the greatest of these

An itty bitty preview of the opening of a chapter on loving the Other, from my forthcoming book with Zondervan.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28

I have never got along all that well with children. As a child, I chose books over other kids more often than not. I never had a huge group of friends, always preferring the steady company of a few intimates. As a high schooler, I got jobs in food service instead of spending my evenings and weekends babysitting for car insurance and spending money. So when I was pregnant with my son, I was grateful to read that some mothers don’t instantly bond with their newborns, and that it might take a while for him to grow on me, even after he’d grown in me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, at his birth, I felt a powerful, visceral, overwhelming, aching love for this little purple-red creature. A love that has only increased as the years have gone on. A love that is courage-giving and terrifying, powerful and vulnerable and utterly confounding. Confounding in part because he’s not always very nice to me. There is a lot of whining. A lot of ingratitude. Some screaming and tantrum throwing and “I hate you’s.” He can be demanding, spoiled, selfish…just really obnoxious. There are times when I just want to roll my eyes, tell him to shut up, run away, show him how much worse he could have it.

But I love him with my whole heart. And when the day is over and he’s finally asleep, I look at his face that is a mirror of my own, and I listen to him breathe, and I curl his tiny fingers around mine and thank God for entrusting me with this miracle of life, this funny, sweet, smart, often-caring, fast-growing little boy.

As my son was born of me, we are born of God. The loving gaze with which I watch my son is tepid, the aching love a shadow compared to the fire of love God carries for us.

And so it should come as no surprise that the God whose love catalyzed a universe asks us to love not only those who are easy to love, and not only those to whom we are biologically pre-conditioned to love, but those who are least like us and who like us least.

Grace is costly, and love is hard.

Jesus’ life was an ode to the love of Other. He gathered rejects, bridged social and traditional divides, and turned the notions of hospitality, mercy, and justice on their heads. Piety is out, compassion is in. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn that neighbors are those who love “the least of these.” In this chapter, we explore the limits of love. How are we called to extend mercy to “the least of these”? Who is our neighbor? And we will ask especially what it might mean to view animals as our creaturely neighbors and to extend neighborly love to them.

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Max (Fall 1998 – August 21, 2014)

Max on Bed Close-up
Max Withrow King (1998-2014)

I adopted Max from the Idaho Humane Society when we were both babies. She was a tiny orange ball and when I saw her, I knew I was there for her. I learned years later than most orange cats like her were boys. She broke the mold in more way than one.

I was an idiot back then, no idea what it meant to take care of a kitten, and living in a campus house that didn’t allow animals, but she was my girl and a couple of lame rules weren’t going to get in the way of our happiness.

kitty in a lunch bagShe was a feisty girl, who loved to play, all day and all night. She played with my comb, grocery bags, and my shoes. I would frequently find her attached to the window screens, and that’s probably what prompted the notice in my mailbox that I had 30 days to vacate or re-home Max. My mom happened to be visiting, and she graciously agreed to bring Max home to Eugene with her, since I knew I’d be moving back in a couple of months. Mom was pretty entertained by Max’s love of paper bags and bemused at her habit of sitting on the ledge of the bathtub whenever Mom took a soak. Of course, Max loved the idea of water much more than the reality. She fell in to my bath once. It wasn’t fun for either of us.

In her lifetime, Max travelled across the U.S. by car twice and airplane once. She lived in fifteen different houses or apartments with me, and stayed more than a few nights in hotels and hostels across the country.

One night, shortly after arriving in Pensacola, Max disappeared for a day, after having been accidentally let out the back door by a houseguest. Totally devastated, I spent $15 I didn’t have stapling up reward posters all over the neighborhood. Long before I had a digital camera or smartphone, the posters simply gave a description of Max and said “she comes when you whistle a tune.” I walked the streets and the woods behind the house frantically whistling her favorite song: “You Are My Sunshine.” She arrived home late the night after she got out, scratched at the door, and walked straight to her food bowl when I let her in—not a girl long on ceremony.

image (5)One of Max’s favorite games was fetch. She would drop a tiny foam ball into my hand and wait patiently for me to throw or roll it across the floor. She’d run after it, paw at it for a couple of minutes, and eventually bring it back to me for another throw. She loved playing fetch on the stairs. The bouncier the throw, the better. As she slowed the last year, she stopped wanting to play and would instead leave the ball in my shoe—a gesture of nostalgic love.

When I started work at PETA, she was my carry-on bag, and her litter and food was one of the two boxes that I checked in Portland and picked up in Norfolk. She was angry at me for three days after the plane ride, and I came home from dinner one night to find that she’d squirmed out of our attic room, found her way into a bathroom in the middle of renovations, and managed to get trapped between the floor and ceiling, taking out a few ceiling tiles in the meantime. I was able to coax her out with the help of a co-worker and a can of wet food.

Max was food-obsessed. I woke up once to find a plastic box of pastries on the floor of my studio apartment, a giant hole ripped in the top and bits of turnover missing from the contents within. I quickly learned that nutritional yeast needed to be in a sealed tupperware container. And if a sandwich or toast was in play, she’d straight up paw my plate in her attempt to get a nibble.

max and giehl snuggle

Max wasn’t very fond of most people or animals. She fought nearly daily with Katie, distrusted even the gentle Emma, and read Isaiah with a hermeneutic of deep suspicion. But she loved Giehl. And she continued to tolerate me. The last year, as her health declined, she cherished opportunities to snuggle up on Giehl’s chest whenever he came near our bed. She’d talk to him nightly, telling him it was time for her wet food and time for him to lay down so she could go to sleep.

