“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Christianity in Distress
Christianity is going through hard times. People are leaving the tradition, and they might never come back. It’s not just that our own pews are emptier than ever; churches all across the country are emptying out.
People are leaving the church for complex reasons: (i) because Christianity doesn’t make sense to them, (ii) because the church has grievously wounded their spirits, (iv) because the church doesn’t seem to cultivate real virtue in its congregants, (v) because the media often characterizes us on the basis of our worst selves, and (vii) because people are just really busy.
People are still going to church—some denominations more than others. Evangelical churches are often quite full—and, as such, they should catch our interest rather than envy.
To be sure, church and Christianity are not the same thing: going to church on Sunday doesn’t make one less a Christian. People can find church at home, on the streets, at a comic book shop. Nonetheless, the cultural pilgrimage outside of Christianity and organized religion is a real phenomenon that is transforming our culture and our intimate spiritual selves.
A theme in my preaching to date
Church decline and religious woundedness has been a major theme of my preaching so far. I have made it a theme of my preaching because it interests me from a sociological perspective and [pause …] because it grieves me as a theologian and a pastor. I can think of few worse tragedies than to hear that someone’s soul was abused by a priest, a pastor, or a congregation. Or than to hear that Christianity—a religion that, in its heart, should be committed to nothing besides an undying love for a wounded world through the power of God’s grace and unconditional love—has become a den of cultural dupes, dictators, and thieves.
I want churches to be full because I believe they can be place of fullness. Places where people are imbued with God’s love to go out into the world and be more loving. Places where people find real hope and real joy and real faith.
I don’t really care about church numbers. That’s not what really matters to me. And I know that’s not what really matters to us. Love is what really matters. Healing is what really matters. What really matters is learning how to love and heal the world together. That is why we gather. It’s why we’re here—not just right now, in this church, but on this earth. We are born with a purpose and that purpose is love. For a Christian, love is the stubborn, unforgettable mark of human beings.
What I want to say, today, really, is just one thing: be where God is loving you. Open your heart to the places and people and things that bring you fully to life.
The point of saying this one thing is, in the end, meant to do something special—something which I actually have no power to do: help carry you—gently, in a secure boat and despite troubled waters—to the sacred shore inside of you – where you can interact with the living God who loves you and will never leave you or fail you and who desires nothing more than for you to become more fully alive.
The proposition: Be where God is loving you
Be where God is loving you. Why does saying that matter?
It matters because love is where God is. Going where God loves you is not the right thing to do because it is a banal religious demand—because it’s just the Christian thing to do or the whatever thing to do that you must do because people just do it. Being where God is loving you is the right thing to do because that is where you will become more fully alive. Being more fully alive is what God wants for you. God wants you to be more fully alive because nothing brings Her greater glory—she cherishes your happiness—your smile, the warmth in your heart, your service to the world.
Being where God is loving you is also the best way we can be lovers of this hurting world. What I am suggesting is that the best way to be a friend with a capital F is to be in the places that bring you to life. That means loving what you love and—and this is very critical—loving what truly loves you. Being a Friend means Loving what makes you most loving.
Love what you love—love the love that makes you most loving. Loving what loves you is the most Christian thing you can do; it is how you can become a better Friend and a better human. It is how to love God with all of your heart, mind, and soul—and love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t love to grow our church but it will be by truly loving—and embodying the banners of hope, joy, and faith that surround us—that our church will be able to grow. Indeed, that our church will be deserving of growth.
Howard Thurman, the too little-known theologian and minister to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Jessie Jackson, put it this way: “Do not ask what the world needs—ask what makes you most alive. Because what the world really needs is people who are fully alive.”
Loving our Tradition (the richness of Christianity)
I said last week that I’d speak less to create more silence. Forgive me going back on that somewhat. We’ll still have time for silence but there’s something I felt compelled by God to share.
And that is this: there are priceless gems and riches in the Christian tradition.
The Christian tradition can be a place of embarrassment: we are all painfully aware of the Crusades, the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, and the various contemporary ways Christianity has been co-opted to breed hate rather than love.
It is easy to be seduced by Christianity’s dark side, but it is important to remember that we have great treasures in our tradition—treasures that are still being discovered and which can nourish our relationship with God and each other. That’s what makes them treasures. The Christian tradition is rich with this wonder. What I am suggesting here is that we can love our tradition and, indeed, that we should be students of the love that is overflowing within our tradition.
