Thursday, July 13, 2006

The "Love Man"

I know a man who used to stand on the corner of Markham and Kavanaugh Blvd in Little Rock, Arkansas. He looked like a skinny Santa Claus with a cheerful face and a white beard. He would hold up a sign as the rush hour traffic sped by: Love. We always thought he was a little crazy, silly or naïve. Maybe he was. But in a world where soccer stars head butt their opponents down over an insult, where bombs blast through trains carrying innocent passengers, and where armed conflict seem to be erupting all over the world—maybe it’s not so silly.

Maybe “love man” was naïve--but I’ll take his signs any day over some of the signs you see people who call themselves Christians carrying in protest against the issue of the day.

Paul writes to a church he started less than a year before and he tells them:
about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:9ff).
These new Christians were challenged by all kinds of things—idolatry and sexual immorality, confusion about the second coming of Jesus—but they had one thing right: they loved each other.

Paul says they were “taught by God.” This is an unusual term not used often. It isn’t like God sent a message down with the sentence “love each other.” They didn’t drive past Markham and Kavanaugh and read the Love Man’s sign. This isn’t a reference to any single teaching they may have picked up from some teacher or writing. According to several scholars it describes a divine relationship rather than an instruction. It’s as if Paul is saying: You’ve been born of God and your heart is filled with him—that kind of relationship can’t help but express itself in love.

But love is such a fragile thing and Paul strongly emphasizes they must focus on increasing their love for each other. This is the second time Paul uses the phrase “we urge you” in this letter. It’s a phrase that indicates central information. Loving each other is crucial and it must not be allowed to fall into decline.

Paul seems to shift gears—but perhaps he is merely continuing the thought, extending the expression of love to everyone: Christ-followers and those who are not. He says:
Make it your ambition—(or be zealous or strive eagerly) to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependant on anybody.
Do we need to go into great detail with this? You would think it’s pretty clear wouldn’t you? But is it? It seems the easy to understand passages are the most easy to ignore: the most difficult to live.

It is an act of love to be active in good works—in gainful employment and avoiding two of the greatest sins of religious people: Gossip and meddling in other people’s affairs. To be fair gossip and meddling are almost second nature among all human beings. As common as they are—they are also commonly despised. No one wants to be viewed as Gladys Kravitz the nosey neighbor of the 60’s sitcom Bewitched! Yet the temptation is there: at home, in the workplace, even when we gather with other Christ-followers. We are called to love—not to be busybodies stirring up trouble. I think it is interesting this is one of the sins Paul hits hard in other places: becoming idle busybodies who have nothing better to do than run other people down.

I think Paul would tell us to quit being so eager to jump into the spotlight. We preacher-types are particularly susceptible to this temptation. It is easy for us to wage public campaigns against some particular sin in the community—it could be publicly protesting the opening of a bar or trying to make a statement about school-sponsored prayer. I’ve heard of some guys who have hid with video cameras near pornographic video stores or bars in order to tape those who would go in. I don’t know if they intended to broadcast the tape or not—but that doesn’t sound like leading a quiet life or minding our own business!

Does this mean we compromise about sin? Not at all. But America is not Israel. It never was a theocracy. Sinners are going to sin (uh, we fit in that category). Pagans are going to act like pagans! Our job is to love them and treat them with so much respect that they in turn want to listen to our message about a God who wants to rescue them from a self-destructive life.

This is the point, isn't it? Why should we live a quiet life, work hard, and mind our own business? So that our daily life may win the respect of outsiders.

Maybe “love man” was silly or naïve. In one way, I appreciate the fact that his signs weren’t condemning or arrogant. But I also know it isn’t enough to hold up a sign that says “love.” We have to make practical demonstrations of love a priority toward each other and toward the outsiders. How? Jesus suggested a little rule: do to others what you would have them do to you.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to take Jesus' golden rule and let it be our guiding prayer throughout the day: to start our mornings asking God to enable us to follow the rule. In the evening, we might review our interactions with others and see where we had it gloriously right or failed miserably. Then humbly ask God's forgiveness and determine the next morning to renew our efforts to love.

So may your love grow more and more. May you demonstrate your love by respecting all people. May you make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.

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