It was 2nd/3rd-century thinker Tertullian who captured how the early Christians were known. It was not for their theological exposition, nor for their creedal consistency or aesthetic discipline. No. It was something entirely more elemental. “Look,” people would say, “how they love one another.”
Look, people would say, because you could see love in action. There were practices of love: welcoming the stranger, breaking bread across social lines, sharing possessions in common. Their love was recognizable. It had a pattern to it that was consistent enough among each individual believer to weave a whole tapestry of truth. And the truth about Christianity was love.
Love. It does not come naturally to me. When I read Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Corinth, I do not know whether they are supposed to be comforting or terrifying: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I wonder if some people read this and think to themselves, “Yes, I may not be able to move mountains but love I can do.” I read it and think, “Anything but love,” and then, “Well, shit.”
Love. The feeling does not come naturally to me. When I hear love preached, I want to know what it looks like so I can follow it’s pattern. I pick up the practice of love from books and movies and glances across the aisle at church or the table at dinner. I am an anthropologist of love, keeping track of the habitats and conditions under which it builds a life.
I’m reading A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken and whatever else happens in the end, I will remember this: how they loved. It’s a marriage of magic between Sheldon and Davy but there’s nothing magic about how love is sustained between them. They had a name for everything: Creeping Separateness was the condition of taking love for granted in marriage characterized by “ceasing to do things together” and “finding separate interests;” the Shining Barrier was the shield by which love would be protected in marriage, buffeted by “the principle of sharing” (if one person liked something there must be something the other could find likable about it as well), “the principle of spontaneity” (if one had an impulse the other had to follow it), and “the principle of the affirmative” (if one arrived at a certain belief the other had to consider that the belief was more worthy than its disbelief); and then there was the Appeal to Love, a meeting of the minds that happened every two weeks between the couple to answer this simple question: “What will be best for our love?”
I wish my church had such clear principles for loving. And loving well. I’ve just returned from a week in Wisconsin through my work with the Center for Courage & Renewal helping clergy and faith leaders develop “habits of the heart.” It was there that I was reminded of the power of a community defined not firstly by its beliefs but by the practices that flow from its beliefs. It felt tricky planning an event for such a diverse group of participants; there were Unitarian Universalists and Quakers, Baptists and Buddhists, Tarot Card readers and Methodists. Where, a few people ventured to ask me, was Jesus in any of this?
Look, I would say, how we love one another. A love defined by ten principles we call our Touchstones ranging from the simple “give and receive welcome” to the more philosophical “when the going gets rough, turn to wonder.” We learn how to respond to one another with a counter-cultural love that doesn’t first seek to comfort (we do not hand tissues to tears or offer pats on the back) or control (we commit to asking each other open questions instead of giving advice.) Something radical happens in a space held so fiercely by a few important principles and a couple of wise facilitators: we find it safe to show up as we are. There is no whitewashing of difference and no effort to agree on some kumbaya theology. There is only the common ground of the love beneath our feet.
Rush and I have found our own patterns of love in marriage. During arguments, Rush wants to be immediately comforted but I often find my heart too calloused to even reach a hand over his knee. So in college we came up with something I could say, we could say, when the emotions weren’t there yet but the will to practice love was strong. “I love you, I love you, I love you. I want to be kind.”
What is best for our love in marriage? What is best for our love in friendships? What is best for our love in the church? Do we dare commit to it in writing, embody it in practice, and hold it with the importance of any creed that went before it?
Love. It doesn’t come easily for me. First, I name it with my partner. Then, we practice it together. Finally, the practice becomes a pattern and the pattern becomes a habit and I have to name it anew when it slips out of consciousness.
Look, they will say, how She loves us.