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Forming a Community of the Spirit: Hospitality, Fellowship, and Nurture, Part 2 of 2, by Steven M. Fettke

Gods-Empowered-PeopleTo speak of love properly—without sounding insincere or weepy and sentimental—is a difficult task. Appeals could be made to the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13 or to Shakespeare’s famous sonnets or even to the best Hallmark greeting cards prepared for Valentine’s Day. Reading about love and declaring that love is the foundation of the two most important commandments is one thing, actually practicing that love is quite another when people are involved. As the old joke goes, “I could love the whole world if it weren’t for all the people in it!” This is why the word “nurture” has been chosen instead of love. Of course, nurture must have love as its foundation and focus, but only speaking of love is inadequate; love requires sacrificial action. The apostle put it this way, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Tom Long has told this story, which illustrates the loving nurture proposed here.

Several years ago I was at a church in Alabama, scheduled to preach in the morning service. A few minutes before the service, the pastor got up from his desk and beckoned me to follow. “Come here,” he said, “There’s something I want you to see.” I followed him down the stairs and into the educational wing. We approached a Sunday school classroom, and the pastor pointed to the glass window set in the classroom door. “Look,” he urged. I peered through the glass into a kindergarten class full of activity. In one corner of the room, a teacher was reading a story to a group of children. In another corner, a teacher was assisting children in building something with blocks. In still another area, children were gathered around an adult with a guitar, learning a new song. In the middle of the room sat an elderly woman, calmly and slowly rocking in a rocking chair. Every now and then, a child would break away from a group and come to sit on her lap as she rocked. Occasionally, the woman in the rocker would say something to one of the teachers, and the adult would respond with a laugh and a nod of the head. The actual teaching was being done around the edges and in the corners, but this aged woman in the center was radiating grace around the room. “She used to be the only kindergarten teacher,” the pastor informed me. “But now that she is late in her life, others do the teaching. But she still comes every Sunday morning to sit in the center of the room and provide a blessing.”40

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”
—Galatians 6:1–2

Believers might get a warm feeling about the children being nurtured by the elderly woman, but, if hard pressed, might be persuaded to admit that they, too, need the kind of loving nurture she was providing the children. Were the children there because of the other children, the activities, or because of the nurture they received from the woman? What radiates from the center of my faith community?

Surprisingly, love—the true kind of love, God’s love—is not an easy or casual subject. The power of the gospel to bring genuine empathy and relief to the hurts of others seems so remote in a busy, agenda-oriented, success-guided world. Yes, the local church is supposed to be a repository of such nurture, but for people harried and wounded by a hostile world there is great hesitancy and doubt of the possibility of love and nurture. And when we have spent six days protecting ourselves from verbal and emotional assaults, it is hard on the seventh day to break with old habits and believe the promise of God’s nurture or make an attempt to lend another such promised nurture. After all, won’t the other be suspicious or expect payment in return? Truly loving someone with the kind of nurture intended by my emphasis in this chapter might mean believers become vulnerable, open, and even willing to help bear the pain of others. People are practiced in guarding their hearts because life often breaks open hearts. We don’t want to open our hearts and listen so that we do not run the risk of the hurts that can come in. Listening with our hearts can actually be risky because it means that we also might suffer with the sufferers.

… a life formed by love for others inevitably leads to one’s own suffering, and this is true in Jesus’ life and in the history of God … Jesus on the cross is God … made weak and vulnerable to worldly powers because of the perfection of divine love.41

The poet Perry Tanksley put it this way in his poem, “My Unbroken Heart”:

Regardless of the cost I sought to avoid

The tragic hurt of being annoyed

With a broken heart from loving someone

To discover too late my love unreturned.

Alas, I discovered while living alone

My heart, unbroken, had turned to stone42

A story is told about Nouwen (now deceased), a Catholic priest and brilliant psychologist and theologian at Yale and, later, Harvard, who suddenly resigned his prestigious position at Harvard to become Director of Daybreak, a ministry to the severely mentally and physically handicapped in Toronto.43 There were those who believed he had thrown away a brilliant career at Harvard to do something so insignificant and meaningless in regard to his gifts and talents—moving backwards from the way of society’s recommendations and expectations. But this was certainly not his attitude about his decision.44 His reaction was to describe his resignation from Harvard and move to Daybreak as God’s call.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2012

About the Author: Steven M. Fettke, M.Div. (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Th.M., D.Min. (Columbia Theological Seminary), is Professor of Religion at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He was awarded the Delta Alpha Distinguished Educator Award by the Alliance for Assemblies of God Higher Education in 2009. He is the author of Messages to a Nation in Crisis: An Introduction to the Prophecy of Jeremiah (1982).

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