Love is Love and Love is More Important than Anything.
A reflection for Ash Wednesday.
Last night my son Christian had trouble falling asleep. It was probably a direct result of an overdose of the three different types of sugar I lolloped on top of his pancakes to mask the fact that they had the consistency of something you’d use to grout a bathtub. Christian’s solution to his temporary insomnia was not unreasonable. He got out of bed and drew a picture.
The message he wrote above the picture is “Love is love and love is more important than anything”.
In these two short sentences Christian, an 8 year old with special educational needs, cuts through all of the unnecessary waffle of 2000 years of Christian theology. Because here’s the thing, if you don’t understand and live by these two sentences; “love is love” and “love is more important than anything” everything else you claim to believe or understand about Christ and His teaching is worthless.
I spent most of yesterday at North London Hospice. This week the majority of my time was spent with the living rather than dying. It was one of those days when the immediate pastoral needs of the staff seemed to outweigh those of the patients. One particularly pertinent conversation reached its apex when a staff member asked me outright “how can you justify working for the church?” At first, I couldn’t answer. We’d been talking about the Cardinal Pell and the atrocities of sexual and spiritual abuse of the most vulnerable that the church's most senior leaders have perpetuated and hidden for generations and I’d admitted that there were times when I was ashamed to wear my dog-collar.
It seems amazing to me that Christ’s message, a message that turned the organised religious belief of its day upside down, a subversive message of inclusion so radical that it was literally LETHAL, has been so domesticated and watered down by the institutional church. We need to structure society. Institutions are unavoidable. But we must always be acutely aware when the self-preserving tendency of institutions is at its most toxic. A very wise soul once said to me be wary of falling in love with institutions as they cannot love you back. Instead institutions protect themselves at all costs and most frequently at the cost of love - and as we see so clearly now often at the cost of the loving protection of their most vulnerable members.
You see, there are big consequences to living by Christ’s message that “love is love” and “nothing is more important than love.” Ultimately, living by these beliefs means laying down our life for love. Nothing, any institution, power, prestige, rights or wealth is more important than love. Second, love is love. Nobody has the right to elevate one person’s love above another’s. While protecting itself at all costs the church has been too quick to seek to control and determine how love is felt and expressed, often suppressing natural God-given consensual adult sexual desire with all its most devastating and distorting consequences.
One thing ministry alongside the dying has taught me is that in the end all that matters is how greatly we have loved. This is what you will be remembered for. It won’t be anything else you have achieved, owned or accomplished. Your love is what you will be remembered for.
Throughout the country today people will have ash smeared on their forehead and told to remember that they are dust and to dust they will return. In other words – you are nothing without God and you will die and return to God. This message is worthless unless it makes us more loving people. Sadly, religion does not always have this effect on people. At its worst bad religion can makes us more fearful of God, each other and our true selves. Which is the beginning of all that causes harm to ourselves and others.
I like to do all I can to subvert the fear inducing effects of religion particularly for people who have previously been the prime targets of the church’s projected self-loathing. Fear and guilt alone will provoke no positive change in anyone’s life without love.
Yes Repent. But repent out of a knowledge of how greatly you are loved. Repent because you know you are loved beyond limit or measure by a force that wants nothing more than your flourishing.
Do not repent because you are frightened of what will happen to you if you don’t as this is not repentance. This is nothing more than the action of a frightened partner who doesn’t stay out late for fear their spouse will beat them up when they get home. Contrary to how God is often characterized (or rather, projected in our own image) God is not an angry or abusive partner, father or mother. God is love. Love is love and love is more important than anything.
Repent to repair a relationship with God that is only broken on your side. There is nothing you have ever done or will ever do that will cause God to abandon or reject you – but there is plenty you and I do every day that blinds us to this very fact.
As the cross of ash is smeared on your forehead remember this cross is the place where Jesus experienced a sense of abandonment by God. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me” This one moment IS the reason I am a Christian and for all my failings as a priest and the failings I bemoan in the institution I represent this is why I remain in the church. In my moments of greatest doubt and unbelief, when I feel most disillusioned with the church, and moreover my own, fatally flawed representation of Christ’s message, this is the moment I return to time and time again. I cannot imagine a more perfect expression of the limitlessness of divine love than Jesus, himself God experiencing our human alienation from God. Because I don’t care who you are, that moment will come for all of us. I pray that it will be fleeting. But for some that sense of abandonment lasts decades.
I met someone yesterday outside the room where his beloved wife of 60 years lay dying. He was in total inconsolable grief. He spoke of feeling furious with God at the first diagnosis – twelve years ago. But now having watched his wife suffer for so long he no longer felt any anger towards God. He said he was now certain God did not exist. There was no longer any reason to be angry with God.
I’ve learnt that there is nothing I can say to such expressions of pain. Other than to silently recognize that these words are the sincerest form of prayer I will ever be so privileged to hear anyone utter. These are words of one crying out from the deepest sense of abandonment a human being can know. They are the very words of Christ on the cross. And yet the greatest tragedy is that all the while Christ is screaming out his unending love for us in the midst of this chaos but our grief deafens us to His cries. Our aching need for God blinds us to the fact that He is already embracing us. We are not lost and we will never be forsaken.
We are loved. We are held by the one who meets us in these times as one who has borne the scars and one who is hanging there with us.
Love is love and love is more important than anything.