“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
Part of the Advent reading from Phillipians this week (Phil 1-11) is verse 10, of which a portion says “so that you approve what is excellent.” And of course, child of 80s and 90s as I am, I immediately thought of that wonderful benediction from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Be excellent to each other!”
What does excellent mean in this context? How do we see it, much less approve of it? Paul wishes that our love would “abound more and more” which gives us a clue that the giving and receiving of love, a love which grows and grows and nearly leaps to connect with people helps us see excellence better. Excellence, then, is not merely a solitary concept, but something that happens in relationship to something else. A single thing is not excellent until it is communicated or interacted with in love.
So, yes, a flat tire can be excellent- when you help someone fix it. A broken relationship is excellent- when time is given between people to heal and grow again. A book is excellent- when the reader really connects with the story, and joins the author on his/her adventure. Food is excellent- when it is used to feed the hungry. And waiting is excellent, when we share our anticipation of the coming of Emmanuel. And all of this done with love. When we are excellent to each other.
To call this new campaign by the religious right misguided is an understatement. Below you’ll find a newsclip focusing on the religious right’s (mis)use of Psalm 109:8. The video which follows is a well-articulated rebuttal to such fear-based violence from a monk at All Saints Monastery. May we begin, as Christians, to spread the message of God’s love once again.
Here there is no room for ambition. Ambition is the desire to be above one’s neighbor; and here there is no possibility of comparison with one’s neighbor: no one knows what the white stone contains except the man who receives it… Relative worth is not only unknown- to the children of the Kingdom it is unknowable.
A note of context before we begin: the “white stone” that MacDonald refers to alludes to Revelation 2:17 (“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.”) MacDonald notes that each of us gets a “white stone” from God, that expresses, in Him, our deepest identity and meaning.
We like ambition in the United States. We need ambition now- the drive to get this country moving again, to recover what’s been lost- sense of unity and hope. But it’s necessary to define the first word in this reflection: “Here.”
What “here,” is MacDonald talking about? When ambition is “the desire to be above one’s neighbor,” it is an ambition based on the Self. What “I” want, what “I” deserve. Therefore, the “here” that MacDonald speaks of , which has “no room for ambition” must be a place of Non-Self, or a focus to where the Self is not the Center. This is a “here” in the presence of God. There is no measure, no “relative worth,” for, as Jack Kerouac once said, “All is precious and holy.”
This is why when Jesus was approached by the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who wanted her two sons to sit at the right and left of Christ in Heaven, he said “You do not know what you are asking.” Later in the passage he spoke to the other disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20: 25-29)
Those who long to be close to God must first let go of the desire to be first among others. There is no hierarchy of Love with God. It encompasses all completely and fully. To desire to have more of the Love than another corrupts that Love, and makes it unattainable.
Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy…For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected- not in itself, but in the object…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.
CS Lewis states in the introduction to his anthology of George MacDonald that he has given the title “Inexorable Love” to many of the entries, and that, indeed, that title “would serve for the whole collection. Inexorability- but never the inexorability of anything less than love- runs through it like a refrain…yet this urgency never becomes shrill. All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder which prevents it from doing so.”
Inexorability: to be relentless, not given to compromise. One can see MacDonald almost trying to describe a force of Nature: the unstoppable tsunami, the tornado cutting its own path where it will, the continuous layering of hail and snow (hello, New England!), the unrelenting heat of the desert sun. Can love be described in this way? We are prone to associate destructive forces with this idea of inexorability, as well as emotions like anger, hate, and wrath. “And our God is a consuming fire” is seen as a threat to a tranquil existence, a disruption of our natural state, and the inevitable thought “God mus be angry.” Love is supposed to be a breezy summer day, a soft pillow of niceness on which to lay our sleepy romantic heads.
MacDonald refutes this idea, more inclined to get us to see love as a Force, and God’s Love as the Greatest Force. And look at its objective! “Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected- not in itself, but in the object.” It has almost a frantic desire to uncover and hold up to itself the perfected beauty of the Other, and it will not stop until this is attained. Certain shades of this can be seen in Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” or in the stripping away of Eustace’s dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The type of love God wishes to share with us has no room and actively strips away that which hinders only that purest of all Loves: hate, greed, fear, anxiety, etc. One can see how much more complex, true, and accurate this perception is rather than the juvenile, and often cited argument against Christianity, “I must believe and/or follow because I don’t want to go to hell,” or that bargaining mentality of Pascal’s wager, which reduces everything about God to a “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” mindset. This reduces Love to the realms of economic theory. MacDonald urges us to see the natural, transcendent force of God’s love for his creation. Would that we may see it and give it to the Others in our lives as well.