You can leave your hat on

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I had my thinking hat on today. It started with this premise: love has to be learnt. The second premise was: your family, faith, friends and very finiteness as a finite being determine how you have learnt to love.

For example, my parents have taught me how to love them, which means (to me) what pleases them — responding when they reach out to me, keeping them company, being polite and kind, and doing thoughtful things like cooking (I finally made kimbap again, and it was all right) and cleaning and chauffering without being asked. Putting family first, basically.

Then, my friends have taught me how they want to be loved — listening to them without seeming to judge or jumping in with a solution, simply hanging out, eating and laughing together, being encouraging yet (for the hardier, closer ones) calling them out on issues that have been hurting or would harm them. Lending them a hand when need be, thus proving friendship at both ends.

Both my parents and friends dislike it (or if they are wise, just ignore me) when I nag, am overly critical or ask way too many questions.

All fine and good so far. Positive and negative reinforcement resulting in a fully functioning, mature individual, possibly maybe? But wait — what about the flip side of how my parents and friends have chosen to express their love?

(Note: I’m certainly not accusing anyone of failure in any way — I’m attempting to make an honest observation.)

I’m sure you know how easy it is to take things for granted when you feel familiar enough with someone. From my parents, I’ve learnt that familial love involves expectations that I might never be able (or want) to meet, thus causing pain that I would never have intended to give; that it doesn’t deter a (short!) cold war from erupting over something that looks quite trivial in the light of day; that it has to bear the strain of harsh words with or without reason.

From my friends, I’ve learnt that platonic love can appear transactional. Two individuals might be close for a time, for during that season both provide the other with some brand of bonhomie that both desire and derive benefit from (as simple and complex as a kind of happiness). Or, a group might come together for a project or a class, and knit themselves together tightly; once the curtain falls, each person’s story flips to a new chapter, and they eventually remember only scraps of what came before — tales of time-sensitive tenderness, tapering off into terse or touching tête-à-têtes, now and then.

To my mind, what I have been taught is that the giving of love is conditional — it depends on acceptable behaviour from the people you can’t choose, chemistry with those you can, and overall a willingness to please.

But the question this all leads me to is: how has Christ taught me — and you, maybe? — to love?

Misty Edwards, she of that Most Compelling Voice, puts it this way in “Measure of a Man”:

Did you learn to love?
__That’s what you will ask of me
Did you learn to love?
__Not about my ministry
Did you learn to love?
__Not about my money
Did you learn to love?
Did you learn to love?

Good ol’ Archibishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he of those Most Compelling Eyebrows, puts it this way in a 15-minute sermon of power and passion:

No power can force the human heart. So how does the human heart change? It changes when it is broken by love. It changes with the revelation that nothing is too costly to be expended upon us. That is the nature of the love of Christ — that, and that alone, is what breaks and remakes the human heart. That moment when we recognise ourselves afresh and know our worth, our dignity, at a completely new level. And somehow, if that is what changes the human heart, that is what we seek and struggle to enact with each other. What changes my neighbour’s heart? The recognition that nothing matters to me more than my neighbour’s joy. That is how God changes the neighbourhood of creation — and that is where we fail again and again.

Love, as Graham Tomlin puts it in the Faithtrack talk on “The Character of God”, is foundational. For all other characteristics of God, e.g. him being faithful, jealous, and judging, there can be a further question of why he is that way, but when it comes to God being loving, we can go no deeper than this purest of truth about him. Why does God love? Because he is love!

I have been wrestling with just what is expected of me in this regard. How on earth am I supposed to love as a follower of Christ? Scripture tells me to love God with all my soul and heart and mind and strength, to love my neighbour as myself, to love my enemies. I want to obey, but how, how to love in practical terms?

Well, I know sometimes friends start feeling like enemies when a sense of imposition arises. So I have to bless them with what they want, is what I think to get myself moving. I think I can count the number of people who have actually pitted themselves against me on the fingers of one hand. (Early days yet, I suppose!) (And it’s usually me who gets a case of an unreasonably intense dislike.)

Then, who is my neighbour? Or, who can I be a neighbour to? These should mainly be people physically present with me, I guess — people I can see, touch, smell and speak to with all the nuances that body language brings. We’re not quite swaddled lumps of flesh, cocooned in our underground pods and weightlifting with pillows yet. But I also find myself being sought by and reaching out to folks beyond the seas. It’s befuddling and much too contingent on electricity and underwater cables. Still, it’s not as though living in the same city naturally draws people together. It’s the same school, the same company, the same place of worship, the same club, the facing door that does the trick.

Finally, though, I have to go back to the fount, the source of all the love that I’m capable of — the human face of God, Jesus Christ my Lord. How does he love, that I can follow? How does he want me to love, in the trials that I endure? I haven’t figured out very much so far, and it’s been excruciating though also exhilarating as this heart of stone gets turned to flesh. I wish it could be easier, but I know it’s the pain that seals lessons like:

  • I’m not to shut off love like a faucet and stop caring when I don’t get what I want or choose to take offence. Go deeper, go truer, keep calm. Eat healthy, get some exercise, take the Titanic out of your own eye. Love is hard work! So much needed by way of readjustment, reflection and resistance of temptation to be plain ol’ mean or pillage-a-village crazy.
  • Especially when things look dire, I am to go all 1 Corinthians 13 on the situation. Move like a ninja in pink and out of myself. Jealous paranoia? Pish-tosh the hogwash! “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Suffering a grievous slight? Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Feeling like giving up altogether on a recalcitrant? “Love never ends.” (Plus, it would be awkward in the new creation.)
  • Most assuredly, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”, and that makes all the difference between the ‘yes’, the ‘no’, and the ‘maybe’. I am to be gracious because of the grace I am living under — everything I do have is because of God’s love, so I can surely be grateful instead of griping over everything that’s out of my grasp. I am learning the pleasure of ‘enough’, and the peace in that pleasure. Be of as much help as I can, as much as can be received, and carry on. And, hey, it’s OK to be misunderstood. God is the only one who knows the fullness of every story anyway.
  • I can go 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, devoid of nearest and dearest, but not without my Lord (who, by the way, responds so often to our need for ‘God with skin on’). It’s when I seek him first when I wake that I get the pleasure of perspective and the prospect of seeing the lovable instead of the loathsome in the everyday and in everyone. He holds everything together. He takes me seriously, knowing every tear I shed, freeing me to laugh at myself and guarding me from fear, loneliness, and undue shame and guilt. Loving him gives me strength to love others, and loving others is how I express my love to him.

If you’ve read this far, I love you too. (Love also means being merciful towards silly humour, eh wot.)

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