I thought about a medley for today.
You know, “love will keep us together”
(Sedaka and Greenfield, 1973)
because “all you need is love”
But (a) I didn’t want to put y’all through that
on the Sunday before Christmas,
and (b) because it’s the way we’ve been doing it this Advent,
I’ve been pondering, instead of popular songs,
a definition of love this past week—
everyday definition of love—
assuming love should be
a practical, common part of everyone’s everyday.
(I know it’s not, but it should be,
we would agree, would we not?)
So what do you think
of this definition:
love is the assurance
of worth and value—
of being considered worthy—
the assurance of being valued?
I’m still thinking about it,
but I’ve rattled it around all week.
I’ve bounced it off some folks,
and it’s still feeling pretty good.
Now you can certainly add different specifics—
different expectations for particular relationships—
particular expressions of love:
spousal, parental, friendal!
But in terms of a common denominator
to all experiences of love,
what do you think?
I know I’m loved
when I know someone considers me worthy,
and when I know they value me—
and when I know they consider me worthy and value me
just as I am—all seven verses repeated ad nauseum
in all the particulars of me—
my gender, my size,
my interests and gifts,
my sexual orientation,
my success or lack thereof by the world’s criteria,
my acknowledged weaknesses—my “growth areas,”
my blind spots, my annoying tendencies.
The church is, sad to say, doing a particularly heinous job
of teaching too many parents—encouraging too many parents
(can we name this the sacrilege it is?)
not to value the worthiness of some children,
and sometimes even not to value them,
utterly paradoxically, in the name of God,
instead of, in the name of God, assuring and reassuring
each child of their absolute worth and value.
If you’re willing to accept my working definition of love,
the sacrilege becomes more clear:
the church is teaching too many not to love their children.
Because this particular definition of love
cuts decisively through claims of love
and makes clear that someone who speaks of love,
but does not affirm another as worthy
and as valued—
well, that’s not love.
I know I’m loved
when I’m valued as worthy.
And this is true
whether we’re thinking about someone else loving me,
or about me loving me—
me considering my own worthiness—me valuing me.
So the first gift of love—
the first implication of love—
the healthy sense of self.
And the blessing of love
is the opportunity to see myself
with the gentle acceptance—
the deep appreciation of someone who loves me.
And, if I may be so bold,
not to bless someone
is to curse them.
Now that may sound arbitrary and extreme.
It did to me, initially.
But it sounds right thinking about children, doesn’t it?
Children who are not loved
who do not grow up knowing that they’re valued—
that they’re worthy,
just as they are,
grow up with the implicit belief
that they’re not good enough.
That’s a curse. Believe me.
Now they’re not doomed.
You can overcome a curse, but it’s not easy.
If you don’t love children, you curse them.
And if that’s true for children,
then why not in general?
Now let’s be clear, such gentle acceptance
and deep appreciation
do not take away one bit of love’s high expectations.
That’s one of the challenges of love
and of church—
how to accept and challenge,
how to confront, but only in love—in assurance.
That’s what parents need to be learning and doing.
That’s what churches need to be teaching and modeling—
thus ensuring that everyone is offered
the assurance of love
before anyone starts talking about expectations—
before anyone challenges anyone else’s
choices, words and actions.
Because for any of that to do any good,
it has to all be offered
in the context of love—
of an assured value and worth,
or it does more harm than good.
Our culture pretty much sucks at this—
excuse the language.
For in our culture,
my don’t we love demographics?
And we target audiences.
We target donors.
We target prospective … whatevers.
And this demographic is carefully considered more valuable than that one.
That’s the implicit message of our culture.
This person is worth more than that one.
It’s not christian.
It is what is is.
And those who protest
that saying one person—one demographic
is worth more than another
is just a matter of finances, for example—
is just relevant to whatever the relevant criteria,
do not understand the holistic nature
in and of which worth is affirmed and developed.
It’s an interesting definition of love to ponder.
And all of a sudden,
there’s a whole lot of Scripture
with amazingly practical relevance.
For God so loved the world … (John 3:16).
God considered it worthy.
God valued it.
Then there is that great refrain through the Old Testament
of God’s steadfast love.
I didn’t realize quite how great a refrain it was
until I did a little investigating this past week.
There are 13 references to God’s love in the Torah,
12 of which are to steadfast love.
In the histories, there are 25 occurrences of God’s love.
All 25 are of steadfast love.
There are 119 occurrences of steadfast love in the psalms,
and 18 in the prophets.
Steadfast love is the absolute consistency
of God’s estimation of creation
as both worthy and valuable.
So love is an assessment.
It’s an estimation.
Not that it’s not emotional,
but it’s more than emotions.
It’s a commitment.
How good it would be to see
love more in terms of commitment
than is common in our culture—
in our culture that sees love more as
how you feel about someone.
Imagine what it would do to marketing, for example,
if we were to effectively promote
the idea in romantic love
that it’s more important to show someone
they’re valuable to me than that they’re desirable.
Imagine what it would do to politics
if people were to think in terms of valuing everyone,
considering the worth of everyone.
