It is hard to love God in the abstract. Christians often say that we love what is good and right and true, but I bet very few of us are willing to die for that abstraction. We can say that we love God, but I wonder what that love looks like when we also have to admit in that same breath that we don’t really know the heights or depths or dimensions of God.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the incarnation is that God is not to be found in abstract ideal like goodness or truth, but in the deeply earthy experience of life. We love God in the awe experience of holding a new child. Or when we witness the love of two people genuinely living with and for one another. We encounter God when we see the sort of forgiveness and mercy that recovers broken lives and pays off debts. We see God in the specific and the intimate. Perhaps that is the only way we can see God. As far as I can tell, it only through the earthly, the concrete, and the real that we can ever truly love God.
Last week, Duke Divinity scholar Kate Bowler was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Kate, a was recently given a terminal cancer diagnosis. Her new book explores how her illness has changed her religious life. In an instant, she was forced to begin making decisions for a future that won’t include her. She stopped buying clothes. She began to worry about her husband and son and how to ease them into a life without her. She began to give away her books and to avoid being in pictures of special moments. In a particularly powerful moment of reflection, she wondered how she could begin the process of disappearing in order to make way for a new wife or mother in the lives of her most precious people. She says, “Your love makes you want to imagine worlds for them even if it doesn’t include you.”
What other than love can push us to the loving creation of a world without us? Isn’t that truly the question of the cross?
The title of this blog post is also the title of a Richard Wilbur poem. But Wilbur really got this from St. Augustine who wrote of God, “You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.” This is the tension of Christian life. We want to be apart from the world, abstracted from it, some part of God and goodness. But we can’t know who God is apart from our experience of the world. Without the world we would know nothing of God.
I think this might be why we love Christmas so much in the church. It isn’t really a very important holiday in Christian tradition, but you wouldn’t know it here in the US. There is something deeply moving about Christmas. I think it is because there is a vulnerable child in the manger. The love we offer to our own small ones is the way we love God. And perhaps this lent, we might grow as Christians if we could ask how that love could extend beyond our own children, and our own families. How might we love God by widening our circle of concern?
Ash Wednesday was also the day that 17 of God’s children were killed in Florida by gun violence, the 18th such shooting this year. Suddenly the themes of this partially written blog post; vulnerability, sacrifice, love of children and mortality all came crashing into the news cycle. It forces me to wonder, are we willing to give up our love of guns and our rhetoric of freedom for those children? For our own? Are we willing to see the Christ child in the manager and in our neighborhoods and in our schools?
Am I willing to call my legislators and demand an end to this madness? Am I willing to make this a voting issue months from now? The only way I know how to love is through the concrete and the real actions I take.
What do you love? What does that love call you to do?