If there is a more slippery word in the English language, I don’t know what it is. I love New York. Don’t you just love Margie’s new home? That ubiquitous red heart… saying” I love sailing,” saying” I love Michigan, “saying “I love pasta.” And I love “da Bears.” Donna White tells how one day her son came home from kindergarten and said, “Mom, I have a new girl friend. Patricia and I are in love.” Surprised at his use of the word, she asked how he knew he was in love. “She told me,” he replied matter-of-factly. A lot of us learned that way. And most of the music is about love, is it not, whether it is Schubert or country western, rock or rap.
James Thurber once wrote, “My pet antipathy is the bright detergent voice of the average American singer, male or female, yelling or crooning in cheap yammer songs about love. Americans are brought up without being able to tell love from sex, lust, Snow White or Ever After. We think of it as a push-button solution, or instant cure for discontent and a sure road to happiness, whatever it is. It is nothing of the kind. A lady of forty-seven who has been married twenty- years and has six children knows what love is and once described it for me like this: “Love is what you have been through with somebody.”
And love came down at Christmas; that kind of love. So let me give you three other words for it this morning that may help us stay clear about what it means and what is at stake. Since we are going to sing about it, let’s think about it, about what kind of love it is we sing. It is there eloquently in that Manger Scene. To say I love someone is to say that I care about them, their joys, their sorrows, their health, their well-being. I really care. That is certainly Mary and Joseph. And it is the human being he will become.
They care for and about one another deeply. The word suggests a serious and attentive interest in, concern about, compassion for another human being. I really love, means I really do care.
And I think the word is a good one because it suggests that in this kind of love the focus of my attention is out beyond myself and with the dreams and needs, growth and health of the other. Here is a feeling and attitude that is not first of all concerned with payoff, but with the other person, not on what I may want, but on what I can do and give.
Care. Simple selfless care. And says this old story from start to finish: that is what your God is all about, that is what he supremely is. God is love, this kind of love. The creator and ruler of the universe cares about us. The Greeks thought this was crazy. Everybody knew that God is supreme, intelligence, super-brain, cosmic genius, philosopher like Plato. “God thinks,” said the Hellenist.” No,” said a Jewish young man out of Nazareth. Most of all God cares, cares for sparrows and flowers and little kids and you, everyone of you, cares indiscriminately for all of us. And to make his point indelibly and unmistakeably he took his care for his people, his friends and enemies, even to the point of death so we would know it clear and clean and true. A cross hangs over that stable. And the difference is critical. If God is in the thinking business, to get close to him you go to the monastery or university and think. If God is in the caring business, to get close to him … well, you go where someone needs caring for.
This is not to say that care is without intelligence. Love does not mean submitting to the will of others. Real care for the other does not mean doing what they want. It means wise action or even inaction on the basis of what you think is truly best for them. It means to truly care about what is for their good and growth.
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Margaret Hillis, the late director of the Chicago Symphony Choir, told the story of how when four she was playing by a pond near her home, she fell into water that was over her head. She remembers thinking that she must swim, and she did. Crawling up onto solid ground, already worrying about what her punishment would be, she saw her father sitting on the opposite bank. He had made no move to rescue her, just as he made no move now either to congratulate her or take her to task. “There was a strange comfort in it,” she says. “He had let me learn to depend on myself—yet he was there if I needed him.” To truly care is to do not the easy thing, the applauded thing, the wished thing, but the wise thing, the right thing.
Love is, therefore, not always soft or indulgent. It can mean gentle acceptance of the fallen. But it can mean driving the money changers out of the temple court. It all depends upon a judgment as to what is truly needed, what truly makes for health and life.
And this is not to say that caring always means liking. C.S. Lewis once said, “Thank God he did not command me to like everybody.” I may find my children, or my friend, or the colleague, or the stranger on the way distinctly unlikeable, on certain days given my own tastes and ways. But even if I am turned off by someone, I can still care for him or her as a fellow human being. In fact, one of the realities we need to face and remember, is that the person who needs our love and care the most may be the one who is not particularly likable at the moment.
