Unconditional Love

Video published by the Inspiration and Spirit Channel of Call on Faith.

Excerpt from Chapter 27 of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family 

For me, the death of my grandmother Lloys Cooke Rice in 1989 was a profound shock propelling me to deeply consider the fundamental question. Gram, as I called her, had a perpetually joyful spirit. She greeted everyone she met with compassion and cheerful affection. Through all my years of difficult struggle with my family, she displayed nothing but acceptance and uncritical regard for me. She was a key reason I returned to Murfreesboro, Tennessee every Christmas season of my life no matter where I lived or what I was up to. Over 1,000 people showed up at Gram’s funeral, and I am convinced that every one of them sincerely believed she was the best friend they had.

When I got on the plane to fly back to Seattle after the service, I began to cry, and I cried all the way home. The stewards and my fellow passengers kept looking at me with concern and offering me tissues, and they must have been convinced I was going through a mental breakdown or profound existential crisis. When I got home I continued to cry for days, huge wracking sobs that struck me at the most embarrassing moments—while sitting in meetings, ordering coffee, or buying groceries.

When I finally calmed down and was able to reflect, I realized that my Gram was the only person in my life who had truly loved me unconditionally. She was the only one who had never condemned me, never argued with me, never judged me. She was the only person who offered me absolute and boundless love no matter how stupid, arrogant, dogmatic, or contemptuous I was, no matter how ridiculous my haircuts got or how far I strayed from other people’s ideas of proper comportment and deportment.

The harshest criticism I remember getting from Gram came at Christmas time in 1977. At the time, I was a revolutionary communist working as a welder in a steel fabrication shop in Birmingham, Alabama and doing my best to overthrow the imperialist bourgeoisie. My hair was ragged, my jeans had holes in the knees, and I made a point of not shining my shoes in the belief that shoeshine was a bourgeois affectation. My grandmother gently pulled me into a private corner and said, “Andy, I hope you’ll consider polishing your shoes. I’m fearful that someone who doesn’t know you as well as I do might see your shoes and unfairly judge that you are not the kind, intelligent, and good-hearted gentleman I know you to be.” My grandmother was no one to trifle with, and I went off and shined my shoes.

After my Gram’s funeral, I began to wonder, What would my life be like if I started trying to show other people the same unconditional love she showed me? What if I acted that way toward my family members, my daughter, my friends? What if I acted that way toward fellow employees, toward neighbors, toward total strangers?

I began a series of experiments to transform my relationships with everybody in my life. The idea of God was way too big for me to consider at the time, so I set out to embody Gram’s love in my life.

Quite frankly, I still find this an incredibly hard thing to do. I found that my feelings and behavior often don’t match up. For example, I didn’t like or love either of my parents very much after struggling with them for a quarter century. I am sure they thought I was a pretty big jerk in addition to being a world-class prodigal son. However, they were getting old themselves and soon needed a lot of help from me. Figuring out how I could treat them as if I loved them, with all the respect and affection they were due, was a hard struggle. Eventually, I began to feel that maybe I did love them after all, a little bit, and my emotions began to conform to my actions.

In its simplest and most elemental form, the energy that drove the development of fundamentalism was at the heart of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A scribe asked Jesus the fundamental question: “What commandment is the foremost of all?” His response was: “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus’s words, read carefully and in context, make it clear that the test of whether I am following these two commandments is not whether I am experiencing the proper emotions, not whether I feel good about my neighbor, or like my neighbor, or even know my neighbor. The true test is whether I allow the spirit of God to transform me and to transform how I act toward my neighbor.