our culture continues it’s “war” and daily divides along a myriad of lines, political, religious, racial and economic. And it’s not just the “culture,” it’s often me. I seem to have enemies. Some are pretty up front about it and tell me clearly of their disdain for me, but others seem to have more of a guerrilla tactic of sniping quietly from the trees and hills, little hits and nicks here and there that seem minor at the time, but become a real issue for me.
And of course there’s the third angle… there’s the people I don’t like. I figure that most of us know we all have people in our lives we don’t like. We may hope that we able to rise above such a thing, and we may exert a lot of energy to rise above viewing all people with anything over than love, but we fail. I fail.
That’s when the words of Jesus then come ringing in and oppress me. He commanded love for enemies. A part of my gut reaction to that is to feel as if “I am told to lose.” Most of our enemies are not just in conflict with us, but also in competition with us. I also feel a reaction deep inside that says, “He doesn’t know my enemy.” Surely, if Jesus knew how much hurt I was feeling from the malice of another, he’d be as peeved off as I am! And finally, I have to admit that often at my core, I’d rather beat my enemies. You know, I’d prefer to get a little Psalmy and smite the skulls of those who would encircle me, right on?
So……….. I’m trying to find some things that “love your enemies” might mean in my life. What does it really mean to love an enemy? For me? Can I do this? Do I want to do this? Will I do this? Each question just surfaces another one, or three, or fifty questions.
I have to start with myself. After all, the command to love enemies is mine to own. It’s not a command that necessarily alters the enemy, it changes me. Here’s where I’m starting:
Love Your Enemy = I Am Not A Victim (even if I was victimized)
I need to step off the stage every time I start to feel like singing my woes. I am not a victim and my enemies do not control me. Victimization is too often an experience that becomes an identity. Of course, there are victims among us every day, and we are victimized. I would never try to lessen the pain or impact of anyone who is a victim of a violent or horrible crime or hurt. In my own life some things have been more painful and less painful at times, but my response needs to be consistent that I am not defined by the hurt.
The recent theatrical incarnation of Les Misérables gets some pretty mixed reviews, but I totally enjoyed it. One of the most haunting lines for me is in Fantine’s song “I Dreamed A Dream” when she sings, “…but there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather…” The sentiment is echoed again in the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” when Marius sings, “…there’s a grief that can’t be spoken / there’s a pain goes on and on…” I can’t speak for anyone but myself here: I know what they mean. But even as these lines resonate with me in deep ways, I also recognize that I must turn away from darker, hopeless view, even when justified by my own pain.
I cannot be a victim, defined by the injury done by my enemy, if it I am to love her/him. Love is not denial. Love is going to require that I find my way out of the identity formed by my injury. If someone abuses or attacks me in a way that devalues me, I must re-find my value. If the attack cause me pain, I need to heal. If the attack demoralizes me, I need to regain strength and courage. I will do these things so that I can return to the task of loving. I cannot do this alone. If Jesus commands it, I need Jesus to help me do it, and I’ll probably need you, too.
Love Your Enemy = Forgiveness
Just as love is not denial, neither is forgiveness. Forgiveness begins as my own way of releasing the need to punish, to avenge, to hurt another, to attack, to rationalize my own violent needs. Forgiveness is hard because when I choose to forgive I am choosing to shoulder the burden of paying for another’s crime. At least if Jesus wanted to command something he was willing to demonstrate it. On the cross, he spoke what I think might be some of the most awesome words uttered in the gospel narrative, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
What? Yes, they did! They knew what they were doing! Can I accidentally crucify someone? Could they have tortured and murdered so cruelly without intent and premeditation? What is Jesus saying? Is this the blindness and denial I fear that my own forgiveness might represent? Or is it a conscious decision on the part of Jesus to remake the world around him? Those words are a one-sentence-wake-up-call and alarm that something is happening here that breaks the ordinary into sharp little pieces.
Forgiveness is re-creation. When I can actively forgive I am re-creating things and myself. This is not a simple switch I throw or a decision I make. It’s a set of reflexes and intentional actions I take to make forgiveness real. And I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the best at it. Forgiveness will look and feel a little different for each person, reflecting our intrinsic variety as individuals, but it will always need to have the hallmarks of active, authentic forgiveness. Jesus forgave, and still hung on the cross. He still died. I think the reality of his forgiveness is in the narrative of his resurrection. He didn’t come busting from the grave like one of our contemporary action heroes might, kicking butts and slapping bad guys. He came forth and said, “Everything I taught you is still in force, my own pain and hurt doesn’t change a thing… go love, love God, love one another, love enemies… go do it, go teach it, go live it… everywhere… every when… with everyone.” (Yes, that’s my paraphrase and interpretation of Jesus after his resurrection. I personally don’t want the “great commission” in my life and experience of it to ever be divorced from the power of Jesus’ humble, courageous grace.)
