How We Define Love Matters

There are a few books I will pick up again and again. I will read a passage that moved me, that I highlighted, or that I need for a paper or an article I am writing. Sometimes I read the whole book again. Like an old friend that you keep coming back to for advice, books can be like that.

This weekend, I found my copy of This is How by Augusten Burroughs. It’s an easy read and quite powerful. What drew me to this particular book was a section where he speaks about love. Here, he is a modern day St. Paul and we are the Corinthians, needing a reminder.

We “identify love by knowing what it’s not: love doesn’t use a fist. Love never calls you fat or lazy or ugly. Love doesn’t laugh at you in front of friends. It is not in Love’s interest for your self-esteem to be low. Love is a helium-based emotion; Love always takes the high road. Love does not make you beg. Love does not make you deposit your paycheck into its bank account. Love certainly never, never, never brings the children into it. Love does not ask or even want you to change. But if you change, Love is as excited about this change as you are, if not more so. And if you go back to the way you were before you changed, Love will go back with you. Love does not maintain a list of your flaws and weaknesses. Love believes you.” ― Augusten Burroughs, This Is How

I was drawn back to this passage as I read about explosives in the mail, the shooting in the synagogue and, how, instead of coming together, everyone just blamed everyone else. The president blames the media and takes no responsibility for inciting the violence. The media blames the president and takes no responsibility for the way they cover these events. It’s not a sensational story. It’s a tragedy. And, Mr. President, everything bad that happens isn’t the Democrats’ fault. If only people would think before they speak, virtually and vocally.

All of us would be wise to remember the words of St. Paul. His passage in Corinthians is often used for weddings but Paul was obviously addressing a different conceptualization of love, that of Christian caritas which should be the defining force in our lives. “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians, 13:4-7)

Pretty sound advice.

Tired of St. Paul? This one is easy – “Love your neighbor.” We read that eight times in the Bible. Loving your neighbor is the opposite of selfishness. Acting in divine love demonstrates that unselfishness is possible for a human — showing a reality that cannot be ignored or denied. Whether your neighbor loves you back is irrelevant. Whether they appreciate you doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that Jesus’ command to love one another is still valid.

It is possible to love one another, to be charitable, kind, compassionate, and patient.

Perhaps it starts with a little self-control.


Just Arrogant Enough

Take a look at this morning’s Gospel reading and read between the lines.

To understand the metaphor, understand the Samaritans: bastard Jews – religiously and biologically. In 581, Babylonians moved into Samaria and intermarry with Jews there. You cannot do this if you want to keep the religion and the culture pure. By marrying their captors, the Samaritans “gentiled themselves,” at least in the eyes of a “good Jew.” In 535, at the end of the exilic period, the Jews come back to Judea and seek to build a Temple. The Samaritans offer to help. Jews say, “No thanks” (not after you married your captors)…so Samaritans build there own.

Now look at this morning’s reading: the Scribe who asks the question ‘who is my neighbor’ should know the answer but asks anyway (there’s one in every class). Jesus got the Scribe to put two things together that a good Jew cannot – Samaritan and neighbor. To the Scribe, the Samaritan is beyond the pale of God’s forgiveness. For Jesus, that just isn’t possible.

To the Jews listening to Jesus tell the story, the next expected category (after priest and deacon (Levite)), would be a Jewish layperson but Jesus gives this coveted spot to a Samaritan, who is moved with compassion.

The hearer of the story discovers that God’s love is limitless. To the Jew of Jesus’ time, love is limited – not everyone is my neighbor. If God’s love is limitless, so must yours be, Jesus tells the hearer. So must ours.

No one listening is surprised that the Priest and Levite do not touch the guy in the ditch. If either had stopped to help, they would become unclean and would need to go through all sorts of rituals for getting ‘unsuspended’ – they kept the law. For those listening, the point is not to help the one in the ditch, but in keeping the law.

But in keeping man’s law, they broke God’s law, which raises the question: is the law made for us, or are we made for the law?

A priest could not raise this question. Neither could a deacon. It was up to a previously rejected; ostracized, humiliated, last resort of a character to make this clear for those struggling to believe.

God takes the weak and makes them strong.

So where is the arrogance the title suggests? It’s mine. I am just arrogant enough, I said to a friend the other day, that I edit Luke’s Gospel when I read chapter ten. You see, I think the Samaritan said something to the man in the ditch. I think he bent down and whispered something that Luke forgot to write down.

It is the same whispering that compelled people into action last week when the shooting started. It was the same message that made strangers carry strangers, cover each other, and hold a lifeless body until help arrived.

“I do not wish to be saved without you.”

That is what the Samaritan says in my head as he bends down to care for the sick, dress the wounds, and lug him to safety.

“I do not wish to be saved without you.”

You matter to God, so you matter to me. No matter what you look like, what your DNA says about you, or how you identify yourself as a child of God. You matter. You are His and therefore you matter to me.

