Sunday, January 13, 2008

Living Loved - Introduction

Introduction to Living Loved: Prelude

Within each soul there is a thirst for love that sometimes feels deeper and broader and more tumultuous than a stormy ocean.

At times our lives seem merely to be an ongoing, frantic effort to satisfy that thirst, to quench it with one puny cupful of saltwater after another—through a miserable mix of self-directed efforts to be accepted by others, liked by neighbors, put up with by family members, regarded by friends, kept on by lovers.

Yet these efforts come nowhere close to filling the ocean of need within each heart. Those puny cupfuls of saltwater are actually filled with our tears.

Music’s top forty list regularly comprises boisterous anthems and forlorn ballads about the urgent, demanding, unfulfilled need of every human heart, essentially crying, “Love me!” Such songs reflect the desire—reduced to its simplest expression—that consumes and drives each one of us. We all sing the song, sometimes silently, even subconsciously; sometimes furiously until our throats are raw.

Yet we often seek artificial or temporary solutions to our thirst which, like artificially sweetened, flat, room-temperature soda pop, only lead to bad spiritual and emotional health and even sharper thirst. Or we avoid trying to satisfy that need out of a fear of the unknown.

Dustin Hoffman once spoke about researching autistic behavior for the motion picture Rainman. He discovered that many with autism “ ‘don’t make eye contact, they don’t want to be touched.’ But he wanted to know how autistics really felt, so he tracked down an autistic author. ‘She said the one thing she wanted more than anything else in life was for someone to hug her, but the second anyone did, she couldn’t bear it.’”

Don’t we often do the same with our need to be loved? So how can our sometimes paralyzing need be fulfilled? Where can we experience the endless love and acceptance and delight that we all crave? How can we live our lives as those who are fully, wholly, genuinely loved?

Many of us grew up hearing in Sunday school that God loves us perfectly and unconditionally, that God’s love satisfies like no other. But somehow this knowledge has become rote, callused, crusted over by the realities of life, so that, yes, we know Jesus loves us, but we don’t feel it. We don’t experience this love in our everyday life. We confuse it with the world’s artificial notions of romance, so our expectations are never met; we don’t live in his love, or out of his love. And as a tragic result—one that seriously infects the church today—we aren’t letting that love flow through us to others in acts of open-hearted, life-giving service.

But if Jesus loves us so much, if his love is so full, so perfect, and so deep as to satiate our thirst for love … then why doesn’t it? If what God says is true, and I believe it is, then God longs to lavish divine love on us. If the testimony of John is true, you and I can experience the intimate, personal, blazing love of Jesus. But how?

This book is my attempt to offer one way to experience that.

Why the Gospel of John?

In this book we’ll journey through the Gospel of John, which purportedly reveals the words and works of Christ as seen through the eyes of the disciple who calls himself “the beloved” or “the disciple Jesus loved.” Of all the disciples, John seemed closest to the Master. If anyone experienced Jesus’ love, John did. In one of the most sublime portraits of love, we see John reclining close beside Jesus during the Last Supper—a place of acceptance. Safety. Security. Strength. Warmth. Love.

Tom Wright introduces his work on John by noting:

The gospel of John has always been a favourite for many. At one level it is the simplest of all the gospels; at another level it is the most profound. It gives the appearance of being written by someone who was a very close friend of Jesus, and who spent the rest of his life mulling over, more and more deeply, what Jesus had done and said and achieved, praying it through from every angle, and helping others to understand it. Countless people down the centuries have found that, through reading this gospel, the figure of Jesus becomes real for them, full of warmth and light and promise.

Let me explain why this has been important to me. Over the past several years I have come through a painfully difficult personal time. My faith, my understanding, my very heart have been stretched far beyond what I once thought they could tolerate. I think as a result I am finally coming to a place of acceptance, but it has been a trying and treacherous journey. Often I have not taken particular steps of that journey well, and I have certainly caused others great pain in the process, to my deep regret. But my intention was only for the best. And it truly, in hindsight, was the pull of God.

This journey of mine started with a desire to experience authentic love—love of God, of others, and possibly most difficult of all, of myself. I yearned to my core for God’s acceptance, and I realized that that required an honest assessment of who I was and how I had responded to God’s Word and love and acceptance up to that point.