And the old story says, that’s the way God cares, not by giving us what we always want. They wanted a king to bring the tyrants down. But coming to us in Jesus to be there for us in life and in death, no matter what comes and no matter what shape we are in and as we learn to both trust and live that kind of care we discover what God and real life are all about.
This kind of love cares. And so this kind of love also bears.
Bears big time. There is a story about the family that had to move. When they found themselves unloaded but barely, the husband announced that he had an important meeting and would be unable to help. So the wife set about, not too happily, to handle the rest of the move alone. She found herself standing in the living room surrounded by clothes to be unpacked, appliances to be hooked up, a screaming baby, and a five-year-old who decided to throw one of his metal toys through the picture window. She had about had it. Nobody was hurt, but the glass was scattered everywhere and a brisk wind was blowing through the opening. The wife was now so upset that she was determined to call her husband and fill him in. But the secretary, of course, told her that her husband was in a meeting and inquired sweetly as to whether she would like to leave a message. Since he was not very good at responding to messages, she thought for a moment and came up with this. She replied, “Yes, Just tell him that the insurance will cover all the damages, and he can call home for details.” It happens. It happens all the time. But love hangs in there, stays faithful, for better or worse. It takes bearing with one another. Thus to love in this way is always to suffer one another. In traditional language we talk about Jesus suffering for our mistakes, failures, sins. One might better say that Jesus presents us with the vision of a God who suffers our mistakes, failures, sins, who bears with us.
I offend you. Through carelessness or bad temper, or whatever, I deal badly with you. The result: an injustice has been done and the relationship has been violated. What can be done about it? You can, quite understandably, react by punishing me with your anger and rejection. You can strike out and hurt. And you have every right to do so. But the end result is the loss of one another. Or you can bear the hurt and go on caring about me. In the Old English meaning of the word, you can suffer me. We can suffer one another.
To trust ourselves to the love of God we see in Jesus is to believe that this is the way God deals with us. He bears with us. Puts up with us. And therefore between us also, this is the redemptive way to go, to believe that in the long run the caring that wins is the caring that bears.
The love of God comes in that Christmas child, it cares, it bears,… and it shares. Love that hangs in there, sooner or later shares the pains and suffering of the beloved. My favorite story of the way real love shares the inevitable struggles of life comes from a newspaper column that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch a few years ago, an article about Frank and Mary. Hospitalized, Frank was doing very poorly. His wife, Mary, returned to the room and drew a chair to his bedside. “I’m thirsty,” Frank said. Mary lifted the straw to his lips as he pulled his oxygen mask aside. The medicine was making him sick. She fetched the basin, wrapped a firm arm around his spasm-wracked shoulders and mopped the sweat from his forehead… So in the end love comes down to this … not some Clark Gable appraisal of Vivien Leigh or some sex symbol’s seductive pose across the dance floor, the clink of crystal, a leisurely picnic spread upon summer’s clover. No, it is instead the squeeze of a hand. “I’m here. I’ll be here no matter how long the struggle. Water? You need water? Here. Drink. Let me straighten your pillow.”
Now who is hurting most in that picture? Hard to say, isn’t it.? But that is what love is all about, sharing hurt. They are hurting that night in Bethlehem. They still are. Is this perhaps one reason why we find it so hard. Over-indulged, addicted to our own pleasure and comfort, inclined to believe in and seek easy answers, we have little tolerance for the pain and struggle, little patience for the hard way of real love.
Indeed, and this old faith insists that in some strange way God came in Jesus of Nazareth to share our human pain and struggle, reversals and suffering, not lifting them from us but going through them with us, so that we may know when it falls our turn that he is not absent, but very present in strength and peace and joy.
So God is love, love that cares and bears and shares, and that’s the love of which we Christians think and sing.
Copyright 2005, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.