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Sattler Values: Love

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Sattler Values: Love

I am a word enthusiast – a logophile, if you will. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I am a great respecter of words, of their nuance and the care needed to not misuse them. And I have to tell you, I often find myself frustrated by how people misuse words.

I am thinking of words like “interesting” – a word which has the literal connotation of investment, but which is used these days as a way to describe something when you don’t actually want to take the time to describe it. Or “impact” – a verb used to describe almost any kind of change a person or event causes and often used with a positive connotation, when it more accurately describes a physical event which in itself is more often painful and damaging than we realize when we claim to desire to “make an impact.” Oh, and there’s one more word I’d add to my list of complaints: Love.

When I first came to work at Sattler College, I was not surprised to find that love was a value the college held in high regard. How could it not be? Love is, perhaps, the buzziest of buzzwords of the Christian world. We are to love God, love our neighbor, love our enemy, love our families. In some sense, everything that it means to be Christian can be tied back to this word.

But what, after all, does “love” mean? Like the words I spoke of above, “love” is spoken of so often that it can fall into the trap of semantic satiation – that strange sensation when a word has been said out loud so many times in a row that it loses its meaning. (If you haven’t experienced it before, try it – it’s quite disorienting.) As it is used over and over to describe various actions, words and feelings, it becomes vaguer and harder to pin down.

Depending on whom you ask, “Love” can mean physical sensations, spiritual movements, mental affects (and defects), and at its most mundane can be used to describe any feeling approximate to appreciation. Surely no single definition can be found – yet surely we must search for the images of love that best describe it, or else the word and the meaning it carries may be lost to us.

I won’t attempt to survey the literature in search of an answer, as I’d soon wear out my welcome. I’ll simply direct us to a familiar passage – I Corinthians 13:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.

We’ve come across an endangered word here: “charity” – an old word that used to describe love, but now tends to remind people of false generosity and condescension. No one wants to be a “charity case,” right? It is clear in this passage, though, that charity meant something far exceeding a materialistic love as it so often seems to mean today. So how does the Bible define charity/love? Again, a complete exposition of this passage would take too long, so I’ll settle on an element I think we can easily lose sight of: Love bears all things.

What compels me in this phrase is the sheer physical weight it carries. To bear all things – to carry them in your arms or shoulder them – is to submit to an incredible burden. It is right on top of you, unavoidable, taking all your attention and wearing you out. It is truly “suffering long,” bending the back too much for you to ever be “puffed up.” Love requires full physical commitment.

To this I would add the words of the William Shakespeare, who no doubt was expanding on this very theme when he wrote Sonnet 116:

                                 Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. (2-3, 9-12)

We do not drop the weight of love when it shifts around, changes shape, or gains in weight. No amount of time, not even the threat of death can cause us to let go of the burden. We take it with us to our graves. We delight so much in loving that its presence, no matter how challenging, does not deter us.

My point is, Love gets in the way. This physical dimension of love – that it means and necessitates proximity, even uncomfortable proximity, to those we are called to love – must be written back into our definitions. No one wants charity as it is commonly understood by the world – charity that throws money at problems and keeps a respectful distance. And I don’t think anyone really wants the world’s love, either – love that asks for us to let go, to let people be themselves; that alienates us by its very desire to admit no control over others. People want love that invades and conquers their fears and doubts; that is not embarrassed by heavy burdens; that does not shrink back from doom’s edge. People do change, and our attempts to control people are dangerous and misguided – but to stay beside them even as they shift from friend to stranger, or even to enemy, is the very burden we most need to bear.

As I said, I don’t think we can settle on a definition of love. But we can begin to shape its contours with this assertion: Love is an act of proximity. Love shows up to the places we least want it to, the places that we do not feel we can bear to be seen. And Love stays there. So when you speak of Love, speak with an image in your mind, not of a hug or a wistful sigh, but of full arms, belabored breathing, and a bent back as you carry the weight of your love for others. Or more simply, when you speak of love, think of the image of Jesus.

If we have anything to learn from Jesus, it is that His love is close – almost unbearably close to us. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows to the edge of doom and right over it, and He has returned to show us that indeed Love is not the pawn of time, or death, or any other power. Love does not fail us. Let us therefore not fail to love closely our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and strangers, and our Lord Himself, who is Love.

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