After sixteen years together, I’m sure there are stories that I’m missing. As I held her tonight, as she lost consciousness and drifted away, I told her that I loved her, that I would always love her. I whistled our song, prayed that I would not forget, and thanked God that we would one day wake up with Jesus together.

anxiety

I’m traveling tomorrow morning, early, to the west best coast, first to go to a conference and then to visit my family in Oregon.

I used to travel with abandon and without a care in the world. I’d throw a bag together and head out for an impromptu road trip, eagerly anticipated opportunities to go overseas, and relished the adventure of wandering through new places alone.

These days, that joyful excitement is tinged with a hefty portion of anxiety, particularly when I’m heading off without Isaiah in tow. I start to feel it in my belly weeks in advance – that crunching, churning, acidic fear. I feel my heart race. My sleep is restless and filled with disturbing dreams. I feel guilty for leaving my son so much, even though he’s here with his dad and a half-dozen surrogate parents who genuinely love and appreciate him. I know I’ll wake up the morning of travel, in the early morning hours, and feel a deep dread. I know when the plane takes off and lands, or hits a little patch of turbulence, I’ll cling to the arms of the tiny seats and pray “Please Jesus, please Jesus, please Jesus.” I’ll try to remember my friend Lily’s image of angels carrying the plane on their wings (even though I know, I know…physics). I know when my son and husband get on a plane a few days later to come meet me (forgetaboutit burglars, we have an awesome house-sitter), I’ll fret for their safety until I meet them outside of the security area in the airport. I know I have life-insurance and a living will and that if I do die, they’ll get through it. Life will go on.

I don’t want to be afraid of dying. I don’t want to dwell on the thought that my son might die before I do. But I do. I do.

And while some might say that makes me a bad Christian, I say it makes me pretty human. A human with a slightly defective brain who tries her best to use crushing anxiety and chronic depression as opportunities to learn to trust, to release the idea of control, in a world that wires us for FEAR! FEAR! FEAR! and to chase the lie that we are our own gods.

There’s been a lot of nasty weather around here lately (cough-climate change-cough). Earlier today, a little band of thunder and lightening rolled through the region. It was loud, and a little scary, but not catastrophic. As expected, the local 11:00 am news spent the bulk of their 30 minute newscast talking about the lightening-heard-round-the-city and showering us with information about the storm and its aftermath (one downed power line, from what I gathered).

Yesterday on my drive in to work, a local radio personality was interviewing an automotive writer about driverless technology in cars and during that interview she said, “Any technology that will keep us safer is a good thing.” Not to go all tin-foil hat on you or anything, but when we start thinking that way, we’re only a skip and a jump away from allowing technology (and the people and institutions who control that technology) to rule us. Safety is our god. Power is our lord. And information technology is our savior.

Gosh, does that sound familiar? I can’t help but think of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2. God’s creative power has resulted in a peaceful, nourishing, cooperative paradise. Men and women are partners with other created beings. They are all cared for and in loving communion with the One who gave them life. But their desire for control, to “be like God,” outweighs their appreciation of these gifts. And so the story of human history is now the story of brokenness and longing. Longing for more power, but also for reconciliation and restoration. A constant tug-of-war.

That conflict is in me. I know that the illusion of control is dangerous and, ultimately, doomed to be disappointing. I know that I can’t predict the future, that my son or I or anyone I love could keel over dead at any point, anywhere, no matter what I do or don’t do. That wars ravage the globe and injustice runs deep and wide. My goodness, my preparedness, my checklists and procedures and precautions don’t add up to security.

“I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 40:1-3)

Security comes from the author of the universe. And we learn through Jesus that it doesn’t always look very secure. Jesus was crucified, many of his early followers were martyred. Jesus-followers today put themselves in harm’s way to be peacemakers and reconcilers. Think of this lone priest in Kiev, standing between police and protestors. That doesn’t look very secure to me. Think of medical professionals who enter countries ravaged by poverty, colonial rule, and war, called to minister through their vocation to those in desperate need. Think of the men and women who stand between warring gangs in the inner cities, trying to stop gun violence.

And think of the everyday people, like you and like me, who face everyday battles fueled by a culture of fear, violence, and injustice. Double- and triple-checking our doors and windows are locked at night, jumping a little bit every time the school calls in the middle of the day, choosing isolation over participation out of our fears of rejection or failure.

I hate to sound like a cheesy valentine, but I think the remedy for this fear is love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16b) God doesn’t abide in those who have it all together or get it all right. If you live in love, God lives in you. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in the world.” (v. 17) Bring it on, crappy, broken world. Bring it on. I’ve seen perfect love in Jesus, and I’m trying to live in love the best I know how. You can’t throw anything at me that love won’t absorb. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (v. 18) I know I won’t reach perfection in love. It’s far off, but I know that love abides in me, and that if I listen to that love when fear is screaming at me, trying to get my attention…my heart rate drops, by breath calms, and my mind starts to focus on something besides the chaos I create.

So, tomorrow morning, I’ll try listening to love instead of fear. And we’ll see what happens.  And I might listen to this a couple more times, too.

shatter

Who is in my community? Who is in my tribe? Is this defined by gender, political allegiance, color, birth-state, how-I-take-my-coffee, twizzlers-or-red-vines? No. When we allow God to give us our community, instead of self-selecting a safe space, we shatter and the glittery, sharp pieces of who we are in the world scatter across nations, time, species, and socio-economic contexts, connecting us with Jesus-in-the-whole-world.