Love Your Enemy = I Don’t Have Enemies
Unfortunately, I am me enough to get sidetracked by the statement Paul makes about enemies, that seems so close to what Jesus says, but adds that in doing so I will be “heaping hot coals on the heads” of my enemies by my love. I am bent and base enough to chuckle that Paul seems to offer me such a slick way to get revenge on an enemy, simply by loving. Is that not a bonus and a half? I really can kill him/her with love!
One of favorite authors and speakers is Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have heard him a couple of times mention what he calls “a low reading of scripture” and “a high reading of scripture.” I think it’s Fr Rohr’s very polite way of telling me how childish I am sometimes, lol. Whenever I read scripture in a way that gives me license to hate or attack or be mean/vengeful/negative, or in any way move against the actual fruits of God’s Spirit in my life… love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… in those moments I have misread scripture. So, for Paul and the Proverb he seems to be quoting, I will choose to focus on the summation of “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”
Whether my love for an enemy is a purifying fire or a painful fire for my enemy, or more accurately feels like hot coals on my own head… it’s still love and not my need to punish or avenge myself. And for my part, if I love someone, it’s hard to call them an enemy at all. We may still disagree on things, we might still need to work on the consequences of their actions, or mine… but in the act of loving I am re-creating their role and place in my life. One who is loved is the antithesis of an enemy… she/he is precious, cared for, sheltered, redeemed.
I wish that writing a blog post about love made me love better. The only thing a blog post might actually signify is that somewhere along the way I have recently realized a deficit of love in myself. It’s too easy to blame my “enemies” for that lack of love… they are either too unlovable or too deserving of hate. It’s too easy to make some quick excuses for myself… I drank too much, I’m too tired… or I didn’t really mean it, I just knew it would get a lot of shares and likes from people on Facebook who are angry or biased like me!
And that’s the reality. I recently find myself withholding posts and shares because I know they don’t stem from love, but from the hate I’m harboring deep inside. I find myself sitting in the corner of the room rubbing my hands together and evilly chucking “bwahahahahah” over the attack posts I could launch if I wanted to… and then, baby, they’d know how stupid they really are! Quite an image, huh?
Withholding the attack posts is only part of the equation for me… facing the reality of my own anger and lack of love is the other half. Dang it, having enemies can really enliven me! And just as my cat would love to shred my favorite couch, it would feel too good to sharpen my claws on the idiocy of another.
“They don’t know what they are doing” is not denial, it is re-creating myself. It is the reality that whether they know anything or not about what they do, I am still to know myself, and I am to carry the responsibility to make myself. No one’s action or ignorance is license for me to abandon that call.
As wonderful as it was to get home and change into jeans and sandals, it was a huge blessing to go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center today and address the graduating class of medical students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who gathered in the base Chapel for their baccalaureate service. I am so appreciative and so proud of our Church in Bethesda graduates, Dr. Tim Curlet and Dr. Sarah Anderson, both of whom helped plan and lead the service, today. Thanks, Sarah, for hooking me up with this sweet gig on base!
Here’s my speech. Those who know me know that I’m one for suits and notes, except at weddings. I dialed it up today with both those things, a suit and notes, so I have the text almost verbatim as given:
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Baccalaureate Speech, May 16, 2013
Pastor Todd Thomas, Church in Bethesda
Good morning, graduating class, faculty, staff and honored attendees. I am so glad to be here; I’m humbled and excited to address you this morning. This is a different kind of speaking gig for me to be honest, and so I’m using notes! I’m a pastor, but on Sunday mornings I just roll a bit freer with very little written down. For an occasion like this though, I’m going to rely on my notes.
I look out at you, and I am impressed. I live and work just a mile from from here, and so I’ve been blessed to know many medical students from your school. I thank you, for your service to our country, and your service to our species. You people totally rock!
I know that there’s not one type of person or personality that pursues medicine. You are a wonderfully diverse group of individuals and you each are going to be suited to various disciplines within the broader field of medicine according to your personalities, abilities and interests.
And still, there is the bond that exists between you all, that you have chosen to work in one of the greatest helping professions. You have all similarly chosen to serve the medical needs of your fellow human beings. You have not only chosen this, but have invested and devoted yourselves to this task.
