Recently I said to our two-year-old, “I love you.” She shot back, “No! I love you!” Now, I wasn’t going to back down. “No!” I said, “I love you! And don’t you forget it.” She just dug in, of course. “No! I love you.” But she cracked a smile and we burst out laughing.
Thank God love doesn’t work like that, right? Thank God love isn’t like a limited resource, the kind of thing that we tug-of-war over and the winner takes all.
I’ve heard from parents who are expecting a second child that they can be nervous because they’re so in love with their first kid that they think, “How can I possibly love anyone else this much? This one child has my whole heart. How can I give more? I don’t want our second child to feel deprived of love.” But then, when the new baby arrives the parents are just as lovestruck – their hearts grow, their love multiplies, the circle of their embrace opened passed the horizon of what they thought was possible.
That’s how love works, thank God. The more we dare to love and to be loved, the more love can take on its own force in our lives, and the bigger and stronger our embrace of others can get. That’s part of this sacred experiment of being church together, of being invited and challenged to live into the love of Christ for whomever is a part of this sweet and quirky group of human beings. The circle of our embrace grows … and then grows and grows as we celebrate together and mourn together, along with more and more of God’s creation.
We can’t do it without God. When I say “The nature of love is to grow, thank God,” I do mean “Thank God.” Love in our lives, however little or big it may be, however often or rarely it flows, love is a current that can take us out to the great mother ocean that surrounds and rains down upon and flows through all being. The most powerful thing we can do is to surrender to the current within our love and our yearning, the current that courses through the core of our being – surrender to its pull out toward the Source of all life – that Whom we call “God.” “May we turn our hearts to God.” It’s an old, tried and true Call to Worship. Turn our hearts to God.
But what does that really mean?
Now, for some folks feeling love from God and feeling love for God comes naturally. There’s a spiritual gift to knowing as a matter-of-fact how God is at work in their lives. This is a special gift. But some of us are less naturally inclined this way. I’m speaking as myself someone who has always had a push and pull between skepticism and faith. When we hear the ancient Hebrew Scriptures and we hear Jesus saying “Love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and strength,” we can ask, “Sounds great. But what does that actually mean?” What does it mean to love God?
Now, Jesus goes on to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” – that’s a good clue. But it may be more comfortable to focus on love of neighbor (as hard as it is). Really, first and foremost, what does this mean: “Love God”?
Who is God? Who is this God that preachers keep telling us we’re supposed to love? Who is this Great Mystery, this Power Beyond All Understanding, this creative source and force of the universe – this universe with all of its beauty and all of its brutality? Who is this God who is infinite yet intimate, the Holy One in whom we live and breathe and have our being, the Holy One for whom any word or image in merely an echo?
“Who are You?”
This question itself is a lover’s question – who are you? The yearning in itself is a lover’s yearning. “Who are You?” I wish to know you. Help me know you. I wish for you to know me. “Who are You?” Asking that question can be an act of prayer that is itself an act of love – Especially if we don’t know what the answer is. Asking that question as an act of prayer and then letting answers emerge and draw us deeper in. The nature of God can be confusing and even terrifying, as well as comforting… Just like love itself. Love takes trust – faith – because it takes tremendous risk. In love we are vulnerable, we risk great pain. We risk our own pain and we risk opening ourselves to the pain of those we love. In love we must risk losing ourselves. And maybe even scarier: In love, we risk becoming ourselves. In love we risk losing everything, and we risk gaining everything. But let me reassure you: we will all lose everything in the end.
If we risk love for God, the Source of all and everything, then this risk of losing everything is the risk of gaining everything and becoming fully ourselves. If we dare to embrace the infinite, then our diminishment leads to our expansion, bursting the bounds of who we are. If we are to be annihilated in the end, may it be annihilation into God’s Love Supreme. And let me also reassure you: there is pain in this path. Great joy and great pain. Again, we’re guaranteed that anyway. And I for one would rather chose passion than numbness. All the great lovers of God throughout history are great bearers of pain – their own pain and the pain from their wide embrace of God’s creatures. But the great lovers of God throughout history are not only great bearers of pain but also beacons of great joy. For they live and move and have their being in the spirit of a truth that can set us free. So if you yearn for that, that yearning is a lover’s yearning. It is a gift. Use it. As we heard from this great lover of God, Mechthild of Madeburg: “Prayer drives the hungry soul up into the fullness of God, prayer and draws the great God down into the little soul.” So may our yearning lead us in prayer, even despite ourselves: “O Holy One, Who are You? Who are You, O God? I wish to know. And I wish for You to know me.” “Here I am.”
(Delivered April 22, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
“Prayer drives the hungry soul up into the fullness of God, and draws the great God down into the little soul … God whispers God’s love in the narrow confines of the soul.” “The soul is made of love and must ever strive to return to love. Therefore, it can never find rest nor happiness in other things. It must lose itself in love. By its very nature it must seek God, who is love” – Mechthild of Magdeburg (13th Century)
Mechthild of Magdeburg, who was a great lover of God and lover of humanity, was a brilliant writer living in 13th Century Germany. She was part of a movement of women who lived communal religious lives of service, study, and prayer, outside of the Catholic monastic institutions – they were called the Beguines. Many Beguines spoke with great religious and intellectual authority. They got in trouble for their boldness, of course.
The Song of Songs 1: 10-13 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Psalm 104:14-24,33 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart. The trees of God are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that God planted. In them the birds build their nests, the stork has its home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats. The rocks are a refuge for the rabbits. You have made the moon to mark the seasons. The sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening. O God, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. I will sing to God as long as I live. I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
Matthew 22:35-40 One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “’You shall love the Supreme One, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”