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Love is Simple, And..

 

Love is simple.

And it’s not easy.

Simply put, love is attention.  It is not complicated to pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, sensations, and urges.  It is not rocket science to stop, sit, and listen to another person who needs your time and focus.

Sometimes it is easy to pay attention… when that to which you are attending does not contradict your opinions or habits of perception.  It is easy sometimes, and that tricks us into thinking it ought to be easy all the time.  And if it isn’t easy, we assume it must be the fault of someone or something else.  When it isn’t easy, we lose our attention – and we fail to love.

Good religion is good for one thing: training us to pay attention, leading us to love – when love isn’t easy.

When I was 16 years old, I had a classic “conversion experience” straight out of William James’ description of the phenomenon in his iconic book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”.  I heard someone recite the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he said “Love your enemies.”  Those words went straight through my ears and into my heart, exploded there, radiated throughout my body, and set me on the path of the Christ for the rest of my life.  I had been raised in the church, but didn’t get what it was all about until that moment.

But I had no idea how difficult it would be to love my enemies – much less to truly and fully love my family and friends.   It sounded simple, because it was.  But following Jesus’ simple admonition has been very hard indeed.

Writing and publishing my latest book, TENDERLY CALLING, a fresh introduction to the Christian faith, has restored to me what the Buddhists call “beginners’ mind”.  At sixteen, I was a beginner.  Decades later, I am still a beginner.  I’ve traveled far on Jesus’ way of love.  But I’m more aware than ever of how much farther there is to go.

My mind is a thicket of attitudes that need adjusting or, better yet, eliminating.  They get in the way of paying attention.  I’m so busy evaluating what I see and hear that I fail, much of the time, to really see and hear.  It’s a bunch of work to observe and then release my definitions of what I experience, and just let things and people be what they are.  It’s a strain on my brain to take off my ego-colored glasses and encounter the inner and outer worlds before me on their own terms.

We talk about “falling in love” as if love was as easy as submitting to the law of gravity.  But once you’ve landed in love, the gravity of attraction isn’t enough to keep it alive.  That’s when the work starts.  Work that just keeps being there, requiring disciplined effort.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, a new challenge arises, and you’re a beginner again.  When my daughter was young, just when I thought I had paid enough attention to respond lovingly to her needs, she’d grow up some more, and her needs would change.  I was always a step or two behind.

We need all the help we can get to stay on the love wagon as it bounces and jostles along.  A good spiritual community is good for this: serving as a peer support group for people who are trying to practice love through thick and thin.  Where does love lead the spouse of an addict?  Where does love lead the aging parents of a disabled adult child they strain to care for?  Where does love lead the neighbor of a belligerent person with a house full of guns?  It is challenging enough to do the simple work of paying attention with an open heart and mind.  But having done so, then we often face quandaries with no easy solutions.  This dissuades us from paying attention: we just want to cover our ears and say “la la la la la la” really loudly and make it all go away.

The discipline is to maintain our attention, especially if it is difficult, and include in it the conundrums that follow from love.  And then sit with those quandaries just as we would patiently listen with friends who are suffering through crises we can’t resolve for them.  There is no greater gift we can give others, and ourselves, than this kind of attention.

Let us encourage each other in practicing love.  Let us go within and melt away the mental and emotional impediments to our ability to pay deep attention.  Giving love is having love.  Having love is giving love.  Love is work.  But it is work that is compensated with itself.

 

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of six published books on progressive Christianity, with a new one coming out soon:  Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.

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