One of the things that fascinates me about people in the medical profession is that by nature or by training, or by both, you are able to necessarily objectify the human being, to see so clearly the processes of life, health or disease. You can handle the sight of blood better than the average person. You’ve sliced cadavers and explored regions of human anatomy I’ve only seen in video games. That is so cool.
You can look at a person and see the systems, nervous system, cardiovascular, immune system… and in seeing these systems and the present affect of each, you can begin to detect issues, problems, and solutions. That’s really amazing, and it is a product of an incredible amount of work. Again, I commend you. You are so needed, and your skills and gifts are needed!
I commend you for all you’ve accomplished and all you will do, and I ask you to do something for me, for all your future patients: Never let that necessary objectification of the human being move from an asset to a liability. As you deal with these physiological systems and realities of each human person, keep a strong hold on the spiritual, the emotional, and whole reality of the person.
Forget “beside manners,” it’s not something you can simply fake. I ask you to care about the person. I ask you to love me, to love your patient. And then speak and act from that love. It won’t be easy. The people you are going to serve will rarely be very objective about their body or their situation. They will be somewhere on an active sliding scale of fear, anxiety, depression, fatigue and pain. They will benefit by your love as well as your knowledge and skill. I’m not asking you to kiss your patients or write them love notes. I’m not asking you to “fall in love” with every person you serve. But active love for your patients is powerful and needful, and I believe it looks like this:
First, love listens. If you haven’t yet, you should explore some ways to learn to listen well. I used to think I was a good listener, I mean, I’m a pastor! But then I went through a year of training as a life coach, and we focussed quite a bit on how to listen, and I realized I was a poor listener who broke all the rules. While someone spoke, I was most often simply formulating my response. I would interrupt people. I would fail to keep engaged, meaningful eye contact. And because I broke all those rules, I rarely was able to ask good questions when it was needed.
Let love cause you to listen and hear what your patient is saying, not just what their body is telling you. Slow down, and don’t even start thinking about the next patient. Let this person fully be your “present moment,” and love them sincerely in it.
Second, love respects. Make a commitment, and I mean make it! Write it down… commit yourself to the dignity of every person you will serve. Their dignity and the respect you show them are vital parts of their total health. Your active respect of their personhood can engender trust and participation on their part that will make your job easier. When you unpack your knowledge for them, explaining the processes and aspects of the body they don’t know, when they ask the wrong question, when they cannot speak in their grief or any longer stand in the crucible of their pain, love them where and when you find them.
Third, love hopes. Yours really is one of the greatest helping professions there is. You are now equipped to serve and heal your fellow human beings. Do this from a deep and sincere hope for them: hope that they heal, hope that they will grow, and hope that they will realize a joyful existence. Don’t forget that as people come to you for help, they come seeking hope, because heath is their vehicle back to the joys and dreams that they carry: their family, their friends, their vocation and their community. When you touch them, when you heal them, when you diagnose them, when you speak to them, remember to hope with them.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the followers of Christ in the city of Corinth about love he wasn’t writing a text for wedding ceremonies, and yet that is where we have most often relegated 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “Love Is” passage. Instead Paul was writing about the things in life we seek as attributes for service to others, and he sets all that up in chapter 12, leading into chapter 13 by saying, and this is my paraphrase: “Now I’m going to show you what is truly awesome!”
He was about to unpack the awesomeness of love. Paul said that no great storehouse of knowledge, sacrificial spirit, or greatness of any kind about himself, would be of any true use, if not found in the presence of love. Here is 1 Corinthians 13, verses 1 through 8:
What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels?
If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge?
And what if I had faith that moved mountains?
I would be nothing, unless I loved others.
What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive?
I would gain nothing, unless I loved others.
Love is kind and patient, never jealous,
boastful, proud, or rude.
Love isn’t selfish or quick tempered.
It doesn’t keep a record
of wrongs that others do.
Love rejoices in the truth,
but not in evil.
Love is always supportive,
loyal, hopeful, and trusting.
Love never fails!
Because Paul was speaking of love in the sense of daily service to other people, and not just in the arena of covenantal marriage, these words have everything to do with the way we pursue our careers, render service to our neighbors, and daily meet the people and the tasks put before us.
So I stand here and I look at you. You people are amazing. Go, and make this world more amazing than it has ever been.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and give you peace. Amen.
