Friday, May 27, 2011

Signs Of Grace - Even For Those Who Don't Believe

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:7-12
I find it amusing to consider people. All of us walk around, our game faces on, appearing in public as strong and confident, even blustering and bombastic, or by turns obsequious and deferential. Invariably, however, we are faced with the grim reality that these public face in no way give others a clue about who we are. Time and again, I have found, how we present ourselves to others bears no relation whatsoever to the person we feel ourselves to be.

The kudzu vein of American emotional issues is simple lack of self-confidence, bordering on neurotic self-loathing. If I had a dime every time I met someone who, regardless of outward appearances, circumstances, and even public, professional action, believed in his or her heart-of-hearts that he or she was a worthless pile of dog vomit, I would be living somewhere warm and tropical. The problem, of course, is that the sum total of problems caused by what is popularly known as low self-esteem is greater than individual instances of simple low self-regard. Substance abuse. Familial dysfunction. Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse within families. The myriad social dysfunctions one sees on shows like Cops. The toll all of us pay for each of thinking we are somehow unworthy of acceptance by others is very high indeed.

I got to thinking about this whole topic after reading this post last evening. Specifically, I found a certain passage enlightening:
Needless to say my 3 hour commute home was filled with images of my husband canoodling with a soon to be dead woman who was prettier than me, funnier than me, and just about better at me than everything. She was witty, charming, didn’t swear, fart, burp or say stupid things. She had beautiful hair and an incredibly toned ass.
Now, the young woman who wrote this is hardly a wilting flower. Quite the contrary. Yet, here she reveals to the world that, at heart, she just knows there is . . . another . . . out there for whom her husband will fall, someone prettier, wittier, more appealing than she knows herself to be. When she learns otherwise, however, she gets the shock of her life. Her husband, far from searching for that other something better, spends the hours between waking and sleeping with his thoughts on her.

Where does this lack of any sense that we are worthy of love reside? Psychologists always seem to point to families, to some kind of parental neglect or other familial dysfunction. Personally, I don't buy it. There just has to be something more to it. One of my reasons for saying this is my own experience. Growing up in a large, boisterous, garrulous, variegated household, the one thing all of us could count on was parental love. Yet, all five of us, in some manner, express the same kind of low regard as one sees most everywhere else. Ours, I think, tends toward garden-variety low self-esteem, sometimes edging toward seeking the kind of reassurance that comforts us with truths we both desperately wish to believe, yet cannot will ourselves to believe.

I consider myself the luckiest person I know. Quite apart from everything else in my life, I share it with a woman who is smart, and funny, and compassionate, and dedicated, and - yes, I'll say it - sexy as all get out. She is also my best friend, my confidante, the person to whom I turn not because I take her for granted but because I believe in my heart that, even if all the world falls apart, she will be by my side if for no other reason than I will be right there next to her. This is more than "love" as the poets and Romantics understood it. It is something more, something greater than the kind of "moon-spoon-June" crap we are fed by popular culture. After eighteen years of marriage, we finish one another's sentences. We have the same thoughts, expressed simultaneously. Something far deeper than simple passion, or even "love", is at work here. Lisa is, beyond a doubt, half of my life.

I wasn't always one who believed stuff like this. I refused, for the longest time, to believe it possible that another person could be, for me or anyone, so enmeshed with another that untangling the knot of their lives would be impossible. The best one could hope for, I used to say, is that the hard work of marriage would create bonds that would be difficult to sever. I am older, and far wiser, now, and believe with all my heart that Lisa has been right from day 1 - she and I were meant to be together. I know that sounds like so much craptastic, romantic nonsense. It is, nonetheless, true.

When the author of the above passage of Scripture was writing about love, I am quite sure the romantic variety of that state was not at all in mind. The word in question, filia, refers to the bonds of friendship that were far more prized, far more important, than the bond between spouses. In ridding our language of a variety of words describing a variety of emotional reactions to others in our lives, English is a poor way of communicating our feelings to others. I love my daughters, and I love my wife, and there are two or three people in my life, past and present, for whom the word "love" fits quite well. Yet, all these expressions of love are different for a variety of reasons. Yet, of one thing I feel myself quite sure - the reality of love in my life is testimony to the presence of God, not just in my life, but in the world.

The simple sentence, "God is love", given as a predicate regarding the subject "love" in the larger argument, sums up a basic reality that contradicts everything we believe and even think we know about the world. How many people really want to believe that love - not just between two people who share a mutual physical attraction and some kind of initial emotional bond - makes up not only for all the suffering and pain in the world, but even just for the lack of any sense of worth we feel? Yet, if we allow ourselves to think even about the possibility of love, we realize - quite apart from any Biblical references - that it is both impossible, and the most important, fundamental reality of human life. How is it possible, that of all the contingencies, mistakes, choices good and bad that led me there, that I could wind up, in Washington, DC in September of 1992, for just the slightest chance of encountering the woman who, I could not have imagined, is everything I could have wanted a life-partner to be? Yet, it did happen. For no other reason than this, I refuse to regret anything I ever did before that moment. If anything, even a single know in the tangle of my life before then, changed, I would not have met her, and nothing in my life would be the same. As I've told her, I may well have married, had children, too, but there would always be something . . . missing . . . some regret or some piece missing from my life.

Of all the bits and pieces of things in this world to which we in the church could point to show that God exists, and that the Christian God exists as we proclaim God to exist, for me the reality of love in all its variations, seems inarguable. That it is even possible seems to make no sense. How could anyone, anywhere, possibly defend the proposition that two individuals could or should spend the rest of their lives together? How is it possible that two people could meet, share interests and laughs together, share experiences and call one another "friend" yet have that word contain so much more than simple shared experiences. I maintain that, whether we can admit it or not, the simple reality of love between two people - whether it is love for a spouse or significant other, love for a child or pet, love for one or two special people in our lives we call friend - is the most direct, most clear, and most important sign that God, the Christian God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, exists.

I know that sounds simple, even simplistic. Naive, perhaps. That doesn't make it any less true. If you love, open yourself to the possibility of being loved. Loved by others. Loved by God. It makes no sense, and a whole lot of questions remain unanswered, but that doesn't make it any less real, or true. It may well be the only thing that matters.

Virtual Tin Cup

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