Christianity at its deepest level gives us a vision of the world as the fully sensual manifestation of God’s love and then provides us with the practices by which we can respond to this gift. It is an invitation to experience a life in which gratitude and contentment, peace and joy take their place alongside the difficulty and pain that will invariably come our way. Insofar as people are inspired and formed by the love that Christianity teaches, they become people who can live in the world with an uncommon appreciation for life’s goodness and beauty. Christian faith that is working properly produces people who nurture and cherish life. It produces people who are fully alive rather than comfortably numb.
I first learned this from my grandfather Wilhelm Roepke, the same grandpa who forgave me for breaking his window. He was a German peasant farmer raised in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe during the world wars. The only life he ever wanted was one in which he took care of his land, his animals, his family, and his community. I came to see his work as one long labor of gratitude and devotion. But his was no simple life. He personally experienced as a soldier and then as a prisoner of war the unspeakable brutalities of war, destruction, and dislocation. Hearing the stories of the suffering, violence, and trauma he and his contemporaries faced, I came to wonder how he ever survived. He was separated from his home and family for months, not knowing whether his family and friends were alive, dead, or being subjected to pillage, torture, or rape. When he was finally reunited with his wife, two daughters, and a son, he had to live with loved ones whom he discovered had been brutalized in ways that defy imagining.
When the war was over, my grandfather learned that he could never return to his farm; it had been confiscated by government officials. So he moved to western Canada in the early 1950s and vowed to make a new start. He bought land and worked to make it fertile and beautiful. He took care of his animals and fields. I remember once taking him to visit the Rocky Mountains that formed his western horizon. After a day of walking mountain trails and taking in stunning vistas, I asked him if this was not one of the most beautiful places on earth. He said, “It surely is. When will we be going home? I miss my home place.” In him there was an uncommon congruence between what he wanted and what he had.
My grandfather was among the gentlest and kindest people I have ever known. He was fully present and alive to the gifts in his world. Despite all the pain and suffering he experienced, the joy and grandeur of life flowed through him. When I greeted him in the mornings, “How are you doing today, Opa?” he almost without fail said, “Immer gut. Manchmal besser! (Always good. Sometimes better!)” I loved being with him, because when he worked he often sang or laughed or simply marveled at what he saw. His bodily movements communicated contentment and humility. He didn’t have to speak to express his gratitude and praise to God.
Having since learned more about the brutal world in which he grew up and then read some of the literature on post-traumatic stress, I now wonder how he did not become bitter, cynical, disaffected—or simply shut down. Why was there no trace of apathy or resentment in him? How could he affirm life when he had lived through years in which a full-scale assault on it had been attempted?
The best answer I can give is that throughout it all he maintained a steadfast trust in the goodness of God, a goodness that was apparent in the world around him if he opened and made himself responsible before it. He truly believed that, despite all the horror we can unleash upon the world, the love of God calls us to respond in acts of devotion and kindness toward each other. The astounding thing to me is that for him hatred of life or others was not an option. Neither was dishonesty or evasion. For him religious faith was not an escape from life’s troubles. It was a way of participating in the redemption of the world. However it happened, my grandfather had been provided with a wonderful map that saw him through his life and directed him to live in particular sorts of ways. We all could use such a map.
My grandfather was training me in the ways of love, even if I did not know it at the time. Working with him was like undergoing an apprenticeship in love. His expression of faith, gratitude, and contentment taught me much about what it meant to live fully. He gave me a map I could follow, for which I am very grateful. I was his grandson, but also his student in more ways than I can fully articulate.
We can’t learn to love on our own, because love is about nurturing and celebrating relationships. I often wonder if much of our confusion about love stems from the individualizing and atomizing forces in our culture. In multiple places—in schools, at work, even at home—people are taught that life is a competition in which others are frequently portrayed as obstacles to personal advancement. Or people are so busy that they don’t really have the time to devote to the nurture and development of each other. And so many of us, despite being surrounded by people, often feel alone or as if we have to make it pretty much by ourselves. At the end of a long day, who has the energy and personal support to commit to training in the ways of love?
But life alone is a life without love. It isn’t simply that people sometimes feel that they are not deeply and practically loved by others. It is that they lack the communal contexts in which love can be taught, modeled, and exercised. To learn to love, you have to practice with other people who are committed to inspire you when you are tired, celebrate you when you succeed, and comfort you when you fail. You need to see what other people are doing when they work at love and pay particular attention when the work gets hard, so that you can better prepare for your own attempts at love. You need to talk with others about what love means and requires, hear about past mistakes and successes, and learn from the memories and traditions that help communities thrive. All of which means that to learn the ways of love you have also to learn the ways of communal life.
