Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Whose Love Shapes You?

This week, I’m thinking a lot about whose love and sacrifice has shaped me--and still shapes me, even though many of these people are no longer alive. For the nature of love is that it survives death. Love never dies. People do. Love lives on and continues to ripple through our lives, such that we touch others.

And because it is holy week, I am reflecting on how the love of Jesus shapes people like me who don’t profess mainstream Christianity and yet find deep meaning in our understanding of Jesus, though often more with the pre-Easter Jesus than the post-Easter Jesus.

Whose love has shaped you? Whose love continues to shape who you are and what you are called to? 

I had a grandfather who didn’t amount to much in the eyes of the world. My maternal grandfather was a mortician and assistant funeral director for most of his life. He served in the navy but never learned to swim--he was lucky to have been posted at San Francisco as a pharmacist during World War II. My grandfather had so little in his 60s, he got a job as a safety deposit clerk at a local bank. 

My other grandfather was a professor of psychology and became the dean of the graduate school at Yale. World War II prevented him from pursuing his Rhodes scholarship. Instead he invented a form of anti-radar shield for aircraft. He had a larger than life persona. He died at age 52 of cancer, when I was 4 years old. 

I know I have been shaped by both my grandfathers. My grandfather Carlson had a gift of listening to people, laughing with others, and finding contentment with simple joys. Family was always first. I knew firsthand his deep love.

My grandfather Taylor valued education and leadership to change the world. He gathered the leading psychologists of his generation. He valued institutional influence and, if he had lived, likely would have been an Ivy League university president. He was so engaged with his career, his children did not know him well. 

Both of my grandfathers were men who cared deeply, in different ways, for different aims. One for the direct support of others and the enjoyment of simple gifts, and the other for the betterment of the world through institutional influence. Both sought the well-being of others. 

I continue to be shaped by my grandpa Carlson’s laughter and emotional presence. I continue to be shaped by my grandfather Taylor’s drive to develop institutions to make a difference in the world. When I think about resurrection, I believe both of them, through their unique form of caring, shape who I am.

But there is a dynamic form of love that also shapes me that is not of my grandparents, family members, or the various mentors who guided my way.

Because this week is holy week, I am also thinking about how the love of Jesus touches  my life. For years, Jesus was foreign to me. Perhaps because I grew up in a non-religious, almost anti-church that gathered not for “worship” but for “Sunday services.” When I was growing up, it seemed to me that God and prayer were never mentioned except in contempt or jest. Yet I found a longing for such a framework, so much so, I ended up majoring in religion.

But I didn’t encounter a compelling figure in Jesus until my first semester of seminary, in a class on Howard Thurman, the African American theologian who founded the first interracial, interdenominational church, The Fellowship of All Peoples, in the United States. He also served as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University. 

I will never forget reading Jesus and the Disinherited. I hadn’t realized that Jesus was a Jew, a poor Jew, among an oppressed people, second class citizens with little influence in worldly affairs, that often suffered persecution. His religious vision spoke to people who had their backs up against the wall, people for whom nothing was certain in life, except that someday they would die. Any person, he taught, no matter their social standing, no matter their riches, no matter their health, any person can walk in the paths of love and fairness and forgiveness, and thus each and every person has the capacity to bring light to the world. And more than that, each person cultivates a personal integrity when walking these paths, an integrity, a dignity, that cannot be taken away, even in death. 

Thanks to Thurman, I discovered the Jesus that called upon people to secure the keys to their own dignity and to come into community with others who committed to walk their shared path together. And just how easy it is to succumb to anger and what Thurman calls the hounds of hell: fear, hatred, and deception. I love Thurman’s work on black spirituals. The Jesus that slaves sang about is a Jesus that, ironically, comes alive for me. 

However, it is primarily the pre-Easter Jesus that Thurman evokes for me. The teacher, the exemplar, the prophet who challenged the domination system of his day, the religious ecstatic, the healer. 

For me the love that survived Jesus by touching people who followed him and wrote about him continues to influence many today. For me, this is what the resurrection is about. The love that never dies. 

I so appreciate the portrait of Jesus provided by Marcus Borg in his bestselling book of 20 years ago entitled, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. One passage caught me and still catches me: 
“[I]t is only when we appreciate … Jesus’ emphasis on compassion that we realize how radical his message and vision were. For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community. To put it boldly: compassion for Jesus was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated instead what might be called a politics of compassion. This conflict and this social vision continue to have striking implications for the life of the church today.”

As Easter comes among us, I lift up the love that shapes us, whether that comes from people we have known, spiritual teachers like Jesus, or extraordinary individuals who changed the world by acting on love including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. 

Whose love shapes you? Whose love has rippled into your life?

There is love shared by people known and unknown throughout the ages that ripple through the lives of others, calling us to love--and love with courage. May you experience the rebirth of such love this Easter Season.

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