Big Love

Tuesday came into my son Patrick’s life unexpectedly. Tuesday, by the way, is a dog. The twelve-week-old pointer mix had bounded up to him on a Tuesday evening. Hence the name.

If you look at Tuesday now, you’ll see huge floppy ears, long legs, and enormous feet. However, on their first meeting, Patrick was struck by the puppy’s protruding ribs, his pronounced hip bones, his wobbly gait, and his desperate affection.

The vet confirmed Patrick’s initial impression. Tuesday was near death. Terribly undernourished, the pup was also consumed with parasites and disease. Patrick secured Tuesday’s medical treatment, gave him his daily medicines, fed him a special diet, and slept with him on his chest.

IMG_1034Tuesday’s health was touch and go for a while. Love, with the help of veterinary care, has transformed him into a sweet, energetic companion.

You may be thinking that Patrick is kind and tenderhearted. A dog person. Or, maybe, an animal lover in general.

And these words do accurately describe him. But there is something deeper, something essentially human at work here.

By caring for Tuesday, Patrick has said yes to his—to our—deepest vocation. We human beings are most fully alive when we love what God loves. And God loves the entire creation.

Like any calling, we can say yes or we can say no to the voice whispering or singing or even shouting in our souls.

This is what Jesus is getting at with the parable of the two brothers. A father commands two brothers to go work in the fields. One says no. He then changes his mind and hitches up the plow. The other son says, “Sure thing, Dad!” When the old man’s gone, he settles back down with the X-Box.

Some will understandably hear in this parable a lesson about following rules and obeying orders. This is especially the case if you confuse parables with allegories.

Allegories invite the hearer to draw one-to-one comparisons. So, in this story the father would be God. We are the sons. The command to work stands for the moral law. We are doing God’s will when we obey the moral law. That’s how allegories work. They give us clear answers. In this case: obey the law and don’t be a hypocrite.

Parables teach in a different way. They turn our habitual way of seeing things sideways. As a result, we begin to ask edgy questions about ourselves.

In the case of what Barbara Brown Taylor call the Yes and No Brothers, Jesus is challenging us to reflect on what we’re really called to do and to be in this life. He urges us to look deep within ourselves and ask radical questions.

In the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we hear that God created humans in the divine image. In other words, we are most fully human when we love what God loves. The catch is that beings who can love are also beings who are free.

To paraphrase the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, we aren’t human the way a rock is a rock. A rock is just a rock. By contrast, we humans can choose how we will inhabit this world.

We can love. We can hate. We can be indifferent or scornful. Loving what God loves makes us fully human. So living a fully human life is an infinite, eternal aspiration. Because God loves the entire cosmos.

I began this reflection on love with the example of a young man’s love for his dog. Many of us love dogs. The thought of abusing a dog baffles and repels us. Loving a dog comes naturally to us. We discover in our own experience an limited example of what it means to love what God loves.mount-mckinley-landscape-caribou-1139422

Now imagine loving every created thing in the same way.

Cats and parakeets, caribou and salmon, pythons and alligators. Stars and moon.

Mountain ranges, birch trees, and arctic wilderness. Even cockroaches and mosquitos. The whole creation. Every proton and every galaxy.

In case this seems preposterous to you, ask yourself the question that the great theologians have asked over the centuries. Why is there something rather than nothing? God’s love is the most common answer. Everything that exists owes its very being to God’s love.

God’s love is not like your love and my love. Our love is a response to something’s or someone’s lovability. For instance, we are drawn by beauty like Bugs Bunny is lured by the smell of carrot soup. What something is—or at least what we think that something is—attracts us.

God loves things into being. God’s thought of Tuesday or my dog Gracie or my son Patrick brings them into existence. God’s continued love sustains all things in their existence. If God were to stop loving any created thing, it would simply cease to be.

The medieval Franciscan theologian Bonaventure said that all things bear the fingerprint or footprint of the God who created them. I think it’s in keeping with his intention to say this. God’s love vibrates within every created thing.

This insight is part of what made St. Francis so remarkable. We tame his radical thinking by making him what Richard Rohr calls bird bath Francis. We bless animals on a day in October and leave it at that.

But Francis saw the divine love teeming at the heart of bees and wolves and winter storms. Humans are part of the great web of created being.

Our role in life is to be the steward, the IMG_1022nurturer of all that is. In other words, we are to love what God loves.

Too often we approach our planet with one question. What’s in it for me?

We use, abuse, and even pillage our environment. It’s but a small step to using and abusing other human beings. In too many places in our world we took that step long ago.

The parable of the Yes and No Brothers leaves us with a radical challenge and a holy aspiration. To be human is to love what God loves. And God loves the entire creation. That’s a big love.

Only Jesus has fully lived out that high calling. But with his help, our capacity to love can can grow in our daily lives and can be stretched into eternity.

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, husband, dad, and movie-goer

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