Love for love’s sake

ElvisMost of all I love you ’cause you’re you.  Elvis Presley







Bernard of ClairvauxWe are to love God for Himself… nothing is more reasonable; nothing is more profitable. Bernard of Clairvaux





The King of rock and roll and one the greatest medieval preachers.  One wouldn’t think they have much overlap in fundamental messages but when it comes to the nature of love, you’d be wrong.

To love is to desire another. To love rightly is to desire not just what another can give to you.  It is not to love merely how they make you feel.  It is not to seek self-gratification in another.

It is to love them for them.  No more appropriate is this than when we speak of loving God, our first and most important duty, both Old and New Covenant.  Can we love God not only for what He gives to us, though his gifts are many?  Can we love God not for how he enriches us or how he makes us feel?  Can we love God for God?


How Should God Be Loved?

Marc Chagall, The Song of Songs

Marc Chagall, The Song of Songs

I am in the midst of a sermon series through the Song of Songs (which is Solomon’s).  Not in the midst of preaching but in the midst of being under that preaching.  *an advantage of co-pastoring is that one can both preach and receive preaching*

Bernard of Clairvaux, was unmatched in his commentary on Solomon’s Song, and his writings unpacking it are still amazing to read today.  He saw the fundamental question as being, how should God be loved?  He believed that the love between the young lovers of the Song showed the answer – achingly and without any limit.  And why should God be loved? Simply because He is God.

Consider first how God merits to be loved, that there is to be no limit to that love, for he loved us first. Such a one loved us so much and so freely, insignificant as we are and such as we are, that as I said at the beginning, we must love God without measure.

My God, my help, I shall love you as much as I am able for your gift. My love is less than is your due, yet not less than I am able, for if I cannot love you as much as I should, still I cannot love you more than I can.  I shall only be able to love you more when you give me more, although you can never find my love worthy of you.

-On The Song of Songs

“…there is actually no such thing as atheism… Everybody worships…”

David Foster WallaceI’ve been trying to read through Infinite Jest, David’s Foster Wallace’s influential novel.  (I say trying because it’s nearly 1000 pages and, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll make it through.)  The insights he had though, before his tragic suicide, were very important for understanding ourselves and our faith or lack thereof.

Wallace was not a person of faith.  But he many helpful things to say about the nature of faith.  Maybe most importantly, is that he contends that is no such thing as “no faith”.  This may be surprising because we’re hearing about “nones” all the time, those who claim to have no faith or religious beliefs.  We may meet people who say they don’t believe in God or say they are atheist.

But is there really such a thing?  Wallace pushes back on supposed lack of belief.  In an influential commencement address he challenged the grads to look at what they truly worship in their lives.  Far from being godless, we all have ‘gods’ – those things that we choose to place our hope in and worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.  

(spoken at Kenyon College commencement, 2006 – whole thing here)

So everyone worships.  Everyone casts their trust, hope, desire onto something.  The only question is what it is.  In our secular age, some of us may think we’re free but that’s where Wallace’s warning is so important.  If we have no faith (supposedly), what we worship will be undetected by us and we won’t even realize.

I don’t know the state of Wallace’s faith or understanding of God.  The challenge he offers, though, is important for those who have faith or claim no faith.  In a certain sense, we’ve all got faith.  IT’s just a matter of what (or who) we have it in.  We’ll slip into worship of money, power, success, intellect, sex – and we’ll always risk being destroyed by them.  There is an alternative.  To worship some thing that does not destroy but will give us new life.  A True God.

“These are God’s words…”


old hands bibleTraditions for the sake of traditionalism are not what we’re going for in worship.  There are, though, some traditions that bear contemplating upon. Recently, I’ve been using an old call-and-response to the reading of the Bible before I preach.  I read and say: “These are God’s words.”  The congregation is invited to respond: “Thanks be to God.”

The reading of God’s word, while beneficial when done privately, has long been a part of  Christian worship.  When Paul wrote to Timothy, encouraging him to the reading of Scripture, he wasn’t talking about private devotional reading.  And when Scripture is being read, who is it we are listening to?  Is it the preacher?  It may be their voice but the words are from God.  “These are God’s words…”

It is vital to know this because it’s not mere human opinion we’re listening to and being called to respond to.  It is God’s revelation to us.  And the challenge is then placed upon the preacher – their words may follow or be explaining the passage – but they’re not free to give their mere opinions.  They held to explaining, applying, encouraging with, warning by…  what God has first said.

