“Experiencing Love”

This is the last sermon from my Advent series. I preached it a week late, on this past Boxing Day, because of the previous week’s snowstorm.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent his Son as the world’s Savior. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God—God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.

1 John 4:7–16

It’s the most well-known Bible verse of all time, so well-known that people at football games would hold up banners just with the Bible reference. You know it well: John 3:16.  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Another translation puts it this way: For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.And at the heart of John 3:16 is God’s love made known in the sending of the Son into the world to bring everlasting life.

And here we are. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. We’ve lit the last candle, the candle of love. And of all the themes of Advent, love is at risk of being the most sentimentalized and misunderstood.

When we think of John 3:16—and especially the part where it says For God so loved the world—we want to be careful to define love by understanding who God is—and what the Bible says—rather than define God (and his love) by our human experiences of love.

Often in our world love is defined as an emotion, by how we feel about this or that person. We say things like, “I love you SOOOO much!” That’s an expression of emotion. And while our emotions are a part of love, love is much, much more than that.

C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” Think about that definition: Love is . . . a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good. That means that God’s “steady wish” for us—his ultimate will and desire for us—is to have eternal life, to be with him forever. Jesus comes into the world to make this happen. And all of this because God loves.

In our passage from 1 John 4, the apostle says this: God is love. God not only loves; he is love. Love is at the heart of who God is.

And so if want to understand what this love is like, we listen to what he did out of the overflow of his love. 1 John 4 continues: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Sounds just like John 3:16.

The Greek language in the NT has several words for love, because there are different kinds of love. There’s the love between friends. There’s romantic love. But the word used of God is agape. David Nelmes explains it this way:

“Agape love [is] unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take . . . It devotes total commitment to seek your highest best no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not.”

This is the love that God reveals in the sending of the Son, our Lord Jesus. This is the love that God is. And so it is with this kind of love that God loves you.

Do we believe God loves us? I mean, really believe it? Do we believe his love is unconditional or that he only loves us when we behave or perform?

Working on my message this week, I came across these words from Joseph Langford:

“The same God who loves us as we are also loves us too much to leave us as we are. Perhaps because we tend to hold to ideas about God that reflect our own suppositions and fears, more than God’s self-revelation. We reduce God to our own dimensions, ascribing to him our own reactions and responses, especially our own petty and conditional kind of love, and so end up believing in a God cast in our own image and likeness.”

Because here’s the thing: while I don’t think most of us believe God’s love is conditional, I also doubt we believe his love is unconditional. Not completely, anyway. Because I think we often live as though God’s love is semi-conditional. We say we believe his love is unconditional and that it doesn’t depend on our good behavior or how well we perform. Yet I think we often live differently. We live as though the way we act has an effect on his love for us.

For instance, do we ever avoid praying because we haven’t prayed in a while? Do we ever feel like maybe God is angry at us or disappointed with us?

Or to put it another way: Have you ever felt frustrated with God or even angry at him because even though you always go to church and put money in the offering plate, someone you love still got sick or something in your life went wrong?

In both cases, aren’t you basing God’s love for you on what you do, on how you live or behave? Either that your poor behavior keeps God from loving you or that your good behavior guarantees that he will? And does that sound like unconditional love to you? Aren’t you putting conditions on God’s love that God doesn’t? But isn’t this how we live sometimes?

I heard someone say this once: “Nothing you do (or don’t do) can make God love you more or love you less.” That’s unconditional love. That’s what it means to say that God is love.

So let me ask: Is this how you see God? Is this how you relate to God? Do you see God’s love for you as unconditional? And what might it mean—and how might it affect you—to believe that God’s love for you is unconditional?

Every day I tell my kids I love them. Most days, anyway. And often when I do, they will say, “I know. You tell me all the time.” I just want them to be sure. But making sure they know means more than saying words. I want my love to be perfectly unconditional. But it can’t be. Because I am flawed. I am sinful. I am broken. I show them I love them, yes, but imperfectly. Thankfully, God is perfect. Thankfully, his love is unconditional.

And ultimately, this is first and foremost how God loves. By perfectly showing us. By perfectly acting to bring about our ultimate good. As John 3:16 says, God loved the world in this way. How? By the sending of the Son into the world.

This is why the love candle is the penultimate candle in the Advent wreath (the last candle is traditionally the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve). The greatest of these is love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13. And we know this precisely because by how God acted upon his love.

