Apprentices of Loving
I was struck this week by a metaphor that Brian McLaren uses in his book 'the Secret Message of Jesus'. It's the metaphor of Jesus as a Master musician, a craftsman, and his followers as apprentices. This is what he says:
Jesus was the master of making the music of life – not just with wood and string, tuners and frets, but with skin and bone, smile and laughter, shout and whisper, time and space, food and drink. He invited the disciples to...learn the disciplines and skill of living in the kingdom of God. They watched him play, watched him live and interact, and imitated his example until they began to have the spirit of his style, the power of his performance.
...called together to learn and practice, sent out to practice, play and teach – that is the life of a disciple...and that's what Jesus commissions his band of disciples to be and do around the world.
I like the image of being an apprentice to a craft. The image says to me that there's a relationship between teacher and learner, an all day, every day encounter where not just skills are passed on, but also the whole context and tradition in which that skill is based. In an ideal situation, the apprentice learns not just their craft, but also the 'way of being' and style of their Master – the way the experienced craftsperson shapes their day, relates to others, and feels about their work.
And, in this image, there's the idea that one day, the pupil becomes a master, and begins to add their own unique flavour to the tradition that they've inherited, and will in time take on their own apprentices. The apprentice becomes a colleague of their master, while always retaining the respect due to their former teacher.
This metaphor really works for me as a way of seeing our life as followers of Jesus, and for understanding our calling in our world today. We learn from Jesus the life-craft of how to be a person of God in the world. And we learn how to practice that life from our mentors and teachers in the faith. And we in turn teach this craft to our children, and to those who are beginning a journey of being an apprentice of the way of Jesus.
So, what is the life-craft that Jesus modeled? What is the guild into which Jesus initiates us as his apprentices? It's many things. We are a guild of prophets, called to live out of a God-shaped vision of the world, and to serve and bless and speak in our world from that vantage point, working for justice and righteousness wherever they are absent. We are a guild of those who incarnate the presence of God, as salt and light in our world. We are a guild of healers, called to recreate the world by working towards wholeness and goodness. We are a guild of lovers, sharing in the joy and tears of the world, opening our arms to the lost and the loveless in the world around us, and inviting them into the warmth of our celebration.
Our culture is fond of success and progress. We like to think that we are getting on in our lives, ticking off expected milestones, reaching our potential. When life serves us in ways that prevent our reaching our vision of success, it can feel crippling, like failure. So much self-loathing and self-doubt can come from not measuring up to the images of success that internally shape our view of the world. And what are these images of success, or progress?
For some of us, it's getting married, having children. For some of us it's owning a house, owning two houses, owning stuff – the latest and the best. For some of us it's lifestyle...the freedom to travel, to take ski-ing holidays, or to eat gourmet food. For some of us it's career, or academic success – many degrees, or moving up a corporate ladder, getting promotions. And for others of us, there's the goal of philanthropy – making enough money to be able to give freely and generously to the causes of our choice. And for some of us the goal is personal happiness, a feeling of wellbeing, free from any kind of suffering or difficulty.
How do any of those images of success relate to the goals of the kingdom of God? I would argue that success as an apprentice of Jesus, aside from any of the things I just listed, is to keep on in the way of loving. To become experts in forgiveness. To stay with the path of self-giving, even self-sacrifice. To learn to care for the world in the ways that God cares for it. To become people who practice hospitality as an art-form, graciously and without fear.
So what of the other stuff that we tend to put so much energy into? Career, family, lifestyle, and consumption...what of these? At their best they are contexts where we learn and give expression to this craft of love. Our work, our relationships, our enjoyments, these are the tools and the places where we work out our apprenticeship, not the craft itself. At a mediocre level, they are diversions, even impediments to the path of love that Jesus modelled. And at their worst, they can even become the instruments of the oppression and slavery of ourselves and others that Jesus came to rescue us from.
The lectionary Gospel reading for this Sunday comes from Luke 6: 27-38.
To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit for tat stuff. Live generously.
Here is a simple rule of thumb for behaviour: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the loveable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run of the mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that's charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.
I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You'll never – I promise – regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we're at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.
Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults – unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don't condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you'll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you'll find life given back, but not merely given back – given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.
This is the gospel of Christ. This is the shape of our apprenticeship. It's not the whole story, it's just a fragment of the teaching of Jesus, and a fragment of all that is written about how he lived and the meaning of his life and death and resurrection. The whole craft is bigger than these statements. But they form a pretty powerful core. The basic chords, perhaps, on which we build the other parts of the melody.
