“Remember when you couldn’t cook, mom, and people brought us meals?”
“Yes, I do,” I said, changing lanes and turning up the Market Street hill.
“And remember when those nice people showed up with Christmas presents.”
And the tears threatened so I can’t say anything else.
“That was nice.”
“Yes,” and after swallowing the lump in my throat, I could say, “It’s important that we never forget. It’s important so that we look for opportunities to help people like those people helped us.”
“Yeah, they didn’t even know us.”
“It’s easy to help someone you know and like, isn’t it. But these people helped us just because we’re people and we needed help.”
We pulled into the parking lot of our destination and Nikko hopped out to go to his breakdancing class.
“By mom! See you after!”
And the conversation hung in the air around me on the drive home.
Can you edit my paper today?
I read the text on my phone’s screen and replied, Sure thing.
Her argumentative essay needed some work, but it had good bones. I inserted comments but as I read this theology paper my daughter had composed, I was struck by the theme: love in action.
Her class covered “outsiders”, theologians who went against the grain, stood on the outside of conventional church thought during their lifetimes. She chose Kierkegaard and his book, Works of Love for her essay. I confess I’ve never read the book, yet here, my kid has studied it critically (and knows what that means, exactly). She explained Kierkegaard’s ideas of essentially two kinds of love: preferential and eternal. Preferential is the love that we immerse ourselves in all the time: romance and friendship, the love of poetry and movies. It’s the reactive love that guides us all the time, and it’s contingent upon our feelings, the rewards we’ll get in return, the way the recipient of our love acts, looks and behaves.
Eternal love, on the other hand, looks at nothing but the need of the other person. Any qualifiers or social constructs that might limit or enable preferential love cannot be applied to eternal love.
I shook my head as I read her paper and thought, “it’s a miracle we can love like this at all”.
She delineated the actions of the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable (in Luke 10) and she properly interspersed complex and heady quotes from Kierkegaard, yet the truth is radically simple: love does.
My college student and my young son both understood this startling truth: love is action applied to the need of our neighbor; and our neighbor is anyone in need.
And aren’t we all in need, one way or another? Don’t we need a friend, someone who understands, someone to cover our shift or look us in the eyes, someone who will speak the truth or make an effort, someone to pack a meal in a box or pay a bill, someone who will empathize or advise, someone who loves by doing.
And God, whose economy is all about the multiplication of love, devised a simple and brilliant plan to actively, physically meet the love-needs of every person on the planet by putting his eternal love in our souls and giving us the simple command: love your neighbor as you love yourself.
That Samaritan sojourner saw a beaten and broken man and saw himself. So he saw to the needs of a stranger as he would his very own self. He thought nothing of race or social standing or even cost, he expected nothing in return, not even a thank-you note. What makes this kind of eternal love possible isn’t that it’s simple, or easy, but that it cannot be manufactured by our own efforts. The love is divine, the effort is ours and the marriage of the two is the most beautiful thing any of us has seen.
My daughter began her paper saying that Christians should be known for our love, it’s the expectation and the norm.
But are we?
Yes, we’re the Christian nation that responded in recent years to the devastation in Haiti or the Philippines or Japan. We have sent billions of dollars in food aid to Africa, missionaries to New Guinea and still, do we love?
I’ll contend that yes, we do. But we could do better. Or should I say, we could love more eternally.
As individuals, as churches, as community groups and Bible-studiers, we could, like the Samaritan, set aside all earthly codes of qualifications and take the risk of walking toward need.
Ah, but then we’d have to face outward and look. We’d have to raise our heads and look beyond our church commitments, our famous pastors, our squeaky-clean, Baptist-approved Amish fiction books and our strange fascination with debating ourselves over the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or the acceptable method of worship, or gays in the church, or whether women should teach men, or whether or not tattoos are pagan destruction of the temple of God (a very Christian-y way of saying “body”) or how, exactly to lead biblical lives in the face of an ever-increasingly anti-Christian world.
I’ll admit, I’m not always good at this eternal, non-preferential love. Even after all my neediness!
I get Immersion Foot of the soul. By standing in the elements of the earth so long, by sheer exposure to cold and wet conditions, feet can begin to die even while connected to a living body. The process begins because the blood vessels stay constricted for so long that the nerves and muscle and skin begin to decompose. It happened to soldiers in Europe in World War 1 and in Korea, too. Immersion foot happens quite accidentally to builders, hikers, even musical festival-goers. They’re doing their thing and exposed to the elements, unaware that part of them is dying.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
(2 Corinthians 4:7)
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.”
(1 Corinthians 13:3-8)
It’s hard for me to keep this daily advent writing going. I get distracted. But this morning I awoke when my daughter switched on my light and my first thought was, “write about my advent”. So today’s gift of Jesus is this incredible eternal love, so startlingly simple and so tremendously divine, given so freely. His purpose is not only to draw us into his love but to love others through us.
We have to deliberate this individually, reflectively ask ourselves if eternal love is happening in and through our lives. We can, each of us, set aside our darling preferences and let God love this world freely through us.