Since its inception, the Christian tradition has been grappling with the question of how to love you, not just how to love God. It has fallen of course, yes, but that has been its heart. In its heart, Christianity has never been a question about how to bow down to a creed or doctrine. That is idolatry—a perversion of faith. In its heart, authentic Christianity is a question about how to help people lead richer and more full and meaningful lives.
In what remains of this talk, I will make two simple points. First, our tradition is a tradition of love warriors. Love warriors have imbued our tradition with love. They have made Christianity a place where God can love us. Through the power of grace, a love warrior is one who loves beautifully and well in the face of serious challenge and great suffering. She does not fight with swords and pistols. A love warrior fights with love, not bombs. That may sound cliché but it isn’t. There are brutal wars going on. Hatred is gnawing at the souls of billions of people on our earth right in this very moment. World leaders have enough weapons to destroy the earth thousands of times over. The world is suffering in profound and mind-bending ways. People go to bed without food, without water, without a place to feel safe. People go to sleep tormented in their dreams because of the trauma controlling their lives. These are things that call people into non-violent battles for love and peace.
A love warrior is energized by her direct and unmediated relationship with God. She may not encounter or understand God in the same way; throughout time and place the method God uses to encounter people is varies considerable. It might be silence that God touches you with love—like me, it could be in what seems like the polar opposite of silence: in the loud, crushing sound of a busy city street corner. Nonetheless—and this point is crucial to what I am fumbling around, trying to say—your personal experience of God’s love, which is the result of being where God is loving you, is your energy and your blood when it comes to learning how to love yourself and God and this world. It is what makes your heart humble; it is what helps you sow joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
The second point I want to make is this: we must be students of the love warriors that have come before us. To the places where God has loved people and helped them become more alive. We should pay attention to how God has wooed others with Her love; we should learn how other Christians throughout space and time have fallen in love with God.
Let’s be mindful, though. Christianity is not the only place where love warriors are—not the only place we can find resources that stir us to become more fully alive and in love with the world. Love warriors are everywhere: in every neighborhood, in every country, in every religion. They are ordinary. They are the people you honk at because they drive too slow; they are people begging for spare change—people mistakenly label “drug addict.” The world, not just the Christian faith, is rich with love warriors.
I get the idea of “love warrior” from the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. In her book, The Places that Scare You, Chödrön describes “compassion warriors” as women and men who do not kill or harm but are
“warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are women and men who are willing to train in the middle of fire. Training in the middle of fire can mean that people can enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to [learn practices and techniques] to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic undistorted energy.”.
Some of our love warriors
Here, in brief, I want to share three people who have filled the Christian tradition with love, who we can become students of. They are just examples.
Origen of Alexandria was born in the year 185. He is one of the first and most important Christian theologians. Imprisoned and tortured for his faith, Origen was also a Christian martyr. Origen lived during the collapse of the Roman Empire. His age was marked by “imperial murders, civil wars, and their disastrous consequences in social and economic life. Plague and famine, together with barbarian invasions, complete the picture” [of his time.] In Origen’s age, hope had basically died. People were overcome by their material and spiritual poverty. They drank death, not life. Origen saw “Christian hope not as an alternative to the Roman world, but as the catalyst that could rescue and transform what was best in it. His theology was an attempt to translate the Gospel into a language intelligible to the [non-Christian].” Origen encountered God’s love most directly in Scripture. That is where he found the power to write and minister to a culture that been overcome by despair and hopelessness. Origen found Scripture so beautiful and moving that it wounded him with a desire that motivated him to pursue God. Here is how he wrote of the experience of encountering God in Scripture:
“But the person who bears the image of the heavenly according to the inner man is led by a heavenly desire and love (cf. 1 Cor. 15:49). Indeed, the soul is led by a heavenly love and desire when once the beauty and glory of the Word of God has been perceived, he falls in love with His splendor and by this receives from Him some dart and wound of love.”
“I have said that I will love him.
I lie, for I am not.
It is He alone who loves me:
He is, and I am not;
And nothing more is necessary for me
Than what He wills,
And that He is worthy.
He is fullness,
And by this I am impregnated.
This is the divine seed and Loyal Love.”