I can see at least three ways where this teaching cuts across the ways of living most usually followed in our culture.
Firstly: Love your enemies, bless and pray for those that hurt you. We see Jesus carry out his own hard teaching as he prays for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross. Father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing.
Where do we see this model carried out in our world? When people go to war against one another, because of the threat they feel from others? When the reply to violence is more violence? When a slight or a cruel word, or even a misunderstanding leads to revenge and retaliation, backstabbing, or the cutting off of relationship? When we go cold to people who we perceive as potentially harmful to us or our desires?
How hard it is to actually carry out Jesus' teaching in the everydayness of our own lives. How much harder for governments and political leaders to choose to follow it on the world stage. And yet this teaching of Jesus is hope for our world, hope for our lives. As apprentices of Jesus, this is how we need to learn to live – stumblingly, perhaps ineptly, but gradually learning a practice of forgiveness, vulnerably reaching out to people with the power to hurt us, turning our angry, resentful thoughts into prayers of blessing for the other. And this is the perspective that we need to bring to the events around us, on a national and international level. As part of the guild of prophets, it's our task to speak peace and non-retaliation, to subvert the lie of redemptive violence, to challenge the concept of 'ally and enemy' that keeps us locked in cycles of war.
Secondly, Jesus tells us to live a life of giving – giving of our selves, and giving of our goods to those who need. It seems to me that one of the greatest impediments to a life of giving, is a sense of lack. How can we give our time, when we don't have enough time? How can we give our love or our kindness, when we feel so little love and kindness within ourselves, or coming to us from the world? How can we give our resources, when we feel as though we barely have enough?
This mindset, that resources are scarce, and that there isn't enough to go around, that we are in a state of lack...this is to me one of the greatest lies of our age. There is enough to go around. But our lifestyles and our choices and the mentality of our culture force us into priorities that create lack – either for ourselves, or for others. There is absolute poverty in the world not because resources are limited, but because some of us are hoarding them far beyond our own needs. We have no time because we live in a culture that demands we work ever longer hours to fund that hoarding. We have no time because we've agreed to ways of living in isolated, fragmented units, rather than sharing our lives and the tasks of living. And we lack a full balance of internal strength and love because we have not learned to give our lives away, and to receive the giving of others in this radical way that Jesus describes, nor have we learned how to receive from God.
All of these things are far too pervasive for any one of us to challenge and change on our own. But if we can learn to be generous within community, and to practice gratitude, and to say 'we have enough', maybe we can make a small dent as apprentices of Jesus' alternative way.
Finally, Jesus teaches us not to judge, pick and criticize. We live in a blame culture. Unwilling to deal with our own failures, we push our negative qualities out onto other people writ large, and then judge them. We are taught to see that if there's a problem, it resides in the other, rather than ourselves.
The church has been doing this for centuries – creating an in/out, us/them mentality where someone else, or a group of someones is beyond the pale, the cause of social breakdown, harmful, and likely to cause contamination. And all the while within the church judgementalism and nitpicky behaviours fester.
Instead, Jesus calls us to look to the log in our own eyes. It's almost a cliché now that the things that most distress or annoy us in other people are things that we haven't realised we do ourselves. I read an interesting suggestion the other day for beginning to overcome this tendency. It consists of three little words: 'just like me'. The book I was reading recommended that at the point of having a negative reaction to someone else, and mentally forming a judgement, we add the words 'just like me' on the end. It doesn't stop us noticing a problem in another person's manner or action, but it does remind us that we're all in it together, a body of broken bones, each one damaged, and each one flawed.
I'm not suggesting that we don't address wrongs and hurts with each other. In fact criticizing and withholding trust from a distance, while easier, is more toxic to relationship and community life than working through difficulties. But in doing so, we start with ourselves, examining our motives and our hurt, and always remembering that when we're tempted to criticize as a matter of habit, that others can see just as many flaws in us as we do in them.
Loving our enemies, giving generously, and refraining from judgement...these are life practices. They lead to life, they transform life...and they will take the whole of our lives to master. But these are the real skills of value in our world. As apprentices of the Master Craftsman, the great Lover Jesus, learning to love in these big, human, glorious and difficult ways, is both our task and our measure of a well-lived and successful life. Love is the currency of the kingdom of God. We give and receive treasure in God's economy of love, as we apprentice ourselves daily to the One who came to give us life in all its fullness.