There are plenty of people who say that Mother’s Day was a holiday invented by the greeting card companies. And there’s some truth to it. And I think for a long time that I agreed with the general sentiment. But this year, my first Mother’s Day without my mom, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic and sentimental.
For those of us who were raised by good and loving mothers, like I was, there is a great debt of gratitude to Mom. For those of us lucky enough to know loving mothers, we can say that there’s nothing quite like a mother’s love. So, to all the loving moms out there, you have our gratitude for your love. And on Mother’s Day we should shower you with praise and with flowers and greeting cards. But I also think if we’re truly grateful for the love you’ve given and taught to us, we’ll show our best gratitude by loving others.
Now here’s something interesting about being a loving mother and also (like Jesus is talking about in our scripture reading this morning) about being a loving father. The parent who loves you unconditionally, who forgives you endlessly, who accepts you just as you are, and who never gives up on believing in you is also the parent who sets the rules of the house, who enforces those rules, who disciplines and punishes, and who holds high expectations for your own behavior and success in life.
As a father myself, the two phrases that most often come out of my mouth are, “I love you,” and “Stop that.” At first glance, certainly from the childhood perspective, this seems to be an incongruous contradiction. I’m grounded again! Why? Because my mom hates me! We don’t like it when Daddy makes us eat our vegetables! Why can’t you just give me the ice cream and chill out, old man? But as we mature and grow, as we mature and grow in love, when we become parents ourselves, we realize that there is no necessary contradiction between unconditional love and great expectations, and we understand that true and healthy love must be both free and boundaried.
Our 19-month-old son, Romey, loves to be outside. He’s an explorer and he’s fast and he’s sneaky like the dickens. You can’t turn your back on him for a second. The other day he pointed up into the sky at an airplane, I looked up at it for a second, “Yeah, airplane! Very good, honey!” I turned back around—he was gone. He’s goes like a shot. Bonnie and I have found him in the neighbor’s yard, we’ve found him in the street, we’ve found him halfway down the block.
Last weekend we took him to a birthday party in a fenced-in yard. What a difference! It was the most fun the three of us have had outside since he started walking nine months ago. Because there was a fence, we could give him the freedom to be on his own that he desires so much and that he needs. Freedom is important. Boundaries make freedom possible. A strong boundary, in the appropriate place, at the appropriate time is a form of love. “I am giving you these commandments,” said Jesus, “so that you may love one another.”
I had a clergy colleague who started at a new church and quickly realized that she had a real problem congregant in leadership at the church—this man was mean, rigid, controlling, and angry. He was always right. He was extremely judgmental. He yelled at other people, belittled them, and said terrible things about them to their faces, in front of other people, and behind their backs.
If my colleague, his minister, ever called him on it, he could quote her chapter and verse some rule or commandment from somewhere in the Bible that put him in the right and the opposing party in the wrong. This man was big on the rules, but where was the love?
My colleague knew she had to do something. This man was so toxic that he was doing a lot of harm to the community and to the ministry of the church. So, she gathered together the Deacons and the Elders to try to put a plan together to deal with this behavior. Many of those in the room had borne the brunt of this man’s abuse for years. And sitting in the church basement my colleague made an impassioned call for the leadership of the church to stand together, to confront bad behavior, and to set strong boundaries and to impose consequences on those who refused to conduct themselves appropriately.
And when she was done, one of the Senior Deacons, looking very embarrassed said, “But we can’t do that! We’re a church! We’re supposed to welcome everybody!” They had the boundless love of Jesus in their hearts! God bless them! But they had low expectations!
Some people think the Bible is a book all about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: Grace and forgiveness and love that is free and easy and doesn’t cost you a thing, doesn’t transform you, doesn’t lay claim to you or make demands upon your life once it’s received. “God is love and God loves everybody and that’s all I care to know about it.” It’s a lovely looking playground in your backyard, but there’s no fence, no rules, no supervision, and no expectation that anybody is ever going to grow the heck up.
Some people think the Bible is a big book of rules that must be followed to the letter—or else! These folks often fetishize certain of these rules and interpret them in the harshest and most unforgiving manner—like an electric fence that’s keeping all the children out of your yard, rather than safe inside.
Of course, neither of these approaches is right. Instead, the Bible, like anything else that is designed to empower you to grow up healthy and strong, is the story of both boundless love and great expectations at the same time. And so there are rules. And you may quibble with some of those rules, in fact, you may well reject some of scripture’s pronouncements, you may say that this or that rule is not compatible with the rule of love we have been given by Jesus. And that’s a mature Christian’s job, right?
Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.” Jesus’ commandments are not commands of servitude, but the teachings of love. A servant must obey an order, right? But a friend is one who makes a choice. And love must always be chosen, it can’t be forced. Not even God can force us to love her or to love others and have that truly be love.
So, yes, we are free to choose. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is not an aimless freedom. It is a freedom which is guided by love. And precisely because it is guided by love, there are rules and expectations. You will be confronted by these rules regularly. Like driving down the road, you’ll see signs reminding you to slow down or sometimes shouting at you “WRONG WAY.” These rules are the signposts of love designed to save you from yourself and to protect those around you when you in your freedom have lost sight of the guiding principle of love.
All right, Pastor Jeff, that makes sense. Boundless love, acceptance, and forgiveness require boundaries and they bind us to certain expectations. And then these boundaries and expectations must themselves be understood and interpreted by an ethic of love. You can’t have one without the other. We get it. But what we want to know is—what’s God really like? What kind of a heavenly Parent do we have? Who’re we dealing with here? So, tell us, is God a strict parent or is God a lenient parent?
My mom had rules, of course, like every mom does. But as I’ve grieved for my mother these last months and as I’ve processed my relationship to her, the rules (which were so much more prominent and sometimes irksome when I was a child) have faded into the background. From where I stand now, as a son raised, a father raising a son himself, I see the whole story of my relationship to my mother as a story of love. The rules, the fights, the ruptures—these were love’s growing pains.
Similarly, I think the answer to our question is that God isn’t best described as strict or as lenient. God is best described as perfectly loving. And what is love? It’s freedom, and it’s boundaries. Freedom and boundaries working on you in tandem until the time comes when you don’t see any difference between them anymore. True love, God’s love, is a self-limiting freedom.
So, if you’re the kind of person who rolls their eyes at the ten commandments or gets uncomfortable when Jesus starts talking about judgment, instead of skipping that section or blocking your ears, don’t reject it out of hand. Wrestle with it a bit. See if there is perhaps a call within that story that could push you to a greater love. And if you’re the kind of person who uses the law of the Bible and the promise of judgement as a weapon against others or against yourself, if you take pride in your virtue and feel that righteousness is a competition, or if you bury yourself in shame and guilt for your perceived failings, I beg you to recall the metric of love and to evaluate yourself and those around you by that measure. Sometimes love requires us to put up a fence. And that’s hard work. But more often I think it requires us to tear down the walls. And that is hardest work of all.
Nobody said that abiding in love was going to be easy. There is no cheap grace here. No loafing freedom. Love is always a call to action. The Good News should forever be a dynamic tension in our lives—to know that you are boundlessly loved no matter what, and at the very same time to know that that love bestows upon you the burden and the hope of great expectations.
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations