Home Maintenance–1 John 4:20-21

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.–1 John 4:20-21

Today, I enjoyed a harrowing experience. Back on Monday, I made a list of things I needed to accomplish in the week to come. Since today is Friday, I’m down to finishing off all those matters that I had put off ’til tomorrow. Two of them stood out. “Get the ladder” and “Clean out gutter.”
Most people do not look forward to cleaning out gutters, but my gutter, on the back of the house, is particularly unpleasant. A complete two stories up, this stretch of gutter resists all attempts by sane people to reach it. I can’t get to it from the deck. There’s no window access. I considered getting onto the roof from the front and crawling over the top, but I’m too big a chicken for that. Instead, I borrowed my mother’s extension ladder, a wobbling, wiggling affair, and clambered up to a nervous look over the gutter’s edge.
They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” In the case of gutters, I think that absence makes the heart ignore. I’ve known that this particular stretch of our gutters was messed up for a couple of years, but with its rather out-of-the-way location, I could easily ignore it. I can’t ignore my grass when it gets too tall but I can ignore the miniature wilderness area between our house and the “vampires” next door. What you don’t see very often is easy to block out.
As he continues to harp on the necessity of loving our brothers, John seems determined to demolish all of our pretenses, our illusions of truly loving God when we don’t. Think about it. When you see some able-bodied person’s yard a total mess, don’t you expect that the less obvious matters of home maintenance, matters like gutters, might not be getting proper attention. So it is with our love for God. If we can’t love the people right in front of us, who are we fooling when we say we love God? We’re not fooling God. Perhaps we’re just fooling ourselves.

Man’s Best Friend–1 John 4:19

We love [him] because he first loved us. –1 John 4:19

This morning, Kate has been running about the yard, barking at the geese and checking out the haunts of the neighborhood ground squirrels. As you’ve probably guessed, Kate is our dog, a Brittany Spaniel, given to us several years ago by a neighbor.

For the most part, Kate does all the things you’d want a dog to do. She growls and barks at intruders. She comes when you call her. Most importantly, she does things that should be done outside outside.

She also, on occasion, does things that aren’t particularly desirable. A couple of times, left on her own in the basement, she has dug through the trash to get at some enticing smell or another. When I come down and find the mess, though, Kate will cower on the floor. She knows she’s done wrong, and she doesn’t want me angry with her. She also, from time to time, runs off when we let her outside. Perhaps she chases a bird or some outside smell. We’ll yell for her to no avail. Inevitably, though, she’ll show up an hour or so later, returning home, the place where she gets food and water, a dry bed, and access to our bedroom during thunderstorms. From these actions, I deduce that Kate loves us.

Why does Kate love us?  I’m not delusional enough to believe that there’s something particularly noble or lovable about us. And there’s nothing especially discerning about Kate. Kate loves us because we take care of her. It’s that simple.

Why do we love God? (The NIV leaves out the word “him,” although it is pretty clearly there in the Greek.) We don’t love God because we’re incredibly perceptive. We don’t love God because of his great qualities–at least not at first. We love him because he did something for us.

Let’s not be prideful in our love. We’re like Kate, barking at the door. We’ve run off or been in the trash, but God still loves us, feeds us, and shelters us. God is certainly man’s best friend.

Anniversary Song–1 John 4:17-18

In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.–1 John 4:17-18

Today, I’d like to tell you a bit about my wonderful wife. As I write these words, I am celebrating my twenty-sixth anniversary of marriage to Penny. It’s far more than half of our lives that we’ve spent together now, as we were both still in our teens on May 28, 1982. And how are we marking this occasion? A cruise? A candlelit dinner? No. Penny is painting in the basement, and I am taking three kids to some event at Crown Center. Hopeless romantics, aren’t we?

In reality, though, we are romantics. We understand each other and our needs. Perhaps more importantly, our love is perfected, completed, made whole in each other. I am not concerned about not taking Penny to Paris for this auspicious day. I’m not concerned because I know that even when I mess up in our relationship, our love will endure. Had I not bought her a card yesterday and written a cheesy poem in it, all would still be well. Had she not bought one of those singing cards and stuck it into my closed laptop computer, my love would still be as great. We don’t have to worry about the other falling out of love.