At Church in Bethesda we’ve been looking at “spiritual gifts,” or the way that God’s Spirit moves and acts in each of us. A couple of weeks back we talked about the way that God’s Spirit equips each of us us for serving one another, stressing that the gifts we receive from God aren’t our own, but they shared with others from us to them in our active service. A key verse that Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:7, found in one of Paul’s three chapter long discussions on spiritual gifts and service…
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” TNIV
“A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church.” NLT
“The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.” CEV
Following up that week we remained in 1 Corinthians 12 to discuss what I like to call some “economic principles” of God’s Kingdom. I’m not doing that because I’m necessarily fond of economics, but because these are some strong ideas about about value, worth and relational transactions. I think they point us to an understanding of an “Economy of the Kingdom” that challenges views of worth and transactional value in other parts of our lives. It’s a bit longer of a text than simply looking at verse seven, but I invite you to take the time to read this passage over, maybe twice… 1 Corinthians 12:12-27:
“12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body–whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” TNIV
Again, I believe that Paul is expressing some deep truths for the economy of the kingdom, our system of valuing and serving one another. And as it should be, this is Good News, both for his first audience and for us, today. Our community of faith, the spiritual family to which we belong, has a great variety of parts and pieces, doing their different jobs, being themselves, and rendering their various services just like the different parts of a human body… and this is a really good thing! As we think of God placing our body parts in needful places, we can also think of God placing each of us in the community of faith with purpose and value. And it leads to the first of three principles to take away from the passage…
Principle #1: Our Abilities & Attributes Differ, Our Value Does Not
This is the first direct challenge to the other economies of our life. In the faith community, our differing abilities and attributes do not raise or lower our individual value or worth. We all know what it’s like to compete in realms of school or work where our worth is judged by having a certain skill set or not, or being able to use certain abilities well, or not. And so some are paid more, or less. We have also seen those economies pay more or less or value someone more or less based on their attributes of skin color, ethnicity or gender. We cannot bring such inequities into the kingdom.
Churches, as extensions of the Kingdom, should be the place where our intrinsic economy teaches us to value and cherish one another in our diversity. This is why it looks so bad and feels so gross when our churches practice a forced conformity for all people and place greater value on certain gifts, abilities and parts of the community. Why do our churches so often become bastions of homogeneity and enforced uniformity instead of the expressive gardens of all the different types, styles and wondrous variety of people God has made us to be? It happens because although our communities are indeed places of belonging, there’s a danger in simply becoming a “belonging system” which recognizes belonging through conformity and uniformity. Come on. We’ve been taught better than that.
This kind of economy means that we cannot turn to systems of simple conformity that would deny our individuality or restrict the various gifts and abilities God has placed in our faith communities, and it leads directly to our second principle…
Principle #2: I cannot say I don’t need you.
Really. For reals. Honestly. I need you. I cannot judge you as not needful for my life. Even if I’m an ear, and I think ears are pretty dang awesome, but you’re an eye. I cannot say I don’t need you. Even if I happen to be an incredible ear! Even if people tell me what an fantastic ear I am. And even if your eyeballishness drives me crazy. You’re stuck with me, because I need you.
I’m trying to sit here and think of more creative and humorous ways to say that I cannot do without you, but it is what it is. Other economic systems in my life (political, social, educational or even religious systems) might be saying that I don’t need you, and those systems might even make some compelling arguments, based on how different we are, but the Kingdom’s economy reminds me that you are in fact invaluable, irreplaceable.
These first two principles are not worth the pixels being burned to put them on our LCD’s if we aren’t going to daily live our lives out of this economy. It is absolutely necessary that I day by day look into the wallet of my heart and mind and choose to spend my energies and time on living a life that declares your value and my need for you. So, here’s the third principle…
Principle #3: Part of the calling of Christ in our lives is to live in this kingdom of diverse people sharing a common worth, upholding each person’s value and loving our differentness.
This is not a “get rich quick” economy, and it is certainly not a “get my way” economy. This is a system of valuing others that creates a reciprocal worth shared among us, so that we are all held close and cared for… as in verse 26, we share our sorrows and our joys in this Kingdom of recognizing everyone’s personal value and belonging. In this economy we cannot be misers, holding back our gifts and contributions of service acceptance, forgiveness and love. We will pay a good deal to be in this kind of an economy, but we will also be paid back with same, by the graces God has given us.
Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! If I’m saying it, help me find the strength to live it. Amen.
This is a powerful economy of of personal value and worth in the midst of beautiful diversity, in our church, mosque, temple, school, work place, city park, sidewalk, or wherever we find ourselves. The power and beauty of this economy resides in the amazing gift it is to the people around me when I actually live it. I’m not surprised that Paul found it in his exploration of Christ, and I’m unconvinced that it is solely for our faith communities and churches. I bet that this kind of an economy will be transformative in people’s lives when we live it everywhere we find ourselves!