Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Love, Actually is, All Around . . .

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

Scripture asserts that there is nothing more important than love. But what is love? What does it mean to love someone? Can it be defined? Is it a feeling or an action?

The movie, Love Actually (2003), explains this concept very well. Here is Hugh Grant’s opening monologue. “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed. I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the twin towers none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually is, all around.”

Every Christmas I watch this movie, and always find something new of note. I watched it again last night, and edited my annual post on this. A number of characters’ lives are woven together in seemingly separate stories to define the full meaning of love.

David is the newly elected British Prime Minister. He falls in love with Natalie—a “plump,” average looking girl from the “dodgy” end of Wadsworth. Message: Love transcends positions of power, stature, or social class.

Daniel is a man who has just lost his wife to cancer. She had a 10-year-old son, Sam, from a previous marriage. During the movie Daniel and Sam grow closer than any father and son could. Message: Love is greater than the biology of family (ask anyone who’s adopted).

Sam, on the other hand, has a huge crush on Joanna—a girl at school with the same name as his mom. He does everything to get this girls attention, including learning to play drums. Message: True love knows no age. Even a crush is love. No one is immune from the “total agony” of falling in love.

Sarah is an interesting character. For two years she has had a crush on Karl, the “enigmatic chief designer” at the ad agency. He is interested in her, but she has a problem—her brother is in a mental institution and calls her day and night. She has no time for romance. In the end, she picks her brother. Message: Love as loyalty is sometimes greater than love as romance.

Harry is Sarah’s boss at the office. He is married to Karen, and has two children. They’re just an average suburban family. But Mia, his sexy secretary wants him! She plots ways to seduce him. He buys her an expensive necklace, but his wife finds out. She feels betrayed, hurt, and angry, but in the end she chooses to stay with him and be a loyal mother and wife. Message: Love is greater than seduction—loyalty is love as well.

The next character is Jamie—a writer who finds himself “alone again” in a cottage in the south of France. The housekeeper is a Portuguese girl named Aurelia. She can’t speak a word of English, he can’t speak any Portuguese, and neither of them can speak French! And yet they fall in love without ever communicating a single word. Message: Love is ineffable—it transcends language.

Billy Mac is a hilarious character. He is an ex-heroin addict pop star trying to make a comeback. On Christmas Eve he shows up at his manager’s apartment and confesses that he’s the “love of his life.” Message: Men can love each other and not be homosexual. That’s something our culture isn’t real comfortable with because people don’t see friendship as true love—but it is.

Jack and Judy are body doubles in the adult film industry. They meet on the set and then film several sex scenes completely naked. This is, oddly enough, “just work” for them. Then, close to the end, Jack walks Judy home, and as he leaves, she softly and shyly kisses him. He jumps down the icy stairs in joy. Message: Love is greater than sex. Sex is not always love, and sometimes love involves no sex.

Lastly, Mark is in love with Juliet, his best friend’s wife. Mark suppresses his feelings for her by giving her the cold shoulder. He calls this “a self-preservation thing.” Eventually she finds out, and after he confesses that he will love her forever, he walks away and says, “Enough. Enough now.” Can you love someone you can never be with? Yes. Message: Love, however strong, sometimes has to be unrequited.

Love has so many facets, so many twists and turns, so many pathways. It’s like John Lennon said, “All you need is love.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

“The Word Became Flesh": Christmas and Sacramentality

During my final seminar at seminary a few years ago, the professor went around the table and asked each of us to state our theology in a single word. (This was a more succinct form of the “stand on one leg” test) Taken aback by being put on the spot, I mumbled something about Barth, to which the professor replied, “You don’t believe that at all—that’s not you!” Slightly embarrassed, it did give me pause for thought, and began a process of questioning and winnowing down everything I thought I believed. Today, my one-word answer would be “incarnational” or perhaps “sacramental” might be a better way to phrase it. What do I mean?

