I’ve been imagining … something. I’m still not exactly sure what it might be. A self-defining letter of introduction and invitation? A declaration? A manifesto? A brochure? An advertisement? A movement? A conversation? I remain unsure. A blog entry (ha!)?
Nor am I sure for whom all I speak. Obviously I speak for me though I’m certainly still thinking this through. But I also speak for more than me. So, as a pastor, for my church? I think I’d like that, but I don’t speak for my church. We’re Baptist in the best sense of the word and everyone speaks for her or himself.
I can say my thinking has been stimulated and encouraged in a variety of different churches and a family of origin rooted in the faith and with friends, family members, church members and peers in minstry who have sustained me through the years in a far-and-wide-ranging, ongoing conversation that accepts the consistent challenge of interweaving faith and life—the most cherished beliefs of our tradition, the deepest thoughts and most profound hopes with our lived and carefully considered experience. I don’t speak for any of these conversation partners either, of course. They actually speak quite well for themselves. But it is of, with, and toward them that I think and write and speak.
So speaking for me within the context of a conversation I didn’t start, I use the first person plural pronoun hopefully—acknowledging that it remains a by-in-large undefined, unidentified “we”—affirming that far from any kind of royal “we” with inherent authority, it is, rather, an imagined, an assumed “we”—an anticipated one with but an inherent hope—the hope of a connection—a binding affirmation. I speak for a possibility for which I yearn.
But imagine—just imagine coming across this:
We are a community of faith invested in, committed to and connected through the absolute priority (and prioritizing) of love. Our identity is unashamedly Scripture-based and through Jesus God-centered. But we are united in our shared belief that practically speaking, love is the closest we get—the closest we can get to the transcendent, holy Other (1 John 4:7-8). And as far from God as the closest we can get is, love is not a matter of falling short of God, for in love, even our own so very human experience of it, we believe, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19). Definitely part of the mystery of the transcendent—that it would be accessible to us within our own experience—conversely, that the very immanence of our living would participate in the absolutely transcendent.
Mind you, it’s the best of what we know love can be that we’re talking about here (1 John 3:18), not a cheap and easy self-love that’s mainly about what we like and that with which we’re comfortable, but a challenging self-less love—the oft uncomfortable kind of love demanding the best of who we can be—demanding a commitment to ever incorporating more loving in our living … and in such a way that third parties would recognize it as love … in such a way, in truth, that third parties constitute the criteria by which our living as loving is assessed (1 John 2:9-10).
So it is that we invest ourselves in our particular wheres (the neighborhoods in which we live, the schools we attend, the job sites to which we go, the gyms at which we work out, our local congregations) even as we do in the where that is home to us all—creation. So it is that we invest ourselves in particular whos—initially the other(s) who is/are beloved other, but with the understanding that this investment is one ultimately fulfilled only in consideration of and for every other—within the ever-growing understanding that love is always bigger than our experience of it—including always more than those we love so easily. And again within the immanence of our immediate experience we move beyond to discover the transcendent.
For while the trajectory of love begins with the individual, it arcs out immediately to the most intimate circle of that individual—arcing then further out—looking always beyond the immediacy of self. To seek to confine love—to limit it—undoes it. Within the Christian tradition we even speak of the uncontained, wildly dancing love generated in God’s communion with self that arcs out into creating, into redeeming, and into sustaining. So the fullness of love looking beyond the immediate looks ahead into the future mindful even of what might yet be—of others yet to come. This is perhaps most easily recognized as not foreign to our experience in the love of parents for a child. Love sacrifices now for then—and us for them (not them for us) making the hard decisions required to have a better tomorrow for more than a more comfortable today for fewer. Love is sometimes confrontive, but not ugly and never mean. Messy, but not ultimately destructive. Profoundly sad at times, but never arrogant or self-righteous. Apparently foolish at times, but so intentionally the implementing of God’s teachings and expectations. If not—if love’s not the above, it’s just part of the clanking noise of the consistent ever-falling-short attempt to justify a focus on self.
