08 July 2011

What Love Looks Like: Then and Now (My Journey)

I had the honor to speak at a class Sally and Becky Hanan recently held on spiritual gifts. The first class was on love and honor. Love is both the greatest gift of all, and the one without which all the others are pointless. (See I Corinthians 13.) These are the notes I typed as if they were an article. My speaking style is waaay less formal.

When God first really got hold of me, it was all about relationship. I was madly in love with God, and felt God's mad love for me. It was all about relationship, not rules, and love, not duty. I just loved on people, and they tended to respond. Some of them freaked out. Others saw something real and moved closer. But everyone reacted. I noticed that tended to happen with Jesus, too.

But over the next few years, people who'd been Christians longer than me showed me the error of my ways, and I grew up quite a bit in my faith. Or something.

The reality was that the more I "grew up" this way, the harder it got. For instance, they taught me all about the two great commandments:

Love the lord your God with everything in you, body, soul and spirit.
Love your neighbor as yourself.

These were things to aspire to, the things we MUST DO at all costs. Oh, and by the way, don't love yourself, that's just wrong (2 Tim 3 was quoted quite a bit, but looked at backward). And so, slowly but surely, I worked harder at loving God and people. I worried about whether I was loving. I listened to everyone I could and read every book I found on how to love, trying to understand what to do.

The result was that I was an OK husband, an OK dad, an OK friend, an OK youth pastor. I had moments of brilliance (usually when I wasn't thinking about rules or duty and just loving on someone) and moments of "ugh". The rules piled up. I piled rules on my kids. They didn't appreciate it as much as all the books and teachers said they would.

The Church piled rules on me. I didn't much care for it, either. For instance, as a youth pastor, there were more and more risk management rules. Never be alone with a youth, especially of the opposite sex. (That stipulation always got to me as the best known related arrest in Austin was a guy youth pastor accused of something while taking a teenage boy home). Never discuss anything with a youth without another adult present. Don't do this, don't do that, can't you read the signs? (Sorry. Early seventies song.) So now I was either ineffective, or I was rebellious and sinful. What? You gave that girl a daddy hug instead of a side hug? Are you lusting or just crazy?

I questioned my worth, my effectiveness, everything, I worked harder and felt more frustrated than anything else. I'm not saying I didn't love people during this time. I did, and there are people to this day who thank me for it. But my thinking on what love was had become warped, so I didn't focus on loving, but on doing all the stuff the church said I needed to do. It nearly killed me.

After a couple of decades of this, several things happened over the course of a few months.

I read The Shack. This blew a lot of religious fuses, and I started coming back to the ideas of "relationship, not rules" and "love, not duty"- only this time they were conscious choices.

A phenomenal man showed up in my life. Bill Vanderbush not only challenged my thinking, but he saw the gold in me that others didn't, and called it out. Beyond that, he accepted me as I was, not demanding- or even expecting- that I be anyone other than who I was.

At Burning Ones (a youth conference) I had an extreme encounter with God. I saw him more clearly than ever, I saw myself as he sees me, and I saw others as he sees them. I'm not going into details of that today, partly because of time, and partly because you don't need to focus on my experience. You need to ask God for whatever encounter you need. I'd simply asked him to let me see him clearly and others as he saw them.[1] I was missing that one step of seeing myself clearly.

Suddenly, the two commandments weren't burdens. They were joy, they were peace, they were life itself. They were about relationship not rules. It's not what I am supposed to do, it's what I was created to do, what he enables me to do. It became simply life.

The first one is actually easier. We love him because he first loved us. The second one we see as more problematic, not least because everyone else doesn't love us, but also because we don't really love ourselves. Until we see ourselves as he does, made in his image, we won't love ourselves, and we won't really love anyone else. But once we know our identity, accept it, learn to revel in it, see that we're the spitting image of our heavenly parent, it's a lot easier to love ourselves. At that point we're free to see others the same way, and loving them is easy, too... when we see through Daddy God's eyes.

So what does love look like?

I choose to see everyone as God does. I call out the things they don't see yet. I encourage them. I speak life into them. I hug them. I've been known to kiss folk. OK, not on the lips, so don't worry.

I refuse to be afraid. This means risk management goes out the window. If someone needs a hug, they get a hug. And all of us need hugs. If someone needs to talk, we talk. I walked away from a formal youth pastor position because God gave me a bigger vision, and it freed me up. I don't have to worry what armies of insurance lawyers think. If a 16 y/o wants to meet and talk over a burger, and their parents are OK with it, we just do it. I'm not talking about being stupid; I'm not going into a girl's bedroom to find privacy. I won't be meeting behind closed doors with someone who's been hitting on every male in sight.

At the same time, I trust God to show me if there's someone to be careful hugging. Some people will take it the wrong way, or have been hurt so badly it immediately makes them put up walls. But by keeping my relationship with God close, I hear him to deal with these cases when they come up.

It also means you're just there for people. This will look a little different for each of us. It means doing things that aren't "spiritual", like just hanging out, going to a movie, going tubing, etc. It may mean phone and text conversations when you're ready for bed, or maybe after you've been asleep a couple of hours. In my case, it also means a lot of meals with people[2]. It means driving to Waco or San Marcos to spend time with someone who's struggling, or to see their show, or just to maintain the relationship- to enjoy being with them. Because if you love people, you do enjoy being with them!

It means more time at hospitals. It means more weddings and funerals. It means more baptisms, plays, football games, and discussion about things you really don't care about otherwise. But think about the first time you fell in love with someone. They could have recited the phone book and you'd have loved every minute of it! That's Daddy God's love for his kids, Jesus' love for his bride, the Holy Spirit's love for God's living temples.

It means having talks a parent should have with someone about to get married- when their parents aren't available. It means praying for people on the street, in restaurants, and at work. It means way more time on facebook than I ever wanted to spend. It means taking risks. You cannot love without risk. God risked creating us with free will. God risked the rejection of Jesus' sacrifice. These are acts of profound love. Love is risky.

It means when someone is down, you don't just feel for them, or turn away; you encourage them, hug them, ask if you can pray.

What does it look like? Come hang out and I'll show you!

[1] When I first asked him this, he said if I saw others as he did, it would destroy me. But after I saw both God and myself clearly, he said, "Now ask me that question." So I did!

[2] My youth pastor mentor, Jeff Kyle, used to say that "Teenagers spell love two ways- "M O N E Y" and "T I M E". I add a third spelling to that list: "F O O D".