I’m [not] gonna “love on” you

Some time ago–10 years? 15 years?–I began to hear Evangelical pastors encourage their flocks to “love on” other people. As in, “Let’s make hot chocolate and sandwiches and go ‘love on’ those homeless people in the park” or “I know Brother or Sister X is struggling with their faith right now, but we’re gonna ‘love on’ them until they come back to Jesus” or . . . but you get the idea.

I’m sure the leaders that used the phrase had their hearts in the right place. They probably truly wanted to love people in the way that God loves them.

But “love ON”?

Of course I’m a Word Nerd, not because I enjoy grammar policing, but because I think words are important. And the insertion of this two-letter preposition into a phrase that has been consistent for many years before–why “I ‘love on’ you” instead of just “I love you”?–served as an early warning signal of something troubling at the heart of this expression of the faith. Loving “on” instead of just loving others places us in a wrong relationship with the thing we are saying we want to love.

Think about it: in order to put something “on” something else, you have to be above and looking down. I can’t put a book “on” a table if the book is underneath it. I can only put a book “on” the table if the book, and at least my hand, are above the table.

So when we say we are going to “love on” people, we are saying that we are above them, and that the thing we are carrying to them and placing on them–love–comes from “up” where we are, not “down” where they are.

“On” also carries a hint of coercion, of pressure. I’m going to lean this weight of love “on” you in order to change you, in order to make your life “better,” at least in my opinion.

Bad theology. Bad practice. And not at all what Jesus says.

An Evangelical catch-phrase from 40 years ago much more clearly captures the essence of what Jesus wants his followers to be about: “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” In other words, no one is any better than anyone else when they are truly standing in the Way of Jesus. No one is over anyone else. The rich and powerful, those who are winners in the culture wars, stand on the same ground as those whose lives are much harder and more desperate.

(Actually, I would argue that if there is a hierarchy amongst the followers of Jesus, the poor and oppressed are the ones “above” everyone else. Those of us who have a disproportionate amount wealth and success in this very unequal world of ours need to learn and be guided by the poor, who by their very lives know things that are difficult for us to comprehend. But that will be another post.)

If you ever want to “love on” me, I will not reject your gesture. But for my part, I will never “love on” you. Instead, I will, with God’s help, do my best to live in to loving as I have been loved.

When “Love” Is Not Love

In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare claims: 

Love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds.

As generations of my students can attest, I scoff at “refrigerator magnet Shakespeare”—quotes taken out of context because they are pretty or sound wise, and that usually have a more complex meaning than will be evident from the quote. And I realize I am in danger of doing the exact same thing here.

But let me tell you what catches my attention about this quote. It’s the break at the end of the line, leaving the phrase “Love is not love” just hanging there. 

How can love be not love? If it’s love, isn’t it, well . . . love? 

Shakespeare tells us that what seems to be love isn’t love if it changes, even if the beloved is going through his or her own changes. And even out of context, I think the speaker of the poem has a point. 

Love is love.

And love looks like love.

One of the things that makes me both sad and angry is to see people who claim that their Christian faith is what compels them to do things in the name of “love” that look more like control, or disgust, or even hatred. They seem to feel that they have the right to tell other people how they should or shouldn’t live their lives—friends, family, even perfect strangers.

How is this love?

They will say that it is loving to speak the truth. That it is not loving to allow other people to tread down a dangerous path. That real love involves having the hard conversations, and doing the hard things.

And they are not wrong about this. When someone that I love is doing something I suspect will lead to later pain, just turning a blind eye and letting them damage themselves and others is not loving. 

But some people who claim Christian faith have taken this principle and used it to justify what are obviously very unloving words and actions. 

Telling people God hates them? Calling people names like “abomination”? Claiming that some sins are unforgivable? Casting someone out of your family because you don’t like some things about them or some of their choices? 

Love looks like love. And none of those things looks like love. 

When my sons were little, we used to play a little game. Now, my family has always had a rather dark sense of humor, so like so many of our games, it would often take a turn for the gruesome. 

Here’s how it would go. I would tell them that I love them very much, and that I would always love them no matter what. The boys would then begin to counter with things that they would do that might make me stop loving them. Usually the first suggestions were innocuous—go mess up my room. Stop doing my homework. But then, as these things go, the suggestions would, well, become more creative.

