He Loved First

1 John 4:7-12, 19 (Homily)

My* eldest has always had quite the ability to wage verbal warfare and throw impressive tantrums. When my son was about six, he and I had quite an altercation. After receiving a consequence for unacceptable behavior, he stomped up the stairs loudly informing me (and no doubt the neighbors) of the injustice of his punishment. The stomping was followed by a door slamming, a door that then became the target for his toys as he threw them; as he threw each one, he shouted, “You are the meanest mommy ever!” I sat on a stool in the bathroom just listening to him. “I will never ever snuggle with you again! I don’t like you! I wish you weren’t my mommy!”

Typically, according to the parenting practices we’ve adopted for our children, I would wait until he was calm before talking with him again. (For all practical purposes this is an excellent strategy.) In fact, during the conflict I had said, “Go to your room and come back when you are calm and ready to be sweet.” But as I sat in the bathroom, something else came over me: conviction. Laying heavy on my heart as I listened to him hurl insult upon insult at me was that I was asking him to be better before I would once again be with him. Finally conviction had its way with me. I stood up and entered his room as he was in mid rant. I walked to his bed and sat down. “Come here,” I said to him and motioned for him to sit on my lap. He reluctantly complied, and I held him. He didn’t want to be there, but I held him firm. The entire time whispering to him, “I love you…I love you, I love you, I love you…” He relaxed further and further into my embrace and his crying and anger subsided. After a short while he whispered, “I love you, too, mommy.”

Why did I change my mind? What made me retract my earlier request and do the exact opposite? All I can say is that in the midst of my son’s tantrum, I became freshly aware of something: God has never asked me, asked us, to be better before He would dwell with us. In fact, while we were at our worst, God showed up; while we were busy denying God’s very existence by our lack of faith and mistreatment of our neighbor and the world, God made his presence known to us and pursued us. We earned none of God’s coming not the first time and not every time we come to encounter with God in the event of faith; our acts weren’t (and aren’t) together before God comes. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:13 that we were dead in our trespasses—it doesn’t get any more inactive and unprepared than that! And in this deadness we are loved, truly loved. Victor Hugo wrote in his work, Les Misérables, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved — loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” God, in Jesus, loves us this way – we can neither earn God’s love nor can we drive it away.

Each of us is struggling through this thing called existence and life. I’ve said a number of times this semester, to my kids and to my students: it’s hard being human, why do we make it harder for each other? Day to day we fight to make it to the end unscathed and unharmed. Each and everyone one of us fights to maintain our dignity and our humanity intact from the moment we rise to the moment we rest our heads on our pillows. So I wonder, why choose tearing down when we can build up? Why choose condemning others when we could feel our own conviction? Why choose me and myself when I know you and I are both struggling through? Why not love, love that breeds itself: more love…

I want my children to know they are loved; I want you to know you are loved…today, and tomorrow, even yesterday. And loved not only when you are calm and sweet but when you are at your worst. It’s there, at our worst, where the “I love you” breaks in and becomes real. Jesus Christ, the one who was “in the form of God” and who is the love of God for the entire world, has come to us and says, “Come unto to me.” He came while we were still screaming and throwing our toys, and he says, “Come here.” And reticently crawling into His lap and into his embrace, our ears are filled with His relentless “I love you, I love you, I love you,” And, maybe, after a short while softened and given to his embrace, we whisper in reply the words of worship: “I love you, too.”

 

*The original post “He Loved First” has been edited from its original version which was edited by Jono Linebaugh and appeared on another blog.

 

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The Art of Law and Gospel in Back to School

This morning I walked my boys to their first day of school for the 2016/17 school year. I all but skipped the whole way; my step was full of spring, theirs was a bit more shuffled. Yes, I am glad that school is back in session. But before you cast me that oh-great-another-ungrateful-mom-is-happy-that-she’s-rid-of-her-kids side-ways glare or mumble under your breath that I should be more grateful for the miracles and blessings that are my children, let me assure you: I am in fact very grateful for their lives and do see them as the blessings they are, so much so that I’ve set my occupational aspirations to super slo-mo to serve them to the best I can.