What love is better than the love Penny and I share? Only the love that brought her into my life some twenty-eight years ago. When we are love-less, our hearts are questing, searching, but when we find enduring love, our hearts settle and cease to worry.

I praise God for the earthly love that he gave to me in my wife, but I praise him even more for the perfect, completing love that gives me the confidence to face each day.

Nothing but Reruns–1 John 4:15-16

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.–1 John 4:15-16

Back in the old days, when my household had cable television, we became semi-addicted to the various versions of Law and Order. We watched the original, especially enjoying the ones with Jerry Orbach, and we watched the SVU variety. We never could get into Criminal Intent with its tall, badly shaven, goofy detective as the lead. It just wasn’t the same.

One of the numbingly familiar things about Law and Order is the sameness of it all. The show always starts with one or several people going about their everyday routine, perhaps arguing about a parking ticket, and encountering the grisly evidence of some heinous crime, a  dismembered torso in a dumpster for example. Then they flash to the detectives arriving on the scene. One detective, usually Orbach’s Lenny Briscoe, gets off a wisecrack before the title sequence rolls.

Penny and I noticed a trend with Law and Order. Whenever you see an actor on the show who you have seen before, they did it. When you see the guy who played John Boy Walton or Jane Seymour (aka Dr. Quinn), they’re the culprit. The detectives might first find that person sympathetic, but eventually, after two or three plot twists, that familiar face will be unveiled as the killer/counterfeiter/terrorist/what-have-you.

Probably it is just this predictability that has spelled the end of the run for this program. It’s been a long, successful run, but there are only so many ways you can have basically the same people investigate basically the same crimes in the exact same city. In the end, even the new shows have begun to feel like re-runs.

I mention this because today’s verses seem very much like a re-run. What is John’s problem? Does he really have to repeat these words?  Didn’t he just talk about God in us and us in God back in verse 13? Haven’t we been all over this live in love and love is life and God is love stuff? Was John being paid by the word? What is up with the reruns?

I’d like to suggest a theory here. John is not a logician and his epistle is not a mathematical proof. The love of God and our ineffable relationship to God the Father through Jesus the Son is not something that can be broken down and fully explained using human logic. This should not be surprising. My love for Penny and hers for me are not explainable through logic. Happily that’s true, as no purely logical person would put up with me.

The love of God is not something we factor and balance and solve for X. The love of God is something that we dwell with, experience, immerse ourselves in. This love is a rerun that is never old. When we try to make it other than that, I believe, we diminish it into something of merely human dimensions.

Evidence of Residence–1 John 4:13-14

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. –1 John 4:13-14

I’m sitting on the couch in my living room as I write these words. In my blissful fantasy life, I can imagine that I live here alone, especially without the interference of those pesky kids. I can imagine it, but my dreams are quickly scuttled. The evidence of the kids’ residence is simply too clear.

Tom whistles–whistles!–in the hallway bathroom. Since he traipsed around in poison ivy this afternoon, he was instructed to put his clothes in the laundry and take a thorough shower. I have no doubt that his clothes are strewn about the bathroom and his towel is wadded on the vanity.

You can always find Olivia in our house by following her trail of cast off items. For some reason, the child believes that chairs are the place to leave books, and she is gifted at placing them so that they take up the most room possible. Lately, she’s become quite good at abandoning her iPod in inappropriate places. It’s amazing that she’s managed to hold onto that thing for nearly a year.

Alyson is tidier, but the evidence of her residence is still easy to find. A milk crate full of CDs graces the kitchen table right now. How can one person, one under-employed person, own that many CDs? They belong to Alyson. She thought some of us might enjoy them.

Now Olivia is pouring dry cereal into a bowl. Did she ask? No. Did she get some on the counter or floor? Probably. Will she leave the bowl somewhere we don’t want it–namely anywhere but the dishwasher? No doubt about it.

There can be no doubt that we all share this house together. According to John, there’s no doubt that we share our bodies with the indwelling Spirit of God. But is there really no doubt? I hate to be skeptical, but the inward residence of an invisible Spirit doesn’t strike me as the sort of evidence that will hold up in court.