The coming of Christ into the world through the incarnation—which begins with the manger and ends with the cross and empty tomb—is both miracle and mystery. It’s simple enough for a child to grasp but yet deep enough for us grown-ups to forever ponder.

I’ve always loved how Eugene Peterson translated John 1:14: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Best Christmas Bible verse ever. God loves you so much that he wants to move in next door. Better put, he wants to move right into your house.

To show us his love God came into our world. The second Person of the triune Godhead took on flesh, blood, and bone, confined himself to time and space, in order to demonstrate his love for us. The Creator entered his creation. The Painter entered his painting. 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once said, “The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.”

And here’s the truth: this was the only way for us to come to know and experience God’s love. Only through the Son of God coming into the world. Only by God becoming human in Jesus. Only by Jesus going to the cross to remove the barrier between ourselves and God. That is the perfect, complete, and ultimate expression and demonstration of the love of God. To know Christ is to know God’s love.

By becoming one of us, God the Son pursues our ultimate God. By becoming one of us, God shows his unconditional love. By becoming one of us, God shows he is love.

While I am unable to comprehend this adequately or completely, I can receive this beautiful, wondrous truth and absorb it into my life. In fact, I can only receive it, trust it, and put my faith in it. I can’t wrap my mind around the God who was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But I can kneel. I can repent. I can worship. I can allow this love of God to take hold of me—or pray that God will take hold of me with it.

What about you? What keeps you from receiving or experiencing the love of God? Is it past or ever present hurts? Feelings of guilt or anger? Have you perhaps imagined God to be other than he is, as a tyrant looking to trip you up rather than as a Father looking to embrace you? Or as a distant, cold deity rather than as Emmanuel, God with us? Or as a legalistic rule-maker, rather than as the Good Shepherd who wants to lead you into wide, green pastures?

How do you need to experience the love of God this Christmas? Where does the light of his love need to shine into your life? Do you need his perfect love to dispel your fears? To bring you comfort?

If nothing else, Christmas ought to remind us that God is love. Christmas ought to remind us that God went to the utmost to give us his utmost. Christmas ought to remind us that God gives us the gift of himself. 

A Profound Statement on Grief

What is grief, if not love persevering?

Vision, “WandaVision”

One of the things my son Eli (12 years old) and I love doing together is watching Marvel movies and now TV shows. One of the new Marvel TV shows is called WandaVision, and it follows what happens to the character of Wanda Maximoff after the events of Avengers: Endgame.

While movies and TV shows about super-heroes are not the most meaningful form of art, there are times when they tap into our hopes, fears, and longings quite effectively. WandaVision, while not a perfectly executed story, is largely about grief–and, in particular, how Wanda is processing her grief over a deeply wounding loss.

There was one quiet, character moment that struck me. I thought what the character of Vision said in that scene was so perceptive I made sure to remember it. He posed it as a question: “What is grief, but love persevering?”

Wow. That’s a profound statement.

Think about grief for a moment. It is something we all know and experience. Some more than others. None of us can escape having to deal with it. And we experience grief because we experience loss, most significantly the loss of someone we love. Our grief in the present is love on the other side of loss. Simply because someone we love has died doesn’t mean our love ends. For grief, like Vision says so insightfully, is simply love persevering.

Without giving spoilers, I will say that WandaVision ended on a note of hope that perhaps our grief will one day be undone. I don’t know what that means for the Marvel universe of super-heroes, but I do know that for those who believe in Jesus and his resurrection, such hope needn’t be mere fantasy but can be clung to like reality. So even though we grieve, we do not do so in despair. Instead, we cling to the words of the apostle Paul:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

My Story Part 17: Fatherhood

Sometimes even if I can’t recall all the details of a dream, I can remember the way the dream made me feel. And years ago I had a dream in which I had a little boy, a son–I was a father! I don’t remember much else, whether in the dream I was also married or even whether I had adopted him or was his biological dad. But I woke up that day with a deep sense of joy and longing. Like I had experienced something wonderful but that was now slipping away.

When I had that dream, I was single. I could only imagine experiencing fatherhood. It felt a world away. But it was only a few years later when I was standing in a delivery room as my wife was giving birth to our firstborn, our daughter. That moment is etched in my memory. It was October 7, 2004, 11:42pm. Our little girl emerged into the world eyes wide open, curious and beautiful, changing our lives forever.

