Love Much and Well

My niece and my dad share a moment during his last week. (c) A. Scheff, 2012

My thoughts on the Second Sunday of Advent, with the theme of love.  As the frenzy now kicks up for Christmas Shopping (quick, only two weeks!), I offer some thoughts on what we all really want.  Surprisingly, it’s not a gadget from Apple.

 Based on Philippians 1:3-11

I’m a lover of the English language.  I like the way words can convey meaning, and how when they are cleverly put together you can actually see the beauty of a scene the writer is describing.  A friend this week wrote, “I almost didn’t go for a walk.  It was positively GRAY out, and likely damp. Still, I gathered the dogs, and set out… My reward: being met by a mingling of salt and balsam, listening to the surf crashing against the rocks. The bell buoy called ‘Come!’ while the limbs of craggy old trees, perfectly crooked, framed my path. The mossy stones greeted me, with the lichen, and the gulls. The gray, I thought, is a good walk after all.”  It’s not often that you can be enchanted by a Facebook status update.

Words have the possibility to carry great meaning, yet one of our words often gets diluted in our culture: “love.”  I know I love Indian food, but I know I love my family a heck of a lot more.  I could swear off curry (albeit reluctantly) if I had too; my family can never be out of the reach of my love.  Don’t worry; this isn’t one of those yawner sermons on the three kinds of love as shown in the Greek.  I’ve heard plenty of those myself (and if you’ve not heard that sermon ever, you can find a bunch online by searching “Three kinds of love sermons,” albeit at your own risk).

Having said that, I am struck by Paul’s language in his letter to the Philippians when it comes to love (and for you Greek fans out there, this is indeed agape).  We may say that love is blind, that it can overlook things.  But notice Paul prays for quite the opposite, petitioning that their love may grow in knowledge and even insight.  Paul asks God to allow the Philippians to see fully and understand about love so that they could discern what is the best way forward, and see to it that they are both pure and blameless on the day of Christ.

And that line scares the living bejeezus out of me.  Pure and blameless?  Is that even possible in our world?  We know when we are to blame, when we let down the ones dearest in our lives, or, if we can be honest enough, when we let ourselves down.  At times we get upset with those we live with and love, do something really thoughtless, or even sabotage our own goals and desires.  Pure and blameless often don’t seem achievable when we look realistically and critically at our own lives.  We like the blindness that love can afford us in the times when we are at fault.

But maybe sometimes we aren’t so blind when it comes to those that we love, especially when we are hurt by them.  When we are the recipients of someone’s ire, we are quick to point a finger.  The blame game is no good.  We know that, well for all you 80s music fans out there, it spins us right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, right round.  Blaming can engulf our lives like a spinning vortex of water, but we’ll hold on in the middle of that raging flood if we believe we’re the one who is right.  In those cases, there’s often no love to be found whatsoever.  And the problem with the blame game is that it becomes a death spiral sucking us down to our demise, with the power to hurt us permanently.

St. Augustine said, “Love and do as you like.”  On the surface that statement seems so trite and naïve, but, dear God, if we love as we are called to love, then the actions we do will grow out of that love.  We’ll hold open our hands and our hearts to those most dear to us.  We’ll notice with a holy insight when someone is struggling and then respond with love and compassion.  That powerful prayer of Paul’s invites us into the heart of Christ, into the very love of God, where there is more compassion for each one of us than we could ever imagine.

But what does that look like?  What does that word mean since love no longer carries the depth that it once did?  We toss it around so much, it’s become worn down from overuse.  I want you to hear that passage again from the Message Bible to see if that adds a bit of color to this monochrome understanding of love.

“So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.”

How does one love, not only much, but well?

My dad’s cousin, Bob, is a Capuchin Friar and Catholic Priest.  One time when I was five or six, Fr. Bob came over to visit with our family.  The grown-ups were talking at the kitchen table, and I wanted someone to play a game with me; I was that kid with the constant refrain of wanting to play a game (every family has one).  My parents informed me that the adults were all talking and didn’t have time to play.  With my feelings hurt I ran to another room and began to cry.  Fr. Bob came over to me, and asked me if I could get a deck of cards.  I grabbed some and then he showed me how to build a house out of those cards with me.  I’m not sure how long we played, but it was enough to make me feel special, to feel loved.

Many years later, as Melissa and I traveled around visiting seminaries to find the one for me, we got to spend a weekend with Fr. Bob.  He worked as a chaplain at a mental hospital in D.C., and invited us to join him for their Sunday services.  I saw in him a deep love for the residents there, even while they may have spoken out of turn or been disruptive.  After the service, his face lit up with joy in talking with them.

This past spring, Bob joined with me in officiating at my father’s funeral.  Later that weekend, I watched him shower love on Noah and Olivia, taking us out to a restaurant special to my dad, and engaging them in conversation attentively and whole-heartedly.  Bob is a person who loves both much and well, and I know he would downplay these attributes in himself.  But as one watching for nearly 40 years, I can say with certainty that he loves like Christ; he is both circumspect and exemplary.

And I want to be cautious in using a priest as a primary example, because you might very well say, “Of course he loves well!  He wears a collar!” and think somehow that you are never going to match up.  But that is not the point at all.  We can also love like that.  We, too, can show abounding compassion that Paul prays the Philippian believers will have.

A year ago I encouraged you to give relational gifts for Christmas.  I think we’d all rather have memories and time with loved ones.  What we really want for Christmas is the relational aspect of the season, not a new toy or clothing article.  We want connectedness.  And I think this is true for our kids as well.  They want the time playing with someone else more than just a game they can play on their own (and I can speak with authority on this account).

I cannot tell you about many of the gifts I received during my childhood, but I remember that house I built with Fr. Bob.  In this first Advent and Christmas without both of my parents, what I remember most of them is the time we spent together not the pair of jeans or sweater they put under the tree.  What I’d ask for more of now is that time, the days spent together, loving both much and well.

You don’t need to be ordained to do that.  You just need to be someone willing risk living a life Jesus would be proud of.  Doing your best at loving and compassion, seeking forgiveness when you messed up, offer forgiveness rather than blame.  Putting meaning and flesh behind the phrase “I love you,” so that it conjures up a whole range of deep emotions and isn’t said flippantly.  Words like that become more important when they encompass the ways in which we love, the many actions that back up the compassion we fell.

May this time of preparation bring you ever closer to that pure and blameless life as you become enlivened to live as Christ did and love both much and well.  Amen.