Family therapist and author, Frank Pittman, posed the following question to a group of 4- to 8-year-olds, “What is love?” Responses were: “Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” “Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday.” “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” Good answers.
If there’s a slipperier word in the English language, however, I don’t know what it is. Lots of stuff people do in the name of love isn’t love. In fact, I think we’ve have done to love like we’ve done to bacon. Bacon bits isn’t really bacon! Looks like bacon, smells, and tastes mostly like bacon, but it’s vegetable protein, artificial flavors, and color, but it’s not bacon.
The word love is used for “things” that are related to each other but are a bit different. A strong preference for something or somewhere becomes love, as in “I love a new car smell,” “I love New York.” “Don’t you just love Denise’s new home?” Then there’s the ubiquitous red heart: “I heart sailing,” “I heart Florida,” “I heart pasta.” This is preference.
Another favorite cousin is the euphoria of love. This is pop culture’s favorite foil for the real thing. Movies, songs, advertisements all romanticize and emotionalize love as the falling in love, the love at first sight. This is love as a feeling, a high, an adrenaline rush, a hormonal high tide pumping through the brain and body system. This love is often a lot closer to lust than it is to love. But like many things in life, the good Lord can work with what is and make it into what might be.
So, what is love? One woman who had been married twenty years and had six children said it this way: “Love is what you have been through with somebody.” That closer to the truth than we often think. Life as it’s lived, and lived as well as one can, is about loving as well as one can. What we want to accept is that love is more natural to us than we think. We care more than we let ourselves know or act on. People impact us more than we want them to do. If love comes from God, then God comes to us a lot more than we let on.
Love is an attachment to someone else that’s marked by caring about them, enjoying them, struggling for them, believing in them. We love those who color our lives with meaning, with thoughts, kindness, sacrifice and service. Love is more a matter of the soul than the heart. It’s closer to what
makes us human than what feels good or inspiring, though of course it has these elements to it also. Love is the river that runs through it, through us, which gives us the capacity to attach and connect with others, to see others as similar to us, to see in the face of a stranger or maybe even an enemy still the invisible light of God. When it’s all said and done, love is the miracle that gives meaning to our lives. It’s not a preference or a feeling on steroids. It’s one’s best, most beautiful connection to reality, to what’s real in you and what surrounds you.
Some are more attuned to it than others if I’m being honest. A girl came home from school one day and asked her dad where she could learn sign language. He asked her why she wanted to learn it, and she said there was a new girl at her school who was deaf and only knew sign language and she had no one to talk to.” That’s not just being nice—that’s a form of love.
In our reading love comes to the forefront. The word love dominates 1 John 4:7-5:3. It will show up 32 times in this section alone and 43 in the entire letter. John begins 4:7 as he began 4:1, “Beloved” (agapetoi), or “dear friends.” It is both a term of tenderness and transition to a new subject. The new subject is love. John’s overall discussion has a double peak in 4:8 and 16 when he declares twice, “God is love.” In a sense John is the expert on love. Paul is the apostle of faith. James is the apostle of works. Peter is the apostle of hope, but John is the apostle of love, clearly so when he writes, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Is there a simpler equation in scripture? No there isn’t.
John insists that love is the very nature of God, the very being of God. God is both love as a verb and as a noun, perfectly united, action and essence. But John doesn’t just leave it at this. You see, John doesn’t really care about making a theological statement. He informs to transform. That’s why the statement, God is love, isn’t a statement as much as it is an equation, which goes like this: Because God is love, we’re to be loving. Or because God is love and God loved us then we who want to be like God are to love. Or since God is love and God loved us, we are only as real and a part of God as we are what God is and do what God does—“everyone who loves is born of God.” Find your path to more love because more love is better. When someone does you wrong, and when you overcome your initial shock and anger, gather your spiritual forces together, and let your soul of love do its labor. Build a bridge of forgiveness or acceptance from your side. Find out if
they’ll build the rest from theirs.
The truth is we see many damaged and broken lives. So, it’s not a difficult leap to go from what we see and know is true to asking how we Christians can claim God is love. If there’s so little of this, how come the Bible says this is what God is? I guess the shortest answer would be we’re often a long way from home. But love gets us closer and closer. The church should be the place where love and hope can make a difference. Love includes all of God’s brood, all, even and especially those the church wrongly and harmfully ostracizes mistakenly.