And how do we respond when God’s word has been in our midst?  “Thanks be to God…”   Because that is the correct response to having heard God’s revealing speech.  We have such access to the Bible we can easily forget by such familiarity that we have just heard the Word of the Speaking God!  Where a command has been read – we have been commanded.  Where an encouragement is offered – we have been encouraged.  Where a promise is declared – we have been promised.  Sometimes God’s word cuts us, sometimes it heals us, sometimes there’s comfort, sometimes challenge.  Whatever we may receive, it is from God though and so there is only one response appropriate to such reading.  Thank you.  Thank you because we have just heard from God.

The tradition of the preacher declaring this fact and then the congregation thanking afterwards does not automatically work some kind of magic.  God’s revelation is his revelation whether we appreciate it or not. And traditions gone to mere rote can lose their life.  But we are reinforced by how God’s word is read publicly in the midst of our worship gathering, and by how we respond.  For they are God’s words, not ours, and we are thankful.


How did I know they were a church?

This wasn't the crowd I saw. But it was pretty much the scene, minus guitars.

This wasn’t the crowd I saw. But it was pretty much the scene, minus guitars.

What is it that makes a crowd, a church?  What is it that makes a gathering, church?  What are the signs amongst the people that they are indeed a congregation and not another crowd like a family reunion, neighbourhood get-together, or political rally?  I had opportunity to reflect on this on my last day of vacation.

I’ll set the scene.  My wife, daughters, and I were just finished a week out at the beach.  The rented cabin had been cleared out, the car was packed for the trip home, and we wanted one last trip down to the water before heading back to the city.

Next to our favourite spot there was a larger group of people gathered, 25-30 or so folks.  As we passed them I couldn’t shake a suspicion.  Those people are a church congregation.  Not a family gathering, not a community event, not a political rally, definitely a church.  Many know that a church isn;t the building, and these people were gathering outside at the beach.  Despite 99% certainty I was scratching my head for awhile as to how I knew.  I just knew.  After it was confirmed that they were indeed a church, I was still trying to figure it out my near certain suspicion.

Let me describe them.  There quite a few Filipino people (largest visible minority group in my part of Canada), a few others of Asian descent (Chinese heritage? Korean?), a fair number of black people (some spoke with African accents, some did  not), and white people as well.  There were old people, teenagers, young families with kids.  For a smallish gathering it was remarkably diverse.

That was it, the diversity, that’s how I knew.  Unlikely they were natural family, they must be supernatural family.  The Apostle Paul indicates this diversity as a sign of the Christian people:  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11).  

Now not every congregation will be so diverse, community demographics play a part.  And neither should we demand or require a certain level of ethnic differences for a church to “be a church”.  Nevertheless, the diversity is a sign – a sign of the future reality when those from every tongue, tribe, and nation will be gathered to worship Jesus.  It was also my clue as to that gathering on the beach.

That’s how I suspected but how was my suspicion confirmed?  So simple, and also indicated by Paul’s Colossian description of church.  They started singing.  They sang some hymn I had’t ever heard and they praised God together.  Then one fellow stood up and read the Bible and encouraged the people from it.  Song and word:  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16).



The Danger of the Good

What are we more in danger of?  Idolizing something bad?  Or idolizing something good?  Where does the biggest danger lie for us?

Bronze SerpentThere’s an interesting story in Israel’s history that warns us of the danger of the good when it is lifted up over God.  Hezekiah was a decent king in a long string of mostly crappy ones.  We’re told he made a lot of efforts at reform.  He destroyed many idols of foreign gods but he also destroyed one thing that was once precious and good in the eyes of God.  He [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).  2 Kings 18:4

That bronze serpent was made according to the instructions of God.  Israel had saved it since the time of Moses.  Jesus even positively refers to it.  But in the 1,000 years between Moses and Hezekiah, something had happened.  God’s People had started to worship it as an idol; they had exalted it over God.  So, for the reform-minded Hezekiah, it had to go.

In this we see something important.  It’s not the bad things in our lives (the outright disobediences, the gross sins, the obvious idolatries) that are the sneakiest.  It is the good stuff that is most dangerous.

The Bronze Serpent was what God-had-done-for-us-back-then.  It was something good and should have been held up as something to remind them of God and His goodness.  Instead, valuing the good gift over the Giver, they worshipped it instead.

The good stuff for us (the-last-thing-God-did-for-us, our work, our family, our comfort, our ministry), even these can be lifted up over God and become idols.  The danger not being that they are bad, but precisely that they are so good.

What Do I Love When I Love My God?

There was once a time when theologians were also poets.  It was a time when the way they spoke made you want to believe what they argued for.  Maybe we should try to get that back.  But first we need to go to school with a master…

Augustine by Champaigne (that's his own burning heart he's holding; what does your heart burn for?)

Augustine by Champaigne
(that’s his own burning heart he’s holding; what does your heart burn for?)

What Do I Love When I Love My God?

It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.   St Augustine