I grew up in home where we went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and every other time the church doors were open. And during the summers I went to Vacation Bible School that lasted not one week, but most of the summer. We learned all the Bible stories and learned all the songs. Of all that the one thing that has stayed with me through the darkest days was the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, red and yellow, black and white, Jesus loves all the children.” That has been the song of my theology.
My theological thinking has been grounded in Jesus’ teachings on love. Jesus said the two most important commandments are “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” He went on to say that God is pure love, the one who loves unconditionally. My own faith in the unseen God and my following Jesus is built upon these teachings. Everything else is another room built on the house of my theology, but Jesus’ teaching on love is at the dinner table of my life.
But then in today’s reading (Matthew 5:21-37) we hear Jesus’ most difficult teaching; “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We might ask ourselves why we should try to do such an impossible thing? Because, Jesus says, this will bring about a “perfection,” a full-bodied maturity within our souls. In other words, by loving our enemies we will take on the very nature of God. But what would “loving our enemies” look like in real life?
On October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts, a local milk man, walked into the Amish one-room school house in Pennsylvania. He had a gun at his side. He ordered the boys and the four adults to leave the building. Then he told the ten school girls, ranging in ages from 6-13, to lie face down on the floor. He tied their hands behind their backs and summarily shot them, killing five. Then he turned the gun on himself. In his suicide note, he told the story of the death of his infant daughter years before. The note said that he blamed God. Hating God, he decided to punish God by killing those innocent girls.
The story is horrific. When the event happened, most people probably expected the Amish to hide away in their grief. And most of the world would have thought nothing of it if the Amish community spoke out in condemnation of the killer and his family. But that’s not what they did.
Within hours of the shooting, the grandfather of one of the victims told the boys who had been at the school not to hate the killer, for Jesus, he told them, said that we must forgive. That very night, parents of the murdered girls went to the home of Charles Roberts parents and consoled them in their moment of shock and disbelief. Robert’s mother told the Amish she knew she would have to move far away. But the Amish convinced her that she truly needed to stay in the community. At Robert’s funeral, the Amish outnumbered those who were not Amish, praying in solidarity with his family.
When I heard this story ten years ago, I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of loss and at the same time the love and forgiveness of the Amish community. I tried to picture myself in the shoes of the Amish parents. Could I have loved and forgiven as they did? I don’t know.
Then a mentor suggested a meditation that I might use to explore my depth of love and forgiveness. My mentor said I should picture a person who had wronged me or someone in history that had done some terrible act, like Charles Roberts. Once I had the image of that person in my mind, then I should say their name and then say, “love.” Then my mentor said I should repeat that ten times. “Charles Roberts…love”—ten times. My mentor recommended I do that once a day for a week and then reflect on my experience. My mentor told me that if I wasn’t experiencing any transformation in my soul, then I could keep repeating the meditation every day until I noticed something happening in the essence of my being. I’ve been sitting with that meditation for years, experiencing its subtle work on my heart.
I think this kind of meditation can also have a powerful effect on a community. As individuals, picture the person that has wronged you or wronged someone else that you love. Focus on that image. Silently mouth their name. Now mouth their name and whisper, “love.” Let’s do it together, silently mouth the name, then “love,” -------, “love.” (Repeat ten times). I encourage you to keep repeating this meditation for a week. Then ask yourself, “What is this meditation working in me?” Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Maybe this is a way to follow Jesus’ most difficult teaching because in loving our enemies we are being transformed through the act of loving the body of Christ.
From the 12th century writer, Symeon the Theologian:
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens in our body…
And everything that is hurt, everything
that seems to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparable
damaged in him is transformed.
And recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in his light.
we awaken as the beloved
in every part of our body.