Fred Craddock was a great preacher and a great story-teller. One of his stories took place on a trip in which he and his wife went back to their native Tennessee. They drove up to a small restaurant in Gatlinburg, tired and hungry. As they sat down and settled in, Fred looked up from the menu and saw a gray-headed older man going from table to table speaking to customers. Fred turned to his wife and with fatigue said, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t come to our table.” But, lo and behold, he came and stood by their table. He said, “What do you do?” “I teach homiletics. I teach people how to preach.” “That’s good,” said the stranger, “I have a preacher’s story for you,” and he pulled up a chair and sat down.
“I was born not far from here, just over the mountain. My mother had never been married, and the shame that fell on her also fell on me. When I went to school, they called me such horrible names that I would take my lunch and go out onto the playground and eat alone. But the worst was on Saturdays when I would have to go into town. I could hear people whispering behind my back, ‘Who do you think his father is? Honestly, who’s his father?’
I didn’t go to church because we didn’t feel we were good enough. Then, when I was 14 years old, a minister came to speak at a school assembly. I decided to go and hear him preach in his church. I would go in and then leave immediately after the sermon was over. I didn’t stay around because I didn’t want them to say to me, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in church?’ I dreaded rejection more than anything else.
One Sunday after worship, I didn’t get out of the pew fast enough. When I got to the door, people were blocking my way, so I had to stand in line. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned around, and there was the preacher. His eyes were looking right into mine as he asked loud enough for others to hear, ‘Who are you, son? Whose boy are you.’ I couldn’t say
anything, and it seemed like an eternity of me looking down. But then the preacher with his hand still on my shoulder said, ‘That’s all right, son. Don’t answer. But I see a family resemblance in you. Yes, I do. You are a child of God. You’re God’s child! Go claim that heritage for all you’re worth. Go out, boy, in pride.’ Those words, “You are God’s child,’ were the most transforming words I’d ever heard. They changed my life forever.”
There isn’t enough love in the world—in any world, that is. In a place and time so different from our own, John wrote, “let us love one another.” What was true then is still true and will always be so. Folks can’t live by bread alone, nor through money, or comfort, or power, or drugs or alcohol, or isolated. The need to share love and care for others and oneself by others shouldn’t be messed with. It’s a fire that keeps burning no matter how much water you pour on it. It’s the burning bush that Moses saw that wasn’t consumed. It’s worth the risks you take to give it and get it. It’s not optional, and there are no real substitutes for it. “Be more fearless. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear.” Practice the courage that love gives you.
It doesn’t matter the shape of the world or the times we live in, or when others lived. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you were loved. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve traveled from home or how close you’ve stayed, what dreams you lived, and which dreams you abandoned. Let us love one another is and always will be the call. It’s the texture of your life when things are going smoothly or roughly. It’s the song in the air whether you have perfect pitch or are now hard of hearing. It’s the guidepost when you’re the most confused you’ve ever been or the surest you’ve felt in a long time. Let the need overpower the fear. Get love, be cared for, put yourself in the midst of humanity and community so that you’re known and felt and heard, and loved.
I know we’re waiting to be loved first and then we will be able to give more. We’re waiting to feel like we’re cared about, then we will be able to care better. Some of us grew up with great teachers of what love means. Others had almost nobody to show them. Of course, it’s sad if you got less than the minimum daily requirement. But our passage tells us something crucial. Because God is love, then love is in our bones already. It comes with the package. It’s not a separate order and you don’t have to buy the sports version to get it. You come with it installed. Nobody can take out that hard wiring. It’s still beeping and pulsating.
We can be devoted to a lot of things—getting ahead, being a hard worker, learning at school, a sport or music, being comfortable, knowing more than others, being entertained, reading, friends, our faith. Being devoted to love brings us the most happiness. It fills in the blank spaces in our hearts, so that aches go away or are healed. It expands our wrinkly soul, so we feel and are more alive and vibrant.
Someone said, “My grandfather and I were looking through some photos when we stumbled on an old shot of him dancing at a party with my grandmother, who had died several years before. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Always remember that even if something doesn’t last forever, it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth your time.’”
Even if love is hard to be devoted to, wanting more from us than what we’re ready and able and willing to hand over, it remains the power of salvation because it wants more for us and gives it. Struggle with love. Fight for it. Give it. Build your love strength, build your love IQ. Find more words. Do more things. Act more in line with love’s pull. Orbit around the star of love and get pulled in closer, more often, more willingly. And ay you see in Christ how much God loves you.
Can the church say Amen?