URC :: Spirituality

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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Being loved

Barry Hutchinson
4 August 2018

I began my training for ministry in an Anglican college. All of the Church of England candidates had a six day retreat before ordination, isolated from world, friends and families. Some of them weren’t very happy about it, especially those with youngsters, but it seemed to me to be a proper and deeply spiritual way to prepare for ordination. The URC doesn’t arrange a pre-ordination retreat (though it should!), preferring instead to organise a leavers’ conference which at that time was almost totally practical covering such topics as stipends, conditions of service, sickness, pensions and Retired Minister’s Housing Scheme etc. All this has been very useful over the years but not attending a pre-ordination retreat felt to be a bit of a deprivation so I found myself my first Spiritual Director to guide me through my final six months of freedom.

Filled with fervent desire and equal ignorance I asked to “do the Ignatian Exercises”. His very wise reply went something like this “Well, you might get your prayer life into very impressive routines but unless you know that you are loved you’ll have a bitter heart.” My first instinct was to bitterly affirm my deep awareness of being loved thank you very much; but I bit my tongue because he seemed to know a thing or two that I didn’t. And so began a long and slow journey to uncover something of the meaning of love, of being loved, and of loving in return; of what place love properly has in Christian doctrine, prayer, experience, ministry and mission et al.

I recently read a quote from Meister Eckhart which said “Real obedience is the highest of all virtues”. Well, in my arrogance, and perhaps my ignorance, I beg to differ. It seems to me that love is the universal encompasser, the ground and centre of all other virtues and qualities and divine giftings and attributes, the greatest of virtues. Love is most freeing of inner motivators and raison d’être. Discovering the meaning of love, resting in the experience of divine love, happy with the guidance and discipline of love, the beloved is increasingly freed to become loving themselves, to be filled and grounded and healed and energised by love under its profoundly nurturing and maturing influence. The maturity brought about by love, the experience of being loved, of being lovingly healed and grown, cautioned and taught self-restraint and self-giving, begins in the deepest, most inaccessible recesses of the soul. Quietly, slowly, almost always painfully, the beloved is converted by the indwelling God, from egotism and selfishness into glad, focussed and purposeful self-sacrifice on behalf of the other, for this is the beloved’s true and originally blessed nature, being restored.

Love is completely about giving and serving on behalf of the beloved. God is therefore completely about giving and serving on behalf of the beloved because God is love. God gives himself to the beloved and the beloved, basking in the knowledge of being unconditionally loved, is drawn to God, gives herself to God, increasingly, more unreservedly as trust and intimate knowledge of God’s trustworthiness increases and grows.

Dwelling ever deeper within God’s self, the beloved develops the family likeness and learns loving behaviour towards others which issues in practical activity or, in other words, in mission. Love thus becomes the prime motivation for mission for love, by its very nature, must express itself in practical ways towards the beloved. One who truly loves will always be an active lover, uncontent with passivity and self-interested actions and programmes. Without the deepest motivation of a maturing, deep, divinely connected love, offered in loving concern, mission is dangerous for it too easily serves the ego and vanity of the missioner rather than the true needs of those served. Without love as its deepest progenitor mission is too prone to serve the needs of the institution and the people within the institution, for self affirmation, self congratulation and for self replication rather than selflessly offering the selfless and profligate love of God. Both look and feel similar but mission without the primal impulse of selfless love, remains earthbound and can actually prevent the true freedom to mature which Godly love offers.

Very few, if any, human beings reach either the heights or the depths of Godly love, of agape, but simply recognising the need and determining to set out on the inner journey begins to break down resistance to the radical self-death which Jesus commands. As reserves crumble under the influence of His tender love fear and mistrust begin to dispel, brokenness is healed and love begins to flower; realistic, unsentimental love that allows the lover to view the reality of the world, more free from personal delusion and denial.

In my time at St Cuthbert’s Centre on Holy Island, I witnessed and sometimes accompanied people setting out on a new journey into the depths of God, into love. To a person they have been impelled by some kind of life crisis through which they have been thrown into darkness and doubt, questioning God deeply, occasionally bitter; their former experience and system of belief no longer able to support them. Miraculously, as they engage with their own pain, in the company of God, they find themselves healed and grown, more emotionally stable, more able to face their world with equanimity. It takes them time; usually years; it is a lifelong process that cannot be shortened; it is a conscious relating to God, a conscious baring of the soul to God, a constant offering of the inner depths of the self to God, who honours the offering and makes his child new, fit for the kingdom.