Persons Alongside (and how it happens)
This week my mom asked me to stop talking to her about politics.
To be honest, she’s been asking me to stop for a while, and I’ve just kept doing it, sending her articles, forwarding her things. I wanted to connect with her, to bring her to a place where we’d see things the same way (my way) and agree, and we’d commiserate, and laugh, and it would feel easy and peaceful.
We didn’t come to that place.
Instead she wrote me a three page letter describing why she believes what she does, and respectfully asking me to back off and please respect her.
It was humbling to receive.
Because we are not going to agree. Maybe ever. And there will always be points in her beliefs or her reasoning that I will want to say,’ But wait…” But that’s not quite true…!” But have you considered…?” but in the midst of this argument, I got arrogant, and proud, and irritable and maybe a little bit rude.
And I stopped seeing her as a person, quite apart from me and her role in my life, a separate person with fears and hopes and experiences that have shaped her beliefs and made her see the world and live her life in her own particular way, just like my fears and hopes and experiences have shaped my beliefs and the way I see and live in the world.
She gets to be herself – with all her gifts and perspectives and impact in the world, and I get to be myself with all of mine - and nevertheless we are connected – both as mother and daughter, and in the Body of Christ.
And while in many ways I don’t understand her, and she doesn’t understand me, I am grateful she had the courage to both confront me, and to share her story with me.
And I love her. Not always well, but I do.
What is love? How do we do it? Especially when things feel complicated and confusing?
Paul tells us all sorts of things love is. And most of the time that we hear his list we either make it a mushy and weddingy ideal, or if we take it seriously, it makes us feel terribly guilty and inadequate and notice how poorly we love.
But take comfort, friends, remember, Paul isn’t writing this to perfect people. They are in trouble. In fact, they are currently all the things he says love isn’t – arrogant, proud, comparing themselves to each other, keeping a list of wrongdoing, envious, jealous, insisting on their own way, celebrating each other’s failures, name-calling, bragging, you name it, (and actually, Paul does). And he says, love – which is everything, is none of these things.
And then, quite apart from our understanding of it as schmaltz or martyrdom, Paul describes love as something that exists outside of us. Love is something we receive, something that lives through us. Actually, love is a gift – like all these other gifts he just got finished talking about- a gift from the God of Love who Loved so much as to join us fully in life and death. Love belongs to God, and comes from God, and returns to God, and God shares it with us.
This means that it isn’t about our ability to continue feeling all loving towards each other. Or even our ability to have pure motives all of the time, to keep arrogance out of the picture, or stay clear of irritability and resentment. It isn’t about being people without a single self-righteous thought in our head or petty frustrations in our interactions. And it isn’t about quietly striving to bear all things and forgive all things and endure all things until we are all used up and dried out and nothing at all. We can’t conjure love, or achieve love or work hard enough to produce it.
But how do we do it, then? Love is something we receive, but it’s also a verb.
What does it mean to love?
We usually take 1 Corinthians 13 on its own, it’s even referred to as “the love chapter”, but it is Paul’s direct explanation for how people so diverse and varied, with so many different backgrounds and perspectives and experiences and gifts and abilities – live together as One. Love is how the Body of Christ works.
So first, he says two important things that about what it means to be the Body of Christ. The first one is: we are connected.
We are One Body. This is God’s body, and you and I are a part of it because God had put this body together as God sees fit.
God has chosen to connect us to each other and we are connected, period. Even when we don’t act like it, even if we pretend we aren’t, even if we disown one another, we cannot truly detach parts of the body and decide they don’t belong or contribute, or that they don’t impact us and that we are not in some way dependent upon each other. We are.
Whether we like it or not we are inseparably attached. Even when we feel desperately isolated, or treat others that way, we are not alone. We are part of the same body, connected as tissue and blood, suffering when others suffer, carrying the shame of dehumanizing words or actions done to or by another, bearing each other’s sadness and grief, celebrating when there is joy in each other’s lives. Because we are part of the One Body we belong to each other. We are connected.
The second thing Paul wants them to understand about the Body of Christ is: we are all different.
And we are meant to be! We bring different gifts and perspectives, different interests and passions, different pain and loss, growth and new life. We need each other; we need people radically different than we are.
We can’t and shouldn’t all be alike, like a pile of identical disembodied parts –that is no-body instead of a one-body. We only make sense if we are not the same.
That means that we each need to be who we are.
We need to be completely ourselves, to own our own stories and shortcomings, longings and quirks. The way we play our role in this big picture is by bravely living who each one of us is distinctly called to be. Parker Palmer has said, “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding, ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’ True vocation joins self and service in the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.”
Jesus meets us as we are, and takes all these different people and makes us One.
We are broken, like the rest of the world, we are selfish and self-righteous and broken.
But Christ enters our brokenness: the places where we are torn apart, paralyzed by fear or failure, divided from each other and our own selves. Christ enters our brokenness, and becomes the body broken for us, so that we may be whole, joined together in love.
All connected, completely ourselves.
