This post is not a particularly "religious" post. When I mention religion it is to tell you where I come from and the path I took that gets me to the conclusion to which I come. You may come from a far different place and by a far different path. But I firmly believe that we can all end up at the same place, and that if we do OS will be much the better for it.
There has been an intentional and consistent theme to several of my recent reflections: the absolute importance of love. I am a Christian. As a Christian it is absolutely necessary to understand that God loves us, all of us, Christian or no. And for the Judeo-Christian religions the instruction to reflect our reciprocity to God's love is clear: we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. I skipped a bit of that thought. We are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus, of course, challenged us further. Jesus says we are even to love our enemies. Here and in the rest of this post the kind of love we are talking about is agape: love that puts the well being of the other first; a spiritual love; Christians say it is the kind of love exhibited by Jesus.
But the challenge of loving our enemies is, unfortunately, almost never at issue in most of our lives. I almost never, except in counseling environments, get asked just what exactly loving our enemies means, or how that could be implemented. Most of us, apparently, are having too hard of a time just loving our neighbors, including our neighbors on OS, to even wonder about how to love our enemies.
I get PMs fairly regularly asking basically about our relationship here on OS: “Why can’t we love one another more?” Most of those PM questions are not stated exactly that way, but stripped down to their true meaning, that is the underlying question. Now, granted, those questions are often asked in frustration about someone who has been snippy in a comment, or about some of the very angry people here who can not restrain themselves long enough to leave a civilized comment on some post.
People often come to me to learn the name of a universally applicable salve that I can prescribe and they can rub on and then wake up the next day just chock full of love for whoever it was that was so unlovable, or did something so unloving yesterday.
When I first started counseling people the fact that I had no universal solution scared me to death. I was forever thinking that I might be some kind of a fraud if I could not answer such a simple question. Now I don't feel that way. I have learned that simple questions do not automatically mean that there are simple answers, anymore than that universal truths are universally applicable to every individual or every situation. They are not. I take comfort in that fact, but I realize that doesn't make your relationship problems go away.
Sometimes after I understand a bit of the story, at least from one side, I can assure the good soul who has written to me that the unloving experiences or the past month or so of her/his life is likely just an aberration because the one they are worrying about is normally not that way. Chalk it up to a bad hair day. I opine that most of the time we do love one another, but sometimes we just have a hard time showing it. Perhaps S/he just had the misfortune of running into people at a bad moment, or in a bad situation, or catching them at the wrong time.
But sometimes when I do that, as the days pass I have a little time to reflect on the point, and to pray about it; and the more I reflect and pray on answers like that, even if they turn out to be true, the less satisfied I am with my answers.
Which brings me back to Open Salon. I really don't think that the increasingly hostile and unloving atmosphere on OS can be chalked up to a bad hair day, or even several bad hair months. The fact is that when I am completely honest with myself I have to admit that I have noticed far too many signs of the lack of demonstrating anything approaching agape love among ourselves.
Now, to anticipate your next thought, it is true that we are not all Christians and there is nothing that demands that everybody has to show agape love to everybody else. That is both obvious and true. But a love that puts the wellbeing of another ahead of our own selfishness surely cannot be something we would credit only to Christians, would we? I hope not.
For example, those of no religion at all often have very high moral standards that include some variation of that kind of love as the hoped for moral goal that we should all reach in our interaction with one another. I can't think of a single atheist friend of mine on OS who would say that he or she did not try in their own way to show such care towards others.
So, we aren't dealing with just a Christian thing here.
Let's ask ourselves if we can begin to approach this sometimes hard to get our hands around problem we face in OS not by showing what treating each other with love would necessarily look like (we'll get to that in a bit) but to identify some of the signs that not loving each other look like. What are some of the signs of a failure to demonstrate love among ourselves? Here are just a few of the ones that I jotted down; you can add your own.
--- too often being abrupt and dismissive. And its opposite: assuming that someone who might simply be pre-occupied was being abrupt and dismissive – rude – to you.
--- indulging in far more gossip than we, any of us, should engage in, and surely more than we need. Maybe here via PMs, or via email or even on right here in our own posts. And its opposite: accusing others of promoting gossip about us or one of our friends with no evidence that such was the case.
