When I was a teenager I heard a chaplain say that God’s love for us is “unconditional.” On the surface, this sounded fabulous to me because I was a very mixed bag. Actually, I was a mess. And the thought that God actually loves me – me! – unconditionally was something I desperately (though very secretly) needed to know. By that point I was in high school, and it so happens I had trained to be a lifeguard. In actuality, it was like I who was drowning in my own stuff. I needed to be rescued; I needed to be saved from my self-disdain. That’s an adult term, “self-disdain.” As a teenager, I hated myself. So if it were true that God’s love for me, for us, is unconditional, then sign me up.
God’s love for each of us is vast and so personal. Who we are, what we are, however it is we’ve gotten to be where we are, God knows, God lures, God loves. Rather than calling this God’s “unconditional love,” I now think of this as God’s “conditional love.” Because life is inescapably full of conditions and circumstances, changes and chances, and God’s love for us is neither theoretical nor generic. God’s love for us is real and personal, woven into the fabric of our lives from the very beginning. God so loves our own world.
- God’s love mediated through the parents to whom we were born, whether we were desired by them, whether they stayed together, whether they had enough money, or space, or time, or patience, or praise to raise us… how their love for us was informed by their own needs, and desires, and confusions, whether alcohol was present and a problem, whether our upbringing was for us an experience of liberation, or like a sentence of incarceration.
- God’s love mediated through our siblings and cousins, our teachers, coaches, pastors, therapists, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends, spouse or partner. All of these people have shared in our formation or, perhaps in some tragic ways, in our deWhether we learned about courage, or shame, or joy, or perseverance, or fear, or patience, even from our earliest days was very much informed by the conditions in which we were raised.
- God’s love for us known in our experience of joy and forgiveness, of sickness and health, of praise and success, of justice and cruelty, of favoritism and desire, of generosity and discrimination; in our experience of what is dependably old and what is excitingly new, in the tiniest and in the greatest of ways.
- God’s love present in our searching for a vocation and a place called “home,” in discovering that we belong, or where we belong, or if we belong.
- God’s love for us known in our experience of finding our voice, or maybe losing our voice, and in our occasions to travel into worlds otherwise unknown…
These are the conditions in which we experience life, and through which we must survive and hopefully thrive. These are the conditions of life, often times less than ideal. But that’s life.
I see these as the “conditions” for our knowing God’s love because of Jesus who comes to us, stooping low to meet us at our own level. We are no longer talking only about a God of the Law, whose ways were unknowable, whose face was unseeable, whose name was unpronounceable, whose heart and hands were untouchable. Rather, we see Jesus who enters the conditions of this world as an innocent and needy child, just as we have, to reveal the real presence of God’s love. Jesus as God Emmanuel – God with us – is not only God above us or beyond us, but God with us, God with you in the conditions and in the relationships in which you have known life, past and present. We are loved by Jesus, not despite our history but in light of our history. God loves you. God loves you. Like we read in the psalms, “You are the apple of God’s eye,” and God adores you, like none other.[i]
Unless we are on friendly speaking terms with our own past, we won’t be able to recognize God’s call into the future. God looks on us as a whole person which, for most people, includes a broken past. God is very frugal in this way, wasting nothing in our lives, desiring to make use of it all. Most people who are searching for God’s love and God’s direction do so because something is missing, because something is not right in their life. They search for God notbecause they are so bright, not because they are so gifted, or successful, or eloquent. They search for God not because they are so handsome, disciplined, healthy, or secure. It’s not because of their glittering image. Their quest to know God’s love is because something is broken in their life – something about the conditions of their past or their present that is damaged or incomplete or vacuous. That break is often God’s entry point. That break is God’s break, God’s breakthroughto them. The Gospel tells us that Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost: lost childhoods, lost chances, lost hopes, lost relationships, lost needs… and to love us back to life.[ii] .
There’s an old adage that says, “Love is blind.” That is not true. I think it is quite the opposite. Love is eyes wide open. Love sees below the surface, deep inside the other person, a kind of merciful insight. This is the nature of God’s love, God’s love for you. The conditions of your life – who you are, what you are, however it is you’ve gotten to be the way you are – God knows, and God lures, and God loves.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear the name that Jesus gives for this love. Jesus calls this “being born again,” which sounded corny and certainly impossible both then and now. But Jesus is obviously not talking about a kind of “body job.” This is about being “born again” from the inside out. It’s being saved from the conditions of our life that have blocked our being loved or lovable. It’s the restoration of our innocence to know we are loved by God through all the conditions that have shaped our life.[iii]
This is Jesus’ mission to each of us, to save us from everyday hell. To love us into the fullness of life. This is the healing work Jesus wants to do, wants to keep doing, in all of our lives every day. It is his work. Our only role is to cooperate with Jesus. One brief prayer, and Jesus does his healing work of love in our lives. It’s probably a repetitive prayer we need to keep praying in life, to keep cooperating with Jesus’ to save us with his love. A very brief prayer to Jesus. Only a one word prayer is necessary. One word: “Okay.”
Lectionary Year and Proper: Year A; Lent II
[i] The “apple of God’s eye,” is an evocative metaphor referencing the pupil of the eye. If you are very, very close to another person, you may see your own face mirrored in the other person’s pupil, a very tender and intimate picture. The metaphor is found in Deuteronomy 32:10; Psalm 17:8; Proverbs 7:2; Lamentations 2:18; Zechariah 2:8.
[ii] Luke 19:10.
[iii] The “restoration of innocence” is a phrase from the Exsultet, an ancient prayer at the Easter Vigil acknowledging the work of the risen Christ in the restoration of innocence. See The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 286-287.
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