Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Loving and Being Countercultural

We have songbirds in the backyard this spring. I saw a pair of cardinals on the gutter, staying only briefly, though later from a more concealed place in our yard I heard them. They and a few other birds I can't identify sing regularly now, and when everything else is quiet I hear them and am arrested.

Hearing them is the point. It occurs to me that birds offer their music unself- consciously (being birds, after all,) and it is up to the listener to stop awhile and be led to the source of the sound: the cardinal, the warbler, the mourning dove, and then to the ultimate source, the Creator himself. To be aware of creation is to fix upon the details, at least that's how it seems to me. To notice variety within a species, variations within a birdsong, colors that mute and conceal or broadcast and parade, feathers that allow wind to lift them and soft down than stays close and warms, all of these distinctions are what lead me to marvel at an intelligence much, much vaster than my own.

We are not, I often think, much good as a culture at admiring distinctions within our own species, particularly if what is different about another is thought to be bad, or underdeveloped, or unenlightened, irritating or frightening. To love one another as other, the definition of love, is hard enough when the people we know are nonthreatening, or appealing in some way. When we truly differ, to love is almost an act of rebellion.

I do not admire all the people I try to love, any more than I admire every bird that dances across my roof or pecks underneath the shrubs. I love the birds that sing and sit with graceful poise and don't try to evict smaller birds from their nests. And I don't feel especially called to love all birds simply because the good God made them, though to protect them and allow them their natural freedom, provided it doesn't upset another species, seems to be called for.

To love other people as other, that is a special calling. It is more than admiration, or contentment or even being moved by some beauty the other posesses. And it doesn't rely on liking or feeling anything much at all other than the awareness that someone is other. It is to will when something deep down says not to, the good that another deserves because they are other, and as other, they are precisely who God made them to be. God gave us variety among ourselves, so much so, that if we come close to finding another person similar to who we imagine ourselves to be, we risk not loving that person at all, but rather  an imitation of ourselves. Differences are what call for love, for the will to overcome dislike or anger or annoyance, or any other barrier to easy acceptance.

We are not static beings, set in a permanent mold that prevents us from growing and changing, from becoming holy. So the differences that call forth our love might not be permament traits, but more in the nature of bad habits, some deeply ingrained, others less so. Sinfulness of a more entrenched kind calls for more love, not less. So to acknowledge that God created each one of us as a unique individual is not to reduce that uniqueness to a moment's action, or a slip of the tongue, or a thoughtless word. But those actions still do stem from a history, a history unique to each individual, and they reflect perhaps deeper differences that will endure throughout the movement toward holiness. When we love someone as other we are loving them even as they are caught in a pattern of sinfulness from which they might at any time be freed, or not. We can't know. Sometimes a peson will say of another, "Oh don't be alarmed by that comment, that wasn't the real Henry speaking." But of course that was the real Henry speaking in that moment, even if he spoke in a way that he didn't often allow himself to do. Something about Henry was present that endures and may be hard to distinguish from the sinful ways of being that Henry is trying to abandon.The otherness of another is manifest in speech and actions that change subtly over time, and may be hard to calculate.

But love's job is for one person  to accept another person as other and will his or her good, however that good needs to be worked into the nuances of everyday living.

It is the call of holiness, to love, and it is much harder than loving songbirds and being led to reflect on the creator of the universe by their enchanting music. Still,  birds do in their way remind us of variety, and distinction, and if we are aware , they lead us to ponder the marvellous differences among human beings. It is all a matter of stopping to listen, and watch.

 It takes some effort to stop and think about people as other, and not  simply to react to them when they clutter our own path. And of course it requires divine assistance. I don't think I have ever truly loved another except as the result of grace.

The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it,the world, and those who live in it; (Psalm 24:1)

The earth is the Lord's, and I know that my own way forward toward holiness is to love the people God has put in my way. I will fail, probably often, but it is the only way I know that has any meaning. So with the assistance of the One who is love itself, I will slowly try to love, sometimes against all reason, but surely in the end it will be worthwhile.

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