The Love Problem

Have you ever known someone, or encountered someone, or even lived with someone (a family member; a friend; a husband or wife) who has proved hard, even impossible, for you, to love, or even like? I suspect you have. And given the ubiquity of this experience, I suppose this is a question that one need really not ask; its answer being, well, rather self-evident . . .

Nevertheless, “the love problem,” as I am choosing to call it, is not something that we readily admit to, is it? Especially we, of the church; we, of the household of faith; we––who are accustomed to talk the boldest of terms, whether our lives tend to catch up with our words––or not. “I believe in the Bible. I believe in prayer,” certain Christians boast, whether their “believings” are truly of any significance or not, in respect of how they live.

And whether of the household of faith or not, sometimes we feel positively “surrounded” by people, human creatures that we are, that are difficult, even impossible, to abide, let alone love or like. And before we know it, irritation gives way to a profound dislike, not to mention, in some cases, a certain “full-on” hate.

And we all know what comes of hate . . .

Some years ago I was late summer, and I was wrapping up a play––what else is new?––and wanted to change the sign at our church. It was 10:30 at night, and I was of course exhausted, as one is during play production. Perhaps I should have just gone home, instead I stayed to as change out the lettering, “It won’t take that long,” I said to myself.

Meanwhile, dark though it was, a street lady came up to the fence and started chatting to me.

“Hey, do you have a bag? I need a bag,” said she. I was not only exhausted, but in very short order very annoyed––to put it mildly.

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied . . . . (almost too quietly to be heard.) The answer I gave wasn’t strictly true; I was pretty sure we had some plastic shopping bags in the kitchen. But I was in no mood to chase after them. I just wanted to get my job done and go home.

On barely hearing my reply, she dove back in, naturally.

“What did you say?,” said she. “Come on, do you have a bag? I need a bag!!”

“I heard you the first time,” I felt like saying, but didn’t.

“Could you just give me a minute,” I said . . .

“What did you say???,” said she, not waiting for the answer.

“I just need a bag,” she went on. “A bag!! That’s all I’m asking for.”

And shoes. Do you have any shoes??”

(Good thing it was dark, for I had a look on my face that would have curdled new milk, or stripped paint, not necessarily in that order. A look one often sees on the faces of parishioners who don’t quite like the worship music one has chosen.)

“Okay,” I finally replied, “I’ll go and look,”

trying unsuccessfully not to sound, as irritated as I was.

“By the way we don’t have any shoes to give away,”

I said, turning away.

“We simply don’t have room to store such things.”

“Well what am I going to then?!?” said she.

“Why don’t you go and find your own shoes?” I felt like saying––but didn’t.

“Why do you always expect me to provide them for you?”

“Just a minute,” I said,

beginning to sound as pathetic as I was irritated.

I trudged to the kitchen and snatched up three or four bags.

“O thank you, God bless you, God bless you,” she said,

when I came back outside and handed them to her.

“No shoes, huh?”

“No, no shoes,” I said, rather off-handedly, and off she strode into the night, to my palpable relief.

“Thank you God,” I would have like to have said, but didn’t, for by this time I felt really bad for having been so impatient––and so uncaring . . . One could argue that I was justifiably fatigued, and justifiably annoyed, but I knew in my heart that there was no excuse for blowing off this woman. I suddenly remembered this passage of Scripture, from 1 John 4, which we read this morning:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. And this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Oops! I knew I had blown it. According to John, part of the Gospel call made to us as the Lord’s people is the call to love one another . . . Why? Because God has loved us––and not we him. In fact God has loved us so much, that he sent his one and only Son into the world––the Son who became obedient to the Father, even to the point of death––that we might live again through him; that we might be saved through him; that we might find a quality of life that transcends the ordinary as the sky the earth; through him:––what the Bible calls “abundant” life, and more.

The degree to which we love one another, then––or not––is an index of our knowledge of God; one of the means by which we know we are his. For God himself is love.

In other words, One can blab “on and on and on” about God, if you will. One can climb the highest mountains and plumb the deepest valleys; one can look beautiful––even in spiritual terms––and attract attention. . . But if one does not, nor cannot, love others, one’s knowledge of God; one’s descriptions of God; one’s flawless Sunday morning attire; one’s God-talk and God-stuff; even what you imagine to be one’s exalted love for God, means “nothing . . . . “

Paul made the same argument in 1 Corinthians 13.

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels––but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains––but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,––but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Yes, I was uncaring, big time. Me the big fancy Presbyterian minister, uncaring. Not only was I tired, but I was too tired to love. Too tired outwardly; too tired inwardly––you name it.

Psychologists call this “compassion fatigue.” But that’s really no excuse. I call it an “epic fail” on my part. I had been called to suffer a little bit for this street lady, but it was like pulling teeth,

And I am sorry for that.

“The reason authentic compassion is so hard is that our inherent response to suffering is to do away with it by fleeing from it, or finding a quick cure for it,” writes Marquita Herald. “If you doubt that, the next time you see a homeless person on the street, take a moment to observe how many people pretend to ignore his existence . . . Even those who extend charity by offering a bit of change will rarely make eye contact let alone offer a smile or word of kindness.”

How do we solve the “love problem? How do we love as God loves––how??? Instead of walking to the other side of the road??? Instead of just retreating within our given, or assumed, identity––identity politics warriors as we so proudly style ourselves––and relegating real individual human beings to “classes” of beings––which class we then dismiss, because we find them annoying or hateful for reasons of our own???

The late George Floyd was an African-American man. And as he was being arrested by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the other officers, it would seem that neither Officer Chauvin nor his compatriots were looking at him like an individual human being.

