I’m not sure the first time that it happened; over twenty years, I’ve lost count of how many times we have repeated the scene. Ginger always begins the conversation, and the statement generally comes out of nowhere:
“OK,” she’ll say, “name three reasons you love me.”
And I name three specific things – three the-way-you-wear-your-hat kind of things — that pull me to her as to no other because it is in the details of life that love finds a place to live and grow. I know what love is because of those details, though I’m hard pressed to write a definition that explains it. We talk about love as a feeling, but that idea quickly runs out of steam. Madeleine L’Engle quotes Hugh Bishop of Mirfield (not to be confused with the other Hugh Bishops) who said, “Love is not an emotion. It is a policy” (45). It is, as Billy Joel sang, a matter of trust.
Many years ago before Ginger and I even met, I saw Alan Alda interviewed by Barbara Walters and she asked about his then twenty-five year old marriage, commenting that bonds like that didn’t hold well in the Hollywood. “How did you do it?” she asked.
“We just kept our promises,” he answered. “We said we would love each other through life and we have. Everyone is looking for a custom fit in an off the rack world.”
The simplicity of the metaphor stuck with me as worth remembering. He wasn’t saying just find someone and get on with it. He was saying when you decide to love, then love. Don’t keep looking to find a better fit. Let the veracity of your commitment shape you to fit. Pick three things, and then three more things, and then three more until you have a lifetime of reasons for finding love in the one who has kept the promises with you. L’Engle says a similar thing:
Love can’t be pinned down by a definition, and it certainly can’t be prove, any more than anything else important in life can be proved. Love is people, is a person . . . I am slowly coming to understand with my heart as well as my head that love is not a feeling. It is a person. It has a lot to do with compassion, and with creation. (43)
I was hardly through the paragraph before I was humming an old song by my friend, Billy Crockett called “Portrait of Love.” The premise of the song saw Paul as an artist painting a picture of Jesus with the words of 1 Corinthians 13. The chorus says:
Love is patient, love is kind
Never jealous, free of pride
Love will never be confine
And love will abide
Love is hopeful, love’s not blind
Love is faithful, every time
Love is Someone, and
If you’ll open your eyes, you’ll find
That love is alive
I met with the other deacons around the Communion Table at the front of the sanctuary to practice before the service. We have been working on our consistency in serving the elements as a means of communicating how essential the Meal is for all of us. Making sure we are lined up as we need to be, or that we are clear about who will pass what, or that we move in some cohesive sense is not about being efficient or perfect as much as it one of intentionality our love for the congregation. We mean to be prepared to serve and share the meal. We mean to keep our promises in our little off the rack church, which means we have to be able to be involved in the moment and detached enough to see what we are creating together. L’Engle says it this way:
Detachment and involvement: the artist must have both. The link between them is compassion.
Sacredness requires specificity. The grand esoteric themes of theology have their place, but love takes root in those specific moments when we voluntarily and intentionally enter one another’s pain. “God so loved the world” makes sense when love has a name and is lying in the manger. The Incarnation (big theological concept) comes alive in the person of Jesus, God with us in all our off the rackness, all our struggles, in all our, well, lives.
In the specific person of Jesus, God says, “Me, too” in a way that had not been said before. The stories in the gospels are full of specifics, Jesus making particular movements, though not spectacular ones, to offer compassion and healing. He stopped when the woman with the hemorrhage touched his coat. He asked Zacchaeus if he could come over to the house. He wrote in the sand to move the focus off the adulterous woman in John 8 to take the attention off of her for at least a moment. He offered Peter breakfast.
On the way to church this morning, I heard an interview on Weekend Edition Sunday with the authors of Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between. The book is a humorous and thoughtful look at how people regard the afterlife, the authors having chosen to tell jokes to get their points across. Here is the title joke:
Heidegger and a Hippo stroll up to the Pearly Gates, and Saint Peter says, “Listen, we’ve only got room for one more today. Whoever gives me the best answer to “What is the meaning of life?” gets in.
Heidegger says, “To think Being itself requires disregarding Being to the extent that it is only grounded and interpreted in terms of things and for beings as their ground, as in all metaphysics.”
But before the hippo can grunt one word, Saint Peter says to him, “Today’s your lucky day, Hippy!”
The Incarnation is a mind-blowing theological concept. How do we explain God with skin on? We don’t – we can’t, anymore than we can define love. But when we look at the specific brush strokes of Jesus’ encounters with those around him, we begin to get the picture, to see the portrait of Love. When we gather together at the Table and participate in the simple act of passing bread and wine to one another, we remember Jesus, as in we re-member the Body of Christ and put it back together again. Love lives in the looks, the touch, the simple words of affirmation, the daily acts of recalling the promises we’ve made and keeping them.