A funny thing happened when I first came to interview for the position of Pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Marble Falls. Instead of taking me to the deacons, a committee chair, or a trustee, I was taken to a place called Sweetberry Farm (an awesome place you must visit if you come to Marble Falls) to meet a man named Max Copeland. Max had been the pastor of a church here in Marble Falls for over 40 years, and although retired, still was a minister and icon to the community.
We visited for over and hour and had a great visit. We had a lot in common and seemed to really share a kindred spirit for ministry. Max gets around in a motorized scooter and was sitting behind a counter the whole tim we visited, but when it was time to leave, he painstakingly stood up, made his way around the counter and hugged me. It wasn’t a perfunctory side hug. It wasn’t a manly aggressive chest bump hug. It was a hug of hugs. Arms open wide and wrapped tight around one another. Fully vulnerable, no room for pride, no room for jokes or self-defenses. It was a real hug, enough of one that it really took me off guard. It was a hug of intimacy and we had just met.
Since then I have learned that it is one of Max’s trademarks and just one of the many ways in which he has communicated and enacted his love of Marble Falls.
I am not a natural hugger. My family are not huggers. Not on either side. Brief hugs hello and goodbye. Handshakes if possible. It is not that we are cold or unloving, we just traditionally haven’t expressed love through hugs. Kelley’s family is a hugging family and although it freaked me out at first, I am warming up to the practice.
But, taking my cue from Bro. Max, the past couple of months I have been approaching a theology of hugs.
The past few weeks I have been preaching out of 1 Peter on the purpose of the church and how we are to relate to one another in the Church. It sums up like this: The purpose of the Church is to praise God and glorify God through all we do. At its simplest, that’a what it boils down to. All our service, missions, worship, and committee meetings are to this end. Anything whose goal is not praise of God is not motivated appropriately. In our relations with each other we are to seek harmony above all else. Not simply peace and a lack of conflict, but a cooperation amidst our diversity that works toward the goal of praising God together. We seek harmony by cultivating the traits of sympathy, love, compassion, and humility. When these are cultivated through Christ we are empowered to respond to each other and to the world at large with words and actions of blessing, even in the midst of persecution.
My sermons have really spoken to me, if no one else, and I have truly worked at cultivating these traits in my life. Sympathy (empahty might be a better modern day translation), love (agape), compassion, humility. For the sake of harmony. It is an ideal, but a beautiful ideal and one worth working and sacrificing for.
It has led me toward a theology of hugs. How does one day in day out, week in week out communicate to 200 people these traits? Much less everyone else one encounters outside of church during each day? To individuals in need it is easy. Through a sermon it is possible. When there is time for good conversation it can be done.
But in coming and going, how is it done? I am coming to realize that a true hug communicates all of these. Without needing good words to say it. A true hug breaks through the BS of most of our interactions and speaks to the soul. When you open yourself up to receive another who has opened themselves up you have chosen to embrace (which is a picture of harmony, the embodiment of empathy, love, compassion, and humility) and chosen not to exclude. It is in part a symbolic act of the connection that exists and in part a very real enaction of the empathy, love, compassion, and humility with which you seek to treat each other.
On a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night or even in a given month or week, I can’t speak to or meet every need of every member and visitor of Fellowship. But I know many of their needs. I know even more that have needs that I don’t know. So I can bless them each time I encounter them with a true embrace.
So I’ve become a hugger. Not superficially so, but deeply, theologically, pastorally so. It is awkward, it is difficult, and I don’t do it all the time, but I’ve learned from Max and others the power of an open embrace. A theology of hugs.