On the other hand, I wonder if John doesn’t intend verse 14 to add to the evidence. How do we know that God has given us his Spirit? We know because we testify that the Father sent the Son to be Savior of the world. That testimony, John seems to suggest, should be as obvious as the evidence of my children living in my house. I must confess that such evidence is not as clear in my life. How about yours?

Imperfect Love–1 John 4:11-12

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. –1 John 4:11-12

In my office at home are many books. I’m a bit of a book junkie. Among my many books is a smallish collection of nicer, more valuable volumes. No, there’s nothing worth breaking into my house and stealing, but there are some items that mean something to me. Most notably, I have a small collection of T.S. Eliot first editions. Someday, when the kids are done with college and the mortgage is retired, I’ll fill my declining years by adding to that collection. I’ll be able to see a first edition of The Waste Land go up for auction on eBay and do something other than looking longingly at it. Frankly, in the grand scheme of collectibles, a $5,000 book isn’t all that outrageous, but given my current budget, it might as well be $5 million. Still, that goal gives me something to look toward, a project to complete. Someday, if I don’t get distracted by something shiny, I’ll see it happen.

Perhaps that’s what God has in mind for his love. His love, as John describes it in verse 12, will be made complete when we show love for one another. Maybe that’s what God is waiting for. It’s as if he had a checklist of baseball cards. Most of the boxes on the checklist are marked off, but he’s waiting for one or two hard-to-find items. Perhaps when you and I show love for others, then God’s collection will be complete.

Or perhaps not. That work translated as “made complete” in the NIV is rendered “made perfect” in other translations. The Greek word deals with things reaching their natural ending and purpose. God’s love is not incomplete regardless of how unloving the members of Christ’s church might be at any given time. It’s not incomplete, but it is not reaching its intended target, accomplishing its intended end. It’s rather like God’s love is a garden hose full of water. Our job is to direct that water onto the thirsty plants. We don’t add to or take away from the water, but we can get it where it needs to go.

How blessed are we that we get to serve as “nozzles” to God’s hose of blessing? It’s a poverty when we stand aside and allow that hose to remain unused by us while people are dry and needy. Let’s be clear. God’s love can travel many pathways, but I want it to be made complete in mine.

Who Started It?–1 John 4:10

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. –1 John 4:10

If I had a dollar for the number of times that I’ve broken up a fight between two of my kids. Tom argues with Olivia. Olivia argues with Alyson. Alyson argues with Emily. Emily argues with Penny. Oh yeah, I’m married to Penny. That’s another matter entirely.

Whenever you get in the middle of some adolescent fight, besides permanent ear damage from the yelling, you’re likely to hear the age-old refrains: “He started it!” “She started it!” In the end, it’s generally pretty tough to figure out who started the fight. The first kid hit the second kid who shoved the first one who called the second a name who looked cross-eyed  at the first, who . . . you get the picture.

Life doesn’t stray too far from the grade-school shoving matches. Who started the problems between the Arabs and the Israelis? Between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq. Between Microsoft and Apple? Who can tell?

Some situations, however, can only be started from one direction. For example, the relationship between the power company and my computer is a circuit. Electrons flow from some coal-fired plant somewhere, through the lines to my house, into my computer and then back to the plant. Any break along the line can put a stop to that flow of electrons, but there’s no doubt to where the whole process starts. If the nice people at Aquila don’t set the turbines in motion, there’s no juice.

In the divine plan, I’m a useless creation until the power company begins the love circuit. Love flows between us and God, but there’s no doubt about where that love begins. Who started it? God started it. All too often, in the push and shove of life, we can forget who started what. That might not be all that important in a kid’s fight, but in our understanding of our relationship with God, we can’t afford to think we’ve started anything.

Janie’s House–1 John 4:9

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. –1 John 4:9

Janie does not love her house. This house isn’t the one where she lives. I can’t speak about her love (or lack thereof) for that place, but her previous house, the one down the street from our house, the one that she apparently owns jointly with her ex-husband, shows a definite lack of love.

This lack of love is clear. The deck nearly fell off of it before some workmen tore the thing down. Janie has allowed a family of raccoons to take up residence, apparently gaining access through a hole in the eaves. They might also use the broken-out panel of the garage door or the recently kicked-in back door. I’m not entirely sure, but I have it on good authority that the ‘coons have moved in and left their evidence all over the place.