In struggling with these internal issues over a period of time, often with the help of dear and wise friends and mentors, I happened to read once again the Gospel of John. What struck me forcefully this time as I did, and I’m sure it was due to my own neediness, was the gospel writer’s audacious self-description (as many scholars understand it anyway) sprinkled throughout the gospel as “the one Jesus loved dearly” (see for example John 13:22-25).

Yes! The one!
Jesus loved!

John considered himself the fave, the teacher’s pet, the one loved most above all.

To be honest, that struck a deep reptilian chord of jealousy in me. It just didn’t seem fair. Why did this young disciple get to claim that description? After all, he clearly wasn’t the most prominent, the smartest, the most considerate, or the boldest of the bunch, at least if you read the other gospels. And yet here he is in the upper room, leaning comfortably, contentedly, on the bosom of Jesus, calling himself the “beloved.”

And knowing that he was.

It’s not within my purpose—or my ability—to answer such questions as who wrote the gospel we call John, or whether the disciple John was the same person called “the beloved,” or what kind of relationship John and Jesus had, or which passages of the text were edited or changed over the years. It is my purpose, rather, to help us take the vignettes of the gospel bearing his name and wrestle with them in the light of Christ’s love, to strive to understand what it means to be one—even the one!—whom Jesus Christ dearly loves. To grasp deeply in our minds and hearts what that looks like, feels like, and acts like.

I’ve come to conclude that this disciple, whom we’ll assume by faith is John, may or may not have been loved any more by Jesus than the other disciples were. If you were to ask Jesus who he liked best, he probably would have had a much more politically correct answer. But, this disciple thought he was. He acted like he was. He assumed it. He believed it. And so he experienced it.

And so can you and I.

Perhaps you, like me, yearn to sense your place in the loving embrace of Jesus. And not merely for comfort and wholeness, but for strength and vision to serve. As we see Jesus heal and teach and serve, as we see him relate to his followers and to John, we can learn more about Jesus’ love relationship with the Father, and we can begin to understand his love relationship with us.

That’s my hope in writing this book: that you too come to experience yourself as one whom Jesus loves. Even as the beloved one. And that you can live your life that way:

You can live loved.

Why The Message?

Eugene Peterson has managed to recast the entire Bible into a real-world koine English that forces us to take another look at the old familiar verses we’ve come to know and love and, let’s be honest, become slightly bored with. In the foreword to my book Out of the Quiet, Phyllis Tickle wrote of her own passionate enthusiasm for this version of the Bible: “The Message is not so much a translation of the Bible—at least not in the customary sense of that word—as it is a paratranslation. It is, in other words, a brilliant lifting up of the spirit and intent of our holy words out of the conventions and sometimes limiting contexts of their times into the becoming and appropriate conventions and idioms of our times.”

Peterson’s approach is helpful to me because, frankly, one of the continual frustrations I encounter in my own spiritual disciplines is a growing familiarity with the Scripture passages I read. Even though I know that each time I read the Word of God its lively, life-giving truth comes through in new and different ways, depending upon where I happen to be standing in the river of the Spirit at the time, I find I must work hard at trusting that and actually read the text. Without that intentionality, I’ll simply glance at the Scripture cited, recognize it, skip it, and move on, so its power can have no effect on me.

Part of the problem for me is that the words have become so familiar that I assume I know what they’re saying to me in that moment. But if the words are different—if I read them in an unfamiliar translation—I stand a better chance of taking the time and effort to actually read them, because they seem new to me. I need all the help I can get in accessing the Word of God, and The Message has provided a great deal of that help.

Others for whom the Bible is a more recent addition to their reading list may find the language of a standard translation to be a bit unnatural and confusing, so here again the fresh, conversational style of Peterson’s work can be helpfully eye-opening and thought-provoking.

To be honest, when I first read The Message in its earlier releases, I had a slightly negative reaction to it. It occasionally hit a sour note for me, and at other times I found myself arguing with the tack Peterson had taken with a particular passage. Sometimes it even seemed downright silly. (For instance, Paul’s exquisite encouragement to the Romans at the end of his letter to “greet one another with a holy kiss” becomes “holy embraces all around!” Yes, I know, cultural differences and all that, but still…)

And yet over time it was the dissonance caused by Peterson’s more contemporary translation with my safe, familiar understanding of the passage that forced me to pay closer attention—to really read what the text was saying. I also found that the more I read it, the more it prompted my own thoughts and feelings about what I was reading. I think that is the purpose of Scripture, isn’t it? So that’s a good thing. And it is my deepest hope that you will find the same thing happening to you when you read each passage from John’s Gospel in this book.