Would you still love me if I kicked the dog?

I would make you stop kicking the dog, because it is not ok to hurt another creature, but I would still love you.

Would you still love me if I killed the dog?

I would be very sad and angry because you killed something loving and innocent, but I would still love you.

Would you still love me if I hit my brother?

I would be very, very sad and angry, and I would punish you, but I would still love you.

Would you still love me if I killed my brother and chopped him into pieces?(If you’re reading this, no, my children weren’t psychopaths. They were just . . . boys with active imaginations.)

I would make sure that you went to jail for murder, because it isn’t ok to murder other people. But I would visit you in jail, and I would still love you. 

And around this point in the game, I would strongly suggest that we play something else. 

Besides my family’s penchant for dark comedy, there is obviously something else going on here. The deep question at the heart of this game is just this—if I somehow lose control of myself and do something that is horrible and unforgivable, would that mean that I am not worth being loved? 

The answer is, and was, and always will be: No. No matter what you do, you are ALWAYS worthy of love. And you will always have my love. No matter what.

Because, after all, this is how God treats us. There is nothing we can even imagine doing that can separate us from God’s love. 

Love is Love.

And Love looks like Love. 

Love at the Center

When we think about what most characterizes a Christian, it should be love. And yet, far too often, Christians are associated in the public imagination with being legalistic, judgmental, and even hateful.

Something has gone badly wrong.

And it isn’t just that somehow Christians have been misunderstood. It is that what some Christians have been saying and doing doesn’t actually look much like love. 

Oh, they will use the word “love.” They will say that it is “loving” to have standards, to not allow others to sin, to speak the truth. But far too often, that ends up putting “truth” at the center of the faith. And truth, while important, is not at the center of our faith.

Love is.

Far too often I have heard Christians somehow contrast concepts like “love” and “truth,” or “judgment” and “grace,” as though they were on opposite sides of a continuum, and our task was to figure out how to balance them. In my understanding of faith, this is simply wrong. Love is not the opposite of any other concept when it comes to our faith; it is the very center of our faith itself. God is love. 

Law and truth and judgement are not the opposite of love, but they are subsidiary to love; we are to come at them through love. It is easy to read the Bible selectively so that our own prejudices and cultural attitudes seem to be supported by what we read. But if it were really that easy to clearly understand “right” and “wrong” from the Bible, then humankind would not have been arguing about it for thousands of years. 

When I ask myself what my faith is certain of, the list is very short. 

I am certain that there is a God.

I am certain that God is love.

I am certain that the greatest way I can live my one, short, confused, wild and precious life is to do what Jesus said—love God and love others.

That’s it. 

I suspect, or think, or believe a lot of other things. But I am just as certain that I am often wrong. 

Over the years, I have learned to practice a habit I call “the hermeneutic of love.” A hermeneutic is a way of reading, and we use one every time we read, whether we are literally reading a book, or “reading” a cultural moment, a situation, or even a person. When I read the Bible, or when I “read” things and people around me, I try to consciously do so through the hermeneutic of love. When I place love at the center of everything–my life, my understanding, my actions, my beliefs–I am placing God at the center of those things. Over time, this has changed everything about how I understand the world.

I am only human, so I will make mistakes. But when I err, as I inevitably will, I want to always err on the side of love.


One of the key incidents in the reconstruction of my faith happened as I worked through my grief at my father’s death. I had been taught a hard-lined Evangelical sense of “salvation”—if you haven’t said a specific prayer “asking Jesus into your heart,” you are not a Christian and are going to hell. I was quite sure that my laconic, kind-hearted, low-keyed father had never “confessed Christ” in the all-important formula. And he was dead. My Evangelically-influenced mind was distraught. For my own mental health, I needed to find a way to make sense of this.

Thus, a month or so after my father’s death, I spent some hours alone on Refugio Beach north of Santa Barbara, California. In my heart, I held a traumatizing question: Was my father now in hell? As I walked and cried and prayed, I had the sense of a Divine but silent Voice asking me some gentle questions. 

The Divine Voice: You are a good mother. Do you somehow need your children to follow a formula, telling you that they love you in a very specific way in order for you to care for them?