Again, Scripture is imminently practical.
As God does, so are we to do.
The new commandment Jesus gives us (John 13:34),
the message we have heard from the beginning (1 John 3:11),
is that we should love one another,
and let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action
(1 John 3:18).
The great commandments in the gospels,
derived from the great commandments of the Torah:
and love others as you love yourself
(Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:25-37;
Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18)
translate into value God,
consider God worthy,
and value others as you value yourself.
Consider others worthy
as you consider yourself worthy.
is not valuing.
It’s not considering worthy
whether that’s done consciously
Thus by loving,
we create of the world
a better place—a healthier place of greater assurance.
By not loving
We consistently underestimate the significance
of these commandments to love.
For our obedience in this matter is, bottom line,
about continuing creation
as God intended it to be.
When we do not value someone—
when we do not consider them worthy,
we undo creation as God intended.
No small thing to do!
What we short-circuit in not loving others—
in not blessing others,
is the health of those others,
and thus the health of the community as a whole.
Now there’s a corollary to my proposed definition
with far reaching implications:
for before I can love me
(or before I can love anyone else, for that matter),
I have to be loved.
Love is initially
something I must receive.
It’s something someone else must give me.
And some pretty abstract theology
all of a sudden
becomes downright practical.
There’s the priority of God’s love.
I’ve always wondered about that verse:
we love because God first loved us
(1 John 4:19).
Because it has always seemed to me
that we can’t love unless we are loved,
but that that takes more than some kind of abstract love
that we name divine love.
It takes physical arms that hold us;
it takes shoulders to cry on;
it takes, precisely, a person—people
who consider us worthy—
who value us.
So I’m not actually sure we can know God’s love,
if we haven’t been shown love—
if we don’t know love.
That seems so very unfair.
Evidence that the sins of the parents
are visited upon the children,
and the gifts as well—the blessings.
Now it raises the importance of love as the church’s calling.
Our love may make it possible for someone to know God’s love,
or, more frighteningly (and tragically), our lack of love
may make it harder for someone to know God’s love.
At an even more abstract theological level,
and I really didn’t want to go here,
we end up with some kind of trinitarian affirmation.
Who wants to ever get into trinitarian affirmations?
But that’s where we have to go—a little,
because if we love in response to love,
we would want to say that God loves because God loves God,
not that God loves because we love God, right?
That’s pretty important.
So then we have to say God’s love is not dependent on ours,
but is both given and received within the interrelatedness of God
and then offered to us.
Didn’t want to go there. Had to.
Let’s move on!
Another interesting corollary is
that love is less what anyone does
as how others receive it.
So I may initiate love,
but someone else will validate it.
It doesn’t work, you see, if I value someone’s worth,
but they don’t know that—
they don’t get that from me.
Love has to be experienced
to be known
and known to be shared.
Kyle Matthews sings, “Teach me to speak your language,
so I can say, ‘I love you’—
so you hear in your own language
precisely what I mean.
I have tried to tell you my way,
but I’m not being heard.
So teach me to speak your language,
and take me at my word”
(Kyle Matthews, “Teach Me to Speak Your Language,”
on Waking Up to the World, See For Yourself Music, 1997).
There’s a fundamental mutuality—
an essential interdependence
to such a way of being.
What then, a risk,
for God to love.
For if love is who God is,
in loving us, God invites us
to validate love
and thus, at least in part,
to validate God!
Now before that gets tossed in the
(you didn’t know I knew you had one of those, did you?),
it is how we understand Jesus, isn’t it?
As God’s initiative—remember our Scriptures?
“All this took place to fulfill
what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet”
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son,
and shall name him Immanuel”
yet it’s up to us to define for ourselves
who Jesus will be for ourselves
how we, as followers of Jesus—
will incorporate (or remember) ourselves
the life once lived.
And do notice, on this fourth Sunday of Advent,
that if we do follow God in the way of Jesus—
if we do love God and love our neighbor
living to manifest our valuation of their worth,
such a priority—such a commitment—such love
will require ever so much of us,
but represents one of the greatest validations of hope,
perhaps the deepest potential for peace,
and one of our richest manifestations of joy,
and so the fulfillment of Advent—
of what we still await.
So when we ask, as we’ve been asking this Advent,
what gets in the way of love,
how important to figure out.
And while we might blame busyness.
We might blame stress.
It’s really only one thing, seems to me.
Whether it’s an understandable selfishness
because of not having received love,
or the inexplicable selfishness
of those who have known love,
but don’t share it—don’t offer it to others,
Our culture likes to pretend it’s a virtue.
Names it individualism.
When it’s really hyper-individualism,
and it’s selfish.
So our opportunity today,
is to love—
to extend assurances of worth and value to all God’s children,
to prepare the way of the Lord,
to manifest the truest presence of God.
And so to sum it all up,
it is the fourth Sunday of Advent,
and “love will keep us together”
(Sedaka and Greenfield)
because “all you need is love
all you need is love
all you need is love love
love is all you need”
May it be so.