How This Book Can Help You Live Loved

Through these devotional vignettes, which can be read straight through like any other book or one a day, we’ll seek to deepen our understanding of how we can live loved. We’ll discover three aspects of living in Jesus’ bottomless ocean-full of love:

1. Knowing His Love

Sometimes Jesus seems merely to be a character in a book. Yet as Christians we believe, we “know,” that Jesus is real and alive. Why can’t we really know Jesus’ love more profoundly in our daily life? Why do we have such trouble grasping and accepting the concept of God’s loving grace? Why is our relationship with Jesus seemingly separated from our routine life at work and with our family and friends? Why don’t we sense Christ’s loving, accepting, nurturing embrace of us day by day?

To know Christ’s love we must counter-program all those inner thoughts that tell us we’re not worth loving, we’re too sinful, too ugly, too stupid, too unwanted—that we’re not the kind of person Jesus, or anyone, could really love. That we are “the unacceptable.” Instead, we must acknowledge that we are indeed one whom Jesus loves. We are “the beloved.”

2. Experiencing His Love

As the English mystic William Blake wrote, “We are put on earth a little space/That we might learn to bear the beams of love,” Christ’s love contains both beauty and pain. That means that experiencing his love leads to encountering both.

Love—the love Jesus offers us—is not just a feel-good, flowers-and-perfume, ooey gooey sensation. His love is not about sunbeams and cherubs and soft music. We aren’t living in a romance novel. No, his love has the weight of responsibility. His love must be reckoned with and lived out. His love calls for response, even sacrifice. And sometimes it’s messy. We’ll discover what that looks like as we encounter the scripture.

3. Sharing His Love

We cannot contain Christ’s love within our hearts. That would be like forcing an ocean’s worth of water into a puny cup. Like that cup, we would be shattered into atoms. No, his love is intended to flow through us, continually.

As we are filled with the knowledge and experience of Christ’s love for us, we are empowered and emboldened to reach out and risk loving and serving others. We become true disciples of Christ, taking up our responsibilities as Christians in a world that desperately needs Jesus’ unflinching touch. We reproduce healthy lovers for Jesus’ sake. This is where Christ’s love takes us.

Before we get any further, let me say something about the word “love.” Catholic theologian James Alison, author of the book On Being Liked among others, was asked in a recent interview, “What does it mean to say that God not only loves us, but likes us? Why do we need to hear that?” I thought his answer is immensely helpful for our discussion:

The word love, alas, is so abused. In my book I wanted to remind people that sometimes being told that we are loved really means: ‘My love for you is so strong that I wish I could suppress all the bits about you that don’t measure up to my standards. In fact, if you become someone else, then I might actually like you and enjoy you as well.’ If someone views us in that way, though saying he or she loves us, we sense that that person is lying or pulling a fast one and is being controlling.

We pick up very quickly when we are being liked; we relax and are happy to be who we are in the eyes of the other. And curiously, as we relax, we find that we are much more than we thought we were, and become much more, starting from where we are, and with no sense of being bullied or made to fit into schemes which really have nothing to do with us.

I pray that, through these devotional thoughts and your meditations on the scriptures, you truly know that Jesus loves you… and likes you, too. That his loving presence becomes real and even tangible for you. That you sense personally the “warmth and light and promise” he has for you, as Tom Wright put it. That you, like John the disciple, become Jesus’ close friend. His “beloved one.”

A writer in the devotional magazine Forward Day by Day told the story of her husband’s death. She said through the painful ordeal, he never lost heart. Weeks after he died, as she was going through his bedside table, she found a prayer he had written in pencil:

Jesus, my Brother, I am resting in your peace, feeling the gentle strength of your arm around my shoulder. I am letting go, allowing your will to become my will whether you leave me here or call me home. I feel your great love for me, aware that you are always at my side.

I pray that, like that beloved man, you will begin to know, experience, and share Jesus’ love for you and for everyone. I pray that you will begin the adventure of living loved—an adventure that will last your lifetime, and forever.

Peter Marsden Wallace
September 2006
Atlanta, Georgia

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