The church is the proving ground of love.

The beauty of the Christian church, any congregation in any denomination anywhere, is that it is the perfect laboratory in which to test our ability to love.  In our own congregations there will always be the people who are easy to love, the people who are like us, the people who agree with us, but then there are the ones more conservative or more liberal than us, the ones who are the characters who don’t seem to fit with anyone and don’t seem to know how the majority want them to behave, the ones who raise the difficult issues, the ones with the troublesome personalities and the ones we just plain don’t like.  Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors; where else could you find a better group of neighbors to love than in your own congregation? What better proving ground of love is there?

In churches large and small it’s pretty easy to minimize contact with the ones we don’t like, after all like attracts like. There is no reason to denigrate the tendency we have to gather in groups where we feel most comfortable. But we miss the challenge of love if we always stay there. When I voiced this thesis yesterday at our Board of Education retreat, one of the members voiced a common modifier: “we can love everyone, but we don’t have to like them.” But I submit that if there are people in your congregation that you hold antipathy towards, that you actively don’t like, then you are not doing the work of love. To me any antipathy towards another says more about the holder of the antipathy than the person who evokes it. It is our state of being that is called into question; it is not up to the other person to change—the challenge is for us. Will we love that person, express positive feelings toward him/her, and let go of our judgment or discomfort?

What is love anyway?  We bandy about the word as if we know what it means, but I submit that we have reduced it to its lowest common denominator. Romantic love in its first stage of “falling in love” is easy, the love one has for his brothers or sisters or friends can come easily, but sometimes those closest to us are the hardest for us to love. If we take as the standard of love, the overused and soon forgotten passage in 1 Corinthians 13(proclaimed at so many weddings): “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

This love that Paul writes about is a huge challenge for us Christians in our families, in our churches and in the broader community. How patient am I with those with whom I am uncomfortable? Am I kind to them or am I most avoiding them? Have I really tried to get to know them, find out what formed them the way they are, imagined how life in their shoes must be? Sometimes the ones we dislike are those who have more than we do—money, education, a place in the church or in others’ opinions that we well never have. Do we envy their successes and distance ourselves from them? Sometimes we look down on those who have less than us—education, fewer opportunities for travel or eating out–as being alien from us—they don’t dress as well, don’t have the good manners we have, etc. Are we judging them and distancing ourselves from them?

In almost any congregation members are certainly welcoming, but that friendly surface can mask impatience, indifference, even downright hostility—all in the guise of approachability and inclusion and good manners. “Rejoices with the truth” is a huge challenge in love. Are we rejoicing with the truth about the person before us, towards whom we hold antipathy? Do we celebrate who each person is—all that he/she is? Do we laugh with them at their foibles, or do we laugh at them? Do we rejoice with them in their triumphs and cry with them in their sorrows?

“Love does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude. It is not self-seeking.” Are we saying inside of ourselves what we are too polite to say to the person? Are we boastful about ourselves vis-à-vis the person before us? Are we proud of who we are, what we’ve accomplished, of our children and their successes and wonder why the other hasn’t done the same? Throughout our country we try not to be rude, and we do that pretty well, but I wonder if we’re holding all those rude opinions inside ourselves.  Love is “not self-seeking:” we all try to secure a place for ourselves in any group, but we must be careful that it’s not at the expense of someone else. Our attempts can be so subtle that we are unaware of even doing it. Gossip certainly falls into this arena.

Do we laugh at our own and others’ errors in judgment and mistakes? Do we forgive others and ourselves for being human? Do we extend the hand of friendship, the offer of hospitality, the equality of welcome to all in our church? What a challenge it is to love!  And I haven’t even covered the last part of this passage where Paul writes that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres….Love never fails.”

These are some of the challenges of actually loving the people we have chosen to travel with on our spiritual journey.  A congregation is a self-selected group of people who have chosen to journey together. We can do that well, embracing every participant in the arms of love, or we can do it poorly, keeping the status quo. Of course we can’t do this loving alone; we human beings are incapable of this kind of love without the leadership of Christ over our lives and us living the challenges that he lays out for us. Imperfect and inconstant as we human beings are, still we Christians are the best hope for mankind in its search for peace, justice and love. We do pay attention to what Christ teaches us; now we just need to put it into practice…with the able help of our Lord who does know how to love. Then, as he transforms us, what we express to others aloud will be exactly the same as what we’re saying to ourselves silently. This is the true test of genuine love for another: are we able to apply the same love—patience, kindness, without envy, pride, boasting, rudeness, self-seeking—to everyone. If we can do that in our church, we can apply that love to everyone!

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