Love in Context

It’s that time of the year for everyone’s favorite Hallmark holiday, St. Valentine’s Day. (Anybody need a spoon to gag yourself with?) Break out your bank cards and get ready for the tasteless, gaudy hoopla and expense associated with this day in which we are to celebrate love.

When I was twenty-one, I had an amazing adventure in Europe. Six months of challenges and mountaintop experiences that helped shape who I am. And one of those experiences happened when I stumbled upon a particularly handsome man playing his saxophone with a band in San Marcos Square in Venice, Italy. It was a pretty romantic scene, truth be told. What’s not to love about Venice? Add in a pretty man winking and smiling and making googly eyes and then playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow to me, and it just doesn’t get much more Hollywoodesque. And you know the really nice thing about it? My train left for Budapest shortly thereafter and I never talked to the guy. Never saw him again. And do you know why that’s the perfect ending? Because the moment is frozen in time, just as it was. I have no idea what faults the man possessed. He could have had a voice that sounded like an Italian Tweety Bird. He could have had breath so terrible it would have dropped a moose at forty paces. He could have had a foul temper or a narcissistic obsession with the bottom of wine bottles. The point is, there was nothing between us but a Hallmark moment. Beautiful? Absolutely. Flimsy, transparent and without substance? That, too.

The concept of love has been under assault for a long time. But our global culture of instant satisfaction and life lived on our own terms has upped the ante in the game of “Love Defined As…” Because the commercialism of Valentine’s Day isn’t the thing that really skews our understanding of what love is. We’re smarter than that, aren’t we? It’s the continuous onslaught on love that’s a little bit broken, a little bit abusive, and a little bit distasteful. It could be okay because it’s sort of love, but there’s always a catch. Know what I mean? How about Fifty Shades of Gray (which I have not read for obvious reasons, not the least of which is my understanding that the writing would make me cry). How about the reports on the news nearly every night of parents inflicting harm on their children? Or the marriage of long-time friends that dissolves due to apathy or unexpected infidelity? We live in a world that is distorted and love, as it turns out, is a commodity. Something to be bought and sold in pretty colors and flashy words, or even worse, something to be subdued and twisted into offensive and defensive weapons. In this world of negative news, love is not valiant and all-inclusive. It is cheap and weak. This love doesn’t save. It abuses. And if that’s all you ever know of love, what’s the point?

The point is there’s more.

William Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his highth be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Love doesn’t change with circumstances. It doesn’t get better or worse if there is more or less money, if there is a prettier person in the room, or a better offer on the table. Love is stable, unshaken.

And those are nice thoughts. But what does it look like when LOVE, real love, is walked out in day to day living?
Love looks like different people to me. It takes the forms of different moments in my life. When I was toddling around my grandmother Hofmann’s house, love looked her racing up the steps like a flash when she played Hide & Seek with me. It looked like her mother, bent with arthritis, getting down in the floor to play ball with me or carefully cutting out paper dolls in an amazing string of clasped paper hands. When I was a teenager, it looked like my dad drawing a picture of a beautiful tree for me (the only thing I ever remember him drawing) and giving it to a very moody, hormonal me; an olive branch. When I was in college, it sounded like my mother’s voice calling me from across the Atlantic Ocean, as I sat in my host family’s dining room and tried to describe my new life in Sevilla. Eventually love took on the shape of my husband’s hand when it holds mine, and the belly laughs I hear from our children. It smells like lavender baby lotion and it feels like warm arms squeezing my neck.

Love. Is it always that simple? Nope. Sometimes it looks like boundaries. Sometimes love looks like placing distance between yourself and a person who brings out the worst in you, who encourages you to make bad decisions, or whose own love for you, while real and burgeoning, is broken and unhealthy. Love, like the people who wield it, is messy.

So how do we balance the two extremes? How do we measure love as good or bad, as healthy or unhealthy?

1 Corinthians 13
“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak Gods Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end…
…We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.”

If the love in your life attempts to hold you to a standard that you cannot possibly meet, it’s not God’s best love for you.

If the love in your life continually reminds you of your faults, brings back to your attention past arguments, and will not let you move past previous bad decisions, it’s not God’s best love for you.

If the love in your life degrades you, hurts you, misuses you, makes you doubt yourself, makes you feel unworthy or invaluable, it’s not God’s best love for you.

If the love in your life breaks you down, changes who you want to be, or brings out the worst in you, it’s not God’s best love for you.

It doesn’t matter how many chocolate-filled, heart-shaped boxes you receive or how many sugar-coated words you hear. Love doesn’t look like those things. Love looks like you, whole, secure, and healthy. Anything less is a watered-down, cheapened imitation. And you deserve better. You deserve love as God meant you to be loved.

Luke 8: 2-11
“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such woman. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
‘No one, sir,’ she said.
‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’”

On Valentine’s Day of 1998 I was at a conference with Student Christian Fellowship from the University of Evansville. At the conference, they held a special wedding service. All who wanted to “marry” Jesus, came forward. I went forward. I said my vows. And in my mind’s eye, where God flares my imagination and controls my vision, I saw His face. I saw his eyes. And do you know what I saw in them? Unconditional acceptance suspended in the most powerful force of love I’ve ever encountered. He did not hold back the rush of affection He held for me. He let me feel it, bathe in it, be renewed by it. It was a life-changing moment for me, that wedding day in 1998. The uninhibited power of Jesus’ love has brought me back from the brink of depression several times, has stilled the onslaught of fear and steadied my mind, and has been a beacon of guidance when there was nothing else to guide me. And even when my love for Him is stilted, imperfect, and even broken, His does not waver. He is not shaken. His love doesn’t come in candy boxes lined with red tissue paper. It comes in the form of a gruesome, tortured death meant for a criminal and the subsequent shredding of the universal laws as we know them when He came back from the dead to take his life back up and stake his claim on us. He did it out of love and He did it for you. Don’t settle for watered-down imitations that give you a taste and leave you wanting. There’s more. He is more. Because he is Love.

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