Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lent: A time for giving not giving things up

Towards the end of  “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong writes

"...the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day - or even in 12 steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. Nearly every day we will fail; but we cannot give up... We must pick ourselves up and start again. If you have followed the steps carefully you have come a long way. But the process is not over. You will have to work at all twelve steps continuously for the rest of your life: learning more about compassion, surveying your world anew, and struggling with self-hatred and discouragement. Never mind loving your enemies - sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle!"

Been thinking about the following sentence for the last few weeks...

“Never mind loving your enemies – sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle”

Love is not as easy as those cards and adverts make it out to be. This is because love is not some sentimental or mushy feeling. Love is tough and love is disciplined and it can really hurt sometimes, too much sometimes...

Love is one of those easy to say words, that are so hard to truly live by. How often do we say each day I love this or I love that? By the way how often do we say I hate this or I hate that? These are very strong sentiments but do we really mean what we say when we say I “love” or “hate” something? Think about it?

Last Thursday 14th February was Valentines Day, the great love fest. Now this festival is about the celebration of romantic love, but this is not the only form of love there is. When the ancient Greeks spoke of love, they were not necessarily talking of romance. They used four different words for love: eros, romantic love; philia, friendship love; storge, a familial love; agape, spiritual love. This final type of love is the form that the great religious traditions talk of. This is a different kind of love as it is meant to be none exclusive, it is open to all, it is suppose to have no boundaries. It is meant to build bridges between the walls we create around ourselves. Whereas the other types of love suggest partiality in one sense or another.

Agape is the love that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. He commanded his followers to “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He is not talking about something soft and mushy here though, please do not be fooled. 

When Jesus preaches that we should love our enemies he is commenting on the commandment in Leviticus “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” As Karen Armstrong has stated “Leviticus is a legal text and any talk of emotion would be out of place as it would be in a Supreme Court ruling. In the ancient Middle East, ‘love’ was a legal term used in international treaties: when two kings promised to ‘love’ each other, they pledged to be loyal and to give each other practical help and support – even if this went against their short term interests”. When Jesus spoke of love he was talking about an action that put someone or something else at the centre of their life, rather than ourselves; he is talking about yielding for the good of all, instead of self interest.

This message is of course not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the essence of all the “Great Faiths”. It would appear that selfishness and self-centredness has been the root of so many of humanities troubles, throughout our history, therefore it is hardly surprising that the idea of yielding for the good of all is at the core of the great faiths; that putting something other than our selfish needs at the centre of what we do is vital to human survival. The great Chinese guide to statecraft “The Daodejing”, authored by Lao Tzu made similar claims. As Armstrong highlights, the Dao states that “The only person who is fit to rule is the man who has overcome the habit of selfishness.”

The Dao further states that...

“The reason there is great affliction is that I have a self.
If I had no self, what affliction would I have?
Therefore to one who honours the world as his self
The world may be entrusted,
And to one who loves the world as one’s self
The world may be consigned.”

Ah The Golden Rule of Compassion...the rule of love...the essence of true religion...the essence of the spiritual life... 

Agape requires love for all, without conditions and without borders. This is the love expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 which perfectly describes the qualities of such love. It states “Agape is patient. Agape is kind and is not jealous. Agape does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice with unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, bears all wrongs, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, agape never fails.”

Agape was the foundation of Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s ministry, the great champion of civil rights in 1950’s and 60’s America. He saw it as an abundant overflowing love that seeks nothing in return, that is open to all and rejects self interest. It is not sentimental and has nothing to do with whether we like a person or not. It is the kind of love that recognises our common humanity and reveres the other as our self; it recognises the sacred mystery in everyone. It is this that forms the beloved community that he spoke of. You may call it the Kingdom of God, or the Commonwealth of Love, or simply “Fellowship”.

Although Agape is not soft, mushy or sentimental it is still a condition of the heart, it is a way of being that encompasses all aspects of our humanity; head and heart as well as mind, body and spirit. It is about how we are and how we act. In his sermon titled “Love in action” Dr King preached that “one day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong...only through bringing together head and heart, intelligence and goodness – shall man rise to a fulfilment of his human nature.”

It is a mistake to believe that Dr King's ministry focused purely on the injustices of society external to him. He also talked of healing humanities inner violence. None violent action, motivated by love, that he adapted from the teachings of Gandhi was about committing not only to non-violent resistance externally but also internally. Both he and Gandhi knew how vital it was that we transformed our inner lives first before we looked to the world. Gandhi named this Satyagraha (soul-force). They both knew that in order to transform society for the better, they first had to develop themselves spiritually.

Why was this? Well they knew that if a person did not heal the violence within themselves that when they did overcome the injustice they were experiencing they may well end up replacing it with something just as destructive. Just look at the revolutions of the past two hundred years. They began as a protest against tyranny and yet in many cases they replaced the former tyranny with something worse. We must all be wary of the “dark side of the force”, of how corrupting power and self righteousness can be. The last two hundred years are littered with examples of this.

Love is a way of being. It is not sentimental, it is not soft and mushy, it is tough and it requires effort and discipline. It is something that I will be attempting to focus on this Lenten season.

It always amazes me how something like Lent, which in my view is about self sacrifice, about giving of self for others, has somehow become so self centred. Today people give up things for Lent, but they seemingly primarily do so for their own good. People often given up certain food stuffs, for their own vanity, they do it for themselves. Is this what Lent is about? Well it doesn’t seem to be the right focus to me. Surely it’s actually about Agape, about self giving love, about loving all without prejudice, about recognising the “inherent worth and dignity of all” Isn’t this the example that Jesus gave to humanity, in the same way that Gandhi and Dr King did, they gave themselves wholeheartedly for others. Sadly they were murdered for it. That said their message did not die with their physical bodies; their message survived their physical deaths, it lives on today. 

This loving spirit is timeless, it is immortal, but it needs a body, it needs to be embodied. So I’ve made a decision. This Lenten season I’m going to attempt to let this spirit live through my body; this Lent I’m going to focus on giving, instead of giving up. This Lenten season I’m going to see what I can give to life instead of what I can give up; this Lenten season I’m going to live in what I consider the solution is as opposed to what the problem is. I am going to give love, even if it’s in small ways. I am going to do so while recognising how difficult that is, even to my nearest and dearest. By doing so I know that my outer world is bound to improve and my inner world will continue to heal.

My question to you, who read this blog, is what are you going to give, instead of give up, this Lent?

I will leave you with that one.

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