Christian Life/Personal Holiness: June 2009 Archives

1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages commonly read at weddings. It is often perceived as a hymn to love, but if we hold to this perception we do so at our peril. It isn't merely a lecture about the qualities of love. Paul tells us in the preceding verse, "But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way."

What follows then is a way. But how is it a way and what are we to do about it? After a brief prologue in which Paul tells us that without love all is in vain, he launches into a series of verses about the qualities of love--and this is where the going gets difficult. In verse 4a, for example, he tells us that "Love is patient and kind." This seems simple enough. However, if Paul is showing us a way, how are we to act on this? Should we draw patience out of ourselves and attempt to show it in love? What then, we become Pelagians, thinking that we can of our own efforts accomplish what is necessary?

If the verses that make up 1 Corinthians 13 are a way, then we are called to follow it, not merely admire the beautiful language that comprises it. How then do we act on "Love is patient and kind?" Paul doesn't tell us "Be paitent and kind." Instead he gives us a sort of field guide to love--look for these characteristics, and you'll know you've found it, and thus found the way.

We know that the way Paul is describing is love. We also know that Jesus is love. Not coincidentally, the qualities that describe love also describe Jesus. And perhaps this is the solution to Paul's "Best Way." The way of love is the way of Jesus.

Again, that seems simple, but how then does Paul show us this way? Are these guideposts supposed to help us recognize Jesus? Are they calls to change our behaviors? Are they a plea to open ourselves to the transforming power of love and recognize it as more than emotion and desire (although never precluding those two as well) but as a series of actions built on the fragile foundations of desire?

All of human desire is an arrow pointing home. All of our desire, whether we can see it or not is for one thing. Aquinas points out that no one desires what they think is truly bad--they have somehow led themselves into the belief that the evil they desire is, in fact a good. The revolutionary who blows up innocent people is advancing the freedom of his people, and so on. So, if desire is the arrow pointing home, the compass, perhaps what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 is how to read the compass properly. Look at what you love and see if it meets all of these standards, and if not, then it is not fully what you desire, but perhaps another signpost on to something that better fits the description. Smaller loves gradually point the way to the Greater Love, just as rivulets run into streams, rivers, and the vast ocean.

If desire is the compass, there can be no question that humankind goes out of its way to deconstruct the compass and make all directions the direction home--and therefore none of them are. But, perhaps, a proper reading of St. Paul will give us an indication of true north and point us the way of proper love. We can't achieve it by ourselves, but we can desire it, pray for it, and be prepared to recognize it when it comes knocking at the front door.

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The Gift That Keeps on Giving


Sam often comes to me and asks what he can buy me as a gift. It's a hard question because I want to encourage the giving impulse, but at the same time, with Linda and Sam, what more do I need? Is there any possibility of having anything whatsoever nearly so valuable and so joy-inducing.

Obviously not.

This thought occurred to me while in Morning Prayer. If I feel this way, how much more so must God feel.

"But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks
or thousands of fat lambs,
so let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly."

God tells us in scripture that He has no need of rams and bullocks. Our greatest sacrifice is ourselves, given unreservedly. I think of it in scientific terms--in terms from Konrad Lorenz--God becomes imprinted on us (Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm), and as ducklings or goslings, we follow where God leads unreservedly, without question. That is the sacrifice, the gift, the offering He wants from us. Nothing else will do. Just as Sam can give me nothing more valuable than his presence in my life, so we can give God nothing more valuable than our participation in His life.

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Rejecting Religion

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from Finding Our Way Again
Brian McLaren

Those who reject religion are often rejecting a certain arid system of belief, or if not that, a set of trivial taboos or rules or rituals that have lost meaning for them--each a thing residue of a lost way of life.

One of the other passages reflects on the popularity of books on Buddhism.

He [Dr. Peter Senge] replied, "I think it is because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and christianity presents itself as a system of belief."

This seems so true. Whenever I hear discussion of Christianity, it is almost always with respect to some question of doctrine or ritual practice and almost never, within the Catholic Church, with respect to "How must we then live?"

While right doctrine is important--it informs actions and guides lives--right living is more important. Wasn't that really the point Jesus kept making to the Pharisees? They understood doctrine, they had interpreted it down to the finest possible thread. They had figured out how to calculate when the sabbath began and how to observe the sabbath in every detail. But they failed to live their faith, clinging instead to rule and ritual which, while important, are empty if lives are not lived according to what lay behind the rules and ritual.

Many Christians have become the new Pharisees, standing in judgment on others and enforcing their rules as right practice, whether or not they are guided by just principle. In the past I have seen frequent call for denying politicians Holy Communion because of their stand on abortion, and probably other issues. While it is important to uphold right doctrine, it is more important to show love--and while it is possible to show love while withholding communion, I don't believe that love is what drive most people to clamor for this action.

And that is only one of endless examples that could be trotted out.

So then, what are we to do? I think the answer lay in what McLaren says his book is to do--to help us revitalize Christianity not only as a system of belief but also as a way of life, profoundly lived. And each of us must come to terms with that ourselves.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from June 2009.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: May 2009 is the previous archive.

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