Across the street from where I grew up was a big Catholic church complete with a school, rectory and nunnery. They hosted robust fiestas, the priests wore floor-length robes, and the nuns were nice to me. Don’t get me started on the holy water; let’s just say for awhile that year every door in our home had a half-full Dixie cup on its threshhold and an eleven-year-old who crossed herself before going in to the toilet to pee.
I was jealous of my friends who got to go there as I thought the place rocked. My experience with it was only from a distance though, but from my upper bedroom window looking down over the church yard I saw and heard a lot. But what really got me was the music; Folk Mass was on Sunday nights and the songs were some of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard, igniting my budding musical sensibilities. This was the beginning of the 70’s… a time of simple words with simple melodies sung with a simple acoustic guitar. One stanza and chorus of one song said
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. 1
I never forgot those words. But the real impact of them didn’t hit me until much later.
I learned that when He was here, Jesus ticked off the religious leaders of the day when He said the commandment that trumped all others was that we should love God with everything we are and next, that we should love our neighbor like we love ourselves2. Who wouldn’t agree with that? But although I called myself a “Christian” for a long time, for years I didn’t live up to what that moniker means, in fact, sometimes not even close. I didn’t love — I lied. I judged. I compromised. I put myself first and tried to get away with all degrees of ugly. But I sure looked good when I needed to.
Oh maaaaan, it seems to be there’s a lot of that going around especially on the public stage. Is it just me, or lately does there seem to be a rash of Christians in the news who seem to be tarnishing the label beyond repair? As I listen to some of Christianity’s more vocal public critics like Bill Maher, Joy Behar and Jimmy Fallon bashing so much of what I hold dear, I want to shout at the TV “that’s not Jesus!” And although I cringe at their vitriol, I have to admit something to you: I kinda don’t blame them. I mean, come on. If all they see “Christianity” to be is a TV pastor who once publicly decried homosexuality but then was caught in the back room with a male companion, or believers picketing a California state proposition in anger, or the singer who sang songs about Jesus but then stole another woman’s husband, or a Christian politician’s family member who (whoopsiedaisy) had a child outside of marriage… what are they SUPPOSED to think it’s all about?
Lest I scare some of you, I hope you’ll hear this: I believe we need to stand up for what we believe and strongly defend our faith. I do. But when we do, do we sometimes forget people are watching as we claim to represent God Almighty? Are we only ambassadors of His judgment… but not His mercy and love? What would it look like in today’s political and moral climate if we “put on love”3 in the way He did?
Here’s how I see it. I can’t speak for how you’ve “lived love” in your life, but I can sure say I’ve done some of those despicable things they’ve done when I knew better. Many of the hurtful, selfish, idiotic, judgmental things I’ve said or done would cause anyone to question whether I was in fact a real Christian, or certainly whether or not I knew how to love. As a result, I know I’ve caused a whole lot of people confusion and pain. Worse, I have very likely done serious spiritual damage in some who might’ve looked to me for what a Christian should be like. That’s just the awful truth and although I know God’s forgiven me, I have to live with that.
But here’s the sweet part of the deal: today I know God is the “God of the second chance”. He forgives, He remembers no more, and He moves on, wanting us to do the same so that we don’t waste one more second of the limited time we have on earth wallowing in yesterday’s news. That’s the beauty of being His kid! I will always be a bonehead who blows it but hopefully, those “I knew better” moments will be fewer and farther in between and man-oh-man am I grateful He wipes the slate clean each time I recognize it, tell Him so, receive His forgiveness and MOVE ON. Hopefully I am learning each day to be less concerned with being the perfect Christian and more concerned about what it means to love Him (action) with all that I am and to love others around me (action) as God asked me to do, whether or not they believe the same way I do. The rest will take care of itself, I know it. I am convinced today that I am a member of a royal line who is forgiven, loved, and thought the best of by the King. I want to live like I believe that and will keep on trying to love the way Christ would want me to, all the way until He greets me at the door of heaven.
How will they know we are Christians? I’d like to think it’s more than what’s emblazoned on our T-shirt, but rather, by the unmistakable way we love.
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I could be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13: 1-3; 13
Sylvia is a singer and Christian women’s speaker, and lives in Southern California.
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1 ©1966 F.E.L.Church Pub., Ltd. Assigned 1991 to Lorenz Publishing Company, a division of The Lorenz Corporation. Reprinted with permission (8/30/12).
2 Matthew 22:37-39
3 I Corinthians 13
4 Isaiah 43:25