In the year 1310, on June 1 in Paris, Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake. She died in flames because, in defiance of the church, she wrote and distributed a book entitled The Mirror of Simple Souls. The church had told her to stop speaking about the book, but she refused. The church found it heretical because it suggested that an average person, not a religious or a theologian, could be completely filled with God’s love in this life through spiritual practice. What really mattered, Porete taught, is a person’s relationship to God. She taught that people could trust their interior experience rather than what the church had defined as a moral law to encounter God. Interior experience formed a road to God within her—a road she travelled and a road which God travelled to her. Through personal experience, Porete said that God “annihilated” her with love. Through personal experience she learned how to be a servant of divine love.
Porete was a part of a group of women referred to as “the beguines.” Beguines lived like the early Christian communities: they dedicated their lives to simplicity, chastity, and serving the poor . Often they did their work in cities and made themselves available to townsfolk. The beguine movement offered women freedom from the church (where they could pursue a religious vocation other than being a nun) and from the home (where they could pursue a life other than being a wife); it carved space out of a brutally sexist society. These zones of freedom made the church very nervous and afraid because they could not be controlled. Porete and other beguines were early feminists in defiance of male authority; they were also early pioneers for what would become Quaker spirituality in that they emphasized that people could experience unmediated relationships with the Divine.
Gustavo Gutiérrez is from Lima, Peru. Without question, he is one of the most respected theologians of our time. Gutiérrez helped start what is known as liberation theology. Liberation theology developed in response to bad spirituality. For the most part, Gutiérrez saw that spirituality had come to be about people finding their own jollies. It was too individualistic, he thought. It taught people to be too attentive to their own desires rather than the desires of others. He also found contemporary spirituality a problem because it made people more attentive to another world rather than this one: it made people concerned with heaven rather than the reality happening on this earth, that is. That kind of attentiveness, he taught, created suffering on earth—and suffering especially for the poor. It is what allowed us to ignore the cry of the poor and fight against the things enslaving their bodies and spirits.
Gutiérrez taught that the spirituality of our time must be grounded in an experience with the poor. Indeed, to work with the poor, and by this I mean work for their liberation and capacity to become more free to love, is to encounter Jesus. To be with the poor and attend to the wounds they experience from poverty is to fall in love with Christ. He found God in the poor. The poor were his teachers when it came to the question of how to love and become more fully alive.
I too am a love warrior.
I have come to believe that I too am a love warrior. I need to own that about myself. To claim it. I love in the face of great suffering—suffering from the wounds I still experience from a terribly abusive childhood. Suffering from a culture that makes it easy for me to being seduced by despair.
I encounter God in nature. In Peaceful Valley. That is where the cool wind of love brushes over me. It is where God kindles the candle that burns in my soul. It happens when I am sitting with my beloved, Veronika, and our pets. When I am watching the water slowly go by.
It also happens here. This past week I came in the church before an elder’s meeting. I spent time in the quiet and asked God to speak to my heart. As I did, I imagined each of you sitting in your regular spots. As I thought of each of you, I was inundated with love. How wonderful you are. How beautiful you are. What amazing insights you have. What good work you do. I then went into an elder’s meeting and marveled at how smart, wise, and compassionate our elders are. How deeply everyone wants to serve you and meet your spiritual needs.
As Origen put it, you became like darts or wounds of love – people who helped me be where God is loving me to become more fully alive and in love with this hurting, beautiful world.
I cannot thank you enough for this most precious gift …
Queries: Everyone here is a love warrior
I believe everyone here is a love warrior. We all struggle to love and love well in the face of great suffering and challenge.
I now want to enter into a space where we can reflect on where we are experiencing God’s love in our lives.
Today’s query is a simple one: Where is God loving you?
Is God loving you in nature, in scripture, in spiritual practice, in working with the poor?
I also encourage you to reflect on how God might be inviting you to grow in that love. How might you become a student of the places where God is loving you? Is there a specific practice, for example, that God might be inviting you to do as you consider becoming a student of what God is doing to love you?
If you feel led to share how God is loving you, friends, please do so. We all need to hear how God is loving us, each in our own ways.
This message was given by Paul Blankenship at Spokane Friends Meeting on Sunday, July 21, 2019
 Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996) __.
 Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You: A Guide To Fearlessness in Difficult Time (Boston: Shambala, 2002), 5-6.
 Origen, translation and introduction by Rowan Greer, (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 1.
 Ibid., 223.
 Ibid., 2.
 Margarete Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 201.
 Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 12-14.