“Wherever God’s Spirit is at work in the world, people are drawn more deeply to love… beginning with loving God.” This is the first sentence of McLaren’s chapter on Loving God . I wondered if he was right, I still wonder. Is our first response to the nudge of the Spirit to love God? I’m not sure. Loving God, the summary instruction we are given for the entire Bible, may be something we have to learn, to practice, just like any love.
Today, everywhere we look, people seem to turn their backs on God. People are moving away from church in greater numbers than ever! The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released results from a major new survey in May of this year . The big news is that all the segments of Christianity – Mainline, Catholic, Evangelical – are all declining precipitously. People are joining the rapidly-growing group dubbed the “Nones” – the religiously unaffiliated – one fifth of the U.S. adult population and one third of adults under 30.
But there is another surprising trend in this survey of America’s religious life. Those outside of religion overwhelmingly consider themselves to be spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.
So what does all this have to do with people being drawn more deeply into loving God? Many see themselves as spiritual, even as believing in God, but they are not motivated to love God….Or, maybe they are. Think about it for a minute with me.
Take a moment to use your left brain. Turn off all the words we use, the Bible references you have learned – all that stuff. Let your mind drift to pictures, only pictures. What do you see when you hear the word, “God?” What does God look like? Take a quiet minute and let the pictures float through your awareness….
What did you see?
I wonder what we would hear if we did this same exercise with the people leaving the church. So many have walked away from church because of their experience of Christians. They imagine that the God worshiped there must be like the Christians they experienced. McLaren puts it well:
How can they love a God who is an angry white man with a beard, oppressing women and minorities, promoting discrimination and war, and blessing the destruction of the planet? … Hot-headed religious extremists, lukewarm religious bureaucrats, and cold-hearted religious critics alike have turned the word God into a name for something ugly, small, boring, elitist, wacky, corrupt, or violent— the very opposite of what it should mean. 
And what does God mean? In 1 John 4, we hear perhaps the clearest, simplest definition of God found in the Bible: God is love; love is God. Could it be that simple? On the other hand, there are about as many different definitions and experiences of love as there are of God, so maybe it is not simple at all.
If God is love, and people are leaving religion, what are they leaving for? Where are they going? To truer expressions of love, perhaps. It may be that the distaste for religion is actually a seeking after God for which their heart yearns. Maybe the seeking after love, is seeking after what God truly is! Whatever ember of love for goodness flickers within us, however feeble or small…that’s what the Spirit works with, tending the flame, until there is a full blown fire for God. Wherever there is a spark of love, there is a spark of God.
So many people are leaving church, some leaving God altogether. The only way we can address this is to love God ourselves. In one of the earliest accounts we have of St. Francis, he is telling the first friars, “You only know as much as you do.” In Franciscan theology, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.  Do what you believe and don’t waste time trying to prove someone else wrong, or even convince them that we are right. That is the work of the Spirit. We just have to love God ourselves.
So, what does loving God look like? Not so different from loving another human being. When we love someone, we naturally move toward them, want to be with them, we appreciate them and take notice of them, we honor and respect them, we want them to be fulfilled in their own dreams, we are curious about them and want to know every little thing about them, and are delighted when a hidden corner opens up to us.
Let’s take this apart, into acts of love. If we can do acts of love with human beings, we can do them with God.
Presence. That has to be first. The first step of love is to be with the beloved. Since we can’t see, touch, call or text God in the same way we do our human beloved, this first step sometimes eludes us. But it is the basic movement of love – to be with the beloved.
So how do we come into God’s presence? Some of us do this by coming to church on Sunday mornings. But is this the only way? And even when we come, are we aware that we are in God’s presence? It is a simple as opening up your hands, symbolizing the opening of your heart, and saying, “God, here I am,” or “God, you are here.” It only takes a moment. But it changes everything. Or, the way I often practice this is not with my hands, but with my breath. I take a deep breath, inviting God’s presence, then empty my lungs completely, relaxing my tense muscles and letting whatever is distracting me in the moment to flow out of me with my exhale.
