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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: God’s love is much more than a ‘secondhand emotion’

UPDATED: Tue., May 24, 2022

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review. (COLIN MULVANY)

First, a mea culpa: In my April column, I illogically asserted that “Christ died for our sins” wasn’t in the Bible. I know better. What I meant to say was that “Jesus as a substitute sacrifice” wasn’t in the Bible. Anselm of Canterbury began this theory in 1097. I apologize for the confusion.

Now, to today’s topic: “What’s Love Got to Do with It” is the edgy title of a catchy – but cynical – 1984 song sung by Tina Turner. Great beat, but a distorted understanding of love if you think it’s only a “secondhand emotion.” Which brings me to a second song about love. And a true story.

The song? “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” To me, it’s a powerful counterpoint to Turner’s cynical take on love. When Mary Magdalene sings this song as Jesus sleeps, her inner conflict about love is evident. She only knows sexual exploitation, but Jesus offers her something so completely different that “it scares me so.”

Which brings me to a true story that happened 51 years ago this month. I was a pastor in Battle Ground, Washington, a Vancouver suburb, and was asked to speak at the senior baccalaureate. “Jesus Christ Superstar” music was popular at the time, so I decided to use Mary Magdalene’s love song as the hook for my talk.

Knowing it could be easily misinterpreted, I had the lyrics printed for the students, so they would read those words as the music played. I honestly don’t recall my exact message. But it began with Mary being scared by her new, deeper experience of love. It changed her life.

After the service was over, the principal shook my hand and whispered, “Baccalaureate will never be the same.” In one way, he was right. For a few weeks, not a day went by that I didn’t get mail or phone calls criticizing me for what people assumed I had said that night.

A group of conservative pastors had even attended the service to evaluate the liberal United Methodist pastor. Then they met to talk more about me. One of the pastors later invited me for coffee and tried to “test my theology.”

The peak of religious (read “unloving”) bigotry came when I was getting a haircut. My barber was part of the local Conservative Baptist church. His question was gently expressed. “What did you say at baccalaureate, Paul?” What he had heard was that I was (his exact words) “promoting prostitution in the senior class.” (Eye roll here!)

The experience is still a vivid part of my pastoral memory. I don’t regret for a moment that evening or its aftermath. They serve as a vivid reminder that love is sadly an elusive experience for too many people. We can experience it, or treat it, as a “secondhand emotion.” Tina Turner got that right. Too seldom, we forget authentic love challenges us to go deeper into our human need for connection. Mary’s right. That love can “scare me so.”

She experienced God’s radical, grace-ful love through Jesus, a very real person. He scared her so because being loved so completely was beyond her experience. That can happen to anyone who has only known superficial, conditional approval all their life.

This kind of root-deep acceptance, ego-dismissing love, did not begin with Jesus. Nor does it end with Jesus. But as the embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s love, Jesus was – and is – a model for millions of people who seek to live out love as so much more than a secondhand emotion.

It’s a love that enriches a lifetime!

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at elderadvocates@nctv.com.

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