That was more than 16 years ago now. Less than 5 years after her arrival, our twin sons came along; and ever since our family life has been filled with ups, downs, unexpected twists and turns, tears and laughter.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What’s truly amazing is how different our kids are from one another. Each has their own beautiful uniqueness that has stamped itself on our hearts. Watching them grow, learn, deal with life, and learning as parents how to navigate it with them, is indeed the highest calling I have ever had. Not that I always do this well or am a fount of wisdom in every moment. Even they have seen me make mistakes. But what a joy and privilege it continues to be to have these young souls in my life.

Yet, even though I am their father, their Dad, Papa, Daddy, I can’t control them or determine how their lives will go in the years ahead. Not that I want to do this. But don’t all parents want to help their kids avoid pitfalls and struggles, to ensure their greatest possible happiness in this life? Yet, they will have to make choices, sometimes hard ones. Our kids will make poor choices. And we will have to watch. They will have to take what we’ve been able to give them as parents and figure out how to navigate the waters they find themselves sailing.

No wonder parenting is a bittersweet joy, one tinged with sadness and unfulfilled longing. Because even now I can look back and wish some things had been different for them. I wish my daughter never had to deal with mental health issues. I wish all of them still had both of their grandmothers around. I wish that one of our sons and our daughter didn’t have some of the difficulties they do in getting along more consistently. I wish they didn’t have to experience disappointment, rejection, fear, and pain.

Of course, now is the time when I ponder the parallels between me being a Dad and what it must be like for our heavenly Father. He sees our individual uniqueness and beauty. He sees our failings and brokenness. Seeing all of this, his love for us exceeds every conceivable boundary. And he longs for us to know this love, to rest in this love, to find in his love peace, solace, comfort, and joy. When we fall short, he remains there. His love for us is undeterred by our straying hearts and lives. He waits to embrace us once again. We are always welcome home.

I want to be this kind of father for my children.

Not having had a father growing up, not having known father love during my most formative years, I repeatedly, frequently, insistently, and annoyingly tell each of my kids I love them. All. The. Time. I want my love for them to be bedrock in a world where there’s so little upon which they can rely. And I want, more than anything, for my love to point them, to open their hearts and lives up, to the love of their heavenly Father. Where I fail them, he will not. When I cannot protect them, he can be their refuge and strength. And when I am no longer a part of their lives because I have gone on to my eternal rest, he will still be with them. There’s nothing I want more for them than to know this love, to receive it, and to live and die being held by it.

Much like in that dream years ago, being a father brings me great joy. There are moments when I almost can’t believe how blessed I am. I look at my kids and I feel wonder. Indeed, what strange, wondrous creatures they are! Surely, this is an imperfect joy, one which includes its measure of sadness and longing, but for all that fills me with a gladness I thought I would never know.

Except perhaps in a dream.

“Banks”

“I wanna hold you close but never hold you back, just like the banks to the river

And if you ever feel like you are not enough, I’m gonna break all your mirrors

I wanna be there when the darkness closes in to make the truth a little clearer

I wanna hold you close but never hold you back, I’ll be the banks for your river.”

Need To Breathe, “Banks”

So today I was listening to the most recent Need to Breathe album, Out of Body, and I got to the song, “Banks.” And when I heard the words of the chorus, my heart broke and I found myself crying.

So, yes, real men cry.

Let’s get that out of the way.

I don’t know why I had such a powerful emotional response right away. But then it hit me. Hard.

Isn’t it funny and profound how a simple song can do that?

We all have someone in our lives that we love more than words can say, and when this person is hurting we hurt too.

For me, these words are about how I feel for my 16 year old teenage daughter. For you, they may resonate deeply because of a spouse or friend. Only you know.

I guess what it comes down to is that at different points in our lives, we both need “banks” for ourselves and to be “banks” for someone else. Being in either situation pretty much is what life is often about.

Just wanted to share that.

Marriage and Broken Dishes

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Something I’ve noticed over the last year or two is that some of the stuff that we’ve had since the beginning of our marriage is wearing out. Things that we received at wedding showers as gifts we’ll need to replace not too far down the road.  We’ve broken numerous drinking glasses. A few plates and bowls have been lost; even more have been chipped. Some of our bath towels are fraying. Our house-wares are, so to speak, wearing thin. A decade of use will do that.

Yet at the same time, despite all the frayed linens and damaged dishes, our marriage doesn’t show the same wear and tear. That’s saying something, too, since over the course of our time as husband and wife we’ve probably been through more than our cutlery and everyday china. Our relationship is hardly perfect but I can honestly say that my wife is my best friend and that I feel closer to her now than I ever have. Rather than wearing more and more thin, our love has grown stronger and more resilient over time.