Therefore, we say, if this priority sounds like you … if this prioritizing intrigues you—interests you … if this commitment to incarnate love sounds like something you might want to explore, then we want you to know that nothing else matters. Not a faith you do or don’t claim, not your status in the world, not your political persuasion, not your sexual orientation, not your marital status, not your age, not your educational background, your economic demographic, your ethnicity, your theology.
Nothing else matters precisely because we believe that as a manifestation of the divine, loving is the most important thing of all, and we want to model rallying around what’s most important and not being distracted by what’s not. We’re tired of getting bogged down and losing energy arguing about what is arguably unimportant compared to what’s most important. We want to focus on sustaining the energy that loving creates—negotiating that tricky balance of giving so much of ourselves and simultaneously being so fulfilled. We want the passion such living brings and gives, and we believe the Church, our culture, and our world desperately need and want (at a deeper than acknowledged level!) a community modeling holding important differences in tension united by a more important affirmation.
Nothing else matters because it’s love that transforms us. We believe that we, being transformed, participate in the transformation of others, and ultimately of creation. We name that God at work, but, again, believe that such naming is less important than loving.
So while we believe it takes a community of faith—while we believe it takes, in truth, a God-with-us to sustain such a priority—to empower such a living, we are less concerned with the denominational traditions from which we came (honor them though we do) or even the institutional by-laws and expectations (honor them though we do) believing we may now have more in common with churches (and individuals) of many other denominations and even with congregations (and individuals) of other faiths or those of no claimed faith than with others of like denomination and even like faith. We celebrate love where we find it and wonder if we might find a way of networking not defined by denominational criteria or any kind of checklist of orthodoxy (thinking rightly), but rather by the shared hope in and commitment to the transformative power of love which we name a kind of orthopraxy (doing rightly) that’s not a checklist of what to do, but the consistent evaluation of all potential doing in light of love.
It is our considered affirmation that we honor God—we manifest God—we participate in the truth and grace of God not in being right about anything or anyone, but in rightly relating to anyone and everyone.
We maintain there is no doctrine about which it is more important to argue than to love. There is no commandment, no interpretation of a commandment, that should take precedence over love. There is no tradition to be honored more than love. There are no politics with more promise than love. There is no leadership with more potential than love. There is no theology more crucial than love. There are no ethics more urgent than love. There is no worship not fulfilled in love, and, ultimately, there is no hope without love.
We remind ourselves regularly this is so much less about taking it upon ourselves to hold anyone else accountable and so much more about naming that for which we choose to be held accountable ourselves. So while there will be those among us who disagree with you about this, that, or the other, they will do so respectfully, and they will do so in conversation that is commitment to a relationship characterized by, yes, you guessed it, love. For if God is love, then where we experience the immanence of love, it is the transcendence of God we experience, even in disagreement (maybe even especially in disagreement), and if you share this same priority, we believe your voice can enhance our conversation even as our conversation enlarges your voice.
Admittedly this isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. Even agreeing on love (and loving) as our top priority does not imply (let alone guarantee) that that top priority will filter down into agreed upon implications and non-negotiable consequences. That’s precisely why it is so very significant and relevant that the author(s) of 1 John affirmed the commandment “love one another” as the guiding principle in working out how to do community and how to do life yet without—without detailing specific implications.
That’s not a copout if we deliberately agree to disagree—if we affirm that while we may disagree about what it means to manifest love in different circumstances, we agree that it is our shared priority—if we respectfully agree that we are each trying to work out love with fear and trembling in the specifics of our living, and even when we end up in different places, that respectful acknowledgment transforms the tenor of disagreement.
Too idealistic? Too naive? To have one most important affirmation more important than any other disagreements? Maybe. But maybe we just don’t dream big enough.
Don’t you want a bigger dream? Don’t we need a bigger dream?