--- questioning the motives of others, rather than taking one another’s statements at face value, and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
--- suspicion that there must be an ulterior motive behind seemingly innocent statements or gestures. Or even assuming that someone who posts about something that is truly bothering them is doing it for fame or publicity or to gain sympathy, rather than believing that they would not have posted about all that pain if they did not feel it.
--- an unwillingness to see as unintentional foul ups in a post or failure to post at all, absences from OS, failure to read, failure to comment, failure to rate, failure to praise, poorly worded comments that can be taken two ways, and honest mistakes. Yet the fact is that foul ups happen, sometimes people are forget, and people make mistakes, lots of them; and most of them are unintentional. And, believe it or not, some people have more important things than to be on OS for hours every day.
--- an unwillingness to assume good will on the part of someone who disagrees with us; a failure to realize that the person has his or her own convictions and need not always agree that everything we think is right. A corollary of that is to assume that when someone disagrees with an idea of ours that they are attacking us personally, when, in fact, they are challenging our position on an issue.
--- finally, an unwillingness to listen and really try to understand what someone else is saying, rather than trying to figure out what we are going to say next. In other words, failure to communicate because we haven’t really figured out what the other person is saying because we are too busy trying to make some brilliant point in our comment.
Now, who is guilty of that? Well, me, for one. I am guilty of quite a bit of that from time to time; not all of it all the time, but definitely some of it some of the time. I’m not proud to say that. But it is true. If it weren’t true I wouldn’t have the nerve to bring it up. Sinners all – that’s what the Good Book says. All includes me.
How about you? Are you guilty of any of that, or of any of a hundred other unloving thoughts or gestures toward others here that I could have listed? Or are you above all that? Or do you find it irrelevant in "an internet environment"?
Before you even attempt to answer any of those questions, let me warn you that I am going to introduce some Christianity right here. But let me also say that what you read from here on is applicable to anyone who claims to be part of humankind.
Let’s look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Let’s let Paul inform our hearts and minds before we get any further here, lest we decide that this stuff is all small potatoes, that it really doesn’t matter that much, and that all of this agape love stuff isn’t quite all that important anyway, so what’s the big deal?
Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is addressed to a divided church. The challenge for Paul was to differentiate between what the Corinthian Christians might have thought love was and what Christian love actually is. He was trying to convince a local church that he founded and loved very much just what made the love he called "Christian Love" special? He wanted them to understand that there was a kind of love that was different than sexual, sentimental or romantic love. This was a "self sacrificial" love. But what is sacrificial love, anyway? Paul tells us that self-sacrificing love is a love that “seeks not its own.”
Chapter 13 of his letter we call First Corinthians is his great answer to those questions. But there is a problem with Chapter 13, or at least with referring to Chapter 13 in Christian circles, and that is that Christians all know it and love it. It is by far the favorite text chosen for reading at weddings. And that is the problem. Christians literally associate it with weddings. It is even known as the "Wedding Chapter." And implicit in that is the illogical conclusion that it should never be read or used at any other time!
Of course, it was never intended to be associated with weddings. Paul had no such thing in mind. For Paul it was the ultimate truth about who God is, about who Jesus is. It was Paul’s own epiphany, his “Aha! I’ve got it!” in terms of understanding what God was trying to do on this earth: to establish love: love for the Father, love for the Son, and love among all of us. Ultimately, Paul knew, nothing else matters. Only love. Love. Above all else: love.
So, to some extent those of you who are not Christians have an advantage when you read what Paul has to say since you may have no preconceived notions that this chapter is "properly" used only at weddings, wrong though that notion of many Christians may be. And here is the bottom line for all of us: Without love we are nothing.
Paul says, “If I speak in human tongues or even the speech of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Preachers ought to pay attention to that one. No matter how well I used to preach, and I was recognized as a good preacher; no matter how clever I was, no matter how well I know the Bible and no matter how well I can write about it, if I do so without love, I have done nothing more than make a lot of noise.