Our popular culture’s definition of love tends to have more in common with infatuation, with sentiment and physical attraction, than with a love that is self-giving. Think of most of the rom-coms you’ve seen over the years. Ask yourself: how many of them are predicated on the philosophy of “follow your heart”? Basing your relationship with someone on attraction or even on feelings of being “in love” almost guarantees that disillusionment and disappointment will set in, spelling disaster for the couple in question.

In the Bible the greatest expression of love is described by Jesus himself: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus, ultimately, did this on the cross. His actions were that of love. And marriage—strange though it may sound—is to model precisely the same sort of love. Paul the apostle, writing to husbands, tells them in Ephesians 5:25 to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” How might some marriages improve if more husbands took such words to heart?

Of course, no man (or woman)—no matter how decent, how loving, how selfless—can love this way on his (or her) own strength. Only with God’s help is it possible. And even then our efforts as husbands (or wives) may seem meagre at times and sporadic at other times. And never are we as selfless as we ought to be. Apart from the love of Christ at work in my own heart, I know I couldn’t be the sort of man I should be for my wife.

Loving my wife doesn’t mean I will always feel like bringing her a coffee in the morning. But doing so is the loving choice to make. And there’s the rub some people just don’t get. Love is a choice, a series of decisions to commit yourself continually to someone else’s well-being, to place their needs above your own. Marriage, being united to someone for life, for good or ill, is the perfect classroom for such love.

All I know is that if I were to have based my relationship to my wife on feelings, on whether or not I felt “in love” or particularly romantic from one day to the next, I wouldn’t have much of a marriage. The funny thing is that some people look to such feelings as being what sustains a marriage and what makes it possible to endure more difficult moments or circumstances. Being “in love” provides the strength and impetus to love someone even when they don’t seem especially lovable.

In reality, I find the opposite to be true. If at the core of my marriage is a commitment in which a word like “divorce” has no place, then I live in such a way as to do all I can to care for my wife regardless of how I might feel on this day or that day. And it’s in living this way that feelings of being “in love” arise. Those feelings that may have initially drawn you to your husband or wife—that physical attraction, those butterflies in your stomach, the indescribable sense that this person is for you—grow in the soil of selfless, sacrificial love.

Erosion of this sort of mature, committed relationship is nearly epidemic in our culture. Narcissism abounds. Life is about “me.” Trends suggest that emerging adults are putting off marriage and serious relationships for longer periods of time. Whereas once most young adults began marriage and family life in their early to mid-20s, it is becoming all the more common wait until one’s early to mid-30s.

Given the fact that serious relationships are seen more and more as a means to personal fulfillment, many are instead locating such fulfillment in career advancement or elsewhere. And this only raises the question of what happens when a relationship no longer fulfills that function—what if I fall out of love? What if a career opportunity conflicts with remaining committed to this person I wake up to each morning?

More profoundly, what if our significant other goes through changes that alter the shape of our relationship? Think of married couples who have faced the unexpected challenges of a health crisis or a disability that had been wholly anticipated? What if my wife has an accident and becomes paralyzed? What if your husband undergoes radical personality shifts due to Alzheimer’s or a serious depression? Do you stick it out or get out as soon as you can?

How we answer these kinds of questions all hinges on how we approach our marriage—is it a contract I enter in order that I might have a more fulfilling life or is it a covenant that I enter in order to give myself selflessly to another no matter the cost? Surely, this is what the traditional vows intend: “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as we both shall live.”

Ultimately, God intends marriage to be a symbol of the sacrificial love of Jesus. This is the reason Paul draws the analogy between marriage and Christ’s relationship to the church. And it’s this kind of love that lasts—love that weathers the years, whatever challenges and changes they bring.

These words from the Song of Solomon capture well what such love looks like: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”

Eleven years in, and my wife and I are still going strong. We’ve been through a few things and we’re not exactly the same people, but thankfully all of this has led us to draw nearer to one another. That our relationship is as it is we owe to the grace of God. Lord willing, at times our marriage does reflect Christ’s love, even if in a fragmented and imperfect way. In any case, the seal that binds us has yet to be cracked much less broken, unlike some of our dishes.