And Paul is saying that the potential exists – and one day will be fully realized – for our differences to strengthen the body, for the image of God to be lived in fullness, fully embodied, and for the body to function at its peak: alive, healthy, vital, each part singing its own contribution, in the harmony of the Spirit of God.
We are to bravely live out this all connected and completely ourselves reality. And the only way we do that is through love. Without that, nothing works. Nothing else we try to do or say matters or lasts.
So often we see each other as stereotypes or functions, role models or rivals, two dimensional figures to like or dislike, fear or forget.
But these people around us, beside, us, in front of us every day, are broken and beautiful, both just like me and mystifyingly different than me.
They each have unique gifts and voices and whole worlds of pain and hope and lived experiences behind their beliefs and actions, just like we do.
Love invites us to be people, alongside other people; that’s where Jesus is.
There is this guy, Benjamin Mathis, who goes around setting up a “free listening” table, and he sits and listens to people. Just listens. When he finds himself across from someone he disagrees with, he tries to see the person behind the belief – to hear “the biography rather than the ideology,” by asking,
“Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”
He tells this story:
She was just staring at me.
She had something to say, and I could tell she was curious about the Free Listening sign, but she didn’t seem to have to courage to speak to me.
So, I waited. Nowhere to be, and all day to get there.
Finally, she walked up, and like a young warrior preparing for battle, she said:
“I don’t usually do this, and I know this isn’t a hot button topic anymore… But, I think abortion is wrong. It’s not a form of birth control, and people who have them should be arrested for murder."
He continues: “… I wanted to stop her, and tell her my story.
I’ve sat with two loved ones as they suffered through the difficult decision and consequences of ending a pregnancy. It was a brutal human experience, and gave me an insight to something I never expected to witness.
In moments like that, “choice” doesn’t seem to be the right word.
So, when she told me they should be arrested for terminating a pregnancy, the familiar burn of disagreement started to fire in me.
There were so many things I wanted to say. I wanted to change her mind, to argue, to disagree. It’s a natural response.
But, if my story brought me to my beliefs, then I needed to know how her story brought her to her beliefs.
So, I asked:
“Thank you for sharing that. Tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”
She seemed surprised by my interest.
“Why? It doesn’t matter. Your sign said Free Listening, so I gave you something to listen to.”
“Give me more to listen to.”
“They should be locked up! It’s wrong. It’s not right to go out and sleep with whoever, then just vacuum away the result like it never happened.”
She paused…then inhaled the entire world.
“And it’s not fair. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom. My whole life, I knew I was meant to have children. Then, when I was 18—18!—the doctor told me I’d never have children. My ovaries were damaged, or missing...it doesn’t matter which. I kept it a secret, and when my husband found out, he left me. I’m alone, my body doesn’t work, I’m old…who will ever love me…”
I wondered if she could hear my heart breaking.
“…so, I guess I get upset when I see people who can get pregnant, who can have kids, who’s bodies work…who can be moms…and they just choose not to…”
Sometimes, there’s nothing to “disagree” with.
I didn’t need to be right.
I just needed to be there.
She wiped away a few tears, gave me a hug, and thanked me for listening.
She exhaled, and walked [away].
Maybe one day, she’ll hear my story. But today, it was my turn to hear hers.
I hope she felt loved.
When we love, we break through the divisive, defensive veneer and we touch the real; we taste the Kingdom of God, where we belong to God and we belong to each other. We bear witness that God is constantly moving things from death to life, from despair to hope, from isolation to connection.
But it isn’t about trying to love, making yourself love, or feeling badly for how badly you love – that just makes you into a two-dimensional role, a success or a failure.
Loving is about being fully a person: loved, and made to share love. It is joining in what God is already doing.
So because love is forgiving I can forgive.
Bcause love is kind I can risk kindness.
Because love is patient I can stop, and see you, and take a breath, and be patient with myself.
And when I keep a record of wrongs, when I am arrogant or filled with envy – that very fact drives me back towards love, which tells me, promises me, that these things fade away and love remains.
Our imperfect love doesn’t mean love isn’t real – instead it shows how real love is.
So dimly we see, so faintly we taste! – but it is enough to tell us there is so much more!
The faith is that love endures, the hope is that love remains.
So we can can say I love, forgive me my selfishness, I love, free me from my envy and my arrogance, I love, heal me of my hatred and my jealousy. I love, I love, I love!
These things have no place in love, and yet love has a place in me, claims me, clings to me, and I love, even with these things staring me in the face, I love. I can love because I am loved- I can love, can dip my toe in and dive in with all my unlove because there is love, because it doesn’t depend on me or come from me; it holds me and fills me and draws me in deeper and braver.
This is how God made it to work, made us to work. Underneath all the fear and distrust, below the noise and the competition, behind all the various gifts and contributions and identities, within all the different experiences and beliefs and stories, are unique persons, all connected, each completely ourselves.
The Body of Christ is the alternative community that embodies this reality.
And what makes it possible, what fills it, and heals it, and fuels it, and spreads it, is love - our origin and destiny; everlasting and unbreakable, fearless, selfless, believes all, hopes all, endures all, LOVE.
So let’s live it.