Church is the name Christians give to the communal bodies that practice and promote the exercise of love. Church is the place where people come together to be inspired and taught by the love of God to act lovingly with each other and the whole world. Obviously, churches can fail terribly in this effort. But when they are functioning as they should, people discover that they are always loved, that they are responsible for each other, and that they are called to model to each other and to everyone the divine power that transforms fearful, bored, or lonely souls into people who nurture, protect, and celebrate the gifts of God. Christian community is the merciful and indispensable classroom in which people face their confusion about love, repent of their unloving ways, and switch from strategies of self-protection and self-enhancement to projects that seek the well-being of others.
It is easy for churches to fail in this work, because the love God calls people to practice and promote is sacrificial at its core. The love Jesus models is disturbing and difficult, because it represents an inversion of how we might ordinarily like to live. Scripture puts it this way: “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). Or as Jesus says it in John’s gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13).
Love is not about gaining or securing the world for ourselves. It is about going to others and offering ourselves to them. It is about giving ourselves to others, so that our life together (and thus also we ourselves) can grow and flourish. Christianity hinges on the love that enables us to release our grip on ourselves as the central, most important thing in the world. But in order to risk loosening our grip, it is important to know that others will catch us when we fall or fail, support us, and help us get back on our feet again. That is what a thriving Christian community does. It trains people in the art of sacrifice.
Jesus shows through his own body and with his life that the way of love is the way of sacrifice. I can understand why this might not seem like good news. Loving others within the context of community life requires that we give of ourselves. This is a difficult thing to hear and appreciate, particularly in cultures and contexts that are governed by fear, shame, and abuse. Moreover, the vocabulary of sacrifice has been used far too often by people looking to legitimate their own ambition or oppress one group after another, such as when women are asked to “sacrifice” everything for their husbands and boyfriends or when young men and women are sometimes asked to “give their all” for a country at war. Like love, the language of sacrifice is susceptible to abuse. It can be the means for a denial of life rather than its flowering.
But the sacrifice inspired by Jesus does not ever mean the denial or degradation of life. It can’t, because genuine sacrifice is the way of love, which is the way of leading others into the fullness and abundance of their life. Sacrifice is a communal, mutually abiding movement that strengthens life’s relationships and potential. It is not a heroic or self-glorifying gesture. Though it may at various times lead some to a martyr’s death—especially when the power of love comes face-to-face with the power of intense hatred—to “lay down one’s life” for another does not mean that one is seeking self-annihilation.
Sacrifice means that we have made others the first priority and that we have joined ourselves to others, so that together we can be more attentive and available to the needs of the world. In the denial of self that Christianity recommends, we should not see self-hatred, because each creature is the expression of God’s love. The love of Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves, because without others we have no life. Life is a communion or membership of creatures in which each creature thrives to the extent that it is nurtured by others. If the membership is healthy and whole (because each member is committed to its nurture), then all the individuals within it will have the best life possible. Sacrifice is the gesture that keeps us focused on nurture rather than self-preservation.
To see the wide scope of sacrifice, we can look to John’s gospel, where Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:24–25). Here we can see that the movement of life is always transitive, taking us to others, binding us to others in relationships of mutual need and help. The moment we seal ourselves off from others or attempt to live solely from our own resources—perhaps thinking we are the source and destination of our own life—we perish in worlds of loneliness, deprivation, and death. The seed must give itself to the soil for the plant to grow. It must send its many roots far and wide so that maximum interaction and mutual benefit with its life-giving environment can occur. Like a grain of wheat, we must give ourselves over to the transformation and nurture that others can provide for us and we can provide for them. Life’s fertility and vitality depend on the principle of self-offering that Jesus revealed in his ministry on earth. Self-offering is the crucial gesture that makes mutuality and togetherness possible.
Christian love teaches that life is not a possession to be hoarded or privately secured, because the way of possession inevitably leads to loneliness, isolation, and death. Life is, rather, a gift that is meant to be offered to and shared with others. Life and dispossession go together. Without the forgetting of oneself, the full flowering of life cannot occur. Christian life rests on this paradox: you find your life by giving it away. It is not a complex idea, but it is incredibly hard to perform, because personal fear and anxiety cause us to resist this self-giving. This is why we need a loving communal context that will inspire, teach, and nurture us to do it.
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