The Look of Love

Our Discipleship Programme  GROW, focussed on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,  was blessed by a guest speaker this week, and we all enjoyed hearing Catholic/Baptist/Anglican pastor Mike Coleman, who is based in Christchurch. Mike is known to some of us for his community work with people with intellectual, financial and physical limitations, and also as a volunteer spokesman for victims of devastation after the Christchurch earthquakes. Alongside his passion for social justice, Mike has developed a contemplative side, and what he had to offer blended in well with what we have been learning from Peter Scazzero over the last couple of months. Mike introduced his sermon on "Emotional Maturity: Learning to Love Incarnationally" with a couple of personal illustrations, which I summarise here:
1: Some years ago Mike had the opportunity to visit a megachurch overseas and to meet the very well-known Senior Pastor. They sat down to a meal in the church restaurant and engaged in a one-sided conversation where Mike responded to an invitation to tell the leader about his work in urban ministry. The other man constantly looked behind and beyond him, and eventually excused himself to greet a group of young people. Mike felt marginalised, but notes that we all behave like this at times. It is easy to get lost in your own persona, he said, but we need to listen, we need to be there for people.
Illustration 2: Mike got into a conflict situation with a  group of Baptist deacons worried that community ministry events were making the church carpets dirty.  He shouted at them and said “God help us if Jesus comes back and finds us with carpets that don't show signs of being well used by people!”  In such situations it’s easy to lose sight of Jesus, he said, and to behave in emotionally childish ways. I have been everything on the spectrum between total saintliness and one of Satan’s army.

Scazzero's book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality says that followers of Jesus may be adults chronologically but still infants, children or adolescents in their emotional life. Healthy ways to love our neighbour, listen effectively and deal with conflict come only as we learn about the genuine grace of an I-Thou relationship. Mike Coleman grounded this grace in a story from the life of Francis of Assisi, about the "second gaze."   St Francis once met a leper on the road, and at first he was disgusted, but then he looked again. The “second gaze” helped him see the man differently. Love is a second look that enables us to see differently, as Jesus did. Emotional maturity comes as we take a second look at people and see them afresh; then we act differently too.
The sermon got me thinking about how a second gaze might prompt me to act differently.  I remembered about the Love chapter in 1 Corinthians, and how the qualities described there are rooted in action, not just thinking or feeling.  I also recalled how studying that passage in its Biblical context has helped me see the chapter differently. St Paul, of course, wrote it all in one piece, not split up into chapters. So Chapter 12, about the body of Christ – the community that is the church – and chapter 14, about the right use of the Holy Spirit’s gifts,  are the context of this beautiful poem. They help us put human flesh on the bones of the basic skeleton of loving incarnationally.

First, Paul writes about the variety of gifts God gives to his people and how all these must be honoured and used. He uses the metaphor of the human body – ruled by the head, and functioning properly only when all the parts are in working order and in right relationship. Archbishop Donald Coggan writes in his book on Paul, that he wonders if this analogy comes from discussions with Dr Luke, when they were traveling together around the ancient world.  Luke’s knowledge of the importance of even tiny and hidden organs would have helped Paul apply the image to the relationship of believers within Christ’s church, who need to accept one another as having a part to play in God's working in and through the faith community.  
What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part!…. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you... God made our bodies with many parts, and he has put each part just where he wants it."
(1 Cor 12: 18 - 21)

What this means for us is that we must value our differences. Paul’s word for the special gifts God gives each individual is charism –from the same root as grace, generosity and gratitude. In the Roman world, a charism was a free gift of money given by the Emperor to his troops to celebrate his birthday or coronation. It was a bonus – entirely unearned. God’s gifts in us are like that – and if so, we have no reason to look down those who have different gifts. All of us have a different part to play. A second gaze will help us see that.

Along with Acceptance goes Affirmation. It’s not just a matter of tolerating those who are different from us, but of Appreciating and Affirming them for their unique contribution to the body. The leg needs to know that the hand is important, and the ear should value the work of the eye. That means noticing and affirming those who work quietly away at ministries that are not so obvious – like our gardeners who pull weeds or sweep up autumn leaves, our data and sound techs who beaver away down the back every week, or the internet-savvy people who update our website. None of these gifts are mentioned in Paul’s list of charisms – but they are ministry gifts used by God in our own time. So is the gift of encouragement – of identifying what someone has to offer and appreciating and affirming it in words and actions. Mother Teresa said “there is more hunger in this world for love and appreciation than for bread”.

Chapter 14 offers another A word that relates to loving incarnationally: Availability. Tongues, prophecy, signs and wonders - the charismatic renewal put these items high on the agenda, but Mike Coleman says although that movement may have taught us about worship, it did not help us to love. That’s exactly what went wrong in the church at Corinth. They had discovered some wonderful spiritual gifts that enhanced their worship and built their faith. But ego had got in the way and services were noisy, confusing,  and alienating to anyone coming in from outside. The Corinthians needed to be available to God, not just for the Spirit's manifestational gifts, but for love, for the second gaze, that helps us care for one another.

That might mean loving people we wouldn’t choose as friends. I remember in my idealistic early twenties praying that God would teach me to love the unlovely, and consciously making myself available to him for that. I don’t know what I had in mind - probably something like giving money to the Leprosy Mission. I certainly didn’t expect what he sent to me that very day – an old school friend who had got tangled up in a lifestyle I despised, drugs sex, and  total self-centredness. She was someone that, in my puritanical self-righteousness, I found hard to love – and yet God loved her and called me to do the same. By his grace I was able to give her the listening ear she craved that day.  Since then I have met lots of unlovely people in our community – the medical fraternity calls them heartsink people, because your heart sinks when they come to the door or ring up on the phone. They are so draining you dread what they will demand of you.  But the church is exactly the place we should expect to see these distressed folk – if the needy can’t come to us and find acceptance and love, where can they go?

Such grace can be demanding, but CS Lewis had good advice for Christians who found it hard to love:
"Don’t waste time bothering about feeling love, just behave as if you love them. It is one of the worlds greatest secrets that when you do that, you find you come to love them. " 
Acting in a loving way – choosing love -  that’s being available to God, and being used by him to minister to others. Paul would say, Amen. His poem on Agape Love isn’t passed on to us just so we can read it at weddings and funerals.  It's about living in a faith community, its about attending to the needs and gifts of others, it's about servant attitudes and taking a second look. When we can do this, we are developing a healthy emotional maturity and so learning to love incarnationally, that is, to see with the eyes of Jesus. 

To Chew Over:  How can I love more incarnationally, seeing others with the eyes of Christ and serving them with his grace?

The world will catch a glimpse of the reality of God when those who are efficient are willing to be inconvenienced by the slow, when the bright ones lavish their valuable time and talents for the sake of the ignorant, when those who have much sacrifice for those who do not have enough, and those who are normally separated by skintone, age or earnings intentionally place their lives together for the sake of the gospel.  
(Robert Lupton, p 100)