This Reflection is an extension of my previous post in which I shared "A Time I Got It Right": A time I think I allowed love-for-the-other to be my guide. But, is doing this possible and practical when we are faced with situations that may challenge our faith and beliefs?
A couple of years ago, my wife Rose had to face the death of two siblings in the space of less than six weeks. In March, her older brother Matthew died. His death was not unexpected and in some ways perhaps a blessing; but it still involved death and loss. The next month, a younger brother Larry died suddenly and quite unexpectedly. While a sense of peaceful joy surrounded Matthew's funeral home visitations and Catholic burial service, dealing with Larry's death was most difficult and emotionally upsetting.
Larry's funeral service would be a Catholic Mass and although Rose knew, as a non-Catholic, she would not be able to receive communion; she hoped that experiencing a meaningful Eucharist service would bring a much needed sense of peace and some closure. Perhaps, she thought, she might be able to kneel with others at the communion rail for a blessing. (In many Catholic churches, as is the practice in my Episcopal church, those not able to take communion, or for some reason not wanting to, are invited to come and receive a blessing rather than take the bread and wine.)
But when the time for communion was at hand, the priest (who had already seemed rote and detached through the liturgy) firmly stated that by church policy communion was only for baptized Roman Catholics AND those Catholics who were currently active in the faith. There was no invitation to the rail for any blessing. A few in the church did go forward. Many, including Rose, just sat in the pews. Rose left the service in the same sadness she had come.
A few weeks later, a friend (another Episcopalian) shared about a Catholic Funeral Mass for a close friend she had just attended. Like Rose, she hoped the service and Eucharist would be a time of closeness and some joy. This mass was in a different church, different diocese, and celebrated by a different priest than the mass Rose had attended.
When time for communion came in the service, the priest gave the invitation: "Unfortunately, I can invite only baptized Roman Catholics to the rail to receive communion," he said almost apologetically; but, he added, "I do welcome any others to come and receive a blessing — just cross your arms over your chest and I'll know. You are all welcome here as family and friends."
My friend did go to the rail and cross her arms. When the priest came to her, he placed his hand on her forehead and said a blessing. Then, smiling at her, he said, "Someday — perhaps not until heaven — we will share this communion supper together."
I can envision Jesus telling this two-priest story as a parable ("Once there were two priests..."). If he had, I think he would then turn to the crowd (which probably would include a few priests) and say, "And which of these two priests carried out their duties with love?"
I think this story can serve as a model for us when we are faced with difficult decisions, especially those that may bring into conflict our faith values. Both priests had a holy duty to uphold the teachings and policies of their Church. Regardless their own thoughts about the Church's position either priest would have been wrong to violate his vows and serve communion to all. But, while neither shirked his duty and both were faithful, one seemed to take the bolder step of looking out at the gathered flock ... and acted in love. And in doing so not only made many feel welcome; he also let God's grace show forth.
I cannot know the attitudes and thoughts of the priests. Perhaps one thought the communion restrictions uncalled for and the other supportive of the policy. Maybe both understood the rules and agreed that there does need to be a few boundaries in our faith practices. But, the point is one acted in a way that reflected love. The kind of love Jesus demonstrated; the kind of love Saint Paul writes about in his often-read passage in First Corinthians (chapter 13). I think the second priest put this love into action.
In allowing love to influence our actions, especially in those situations that bring us into conflict with our faith, it is important that we understand this love. If we view love as warm and mushy feelings, similar to fondness and enjoyment of the other, then we will find the application of love unrealistic and probably in the end unauthentic. But, if we view love simply as I described in the previous Reflection as putting the needs of the other before our own, then using love as a guide may be possible.
It is also important to realize that acting out of love is often not easy. I think Jesus understands this. In the gospel of John (13:34a ESV), Jesus says, "A new commandment I give you: Love one another." Commandment: an interesting word here. If love is easy, comes second-nature to us, commandment wouldn't be necessary. We're commanded when the task might be difficult.
