As a pastor, I rely on the thoughts of others to keep my ideas fresh and meaningful. Lately, writers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and N.T. Wright have done the trick.
And Eddie Vedder.
As I trekked across a snow-covered back road in a 4x4 with my kids, Pearl Jam's "Sirens" came on.
In the band's new song, an aging Vedder laments human existence, which is so beautiful and fascinating, especially when we love someone, but where "we live our lives with death over our shoulder."
He hears the sirens of emergency vehicles passing in the night, echoing in the distance, then draws his woman closer, and wonders, as I have, if the next one's coming for him.
My heart went out to this man that I don't know, his voice present to me in song over the years, and thought I felt not just my but God's identification with his anguish and predicament, in this world that is lovely and harsh all at the same time.
As we passed through a traffic circle, as wipers cleared falling snow, and Pearl Jam jammed on, I thought about how little contemporary Christians love each other, much less those we assume (by all sorts of criteria) are without God.
I thought about how often the "love" of Christians is not for people as they actually are -- with their complications, questions and frailties -- but a kind of condescension, where our interest in them is as objects of conversion or need.
I love this world despite the sometimes inexplicable pain of life; despite how the universe at times feels in its vast machinery as impersonal as some thinkers tell us it must be. Yet, with fresh eyes to see, there are signs of God's fingerprints, an ongoing presence, everywhere.
And this presence compels me to love people in all the diverse ways they bear the image of God. Just. As. They. Are.
But here's the rub: I have not even begun to love the world as the Father loves the world or to love people the way God loves: a love that loves all that Love has made before we loved God.
While we were strangers, living only for ourselves, Christ lays his life down for the life of the world because the Father loves us from before he made the stars.
We are not left alone in the dark, not abandoned in our pain and anguish, but visited by a Maker who becomes what he has made, who makes himself vulnerable to pain and terror. In Jesus, God hangs out with Eddie Vedder and me as we anticipate approaching sirens in the twilight.
And so, true story: I have not even begun to love as Love loves.
There are many things in this world that inspire affection and joy: the laughter of children, our sun that crowns the sky with flame, a well-played banjo, the fragrance of honeysuckle vine on the night air, the texture of the ground where surf meets sand, the tang of an orange, the sacred geometry of a snowflake, the company of friends, the hand of a spouse sought for and found in the night.
But God's love, the kind of love that triumphs over evil and death -- that drowns out the distant sirens that do, in the end, come for us -- is something far stronger than mere affection for, delight in or veneration of lovely things; this divine love is harder; it demands we love what is not lovely, gracious, or exquisite.
This Love freely sheds its life blood, empties its soul life, for what is distasteful, resentful, impure, arrogant, murderous, envious, hateful and sure of its rightness. This Love gives itself for what is not love without regret, to burn what is not love out of us by their holy fire.
The Father, Son and Spirit love the world just as the world is in all its ugly indifference, terror, cynicism, confusion, abuse, accusation, denial and blood thirst, for their love's sake and our sake, that Creation might be liberated from its captivity to our darkness.
When Christians come to love the world as God loves the world, redemption can unfold at the pace God intends.
If you listen to and watch many Christians, though, you might be pardoned for thinking that the primary mission of the church is the proper identification, classification, and condemnation of the world's sins; we are cold scientists for it, pinning our specimens for display, daily. And, in this, we are no different from anyone else.
This is what humanity does without God; watch the way our media reflect and foster these pointing, accusing and condemning tendencies in us.
Instead, the church's mission is to proclaim God's radical pardon, in which is found real, permanent forgiveness for all: the highest form of love revealed to humanity.
When I discern the mystery of the image of God in every man and woman -- whatever their state of mind, reputation of life or disposition toward God and others -- and find myself inexplicably drawn out of myself, and moved with compassion for them, just as they are in the moment of their worst or best selves -- like my momentary sense of connection to Eddie Vedder -- I am beginning to experience the deep love of the triune God for the world.
I get brief glimpses of this love in myself from time to time, this unfathomable agape, and pray it overwhelms my pride, ignorance, accusation and fear -- that it overpowers my divided heart -- so I might demonstrate the power of this eternal fellowship of wisdom and love made flesh in Jesus.
Jesus is the highest revelation of divine love but he is also -- we neglect this -- human love made perfect. He invites us, as his human brothers and sisters, to participate by grace in the perfections of his singular brand of self-sacrificial love.
Jesus commands us to love one another as he loves us: by the divine measure of human love he exemplifies.
Loving others as we love ourselves is the ancient standard but Jesus breathes a new command that eclipses self interest: we are to love others as he loves us, as God in the flesh loves. For those with open hearts, the command carries with it a blessing to love as Jesus loves.
Christians somehow want our witness, our story, to ring true in the absence of an active love that puts our everything, our life's blood, on the line for the sake of all. But talk is cheap.
Since the foundation of the world rests on the sacrifice of Christ, his voluntary offering of his entire self, there is no way after Christ to establish credibility for the church's redemptive story apart from love in action.
The greatest demonstration of divine power is not a supernatural capacity to do what our generals, doctors, bankers, and iPhone makers can otherwise do quite well alone but instead a new humanity, capable of loving as he loves, forgiving as he forgives, laying down its collective life with Jesus Christ for the life of the world.
To see Jesus in the poor, hungry, ailing, and criminal, to forgive someone who has severely wounded us, to love someone we felt incapable of loving, to love our enemies, to serve the ungrateful and the proud without expectation, with the acceptance that we may instead be rejected and persecuted -- these are the greatest miracles; this is the power of divine and human love available to all in Jesus Christ.
And so I ask: Do we deserve a hearing amid the siren wails of the world when we have not even begun to love as Love loves?