Those are strong words. Paul, a beautiful writer, says that all the pretty words are nothing but noise without love.
Agape love is not sex; it is not sentimentality; it is not romance. It is not a stupefied unwillingness to see the world as it really is. Rather, it is the recognition that, because the world is often corrupt and evil, nothing at all will do except love. You don’t fight evil with evil, you fight evil with love. And, if you are going to succeed it had better be a tough love.
Paul says, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Well, so much for all of this education that I have accumulated over the years. It is worthless without love. All this insight into the Bible, all this “insider” information that I have picked up, isn’t worth anything on its own. Nothing.
I want to rebel at that. A lot of time, money and hard work went into the gathering of all this stuff in my head. How about you? What about all you have learned, the wisdom you have gained, the skills you have perfected? Don’t they stand for anything? Well, without love, they don’t!
Christians sometimes get the idea that we have all the answers, sort of a closed club. We feel sorry for those on the outside who aren’t “with it.” But let us not forget that Jesus didn’t come to proclaim a new philosophy of life, he didn’t come to teach us how to “be all we can be” for its own sake. He came living and dying in a new way. He came to show us the perfect embodiment of love: to show us what love really means and how to love that way. That is why Christians have faith in him. Christians say that faith is the answer. And it can be for many.
But what about that stuff Paul says about faith? You know: “And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
That’s going a bit far, isn’t it? Isn’t faith, after all, what saves us Christians? How can it be “nothing?” Well, without love, it is nothing. Paul doesn’t say it outright, but I will: Faith without love, my friends, isn’t faith. Period. So if you are a Christian and are proud that you are saved, which is a sin in itself, then, watch out; because if you can’t demonstrate love to others, you had better question whether you have faith at all. Harsh? Yes. But true.
There are Christians who know just about everything there seems to be to know about Jesus, except that he is love. These people wear their faith on their sleeves, like some badge of honor. Yes, they know everything about him -- except that he is love.
If they knew that then they wouldn’t use their knowledge to bludgeon everybody else over the head with it. They wouldn’t feel so self-righteous because they think that they sin less than we do; they wouldn’t spend so much time testing fellow Christians about the details of our faith, or our belief in propositions they think are essential, but are really details in disguise, separating us in their minds from the "true believers" like themselves. They wouldn’t be such Pharisees. Not if they truly loved like Jesus loves.
I could go on further with the importance of love. But I won’t. You get the picture. The bottom line is that without love, we are nothing. Nothing at all.
But the question remains, “What is love?” And the smart-alecky answer is, “If you have to ask you will never get it.” Fortunately, Paul didn’t give us that answer. He spells out the characteristics of self-giving love in detail. These, says Paul, are the characteristics of agape love:
5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
That’s it. First Corinthians 13:4-7. Read it. Study it. Ponder it. And if you pray, then pray about it. And then, and only then, compare this definition of agape love with how you demonstrate your love to others.
I can’t tell you how any of you will compare. I’ve done it. I come out fine on some, OK on others, and I fail on some. Six months ago I probably would have come out the same way, succeeding on some, doing OK on others, and failing on some, but not necessarily succeeding or failing on the same points.
You see, we all change. If we take up this challenge today and then we try to do something about our weak spots over the next several months and take the challenge again, the results won’t be the same. We change. Hopefully, we grow. And, I pray that we grow in demonstrating our love to one another.
My belief is that the Open Salon center still holds. I still believe that most of us can and do try to offer agape love to one another on OS. I still believe that this is a community filled with far better people than I ever imagined could be gathered in one place on the internet. In 15 years of internet involvement, from the days of bbs and Tandy 1000 computers and 2800 bps modems this is the best place I have had the privilege to be part of. And I thank God that he has chosen to place me here among you. It is a blessing.
And, yet, I also believe that we can do a far better job of demonstrating our love for one another than we have over the last few months.
So let’s do it. Together. Let any one who looks in on this community, who asks "Is this the right place for me to display my writing or artistic skills?" drop in and say, "Wow! Those folks on OS really care for and about one another! I would like to be part of an internet community like that!"
May we, by our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions demonstrate that kind of agape love toward one another.
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