To her credit, Janie did get the grass mowed before being issued a ticket by the city. It had only reached mid-calf when her workers did their duty. The place is finally on the market, a move that brought great rejoicing onto our street. Hopefully somebody will pay a good thirty or forty bucks for the house and relieve us of our long neighborhood nightmare.

Love, whether it be for a house or a person, typically manifests itself in some tangible way. Although we humans can occasionally do apparently loving things for a reason other than love and apparently unloving actions despite genuine love, actual love will sooner or later be accompanied by actual loving actions.

Today’s verse talks about God’s ultimate act of love, one that far surpasses any that you or I might ever muster. But I really don’t want to focus on that act. Instead, I’d like to look at the way that I demonstrate love and encourage you to look at your acts of love as well. How do I show my love for God? My wife? My children? My church and my community? Hopefully I do a better job than Janie when it comes to maintaining the house of love.

Who God Is at Heart–1 John 4:8

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. –1 John 4:8

A student of mine wrote a web-site review several years back. I’ve used that assignment for ages, reading reviews of crocheting websites, eBay, the Hard Rock Cafe site, and so forth. This writer chose one of my favorite sites: Amazon. I read his exercise in mediocrity–really, I don’t dislike all of my students’ work; that’s just the more memorable stuff–and fell quickly out of love with it.

After wading through several hundred words replete with usage errors and inexplicable commas, I came to a stunning realization. No where in this guy’s review of Amazon did he mention the word “book.” What is Amazon, after all, but the world’s most amazing bookstore? Take a look at the Amazon entry on Brandtags.net (be warned that this site is wide-open and incurs some really stupid profanity), and you’ll see that both the terms “book” and “books” are enormous, indicating that they are enormously popular.

Somehow, my student missed the fact that Amazon’s top category is books. He missed the fact that they sell more books than anybody on the planet. He missed all of that. Of course, he did discover that you can buy all sorts of electronics and digital media from Amazon, but that’s not who Amazon is at their heart. How did he miss it?

The explanation for this is fairly simple. Amazon uses cookies and personal information to show us interesting (to us) materials to buy. When I log on today, it offers me Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer poems. My guess is that, since you probably haven’t bought several of Berry’s other books, they won’t offer those to you. For ages, they showed me Sherlock Holmes videos after I bought several of those–three years ago.

Because my student did not use Amazon for what it is at heart, he didn’t see Amazon for what it is at heart. Perhaps that’s how people get mistaken notions of God. Perhaps that is why some see God as the heavenly killjoy, a vengeful rulemaker. When we identify God as love, we are seeing him for what he is at heart. Yes, God can look like many other things when you don’t know him intimately.

Love and the Psychologist–1 John 4:7

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. –1 John 4:7

I just had a conversation with Marcie, a very secular colleague, a psychology professor. (Need I say more?) In the course of that talk, we happened upon the idiosyncrasies of one of our more unique fellow faculty members. As we reached a point in the discussion, we both groped for a word that would be both polite and accurate regarding this man. She then indicated that she tried to always avoid negative terms. Is that loving? It seems loving? Yet Marcie would, I’m fairly certain, chafe at the idea that she has “been born of God and knows God.”

Once again, John seems to be putting us into a bind by portraying a binary world. If you’re loving you know God. If you’re not loving, you must not know God. Does this mean that Marcie is a sort of crypto-believer or that the love John talks about is different from the love that Marcie seems to be describing.

As a mediocre Greek and theology student, I must confess that I don’t have a solid answer to that question, but as it turns out, I don’t need to have an answer. In applying John’s words to my life, I don’t have to know about the inner workings of Marcie’s mind. Might she simply be loving in order to be polite and socially acceptable? Yeah. Might her love have a definite boundary? Of course.

What I do need to know about is my heart. Am I ever loving simply to be polite and socially acceptable? My answer to that question is troubling to me. Does my love have boundaries? Will I love this far and no further? Will I love someone who is two steps out of my comfort zone but not three?

I’ll leave Marcie’s mind to her and God. Before I start dealing with whatever speck she has in the eye, I have plenty of work to do with the beam in mine.