So, if I’m not happy that school is in session because I’m ungrateful or lack an understanding about my children being blessings, then why am I happy to have two-thirds of my children out of the house? Is it because having just one kid to care for all day is easier than all three? Yes, but that’s not the ultimate answer. Is it because I get more stuff done with the dearth of bodies lying about? Sure; but, again, that’s not the ultimate reason.

So what is the ultimate reason why?

Because, I get to be the voice of the Gospel.

Let me explain. Parenting requires parents to be both the voice of the law and of the gospel.  In terms of the law, parents uphold the rule of the household and teach general expectations of civil respect (following Luther: the Civic Use of the law); however, when these laws and structures are broken, there is a requirement to deliver consequences. These consequences–without fail, in my experience, no matter how tenderly I deliver them–are oft interpreted by the child in the Theological Use of the law (again, following Luther).  There is often weeping, gnashing of teeth, and the rending of garments at which point they are sent to their outer-darkness (aka: their bedroom). Into this real feeling of condemnation, we enter into their outer-darkness with them, embrace them, and speak those words that bring life to their young hearts and alleviate the condemnation in their young minds: I love you so much and nothing you do will ever, ever, ever stop me from loving you; this is the voice of the gospel.

Prior to being school-age, parents are often the sole voice distributing law and gospel equally (on a good day; on a bad day the scales tip, and for me it’s always in the direction of too much Law). Being the primary care giver, the stay-at-home-mom that I am, I’m often the primary disciplinarian and the source of comfort, specifically when my boys were too young for school and now during summer break. And this brings me to why I’m happy that the boys are back in school: there’s another outlet for the law to be spoken, and I get to (I’m honored to) take the helm as the word of comfort. And, by the time summer break has run it’s course, I’m exhausted from shouldering the weight of upholding the law and distributing consequences; good Lord, I’m crushed, too.

The oldest enters 4th grade and the younger enters 3rd this year. No longer in preschool where everyone laughs when you mistake a “d” for a “b” or you wear your shirt inside-out and backwards, the demands and expectations come roaring in, like a tsunami, out of nowhere. Whether from peers, teachers, and other school officials, my boys spend eight hours a day under pressure to perform, to do well, to hold their tongue, to act right, to play well, and when they don’t there’s consequences (rightly so). When that eight hour day ends, they come home exhausted, bad day and all, to me, and I get down eye level with them and say, “Boy, am I glad you’re home; I really missed you all day” and give them that unconditional embrace. When my oldest got in trouble for dropping the F-word (yes…THAT one) in school, and I was notified by email, I had all the fixings for root-beer floats ready when he got home. When the youngest got in trouble for tying his shoelaces to his desk during a reading lesson, and I was notified by email, I asked him what knot he was practicing. And I did those things not because I don’t think that they need consequences for their bad behavior, because they certainly do; it’s because I know full well that those necessary consequences were already delivered and adding more to their little shoulders will only prove to crush them beyond recognition. The voice of the law has sounded (sometimes all day), and when they come home, it’s time for the voice of the gospel, and, man, do I love being that voice.

And sometimes being that voice of the gospel is creating the space they need: space to be alone, “It’s fine, take your time walking home; I’ll be waiting for you with a snack”; space to be free to cry or to be angry, “You’ve kept that in all day…feel free to let it out”;  or, on the good days, “Yes, I would love to hear about the test you rocked…again.” Space is created by the word of the gospel for them to be heard and for them to be silent, to run about and to rest and watch TV, to throw something across their bedroom and to squeal with delight as loud as they can.

None of this occurs in a vacuum; none of this happens because somehow I’m just that well adjusted (because I’m not). All of this happens because this has been the encounter I’ve had with God Himself through Jesus Christ, our Savior, by the power of the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard (repeatedly) that Jesus Christ died for my sins and was raised for my justification, that by faith in this man Christ Jesus–who is God–I am fully justified and accounted righteous in Him, that God so love the world–that includes us–He sent His only Son to be the perfect propitiation for sins and to redeem us. And in hearing this gospel proclamation I have been impacted by an immeasurable, insurmountable unconditional love that has the power not only to undo me (because it certainly does do that) but also to move me toward others, my neighbors, specifically my children. And in this movement towards them, I get to be the voice of proclamation, I get to be a tangible experience–a mere taste–of that great, great Love of God for them. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

School is back in session; Glory be to God.