Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Love is an Action Verb

LOVE is a word with a lot of definitions. It gets confusing! In fact, I don't think we have nearly enough words in English to cover all the things "love" is used for.

from Dictionary.com:


  1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
  2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
  3. sexual passion or desire.

verb (used with object), loved, lov·ing.

  1. to have love or affection for: All her pupils love her.
  2. to have a profoundly tender, passionate affection for (another person).
So this covers filial love, romantic love, friendly love, sexual attraction ... all nice, warm, pleasant feelings. Nothing to do with the Christian definition of "love," actually. Nothing, really, to do with the grown-up definition of "love." 

St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6, says:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The ten commandments start out with "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, "love your enemies." 

You can't "love your enemies" according to the dictionary definition. It's an oxymoron. Then again, that dictionary definition, which defines love as a feeling, excuses the man who slaps his partner around because he sees her smile at another man. He "loves" her, and therefore it is natural that he feels jealousy; and if "love" is nothing but a feeling that brings and keeps a couple together, if a mere feeling can motivate pair-bonding, then why shouldn't the mere feeling of jealousy motivate violence? 

Christians, and grown-ups generally, aren't meant to be driven by our passions. We are meant to act in accordance with our conscience and our principles, sometimes in opposition to our feelings. Ask any truly happily married couple, and they will tell you frankly that love is an action verb. Love is a choice you have to make every day. Love is patient, love is humble, love compromises, love is vulnerable, love forgives, love listens

Exodus 23:4-5 says, 
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

To paraphrase: if you see a car on a narrow shoulder, at night in the rain, with someone struggling to change the tire, and that car has a big bumper sticker on it advertising the evil, wicked political candidate of the evil, wicked party that you hate -- then you shall pull over and help, at least by pulling up behind them with your flashers on to shield them from getting hit by a car while they change the tire, or at the very least, you shall call #77 and alert the state troopers that someone needs help. Even if it's election day and they're on their way to vote for the evil, wicked, bad guys, you still help. THAT is love, in the Christian sense, in the grown-up human sense.

And sometimes, it's not possible to actually help someone, even someone we feel loving towards. Some illnesses are incurable. Sometimes, love is a nothing more than a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, there's a pandemic on, and you can only video-phone or send a card. Sometimes, love is looking straight into the eyes of a panhandler, whose material needs are way beyond your ability to meet. Sometimes it's listening, with attention and an open mind. 

THIS is ultimately why I remain a Christian, despite all the glaring shortcomings of my Church. God loves us, so much, so deeply, so completely, so intimately. This is how I experience God's love. It's not about making everything OK. God's love doesn't keep things from going wrong, it doesn't keep people from getting sick and dying, it doesn't keep me from screwing things up, it doesn't keep pandemics and wildfires and hurricanes from happening, it doesn't keep war and rape and child abuse from happening. It's about holding my hand through it all, holding me in a loving embrace through it all. It's compassionate love, love that goes through the pain right along with me. Christianity describes a God who chose, out of compassionate love, to enter into my suffering with me, to show me that suffering is not the the ultimate meaning of life, that it is finite, and that it is smaller than love. 

The Christian God is incarnate, carnal, messy, bloody, weak, betrayed, physically overcome. He feels pain and anguish and betrayal and fear, and He chooses to stay, He is not defeated by the pain. And then He does it again every single day, in the Eucharist -- I'm not saying the wafer feels pain when we chew it up, I just mean it's so small, so insignificant, so meek and mild, like Elijah's "still, small voice." And yet, it's Love. It's intimate. It is Communion, two-way union, between the limitless God and limited me, and all-encompassing, although it looks and tastes like nothing at all. 

Some of the most loving people I know are atheists, so I can only put this in the first person. For me, it is in knowing myself loved by God, in feeling how God embraces suffering to embrace me in my suffering, in seeing how small, how paltry, how unimpressively God presents Himself to us, that I am somehow enabled to embrace my paltry, obnoxious, stubborn, wrong-headed self, and my neighbor, and even the ones who might be my enemies. To love, with my actions, by the grace of God, no matter what my feelings might be. Amen.

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