What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Another Valentine’s season is here, having begun sometime after New Year’s, as retailers lead us from one holiday to another, like rest stops on the highway of life.  At this time of year, we’re urged to know love as an FTD bouquet, a kiss which begins with “k,” a rich meal at an overpriced restaurant with staff too stressed to nurture us as we deserve, or an abundance of sweets which become cloying after one too many bites.

For some, that’s Valentine’s Day every year.  For others, Valentine’s Day is just another day to live through: the same every year, familiar and consistent, though rarely warm and comforting, as we imagine love is truly meant to be.

In certain spiritual circles, people speak of love as if it were a magic elixir able to heal every hurt at the wave of a wand. As a pastor, I’ve witnessed its effects: The man on his death bed who choked back tears when he admitted he couldn’t wait to leave his nagging wife and see his childhood sweetheart, who died years before.  Or the young woman with ashy hair, who repeatedly yanked her sleeve over a large, purple bruise on her arm, as she tried, in trembling tones, to justify her boyfriend’s unnecessarily strong grip.  Or the children in faded clothes who smelled of ashes and perspiration, who stared longingly at another’s chocolate birthday cake.  When I asked whether they wanted a piece, they nodded, wide-eyed, a glow brightening otherwise distant gazes.  Or the constant verbal barrage of anger, disgust and loathing some people shout at those they profess to love, saying things like, “I’m doing this for your own good, because I love you,” when the recipient of such vitriol feels anything but.

With all the talk of love, some people forget that love is a verb, an action, as much as an emotion, feeling or thought.  Sometimes, love is presence.  Perhaps we know people who rarely say, “I love you,” though when we’re with them, we feel their love flowing deep inside us, as an energy which nourishes and uplifts us.   They delight in our company because of who we are, not because of what we do or have.  They see us as truly worthy of love, and we feel it.

Gospel writers Mark (1:9-11), Matthew (3:13-17), and Luke (3:21-22) relate that kind of love in the story of Jesus’s baptism, when a dove, a symbol of love, alights upon him and God declares: “You are my beloved child, in whom I delight.”  In that moment, Jesus is assured of God’s enduring, unconditional love, infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace.  For the rest of his life, Jesus proclaims and offers that gift to everyone, wherever he goes.

This Valentine’s Day, Blessed Reader, no matter what your spiritual upbringing or beliefs, remember: You are God’s beloved, a delight to behold, and a blessing to love.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

The Presence of Love

A meme winds its way around social media.  A black-and-white illustration reveals animals in a manger, surrounded by trees.  A lone star shines above.  The caption reads: “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans or refugees.”

Perhaps it would be poignant, if it weren’t so cutting.  Perhaps it would be comical, if it weren’t so timely.

It reminds me of the ancient teaching from Deuteronomy (See 10:12-19) which invites reflection on how to express God’s love.   We’re instructed to:

. . . revere the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep God’s commandments and decrees.

We’re urged to follow God’s laws.  And in so doing, to open our hearts, not only to God, but to all others, too.  The text continues:

Cut away, then, the barrier around your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.

We’re urged to consider how our hearts may be hardened and whether we’re hanging onto an old prejudice we haven’t completely released.

We’re invited to remember:

God, mighty and awesome, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers [also translated as immigrants], and provides them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land.

The truth is: At least once in our lives, we’ve all been strangers somewhere.  As we reflect on how powerful God’s unconditionally loving, infinitely compassionate presence is, we also can remember that once we felt hungry, tired, cold, hurt, lost, afraid or alone.

We also can remember that God’s loving presence appeared — in its own way — with skin on.  When we felt the presence of love in a blanket, a hug, a prayer, a phone call, gas money, a ride to the doctor, help getting up the ladder or down from the cliff.  When someone, sometimes a stranger, changed our flat tire in the rain, paid for our dinner, or gave us a gift we never could purchase ourselves.  With no strings attached.

These days, headlines would have us believe that it’s Us versus Them.  That we better steel ourselves with weapons, behind closed doors, because the world is a dangerous place.  If we believe some of the headlines, any stranger or immigrant in our midst could be a threat.  Though whoever the stranger is, s/he also is a divine child of God.

The child to be born in Bethlehem knew how to open his heart.  He studied God’s law.  He knew how to love unconditionally.  Sometimes, we may struggle to imagine how he did it, when we know the challenges and conflicts he faced.

Still, we can remember: The teachings don’t say we have to understand others.  Or like them.  They tell us to love.

The child to be born in Bethlehem, enfolded in love, will teach his followers (see Luke 10:27):

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Love like that isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Love like that takes all the heart we have.  And the presence of that love is the greatest gift we can give — no matter what the season.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Habari Gani, and Happy New Year, Blessed Readers.  Thank you for being with me on the journey.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Perhaps We’ll Listen

On a recent drive, somewhere along a lush tree-lined road where wildflowers bloom, I “lost” a big-city classic rock station.  As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers faded away, I channel surfed for other music I’d enjoy.

