In her new book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans writes of baptism, The Christian’s descent into the water represents a surrender, a death, to the old way of living. Emergence represents a resurrection, a starting over again. Her words made me pause and I wondered what it is we die to and what we are resurrected into. These are difficult questions and I know that many people far smarter that I am, including Ms. Evans, have struggled to answer these questions. As a teacher, however, I am wired to clarify my thoughts and to share them with others. From my experiences with love and faith and reflection on when I have felt closest to the Divine, I find myself wondering if what we die to is our hindrances and what we are born into is the practice of Divine-Love.
Learning to accept God’s love is a process of little deaths. It is allowing anything that hinders us from having a relationship with God, anything that limits or dampens our experience of Divine-Love, to fall away. There are some things that we can mutually agree are hindrances to our experience of Divine-Love, such as the harbouring of hate and me-centred behaviours, but more often, the things that separate us from Divine-Love are specific to us and our frailties. What separates me from God may not be what separates my sister from God. I struggle to see God’s love when I watch shows with bitter, cynical heroines; they are a stumbling block for me because they encourage a very pessimistic view of the world, but for my sister they may only be entertainment because such shows do not affect how she sees others. For my sister it may be alcohol or spending, violent images or popular music, excessive intellectualism or shallow relationships. What matters isn’t an agreed upon list of what interferes with a God-Centred life but how we respond to our hindrances and to each other. We are called to limit or eliminate things that will hurt us and we are called to encourage our sisters in their walk. What we are not called to do is determine for them what their stumbling blocks are nor are we to make our frailties their frailties by extension. If I struggle with alcohol, it would be kindness from my sister to not drink around me, but it would be cruelty on my part to say my sister should never drink. Conversely, if my sister struggles with loving herself unconditionally she should not resolve her struggle by defining who I am or can be, but I should respond to her with compassion and encourage to see herself and others as God does. We cannot judge what is in the hearts of others, we can only address what dampens our own heart’s receptivity to love. This is why the attempt by Christians to categorise acceptable and unacceptable sins or to limit church membership to certain individuals defies the very nature of Divine-Love.
If we are constantly shedding our hindrances, our dead behaviours and attitudes, we must replace these things with something better. We must allow ourselves to be resurrected into the compassion that sought us out, the non-judgemental love given to us without expectation. Divine-Love reaches out for us regardless of our flaws and imperfections. God does not say “I will love you if… .” This is a very difficult concept for us to grasp because human-love, no matter how pure, is always conditional. There are many things that our love survives but there are limits. Perhaps that love hits its limit when our significant other cheats on us, when the child we sacrificed for makes choices we can’t agree with, when our parent changes, or when we grow apart from our friends. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we have limits and those limits are there because we love through reciprocity; both sides give and both sides get. Divine-Love, however, is different. Divine-Love is given without the need for reciprocity. This is not the love of a hopeless lover, because even she hopes the person she loves will love her back. The closest we can come to understanding it is found in compassion for those who have hurt us. It is radical mercy. Desmond Tutu demonstrated such love when he urged Nelson Mandela to show mercy toward those who benefited from and perpetuated apartheid. Tutu called it reconciling forgiveness. Reconciling love is offered without regard to what will be returned. This is the love that we are resurrected into and because we have received it and been shaped by it, we are able to give it to others. Unfortunately, we are not perfect vessels for Divine-Love; we are mentally and physically incapable of its constant expression. Thankfully, we have not been called to be. Instead, we are called to move toward it. Having been born into reconciling love we are beholden to move ever deeper into it. As we grow and mature, we should express this love a little more consistently and a little more purely. A few might progress great distances, but all of us will gain ground. Through practice and patience (with ourselves more than anyone else) our capacity for compassion will grow; we will each be able to hold a little more and in response give a little more to everyone else.