by Berry Friesen
Preachers typically talk a lot about the love of God. This is especially so during Holy Week, when the story of Jesus walking toward likely death in Jerusalem in order to save us from our sins takes center stage.
Why this emphasis on the love of God? Do we need to be convinced that God is not against us? That we’ll have a chance of surviving our final encounter with the One who made us?
I’m not sure what mistaken notions preachers are trying to overcome.
On Good Friday, I visited Norman Lowry, a prisoner of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at the Dallas State Correctional Institution.
Norm has been imprisoned more or less continuously for seven years for disrupting operations at the US military recruiting office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Though he could gain his release by promising to never again disrupt operations there, Norm has refused to make that promise. He’s convinced God wants him in prison, sharing God’s love with the other “residents” of that bleak and violent place.
Norm often speaks of the love of God—to me, to other inmates and to the guards.
So as we sat in the noisy visiting room, side-by-side in the plastic chairs, I asked Norm about the love of God. “Why do preachers talk so much about it? Why do you?”
Norm isn’t fond of preachers or churches and doesn’t identify with their project. “If they believed what they say they believe,” he says of church people, “they’d be shutting down the prisons.” So in response to my question, Norm didn’t attempt to explain why preachers talk about the love of God.
Instead, he explained why he does: “It’s powerful enough to set you free.”
People who think of themselves as free already aren’t likely to give Norm’s message a passing thought.
But it has traction in a place where men live every minute of every day with a profound sense of physical, emotional and spiritual captivity.
And it grabs hold in other places too, wherever people recognize their enslavement to powers that fill our heads with lies, fill our hearts with fear, and fill our spirits with the false hope that greed and violence will save the world and bring us joy.
Norm often recounts conversations with incredulous inmates in which he has explained why he is still in prison. “God loves you and so do I. I’d serve your time if I could.” Hyperbole? Maybe, but Norm’s words convey better than most what Jesus believed: his act of self-sacrifice would set us free. And that only a liberated people can change the world.
Whether this is what preachers mean when they talk about the love of God, I can’t say. But I left my visit with Norm with a Good Friday insight. Only love is strong enough to break our chains. We’re talking here about life and real bondage; nothing but love will work
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at http://www.bible-and-empire.net