I do not wish to be saved without you.

That. Changes. Everything.


Loving Others

Throughout the Bible, we are told the God loves everyone. I could quote you chapter and verse, but I know you believe me.

So if God loves everyone, then everyone is lovable. Right?

Think about that for a bit. Everyone?


The racist, the bigot, the idiot, the moron, the Democrat, the Republican, the guy on Fox and the guy on CNN, the criminal, the person who cuts you off in traffic, the guy – or girl – who dented your car and did not leave a note, the mean lady at the grocery store, and the person down the hall at work that everyone struggles to like.

Everyone is lovable.

God will sort out the forgiveness and God will judge the remorse.

It is our job to love others. Period.

That includes everyone.

This week, maybe I will just pick one or two from my list and start there.


The Hat

There is a couple that sits in front of us at Mass on Sundays. She always wears the nicest hats. They are the quintessential older couple: smartly dressed, clearly still in love, and about the same age as our children’s grandparents. I would like to say that we would know them anyway were it not for the hats, but you never know.

A few Sundays after the family moved up here last summer, the oldest child wore a hat to Mass. It provided the perfect opening for Mrs. C to say something to our eldest about how good it is to see someone else who appreciates a good hat.

Since then the friendship has blossomed. Mrs. C has presented hats to the girls and going to Mass has become something I know they will enjoy because Mr. and Mrs. C will be there.

We have been to their home. They have baked us a cake. We pray for their daughter, who’s fighting an illness, every night. Mrs. C is one of our first-born’s “five” – that small group of people she knows she can count on, go to, trust, admire, and emulate. It’s more than just a hat now; they are part of our extended family.

As we sat behind them at Mass this morning, Mrs. C in her purple hat and Mr. C in his matching scarf, I thought about how, in a few short months, they had become a part of the village helping to raise our children. It made me think of the life of our parish community – filled with many such stories. A parish ought to be a family. Faith ought to be transformational. We discover that God loves us and values us only when we are loved and valued by others.

No matter where you sit on Sundays, relationships matter. Stories matter. Stories disarm us; shared responsibility disarms us. Faith is at the center of the table but we all share in the responsibility to make sure faith doesn’t just stay there. Our understanding of God grows only as we learn that God is beyond our understanding.

Sharing the Good News requires legs and arms and voices.

And, yes, on occasion, the right hat.

Family Dynamics

The first readings the liturgical calendar offers us this week have some serious family dynamics going on. Perhaps dysfunction is a better word. Cain kills Abel. Noah sails off with his family in a giant boat filled with animals. The families of Shinar, all speaking the same languages, build a city with a giant tower that concerns God so much he changes the one language to many, scattering the people to the corners of the earth.

And we thought our families had issues.

Families are a funny thing. You grow up with brothers and sisters who know everything about you: what makes you happy, what buttons to push to get a rise out of you, how to make you smile, or angry or sad or whatever. Families know how to avoid conflict or pit one sibling against another. They not only know your story, they had a hand in writing it. Families have our past and serve as a compass for our future. No matter how far we wander, families point us home.

I don’t connect with my original family nearly enough these days. There are some siblings I email or text or write to often and others I haven’t spoken to in months. The excuse I use is that my present family – the one I live with – are now my focus. But the fact is I could do more. I just don’t.

This week we will celebrate Valentine’s Day. The children will give cards to their classmates and the stores will discount the candy for those who forgot to plan ahead. It’s meant to be a day you show your loved ones that they are, in fact, loved. It seems odd to have a day set aside for that. Shouldn’t we be telling people we love them everyday?

Still, it’s a special day. So, Mom, Terri, Cathy, Tim, John, Cindy, Kris, Kevin, Meghan, and Timmy – consider this your Valentine. Tell your spouses and children too. They are loved; you are loved, and I am grateful we are a family. Dysfunctional though we may be (and we are), we belong to one another.

We are, as they say, our stories. And you will always be part of mine.


In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we hear some of the scribes and Pharisees demand of Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

As violence begets more violence and the world seems to go indiscriminately mad around us, wouldn’t it be great to get a sign from God that everything was going to be okay and that if we really try, we can achieve peace?

And yet those signs are here. In the children who resolve differences without fists, in the parents who love their children without hitting them, in the neighbors who learn to get along, in the countries that settle disputes without declaring war. We ask for signs from God while we ignore the presence of God around us. Like the man waiting to be rescued from the flood, we miss the radio announcement, the boat, and the helicopter….you know the story.

Once upon a time, when Gandhi sought to enter a church, he was told he was not welcomed. “I’d be a Christian,” he was reported to have said, “If only the Christians acted like Christians.”

Perhaps this week we can find the signs of God around us. Perhaps this week we could look for opportunities to spread peace instead of violence, joy instead of fear, love instead of anger.

Because I am willing to bet, if you look around, God is here.

Waiting to be recognized.