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Love Divine: Love, Carol

August 6, 2013

It’s funny how easily we say we love something and yet find it so hard to say I love you.

When my family moved to Germany, long, long ago (the early 80’s), I became fast friends with my German neighbor Linda.  She was nearly finished with gymnasium, the German equivalent of high school.  Linda found it fascinating, she told me, the way we Americans were so ready to indiscriminately declare our love for something:  a meal, a song, a sweater, another person, our dog.  Germans, it turned out, were more selective in their affections.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation.  And Linda, who I truly love, is still a dear friend.  The cultural differences which came into play taught me about how differently we can see the world, and how subtle those differences can be.  But what really stuck with me was the question of love.  What does it mean to say we love?  I’ve written about love already, but I’m convinced that this is something I come to again and again, because it is complex and compelling, and love matters.  Coming from my Christian background, my understanding of love is grounded in the belief that God is love, the source and fountain of love, both the object of love and the inspiration for love.  In this sense, I can see how we love all things and all people.

Yet as I thought about Linda’s point, I realized that often, it’s easy to be efflusive about the things I love.  And I am — everything from Hello Kitty to sharp cheese to fresh green beans to the color red to luminous poetry.  I take delight in these little parcels of life, and I tend to be quite free in sharing my love with others.  It seems to me that our culture has taken this natural sense of appreciation and connection with creation and turned it upside down.  Now, rather than my expression of care for and delight in something, love is a slogan, meant to encourage consumption:  whether it is ‘I’m lovin’ it’ from fast food giant McDonald’s, or ‘Love — it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru,” Subaru’s attempt at making their car synonymous with care and concern (as in if you really care about your family or the planet you’ll drive our product).  We humans, it seems, are indeed built for love, and Madison Avenue and Detroit have tapped into it.  Hollywood too, of course, has honed the art of appealing to our God-given ability for love.  But sadly, over and over, so many of the products that come out of Tinseltown miss the mark.  (When Hollywood gets it right, I find it such a welcome change from the prevailing norm.) Usually, love is either a physical impulse which is fleeting but powerful, leading us to pursue it at all costs (thus the heavy emphasis on sexual gratification and self-fulfilment through sexual expression, even if that means breaking current relationships to form new or more exciting ones); or love is little more than status seeking and power grabbing (as in the continual need to live out the lie that having more, being like someone else, is a divine right to love oneself and deserve the best).

We in the Christian world have spent a good bit of time on our high horse about love.  Too often, not unlike Hollywood’s version of it, love is reduced to sex:  heterosexual monogamy, or celebacy, or viginity, or the saccrine sweetness of the fairytale of ‘true love’.  It seems some Christians have bought into the Hollywood versions and continue to view love as a commodity that is scarce, living as if there isn’t enough to go around, fearful that someone else’s love somehow threatens or diminishes mine.  Yet again, this narrowing of love misses the mark.  Love, in reality, begets love; the love we share, the love we give is an overflowing from the love we receive in God and in God’s good creation.  As my Dominican friend says, love is not a zero sum game.   “When we give our love away, we find that there is no less within the reservoir of our hearts. Love, to the contrary, begets more and more love.”  Exactly.

Some in our Christian tribe spend so much time defending their narrow brand of love that actual love gets lost, and hatred is spewed in defense of God (as if God, who is love, needs defending or our petty definitions).  I’m dismayed by the energy expended trying to be the Love Police, when God has it covered and desires us to get on with actually loving one another and all creation.

But I digress…

The point is, we are pretty good at expressing when we really, really like something or someone, sometimes in good ways and sometimes for all the wrong reasons.  I’m not saying we should stop saying we love strawberries or a beautiful song or a lovely sunset.  I am saying that we continue to confuse ourselves about love, and we are often in collusion with the powers of our culture to live out the lies.  Love, in this way, is cheap.  We sometimes overflow with that lovin’ feeling yet with little thought or discrimination about what we are actually about.

And then there’s actually saying to another person I love you.  These words, it seems, are fraught with danger.  Many people are hesitant to say the words, perhaps aware of the weight, or perhaps afraid of admitting to the deep truth these three words contain.  To tell another that I love him or her is to open myself to that person, to experience joy and wonder but also to risk hurt and rejection and vulnerability — that is the most common thing I hear that holds people back.  And if we tell people we love them outside the realm of romantic love, we risk being misunderstood.  Certainly in my line of work, if I tell someone I love them, I risk projection of something that I don’t mean, or I risk the anger or jealousy of a spouse or loved one who may mistake the meaning and feel threatened, or I risk accusations of misconduct.  (Of course, loving people does not erase proper boundaries, nor does it excuse inappropriate behavior.)  All of this, though, is predicated on an understanding of love in that narrow and artificial Hollywood definition, love as consumption.

I love you — this is, in fact, where I find myself in relation to most everyone I meet.  The more I live, the more I experience relationship with another as an extension of love that I receive in God.  To truly be present to another, for me, involves more than I alone can be.  Perhaps I don’t have it in me, truly, to love in a way that is not destructive and selfish.  And so I come to others from a posture of love divine, the overflow of the grace and joy I receive in God, the longing that touches on truth and of which there is always more because it is never exhausted.  Divine love, at its very core, creates love.

I’m amazed at how life is always, always teaching me new things.  As a new priest, I am able to be the celebrant in the Eucharist.  I can tell you that it is a deeply moving and powerful experience, but not for the reasons I had imagined.  Really, I’m not sure what I imagined.  I have stood at the altar many times, beside the priest as a Eucharistic minister or as a deacon; I have studied the theology of the Eucharist and contemplated the deep truths and the liminal space into which we are drawn, how we are taken up in kairos time with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, singing in endless praise. I believe that; I am grounded in that space as the truest reality I know.  Yet what I experience surprises me.  Standing at the altar praying the Eucharistic prayer is a rich and meaningful experience.  What catches me off guard is what comes next.  As I commune each person who comes to the rail, I have a tangible, physical sense of love flowing through me to each person as I say the words, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”  The fullness of God being present in that moment makes it almost hard to speak the words, and my heart overflows with love that is indescribeable.  As I speak the words, I find, I am also praying for each person as I lay the host in their palm or on their tongue, no matter who they are, whether I know them or not.  These moments are a time of flow, when I am fully present and yet strangely not conscious of myself; God is at work in and through me.  I am more at home in my bones in these moments than in any other.

This realization is spilling over into the every day for me.  For most of my life, I’ve been very selective about signing things Love. Long ago, I decided that words really matter, and I didn’t want to say something I didn’t mean.  But I began to rethink how I sign things while I was in seminary.  Along the way, I had the privilege of working with Donald Schell, an amazing and inspiring man both for the work he has done in parish ministry (like at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in California) and now working to support and lead others in their ministries with All Saints Company.  When working on an intra-seminary conference planning team, I had a chance to interact a bit with Donald.  I contacted him by email, and I guess I expected him to be busy and unavailable, hoping he would eventually get back to me.  Instead, he was present and responsive, and he readily shared his wisdom and enthusiasm.  I was struck by two things:  his humility, and the fact that he signs emails with Love, Donald.  His love was and is, is seems to me, the very best of God’s divine love flowing to those with whom he comes in contact.  I tucked Donald’s influence away.  But I think now, I get it in a new way.  So to him, if he ever happens to see this blog, I say, Thank You.

And I’ve decided to start signing my emails and letters with Love, Carol.

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