Most Merciful God…

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

As an Episcopalian, I find this confessional prayer from the Book of Common Prayer to be my favorite. Though brief and relatively simple, the spirit of the prayer pretty much “covers the bases” for me.

Those who know me reasonably well also know that the two lines about love address the core of my personal theology. Jesus said, according to the authors of the New Testament, that the greatest commandments were to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves, numbers one and two of the “Ten Commandments.” I believe absolutely what Jesus said, because I remain convinced that if we could just bring ourselves to comply with those commandments in the fullest possible sense, the kingdom of heaven would be not only near, but here.

These days, I don’t talk about the first commandment very often, largely because what loving God means to me has no bearing on how others feel about God, just as my relationship with any one person has no bearing on my relationship with another. But the fact is that our understanding and interpretation of what loving God and being loved by God means has everything to do with the second. Standing alone, the second commandment, “loving our neighbors as ourselves,” presents some pretty challenging problems. For instance, the definition of the word “love,” or “neighbor,” or “self,” or what “loving oneself” really entails.

I almost wish there’d been another clause to the second commandment—something like “love ourselves as God loves us” in between. Because if we love ourselves as God loves us, all is well—that love will flow right on out to our neighbors. But if we don’t really love ourselves, then we’re not going to love our neighbors either. And the fact is that most of us don’t really love ourselves—at least not in the sense I think God loves us. Until we do, to talk about loving our neighbors is a futile discussion. Loving ourselves comes first.

It will come as no surprise that my psychology master’s thesis studied self-esteem. Despite the fact that my collegiate days coincided with the upswing of secular, humanistic psychology which often denied the existence of God, I never had trouble reconciling my spiritual beliefs with the “intelligence” of emotions. There’s nothing Jesus was ever reported to say, or a parable he taught, that I could not confirm from the psychological literature. The tenets of 20th century self-psychology and object relations theory that I embraced simply undergirded what Jesus had long ago told us was true.

I return to the story of the prodigal son every time I think about it—hence the name of this blog. The father of that prodigal son loved his son. Period. Though he’d gone and thrown away his inheritance, voted for the “wrong” guy, slept with the pigs (consider the possibility that we might not be talking about literal pigs there…), gone to a different college from the one his father wanted him to or simply bucked the system and dropped out of high school, gotten his girlfriend pregnant or some such, was drug-addicted and checked into rehab again, you name it…the prodigal son’s father loved him. That father loved his son so much that he waited and waited until one day, the son came to his senses. And when he heard that his son had appeared in the distance, he didn’t walk to meet him. No, he ran to welcome him on the road.

I can hear my detractors now. “Yeah, but the father didn’t run to meet him until he came to his senses,” they say. Wrong. The father in the story didn’t know that the prodigal son had come to his senses, nor did he really care. All he cared about in that moment was the fact that his son had come home.

Though we often deny it, we often act as if by sheer will we can achieve the state whereby we will become acceptable in God’s eyes, never once considering that what we do is irrelevant. It’s the grown-up version of “If I make good grades, my daddy will love me.”

That’s where the other part of the story of the prodigal son comes in. The son who had remained at home—the one who was incredulous that his father threw his sibling a party—believed that his father’s love for him was tied to the fact that he had done what he was “supposed” to do. He believed himself loved more than his brother on the basis of their behavior, and was shaken by the unassailable evidence in front of him that what he’d believed, and acted upon (or had wanted to, but hadn’t) had been a farce.

For me, the greatest tragedy is that the church is not only the place where we first learn of that unchanging Love, but it is far too often the place that renders us unable to embrace it, even for ourselves. That was true for me a long time ago—it was the reason I left the organized church and ventured into the world of psychology. The church had become the son who stayed home. In many ways, it still is.

I remember feeling sad when I first heard the term “unconditional love” in a psychology class. There were two reasons. One was that the “unchurched” around me spoke of it as if the concept was a new discovery. The other is that the use of the adjective “unconditional” with respect to love is redundant.

Conditional love, after all, is an oxymoron.

 

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