Wherever I was at the time, nothing tuned in clearly for miles, until I heard Paul Simon singing, “Loves Me like a Rock.”  As I drove further, The Archies followed with “Sugar, Sugar.”  I couldn’t help singing along.

Then, Don McLean began his haunting, beautiful elegy, “Vincent,” one of my dad’s favorite popular songs.  In a moment, I was transported to a time in my childhood when Dad, an artist himself, tried to share some hard-earned wisdom.  Often, when he wanted me to pay attention, he would say: “Listen.  Your Daddy wants to tell you something.”  When I did, I discovered abundant treasures in his insights.  Sometimes, they saved me from going down roads of pain and heartache.

I like to imagine that all the biblical prophets and the wayshower, Jesus, wanted to do the same.  They hoped to share their profound message of God’s unconditional love, infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace, as well as their worldly experience with the people of their time — and by extension, the rest of us now — just as Vincent Van Gogh attempted to share the beauty and wonder he saw in God’s magnificent world.  As some art historians note, Van Gogh believed his first calling was to preach the word of God.

Perhaps this is why McLean’s lyrics tug at our heart strings as much as Van Gogh’s starry night, sunflowers and wheat fields do.

Now I understand, what you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free.

They did not listen; they did not know how.

Perhaps they’ll listen . . . now. . . .

For they could not love you, but still, your love was true.

Perhaps some did listen.  Though sometimes, we don’t want to listen.  Or can’t.  Not necessarily because we don’t know how, but because listening takes a lot of faith, patience and spiritual strength.  Because sometimes, listening hurts.  We don’t want to know what we’re being told.  We don’t want to experience our own pain, let alone someone else’s.

If we listen, we believe, we might have to do something.  Or worse, we might not be able to do anything.  Except be present.  To an elder’s wisdom.  To a friend’s deep, dark secret.  To yet another family story.  To an outpouring of emotion we don’t understand.  All of it shared in love – even when we can’t listen.

Few people understood Van Gogh’s gift in his lifetime, though now he is one of our most revered artists.  Few people understood the wisdom and love Jesus and all the prophets attempted to share, though we still endeavor to live as they advised.

Perhaps, no matter what road we’re traveling now, we’ll stop — and take some time to listen.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Mountains of Love: Remembering MLK Jr.

Many discussions in life involve the themes of happiness and love. Yet, we don’t always know the difference. One of the best clarifications I’ve read is from an unnamed Catholic priest who worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He said, “When you think about it, if your main goal is to be happy, you’re going to be miserable. But if your main goal is to love, you’re going to be happy.”

As people around the globe remember the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps we can reconsider how we experience happiness when we choose to love, especially the seemingly unlovable. When discussing the theme of love in 1953, MLK said: “We realize that we stand surrounded with mountains of love and we deliberately dwell in the valley of hate.” He could speak these words now, in 2016, as so many surrounded by mountains of love choose to dwell in valleys of hatred, upset and anger. For some, it’s easier to remain in the valley than pull themselves out.

To reside in mountains of love takes persistent, determined, spiritual practice. It requires, as MLK taught, that we consider ourselves first, rarely an easy task. Because the truth is, we won’t like some people, and some people won’t like us. Not the way we walk, talk, dress, act, work, think, or breathe. MLK acknowledged: Sometimes others don’t like us because of jealousy about something we have or because they feel hurt about something we did or said.

Nevertheless, he encouraged us “to discover the element of good” in others. He said that when we choose to see “the image of God” within them, we begin to love an “enemy” because we behold the essence of the divine in them, no matter what they’ve said or done. The more we behold this image, the happier we can feel, because we change ourselves and move to a greater consciousness of love.

MLK called this greater consciousness an overflowing, unconditional love for all people, a creative, redemptive, transformative love which seeks nothing in return. MLK said that when we love this way, we love everyone, not because they’re likable, but because this is how we imagine God loves.

This is the core of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures which MLK preached: We love this way because by doing so, we express – as best we can imagine – God’s unconditional love and infinite compassion.

MLK admitted: It’s a challenge to like some people. Yet, he encourages us to love them because it liberates and strengthens us. He said: “The strong person is the person who” chooses to cut the chains of hatred and chooses love.

Because the truth is: Our hatred hurts us more than anyone else. It destroys all our attempts to be happy and eats away at us from the inside out, hurting our bodies, minds and spirits. As much as hatred can keep us wallowing in the valley forever, love can help us climb mountains we never imagined possible. With love, the journey becomes easier – and maybe, happier, too.

 

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.