Once we have become aware of God’s presence (God is always present, we just aren’t aware of it all the time), what is next? Reflect on a love relationship you have known. Select one person, perhaps to hold in your thoughts for the rest of this sermon. What did you want most from this person, after presence? This would make an excellent journaling exercise for you to explore your personal path of expressing love. But for now, let me suggest a few things.
Appreciation, gratitude. We want to be appreciated for what we do. We want the beloved to notice that we made their favorite meal, or mowed the lawn. Just a simple thank you will do. This is a good reason for the mealtime practice of saying grace. It is a simple act of appreciating God’s part in taking care of our needs.
Respect, honor. Honor is one of the words in the traditional wedding vows. And it is there for a reason. When we honor who the other is, they feel loved. Respect is about the whole person. Seeing, noticing and making space within our own needs for the other to be fully and completely themselves. It includes making room for the beloved’s dreams, even taking those dreams to heart ourselves.
In our gatherings in this place, we do this in a couple of ways. We sing hymns, read Psalms and include in our prayers expressions of awe and honor for who God is. In the Lord’s Prayer, in particular, we express our desire that God’s dreams direct our life and the life of the entire world. In our prayers, baptisms, and ordinations, we commit ourselves to furthering God’s dreams, not our own.
This kind of respect, living into God’s dreams instead of our own, is a practice we often forget. We let our personal desires for well-being, or comfort, or tradition, even our own sense of what is right, push out God’s dreams. Have you ever felt that from a beloved? It feels awful, like betrayal. And the only way to rebuild that respect is forgiveness. The love practice we must learn is to say we are sorry. The thing about God, is that God will be there for us whether we say we are sorry or not. The same cannot be said of human relationships. With God, we are beloved, no matter what. But the words, “I’m sorry,” say something to the beloved – that we recognize the hurt we have caused, and now it has caused us pain as well. Now, in forgiveness, we can heal each other.
So, we have appreciation, respect, apology. What else?
There are a couple more which may not seem at first blush to be acts of love, but they are. Like asking for help. We do this with God all the time! It may be the first most natural heart prayer from most human beings: Help me! It is why they say there are no atheists in foxholes. What if a friend of yours had a need, or was gravely ill, and they never told you, or asked for your help? Would that feel like love? When we are vulnerable enough to reach out for help, we are saying that we need the other, we need more than ourselves. It connects us. It is an act of love.
And what about complaint? Have you ever noticed in the Psalms that the writers do a lot of complaining? The Psalms of complaint are difficult to read. They sometimes feel hateful and violent. I find myself wondering what they are doing in the Bible! But they tell us that in the presence of God who is love, in the presence of our beloved, we can say whatever is in our hearts, even our anger, disillusionment, doubt. Our words can get down to our rotten core, the stuff we won’t let anyone else see. But with God, or a true beloved, we know it won’t destroy the relationship. Somehow, it is safe enough with the beloved to be completely ourselves, even in our ugliness. This kind of angry complaint can release the pent up frustration, and open us to healing.
Maybe this is what is happening in those who are apparently turning their backs on God. Those who are leaving the church. It is their storm of protest. Can we trust that the God who is love will meet them in their complaint as well? That trust is an act of loving God.
How do we love God? By saying “Thank you,” by honoring God’s person, ways and dreams, by saying we are sorry, by asking for help, and sometimes by bringing God our complaints. But you will likely forget this list. So, this week, just think about a beloved of your life, and practice doing the same things for God which help you feel loved by your beloved.
I think Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians would be a good prayer for us right now: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18)
 McLaren, Brian D. (2014-06-10). We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (p. 211). FaithWords.
 Pew Research Center
 “Nones” on the Rise
 Richard Rohr, “Just Do It,” Daily Meditation, Thursday, June 25, 2015.