There are certain ineffable actions that surpass words. A kiss, for example, is a physical act that communicates things that are impossible to fully put into words. The most important things in life are difficult to put into words. That’s why we have poets—to explore and probe the borders of language, and to create new metaphorical possibilities. If you have a wonderful experience—seeing a sunset, falling in love, hearing a symphony—whatever it is, you very quickly run out of adjectives to describe what happened. Words alone make us feel empty. The sacraments are like that. They are actions that communicate beyond words. Unfortunately, post-enlightenment rationalism still infects much of Christianity to the point where we think that reality is an intellectual formula. We think that reality lies in words, when, in fact, the New Testament shows that it works the other way: “The Word became flesh.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1

That is what Advent and Christmas is all about. The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the season is on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of his return. Advent is far more than simply marking a 2000-year-old event in history; it is celebrating the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation will be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. We affirm that Christ has come in the flesh, that he is present in the world today through his church, and that he will come again in power. Advent is characterized by a spirit of expectation, anticipation, and longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world. We hope that God, who sometimes seems distant, will rule over all His creation in truth and righteousness. It is that hope that once anticipated the coming of the anointed one—the Messiah. That same spirit now longs for his return to come and set the world aright!

Over the past four weeks we have remembered that God’s people once cried out in oppression and anguish, “How long O Lord?” The answer is that God has always been the Holy One in the midst of sinful people. The desire of His heart has always been to dwell with us. And then, when we least expected it, under the boot of oppression, in a night without light, came THE Light; in a world without hope, eternal hope was born; in the midst of despair, we heard the singing of angels. As we now celebrate Christmas, look past the hustle, the gaudy tinsel, and the crass commercialization. Remember that Israel’s prayer was answered that night so long ago in small Bethlehem, and our prayer remains the same: “Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!”

But there is something far deeper to those Christmas thoughts. I have been pondering this all week. I have a habit of posting one thought from worship every Sunday on Facebook. Last Sunday I noted the following, “The anticipation of Advent ought to imbue the church with a sacramental understanding of the incarnation. There can be no true spirituality without sacramentality.” What does that mean? What is “sacramentality”?

It means that all reality is potentially the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s saving activity on humanity’s behalf. This principle is rooted in the nature of a sacrament as a visible sign and instrument of the invisible presence and activity of God. 

Christianity sees in Christ the full embodiment of God. Since God became human, then God is seen, touched, and heard in the context of human living. “He is the Image of the invisible God.” This is the principle of sacramentality. The church celebrates certain rituals (primarily baptism and communion) that make the saving presence of God tangible. They are moments of encounter with God that deeply affect our lives. Christ is present, LITERALLY, in baptism and communion. What we celebrate during Christmas is a tiny preface to this ongoing reality.

Most Evangelical Christians do no think in these terms, and it certainly does not describe my own church heritage. Leaving baptism aside for a separate discussion, I was raised in a tradition that eschewed any “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It was done “in remembrance” of Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s remembrance ONLY. Anything beyond this radical Zwinglian understanding was deemed “too Catholic.” I currently attend a church where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month. While many of us would like to celebrate it weekly, that too has been deemed “too Catholic.” Both churches sadly miss the point. Christianity affirms that God became human in the person of Christ, that we are receptacles of the Spirit, that the church collectively is the body of Christ on earth, and that Christ’s presence is mediated to us through real and tangible elements. Much of Christianity has become, in a sense, too spiritual. The obsession with spirituality that is disconnected from physical reality, and the preaching of salvation as a plan to escape this world is, at best, a reversal of what Christianity has always taught, and, at worst, a return to some early heresies!

But sacramentality embraces more than sacred rituals. It also promotes the idea that we live in a sacred world because it has been created by God. For this reason, every tangible element of creation from the natural environment to human persons provides an opportunity to encounter something of God’s presence. Understood in this way, the principle of sacramentality affirms that as we study and explore the human condition, as well as the natural environment, we are actually discovering more about the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis stated this brilliantly: "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Merry Christmas!