In grade school, I was part of a brief study on the meaning of love. My third grade class was interviewed, a few at a time, on the meaning of love. I thought I knew what it was until I tried to articulate an answer. “It’s when you like someone very much.” Even as I said it, I felt flustered, unsure. Somehow I knew those words came up short. But I also knew that I didn’t really know what love was.
As Christians, we are committed to love. It’s our watchword. It’s our definition of God. Our highest human ideal. Yet, in church, the practice of love often falls short. As leaders, we draw the circle of concern close enough so that our sermons, prayers and conversations don’t stray into areas that might evoke feelings other than compassion and care.
But what good is love if we aren’t called to exercise it?
Sure, we’re good at praying for the old and ill. We intentionally feed the hungry in our communities. We respond with killer generosity to victims of natural disaster. Those are all important.
But what about when love stretches us into terrain where disagreement crops up? Where we feel afraid or unsafe? How do we exercise love then?
I encountered it everywhere this week. One leader I coach came away deeply unsettled from a meeting with a denominational board that tried to anticipate future rulings on leadership and human sexuality. Later that week, I attended a small, local prayer vigil for immigrants, refugees and Muslims. It was for the community, but was overwhelmingly attended by clergy from a variety of denominations. Still later, I attended a gathering of citizens who aimed to transcend fear and exclusion by actively engaging the democratic process. My takeaway from all this? As leaders, we care deeply about the issues before us, but we’re not always sure how to engage or empower those we lead.
I get it. These are not easy topics. But they are important. Especially for us Christian leaders. They rightly engage our deepest values, and our deepest fears.
Paul wrote that God has given us not a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-control. With that spirit, Jesus counsels us to “Love those who hate you and do good to those who persecute you.” This isn’t the kind of love I was familiar with as a grade-schooler. It still takes more heart muscle than I can easily muster.
I’m not alone. We live in a time of increasing angst. Tempers are short. Insecurity is high. Outrage is the new norm. It seems like anything can happen.
Friends, this is our time! It’s our time to demonstrate courageous love. In order for us to love in the midst of angst, we need practice. This won’t be easy. But it’s definitely do-able. Here are specific ways to develop our capacity to love.
Love of God
- Begin by creating time in worship for people to directly experience and receive the love of God. Invite folks to sit quietly in worship for a few minutes of guided or silent meditation. Follow it up with a ritual of candle-lighting or reaffirmation of baptism. Enhance the power of this experience by reminding folks that God’s love is not dependent on their good behavior, self-evaluation, being perfect or any other quality. They don’t even need to be loveable. They are loved simply because they are creations of God, made in the divine image. Jesus’ own love of us reaffirms this.
- Next, lead people in expressing their love and appreciation back to God. Giving thanks for the smallest blessings to the largest ones increases one’s spiritual and emotional resilience. Every week invite people to share 3 things they’re grateful for with a person sitting close by. Or invite people to write a gratitude list that can be added to the offering plate. This expands our connections, raises the vibration of worship, and heightens our appreciation of life.
Love of Self
- Doom, gloom, and critical self-talk is the default position of our brains. This makes its way to our hearts and gets expressed in our behavior. Being hard on ourselves ultimately means we are hard on others. Help your people practice affirming themselves. This is not selfish or self-centered. This is sanity. It leads to calmer people who have an overflow of love to share with others.
Love of Enemies and Persecutors
- Having cultivated emotional resilience and a reservoir of love, guide your people in sending intentional love to those around them. This works for people near and far. They don’t have to like them, agree with them, or approve of them. They don’t need to be loveable by them. But offering love to others in prayer—enemies and persecutors included—shifts the heart and embodies Christ. It makes new conversations possible.
- Guide your people in how to speak from love when interacting with enemies and persecutors. Reacting from fear, hate, outrage, vitriol, or fear only sets up a chain reaction. Encourage them to refuse to demonize others. Counsel them to look for the best in other people, and grant them the dignity due fellow human beings.
From this place of intentional love, lead your people to take actions on behalf of those the world does not love. Grounded in love, you will be able to keep your cool in the midst of angst.
More than anything, love invites us to step into the gap between fear and faith. Continue to cast a Kingdom vision of the Beloved Community, of the reign and realm of God. Don’t abandon it because it might be uncomfortable, inconvenient, or controversial. Instead, lift it up because deep down it’s what we all yearn for. In the end, it’s all we have to offer.