Me: Of course not. That would be rigid and ridiculous.

D.V.: Was your father a good and loving father to you?

Me: He was not perfect. But yes, he certainly was a good and loving father to me.

D.V.: Did your father have a good and loving father?

Me: No, he did not. In fact, he never even met or even heard from his father until he was nineteen years old. He was in the Merchant Marines in WWII and was in New York City, when he contacted his father and they finally met.

D.V.: So your father had no experience of a loving father, yet he learned to be a loving father to you? 

Me: Um, yeah.

D.V.: Sit with that a minute.


D.V. Your father did a remarkable job in learning to give what had never been given to him. Do you think that I would honor that less than you do? Do you think that I am less of a father than your father was? Do you think that I would treat even one of my children in the way his father treated him? Do you think that I am more small-minded and less capable of love than you are?


D.V.: Peace. Peace. Be at peace. 

Your father is at peace.

Me: ***crying**

That day at the aptly named Refugio Beach, what I needed was not refuge from my grief, but refuge from the Evangelical paradigm. I had been taught to read scripture with in a very specific way, to interpret the things that Jesus and others said in the New Testament in a way that was binary: you’re-in-or-you’re-out, you’re-saved-or-you’re-damned. This hermeneutic, or way of reading, was a lens that distorted the deeply loving truths of the Bible. If the most important paradigm by which to read the words of Jesus was that of being “born again” as an Evangelical Christian, I was in trouble. On the other hand, reading scripture through the Greatest Commandment–love God and love your neighbor–offered a transformative, abundant, and grace-filled way to understand the same words. Of course God loved my father more than I could ever understand. Of course no one is kept from heaven on a legalistic technicality.

Since that day, I have never worried for even a moment about my father, or anyone else, being in hell. I have heard it said that how you choose to people your hell says more about you than it does about those you are damning. We would all be far better people if we kept this in mind.


I can’t really say I ever expected to find myself here–58 years old, unemployed after leaving a job of 25 years, in the fourth year of a three-year (yes, really) Master of Divinity degree program, living in student housing after a month of couch-surfing and sleeping in my car–and happier than I’ve been in years. As I have told friends, I have either had a complete break with reality, or I am on the path I am meant to be on. (Some people have commented that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. . . . )

My three adult children get great enjoyment from commenting on this situation. “You’re more of a millennial than we are! We own a house! We have 401K’s! We have JOBS!”

Well, yeah. But really, isn’t that adulting thing a bit overrated?

Learning to live out the call of the heart, the deepest expression of who we are and how we are meant to be, our unique wonderfulness–this is never simple, and rarely easy. Despite the claims made by some of the shallower branches of the Christian faith, there is no quick path to finding our “purpose” or “mission.” The journey involves undoing and deconstructing, not just goal-setting or pushing through.

This work does not come without pain.

And the pain is worth it.

It is only after deconstructing that we can reconstruct. And faith reconstructed can be faith worth living into.

So here I am, well into my sixth decade in life, learning to live into a new calling, a reconstructed faith. From the outside–and, frankly, sometimes from inside my own head–this can look pretty unstable. I’m living income-free, in temporary housing. I’ll likely be ordained–God willing and the people consenting–in the next year or so, but at present I have only dreams and desires and faith in the place of firm prospects. Yet when I was in a “stable” job and “stable” living situation, I was often unhappy.

Perhaps I was experiencing gaining the world, and losing my soul. The Evangelical expression of my faith tried to teach me that this meant engaging in “worldly” pleasures and in the process forfeiting my “salvation.” Now I find that means compromising my deepest self in trying to live by the missions and purposes imposed by a rigid and legalistic expression of the Christian faith.

There is an irony in this: the conservative Evangelical expression of faith was what placed me in danger of gaining the world and losing my soul. The antidote was accepting the boundless love of God that brought me through deconstruction to reconstruction and wholeness.

Faith vs. Certainty

Many conservative Evangelicals would no doubt say that they are certain that they are right about faith. In this, they are missing something very important: faith and certainty are not the same thing; in fact, faith and certainty are opposites. Faith is not necessary if one is certain of anything; it is being uncertain that requires faith. So the tendency to want to be certain—about moral behavior, sexuality, politics, points of doctrine, apologetics, science (or lack of value thereof) is not a marker of faith; it is antithetical to faith. If one needs all of those things lined up in order to be “right” in the faith, then what they are becoming “right” in is not faith, but in the need to be in control. 

