When love gets messy

June 24th, 2020

Love is powerful. And complicated. And messy.

In the British crime series River, Detective John River puts it this way:

“There should be more than one word for love. I’ve seen love that kills, and I’ve seen love that redeems. I’ve seen love that believes in the guilty, and love that saves the bereaved. What we will do for love. Die for it even.”

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry famously preaches that love is the only power that will heal and transform our troubled world. And tellingly, he urges us not to grow discouraged. That’s because he is both wise and honest. He has experienced for himself what Jesus taught long ago. Love is powerful, and complicated, and messy.

Love is the way. It is the only way. But if you insist on a quick fix that will show immediate results, you’ll give up on this love business in a heartbeat.

This is why Jesus included what seems to be an incongruous lesson in his love curriculum. He says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Love, real love, risks telling hard truths. Risks using a sword. Facing hard truths will set us all free. But before truth sets us free, it’s going to make a mess. Jesus warns that even families will turn on one another. Parents against children. Children against parents. Siblings against each other.

And yet, like it or not, love propels us at this very moment in our common life to tell hard truths.

I write these words on Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865 the state of Texas declared that all slaves were free. Please note the date. The Civil War had ended in April of the same year. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by Abraham Lincoln over two years earlier.

So, strictly speaking, Juneteenth marks delayed emancipation. In 1865. And in 2020. My friend Lady Carlson of Louisiana Interfaith put it this way on her Facebook page, “I was born in 1951, but have always felt like I was born in 1851.”

The work of emancipation is not over. The work of dismantling structural racism and defeating white supremacy presses on us with fierce urgency. And yet Jesus himself warns us that love meets opposition and, in any individual’s lifetime, is more likely to take us along the way of the cross than to a glorious winner’s platform.

Love’s opposition comes in many forms. Sometimes — and most newsworthy — that opposition takes the form of hatred and violence. What is more common, and thus harder to overcome, are indifference, timidity, ignorance and self-centeredness.

The miracle of love, you see, is that it can make the beloved into one who loves. Being loved can make us lovers. Lovers in the sense that Jesus taught. Loving God with every proton of our being and loving our neighbor as if we shared a common circulatory system.

Loving like this is how you save your life. Paradoxically, you save your life by losing it, Jesus says. You give your life away — again and again — for the good of all. That’s what it means to take up your cross.

And still, even though love’s power is miraculous, it is not magic. It is not instantaneous. Neither does it seem to make much of a dent on some people. That’s why Jesus told his followers to bring peace wherever you go. And if someone doesn’t want to receive that peace, shake the dust from your feet and move on.

My friend Mack McCarter — founder of Community Renewal International — taught me to think of it like this. I’ve had my last argument. I’m going to invite everybody to walk the way of love with me. If they don’t like the way I’m walking, I’m not going to try to convince them that I’m right. I’m just going to keep walking.

Love is powerful. And complicated. And messy. And I’m going to keep walking the way of love, because I believe that, eventually, love wins.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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