In the previous Reflection, I described a time where I think I acted out of love. For me though, that situation didn't involve a very difficult decision. But, I can imagine much tougher situations. What if I am the Christian cake-baker who sincerely believes that homosexual marriage violates God's will and is asked by a gay couple to bake the wedding cake for their celebration? Do I compromise my beliefs and simply do the job I'm in the business to do? Do I "stand up for" my beliefs and refuse, even willing to risk legal action and possible fines or jail? Do I have an honest conversation with the couple, recognizing their needs as well as my conflict of conscious, then maybe refer them to another bakery down the street I know would accept them? Can I call upon Christian love-for-the-other to help me decide how to respond?
On the other hand, what if I, as a Christian, am half of the gay couple requesting the wedding cake? Do I decide to challenge the Christian baker's hesitancy and sue if necessary? After all, I'm tired of all this discrimination and need to stand up for my rights. Or do I simply accept the baker's view and hope the next bakery will be more accommodating? Do I to try to have a conversation with the baker about our common Christian faith and how it leads us to such different points of view and action? Can I call upon Christian love-for-the-other to help me decide?
I really don't have any "right" answers for such tough situations. (And I pray that my tough situations won't be any more difficult than my deciding what gender to use in speaking to a transgendered person.) But, I do believe that we can be true to our faith if we sincerely let love surround our wrestling with decisions. And, love might lead you to different decisions than I am led to. And, our love-guided decision tomorrow may be different than what it is today.
But, how, in a practical sense, do we actually apply love in these tough situations, especially those situations where the way we carry out our response may be as important as the actual response? Situations such as where the Catholic priests earlier had to carry out actions they knew could be hurtful. Might I suggest we incorporate a portion of Paul's famous love chapter as we wrestle in prayer about how to act. Paul's words are often read as general, flowery, theological words about love, most often in settings such as a wedding. I think, though, that those same words can be used to frame our prayerful decision-making. They can be very practical words. I'm thinking specifically about verses 4-7 in I Corinthians 13.
As I pray about how to respond in some of the situations I've already described — or perhaps how to have a tough conversation with a friend who I think is getting into shady business practices, or as a supervisor how do I dismiss a long-time employee, or as an elected officer where I have to apply a law that seems at odds with my faith beliefs — I can use Paul's words to structure my prayer and thoughts. For example:
- Love is patient: Am I simply in a hurry to get this over with? Am I willing to be patient and take the time necessary to strengthen bonds of good relationships?
- Love is kind: Am I deciding (or acting) out of kindness, or do I really want to just make a statement or show my authority?
- Love does not envy: Am I thinking what is good for the other person or am I really just jealous and resentful? This is a time to get even!
- Love is not proud: Am I really thinking about the welfare and needs of the other, or is it mainly pride that is stimulating my decision? Is this really more about me and my pride than it is about the other?
- Love does not boast: Do I really want to do what is right for the other, or do I simply want to brag about the good Christian decision I made?
- Paul's characteristics of real love can help. You get the idea. Think about the other characteristics: not easily angered, doesn't "keep score", is not dishonest, and so forth. Pray through them all.
From this one might get the impression that I think using love as a basis for our response in tough situations should always result in mutual warm feelings void of any conflict or disagreement. This is not the case. Sometime love might lead to "righteous indignation". Remember Jesus took a whip to folks in the temple and upset tables of the money-changers. His words didn't drip of honey either. (John 2:13-17, Matt. 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46) While such righteous indignation may be called for, if such is our initial reaction, I doubt we've given much consideration to the guidance of love.
Another aspect of trying to act in love in difficult situation has to do with the words and phrases we use when thinking of others. In a third and final Reflection on this topic, I'd like to explore the "The Language of Loving".
But for now I'll close with one last thought. In the love chapter, Paul says, "[Love] does not dishonor others." (v5 NIV). If my words on this topic are too long or St. Paul's thoughts too deep, here is a take-away you might keep in your pocket and use as a walking-around summary of how to love:
Baseball's all-star second baseman Joe Morgan (when with the San Francisco Giants) spoke about his manager Frank Robinson's coaching diplomacy: "He can step on your shoes, but he doesn't mess up your shine."
Jesus commanded, "Love one another." I think the good priest and Frank Robinson get it right.