Frankly, whether we want to admit it or not, we are all living every moment in a place of not-knowing anyway. We are truly certain only that we will die; pretty much any way in which we affirm life in the face of this fact is an affirmation of faith. Certainty is an illusion, and a dangerous one. When we think we need to be certain of the truth, we tend to use that “certainty” as a weapon against those who do not see things the same way we do.

Recently a friend of mine, who is a pastor in a small town, told me the story of a local funeral done by another pastor. The funeral was for a man who had taken his own life. For some reason, the pastor conducting the funeral found it necessary to tell the assembled mourners that people who commit suicide always go to hell, and so the man whose life they were remembering and supposedly celebrating had obviously be sent to a place of eternal torment.

This is unimaginable to me.

How could any human being who is not a psychopath, anyone with even a shred of empathy, ever do such a thing? Even if it was his private conviction after deep study and theological reflection, how could he possibly consider that making such a statement at a funeral was appropriate, much less necessary?

If I could ask the pastor such a question, no doubt his response would be along these lines: it is his responsibility to “speak the truth”—the Bible makes that clear—and thus his duty is clear. He would be flinching or shirking or allowing false doctrine to dishonor God by not telling those assembled the plain, unvarnished, “truth” of the situation.

I would counter with this: Jesus made it clear that the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor. Even if you think that it is necessary to tell such a “truth” out of your duty, it cannot be considered a mark of loving God or loving neighbor. In fact, it is clearly, patently, obviously a very unloving act toward all who were gathered in their time of need. No amount of theological sophistry can make such an action a loving one.  The pastor’s “certainty” has no doubt multiplied the pain already being experienced by the mourners, and is likely to increase their alienation from God and from the Christian faith, instead of bringing them closer to grace and peace. 

As I have grown older, my sense of certainty has dramatically diminished. Fortunately, my need for certainty has also diminished, or I would be the most miserable of mortals. My certainty about scripture, for example, has been boiled down to that one sentence from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And just in case we want to argue that “truth” is also essential, Jesus adds:   “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Any word of law or voice of prophetic “truth” must be filtered through love.

Recovering Evangelical

I became a Christian as a teenager in the late ’70’s, in the latter days of the Jesus Movement, when that decision meant being “born again.” At the time, I didn’t realize that it also seemed to mean swallowing the entirety of the conservative Evangelical expression of the faith. It wasn’t long before a steady diet began to give me spiritual indigestion. My process of faith deconstruction was very slow and gradual; it was only about ten years ago that I began to identify as post-evangelical, and at no time during the process did I entirely abandon the Christian faith. I simply realized that the conservative Evangelical diet was not healthy for me, and I began to seek alternative ways to understand and practice and nourish my faith.

In the interim, I spent twenty-five years as a professor in a small Evangelical university before leaving to begin the process of ordination in the Episcopal church. In this blog, I hope to communicate the many ways in which an Evangelical expression of spirituality began to be limiting, then confining, and finally counterproductive to my spiritual development. No more Do This, and Don’t Do That as a way to live a spiritual life. Instead, there is this: Take. Bless. Break. Eat and Drink. And, as Jesus said, “Do This in Remembrance of Me.” 

A word about the name of this site: I realize that describing myself as a “recovering Evangelical” seems likely to offend. I hope that you can hear the phrase in the same way you might hear “recovering alcoholic.” My attitude toward being in recovery is like that of the alcoholic, who does not necessarily think that consuming alcohol in moderation is a bad thing in and of itself; it is merely  that she herself is unable to drink without it being very unhealthy.  In the same way, I certainly do not think that an Evangelical attitude toward faith is always a bad thing.  Instead, I have discovered that, at this stage in my spiritual journey, I am unable to simply sip from the Evangelical cup without ill effect. I bear no ill-will to my many sisters and brothers who have found that the conservative Evangelical expression of faith most feeds their spirits, and I hope that they will bear no ill-will toward me. Everyone is welcome to the feast. It’s just that when I find myself at a party in the Evangelical tradition, I will be bringing my own drinks with me.