Instead they were irritated and annoyed, exhausted and impatient.

In their eyes, it would seem that he was simply yet another criminal; and/or simply yet another one of those “annoying black folks” who are (obviously) responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. And so down came Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, until he was dead.

Who cares if he couldn’t breathe? He was an annoyance.

Some argue that Chauvin and Floyd knew one another from working at a nightclub together, and that the hateful animus obviously possessed Chauvin was much more personal, than racial, in nature. But I believe that there were bigger forces at work––racial forces––i.e. hatreds and repudiations and acts of oppressive injustice that were hundreds of years old (in this case the hatred and abuse of black people by white people), all leading to yet one more senseless act of murder.

Thankfully most of us withhold our hands from murder,but we still have far to go in solving the love problem.

“I am 29 years old,” writes a blogger, “I am married with two young kids, have my own business, that’s doing okay, and so on and so on. But I have a problem. I feel my heart is getting cold, In fact I don’t feel sorry for anyone anymore. I mean anyone!! My mother, for example, lives 5 minutes away, she is pretty unhealthy, but I don’t even think to visit. I just don’t care.

I have become, in a word, “aggressive”––at least in verbal terms. I’m aggressive to my wife.

In fact I don’t much care about her feelings anymore. My brother has a drug problem, I tried helping him for a bit, now I just don’t care anymore, I think to myself, I have my own problems.”

The love problem. It’s bigger than you think. It’s a humanity problem. And we need some help!!! Exactly what can we do to address the love problem? Well, I think we need to start a conversation with God, and with each other––and ask God for help with a few things. Call it prayer if you will! (It doesn’t matter what you call it, frankly.) You and God; you and me; they and us; us and they. You name it. We have some business to do.

First, let’s ask God for far softer hearts. That’s a tough, tough prayer. Especially if you’ve lived on the raw edge of life and have what most people would consider, a Ticket to Resent . . .

In Ezekiel, God promises that He will give seeking men and women new hearts and new spirits,

removing hearts of stone to change them out for living, breathing, hearts of flesh; soft hearts; responsive hearts, loving hearts.

So let’s seek Him, and then go on asking for the grace to be gracious––as God is gracious––

every day that you live. Safe? Comfortable? Not on your life. But life––while a gift––was never meant to be comfortable. “It turns out that playing it safe, at least in matters of the heart,”

writes Paula Rineheart, “is––[ironically]––the most dangerous thing you can do, in spiritual terms. By that route, you become [like] a butterfly pinned to the wall, with wonderful colors and all kinds of potential but going nowhere . . . Your wings are clipped. To really fly you must claim the courage to live out of the heart God has called into being.”

And if you pray for a soft heart, rest assured, that it will be a prayer God will answer,bit by bit, day by day!!!

And then, second, if you are truly daring, pray––dare I say it––for a broken heart.

A heart which is not only soft, but broken. A broken heart? Are you crazy?? Yes, a broken heart; so that you can suffer with others as you suffer with yourself, and that your suffering might begin to heal others. In so doing, you will begin to love, as God loves. The door will be open; the windows will be open; and God’s Spirit will begin to blow through your life, to the healing of the world.

After all, did you know that every bit of your suffering ––personal and otherwise––is precious to God? And not only this, that your suffering can be used to heal––and lift up––other people?

“Jesus then went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness,” reads the Gospel of Matthew. In the process of this, he often became exhausted, perhaps even bitterly so. He was often tempted to have done with it all; to turn away, and walk away. “But when he saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion on them,” Matthew goes on, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

The more Jesus healed, the more he was wounded, deeply wounded. Yet he never turned away.

There is an old story––legend if you will––from the Talmud. (The Talmud, by the way, is a 2nd century collection of Jewish oral teaching and commentary; recorded at a point when the Jews realized that unless things were written down, they would be lost forever.) In it, one Rabbi Yoshua the son of Levi comes upon Elijah himself, standing at the entrance of a cave. He asks him the following question. “Elijah, when will the Messiah come?”

“Go and ask him yourself,” Elijah replies.

“Where is he?” asks the Rabbi.

“Sitting at the gates of the city,” says Elijah

“How shall I know him?” returns the Rabbi.

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds,” says Elijah.

“The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again.

But Messiah unbinds his own wounds one at a time and binds them up again, saying to himself,

“Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready.”

And he was.

“The Messiah is sitting among the poor,” writes Henri Nouwen, “binding His wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when He will be needed. So it is with us. Since it is His task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, He must bind His own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when He will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after His own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.”

This doesn’t have to be extraordinarily involved, or complicated, or time consuming. It may just mean saying, “I am with you,” to someone in pain, and then doing it. That is to say, taking a little time for them, even when you no longer feel you have time for yourself. It may just mean,

“I will pray for you, and with you,” to someone who is having a hard time, and then doing it.

It may just mean saying, “I know this is hard for you to believe, but there is a God, and he loves you, and he will be with you, even as I am with you.” And then doing it.

It may just mean hearing the Word of God, sometimes a very specific Word of God, and then sharing it with others; gently, and compassionately, and not with nose-tipped-in-the-air religious pomposity (the pomposity of those who know all about God, and boast constantly of the same, but who do not love.)––all with a sense of “hey, I’ve been there too.”

“Out of our pain,” writes Scott Boren, “while we are still being healed ourselves, we become a conduit of healing for others. We love even in our sense of being unlovely, and in pain. We offer grace, when we are still trying to know grace ourselves. We pray even when we have questions about the effectiveness of our prayers. We sit with others in their darkness when we feel that we too have darkness in ourselves. We lead others when we are unsure of where we are leading.”

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another,

God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”