The First Rule of Flying

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At the end of the 2002 sci-fi film Serenity, the gruff, Han Solo-esque Captain Malcolm Reynolds is having a conversation with his ship’s new pilot, River Tam. She’s already quite adept, but he still takes a moment to offer this profound reflection on flying a spaceship: “You know what the first rule of flying is? Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love and she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she’s hurting before she keels. Makes her a home.”

There. I’m done. I just wanted to share that movie quote because it’s stuck with me from the very first moment I heard it. I love it. Sometimes it takes a poet, perhaps a pilot, or even a screenwiter to capture important truths.

But seriously, don’t those words from Reynolds sum up the meaning of love perfectly? Or at least sum up quite a bit of what love is about? Well, let’s unpack the Captain’s words a bit in the event that it isn’t clear, that he’s not only talking about piloting, but about a reality that lies at the very heart of life.

Love is a word easily tossed about in our vocabulary. We use it to describe our feelings for favourite foods almost as easily as we use it for the people to whom we are closest. And in popular culture it usually refers exclusively to our emotions, to those feelings of infatuation or romance or attraction. Characters recite the mantra, “Follow your feelings,” like clockwork, as if this were the most important advice we could receive about relationships.

Consider the first he says about love: “You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love and she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds.” Without love, a relationship can’t even get off the ground. Without love, a relationship won’t even be able to remain in the air. Love is foundational, fundamental; apart from love the very notion of relationship is incomprehensible. Cold knowledge is never enough. Love can’t be mastered using manuals.

All relationships experience strain. Life provides pressure, sometimes pressure enough that over time cracks and crevices can begin to appear in the infrastructure of love. Long past the point where romantic feelings buoy a relationship, love keeps it afloat. Reynolds speaks to this also when he says that “Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she’s hurting before she keels.”

Circumstances can come close to getting the better of us, and I know that even in our own marriage my wife and I have had a few difficult moments. Frankly, sometimes it is amazing what situations relationships can survive. And surely those that do make it, do so only because of a deep commitment and the day by day decision to be there for this person. While involving our feelings, love is a choice.

That love is a choice certainly runs counter to much of our culture’s view of love, which often appears predicated on continuing feelings of physical attraction and affection, that initial sense of infatuation that first arouses our attention in the other person. Yes, if such feelings persist over the long-term, it’s wonderful. And certainly those feelings should never completely disappear. Indeed, such passion can even be rekindled. But life takes unexpected turns, ones that can have a profound impact on our relationships and how we experience love within these relationships. Qualities that led to our infatuation may disappear. Changed circumstances may impact a couple’s ability to express and experience intimacy. In such cases, do we cut and run or do we continue to love despite illness, aging, or personality changes?

So here is love: committed, protective, foundational. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, gives us a similar portrait of love. “And the greatest of these [virtues] is love,” Paul says. And why is it the greatest? Paul tells us, and in telling us that it’s also clear that for him love is foundational to human relationships. The love of which he speaks is “patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful . . . It bears all things . . . endures all things.” Such love is not a fair weather friend, and is there through thick and thin. Such love is other-focused; there isn’t a selfish bone in its body. Telling is the fact that Paul is describing the way relationships ought to be within the church.

Most incredibly, not only does the Bible portray love in this way; the Bible also says “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Of course, the danger in isolating this scriptural description of God from its larger context is that we’ll interpret it according to our human experiences of love. We’ll make the mistake of turning the statement around: “Love is God.” Biblically, it doesn’t work that way.

In fact, the passage where we find the statement “God is love” is also the place where we discover that we really only understand love because God reveals what love actually is. The more we learn about the God of the Bible, the more we learn about love. There we see that love, more than anything else, is sacrificial.

1 John 4:9—11 says this: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

Key to understanding love, then, is realizing that intrinsic to love is the willingness to give oneself up for the sake of the other. Key to getting love is realizing that God not only shows us this love; he is this love. Given that this is so, this means God is the source of all the real and true love that we can know and experience. God is also the source of the greatest love we can ever experience: his love, the love he has shown us through his Son, Jesus Christ.

If I am to love—to love fully and truly—I have to know the love God has for me. Indeed, it is in being captured by the love that God has for me that I am able to love others in return. So tenuous is the human grasp on love that we require divine aid to receive and give it. As much as we want—and, yes, need—love, we’re largely incapable of being lovely and loving on our own. But God, who is love, makes it possible, and it’s because “God is love” that love is also “the greatest of these.” Calling it the first rule of flying, therefore, is not just insightful but a divine revelation.