Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Story About Love

“I was fourteen years old – and a well-content Hindu on a holiday – when I met Jesus Christ.”

This spring I had the pleasure of spending some time in Geneva, Switzerland, and visiting the head offices of the World Council of Churches ecumenical organization. While the Council is doing inspiring work for the church in all of its activities, what I found most invigourating were the conversations I had there during lunchtime in the cantina. I had a stimulating chat with a group of people, including Dr. Manoj Kurian: Programme Executive for Health, poet, and spiritual ponderer. Manoj reminded me of an aspect of Christian life that has a way of really grabbing me, then fading to the background for a while, then circling around to challenge me again: the radical nature of Christian love. I asked Manoj to re-tell the anecdote he told during our lunch, so that I could share it here.


To Live life to its full, be in Love!

I attended the Commission for the World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) Pre-Assembly Mission Event in Manila, in March this year, as one the organisers from WCC. It was a very rich and dynamic event, bringing forth the new Mission statement, in the context of the life and experience of the churches and communities in the Philippines. 

One of the most memorable input that made an indelible impression on me, was a short welcoming message from Archbishop Luís Antonio Tagle of Manila. He said “To live life to its full, we have to be in love. Only when we live life to its full, can we give it up.” He went on to illustrate from his ministry, how people in the midst of poverty and pain, extended love and compassion to him. On that note he welcomed all us to a love-rich Philippines, conveying a message from the margins of society that is dynamic and able give much to others. 

The message captivated me! But immediately I started questioning myself- Is it true? Or is it just a nice sounding slogan?  I discussed this with some of my eminent theologian friends. They affirmed that it is true, as long as the love referred to does not neglect the kenotic (self-emptying) and ‘giving’ aspects of love (Philippians 2:5-8). 

Still not convinced fully about the veracity of the simple yet powerful message, I was alert to verify this from the bible. Shortly I found my answer pretty directly from Gospel of Luke 10:25-28!
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ ”

I was truly overwhelmed by this insight. The understanding also revealed that this concept is made real in the lives of some phenomenal people I know and who inspire me each day. My friend Father Michael Lapsley, a towering freedom fighter and founder of the ‘Institute for Healing of Memory’ and Maria Chavez Quispe, my friend and colleague, the eminent Ayamara Christian theologian, who passed away last week, comes to my mind very clearly. 


The ecumenical chapel, World Council of Churches head offices, Geneva

I think the first time I was really struck by the powerful simplicity of the Christian message of love was when I had the occasion to glimpse what it looks like from the outside. In my last year of high school (OAC, anybody?) I read what is now one of my favourite novels, Life of Pi by Canadian author Yann Martel. I won’t give away the main point of the novel, but its background is a young boy from India who honestly falls in love with several religions at once, and commits himself wholeheartedly (to his parents’ bemusement) not only to his native Hinduism, but Islam and Christianity as well. As the narrative moves through his discovery of these various religions, we have the opportunity to see a newcomer experiencing these faiths for the first time, as an outsider. However, Martel’s “outsider” characterization of Christianity caught me off guard; it was all about love.

Here we join young Pi’s inner reflections as he recalls wandering up to the local Catholic parish (Martel’s writing is so brilliant, it bears quoting at length):

        "Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.
        And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? [...]
        What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.
         I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying. Surely this religion had more than one story in its bag – religions abound with stories. But Father Martin made me understand that the stories that came before it – and there were many – were simply prologue to the Christians. Their religion had one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over. It was story enough for them.
        I was quiet that evening at the hotel.
        That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes. Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified – and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions – that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?
        Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.
        [Lord Krishna, another example from Hinduism,] is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.
        This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him – what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god – and in a hot place, at that – with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?
        Love, said Father Martin.
        And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Among an obscure tribe in a backwater of West Asia on the confines of a long-vanished empire? Is done away with before He has a single grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendant, only scattered, partial testimony, His complete works doodles in the dirt? Wait a minute. This is more than Brahman with a serious case of stage fright. This is Brahman selfish. This is Brahman ungenerous and unfair. This is Brahman practically unmanifest. If Brahman is to have only one son, He must be as abundant as Krishna with the milkmaids, no? What could justify such divine stinginess?
        Love, repeated Father Martin.
        I’ll stick to my Krishna, thank you very much. I find his divinity utterly compelling. You can keep your sweaty, chatty Son to yourself.
        That was how I met that troublesome rabbi of long ago: with disbelief and annoyance.
        I couldn’t get Him out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him."

Yann Martel, Life of Pi, Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001.
Chapter 17 (quoted from 2007 illustrated edition, pp.48-55; emphases mine.) 

When I first read this, I remember thinking “pff, well yes, love is an important aspect of the Christian life, but there’s more to it than that, it’s more complex than that.” However, the more I think about it, I realize that it’s the very simplicity of this love that is so radical, and it’s why we as Christians are still struggling to get it right. The Apostle Paul had already figured out that people were having trouble with it when he wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. “Please,” he begs them, “let there be no divisions, no schisms, between you.” He works to lay out in clear logic the blueprint for a life mirrored on a teacher who broke bread with the very poor, who loved them and touched them and forgave their sins, who tore apart the temple when things weren’t being done right. 

“Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself,” Jesus teaches us. “Please,” begs Paul, “love one another.”

Simple, right? Wrong, apparently. All of us struggle to make this kind of love the mandate by which, above all others, we live our lives and exist in community. It is in our nature to act in our own selfish interests, to build up walls between us. As we go about our daily concerns, it is easy to flip through the Bible and say “yep, right, love one another. I love everybody. Got that one covered.” The notion of love, against the backdrop of modern Western society, easily devolves into the facile and trite. Admit it: I say “1 Corinthians” and you go “aaaaw” just a little bit, thinking of all the white fluffy weddings at which you’ve heard that scripture passage read. Insert Pachelbel’s Canon here.

But the love Paul is talking about in the thirteenth chapter of his letter, and the love that Christ so freely offers us, is not so clean and cuddly. It is challenging, fierce, and dangerous, particularly if we like our life just the way it is. It is a love which calls us to a sea-change, calls us to service, calls us to follow Christ and never be the same (to paraphrase John Bell’s popular hymn.) It is a love which gives of itself until there is absolutely nothing left, just as Christ’s saving act on the cross, a kenotic love as my friend Manoj points out.

Lectern in the ecumenical chapel.
We are told in another of Paul’s letters that the Life (I’m fond of capital letters) we inherit through Christ is a free gift. However, I think today’s church could benefit from a reminder that, though this gift comes to us freely, it was bought at a great price. How do we respond to this in our daily life? How do we nurture our communities with the full message of this utterly simple, startling, transformative love? And, the part where I come in: how do we sing into a fuller understanding of this self-emptying love? When was the last time you sang a hymn about Christian love that startled you, unsettled you? 

“To live life to its full, we have to be in love. Only when we live life to its full, can we give it up,” says Archbishop Tagle.

To end off, I turn you back over to Manoj:

Inspired by Archbishop Luís Antonio Tagle’s message and moved by the lives of Maria and Michael who live this message, I dedicate this poem to all in love……

In love 

You are in love with God
In love with humanity
In love with creation 

Only one like you 
Lives life to its full
To give up life for others
May you be in love forever
May your love live forever
Inspiring the world forever

-- Manoj Kurian

Dr. Manoj Kurian outside the WCC headquarters, with the author's Mom.

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