Replacing a first love
by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief –
Once upon a time there was this nice, little church.
It had strong, straight, simple teaching that focused on the two principal commands of God. The first concerned mankind’s relationship with God. The church wanted its members to believe that God truly existed, was worthy of man’s love, and that Jesus was Messiah, the Christ, God’s son who had lived, died, and lived again before joining his Father in heaven. The second concerned mankind’s relationships with other humans. The church said that humans should love those around them, including those very different from them.
The little church grew and grew. It got to be a nice size. Its members smiled at one another, met together and enjoyed each other. They seemed to really care about others in their town, too. They helped them, cared for them when they were ill and grieved with them when they were hurt.
Like any social group, the little church began to make a few rules to assure that it maintained its focus on its main goals—loving God and loving others. Every once in awhile someone with slightly different ideas would try to move them to a different way of thinking by suggesting that loving God required certain specific behaviors. Some even suggested that certain kinds of people shouldn’t be loved at all—in fact they should be excluded from the community. The little church was polite to these visitors, but said: “Thank you, no! The way we show God that we love him,” they explained, “is by loving others and caring about them. The nice, little church remained on guard against false teachers with energetic zealousness.
After a few years, the list of rules seemed to grow even faster than the church. They had so many rules that they forgot why the rule was made in the first place. You couldn’t do this—you had to do that. They appointed some of their members to what they called The Secret Purity Squad. The squad worked hard to make sure everyone in the nice, little church followed every single rule. They excluded rule breakers from their fellowship. Their zeal to root out heretics knew no end. Sometimes, they weren’t very kind. Sometimes, they had favorites. Sometimes, they acted on rumors or whispers.
The people began looking at one another fearful that they might be reported. Everyone seemed suspicious of everyone else. Nobody smiled anymore. Coldness replaced warmth. Fear took joy’s place. They stopped saying “Good morning” to one another. Love disappeared, supplanted by self-protection. The rules had become more important than the people.
It became kind of ugly.
Along came the “Enforcers,” a special group within the Purity Squad that moved within the people and punished those who seemed not to be obeying the rules. By this time there was no due process—no rights to confront accusers. Certain people were singled out, and they just sort of “disappeared.” No one seemed to inquire as to where or why they had gone. Mostly, those punished were those who seemed a little different. They were those among them who were easily identified, a little independent, somewhat vulnerable. Some of them had come from far away and talked funny or looked a little strange. Some argued with the wrong people in ways deemed unacceptable.
No one stepped forward to defend those accused. No one raised a voice in opposition. Fear now replaced caring.
Then, one day a letter arrived. No one knew who had actually written it or how it was delivered, but it was addressed to the leaders of this very specific church. The pastor read it to the entire congregation with the Purity Squad sitting on the front row.
It started with commendation, but ended with warning.
This is what it said:
“I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I
know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I
know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out.
“But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with
you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall!
“Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well
on the way to removing your light from the golden circle.”
It was unsigned, but everyone had an idea who had sent it.
The front row gulped and swallowed hard. They looked around, suddenly on the defensive and began to ask each other: “What does it mean: we have lost our first love?”
They had become so distant from the organizing principle of their church that they could hardly understand the message.
The pastor explained. He had not forgotten. He said: “We are first asked to love God. He knows that we love him by the way we love one another. This is our first love – loving God by loving each other.”
He continued: “We have begun to believe that we can require people to love God. We can’t. In our zeal to judge others we stand condemned. In our eagerness to root out evil we have embraced it. Instead, let us reveal God by the way we treat others.”
And then he smiled and said: “I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.”
Please join me.