When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Friday, January 24, 2014

...And Don't Forget that I Love You

The hall was long and dark. Bunk beds lined the walls, each draped with children and blankets, the rough orange wool pulled up around thin shoulders, muffling giggles and whispers. “Shhhhhhh…”, the older ones hissed, sending the younger ones deep undercover to stifle the offending laughter. There were echoes of running feet and affectionate shouting down other halls, but those sleepy-time moments in that long dark hall are always hushed and hallowed in my memory.

Every night I stood before them. With halting, faltering Albanian I read them a bedtime story, sang them a goodnight song, and tucked them in. Each one received a kiss on the forehead, a cuddle, and these words: “Naten e mire, gjume te embel. Zoti te bekofte dhe mos harro se te dua”: “Good night, sweet dreams. God bless you and don’t forget that I love you.”

Years later, my goodnight memories of the orphanage remain some of my favorite; certain songs bring me right back to the dark echoing hall, the muffled giggles, and the smell of orphaned foreheads. Even now, I repeat those words to dear friends who come to visit and stay “Good night, sweet dreams. God bless you, and don’t forget that I love you.”

I was learning then and am still learning now much about love, how it looks and sounds and is lived out; what it means to give love bones and skin and breath. Romantic comedies and pop ballads make it seem as simple as falling, but the truth is love requires more effort than I often feel capable of. It requires as much dedication and diligence, as much passion and sweat as a magnificent work of art; the personal cost it exacts always reflects the depth of its reward.

I am learning that love is the goal of my faith. Years ago, when I was settling into life in Germany, when I was making the transition from serving children with nothing to serving children with everything (and everyone in between), I asked the Lord how to accomplish the task. I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t know how to relate to them. I didn’t know how to introduce them to the God who loved them. Down a tree-lined path under leaves gilded by the afternoon sun I walked, begging my Lord for wisdom, “What should I do?” I waited, expecting a plan, a program–a nudge in some direction, at the very least. 

The answer came softly, riding on the cool edge of a breeze sugared with the scent of honeysuckle and sweet hay, “Love Me and love them–the rest will follow.” 

That sounded simple enough. I assumed they were marching orders to get the ball rolling. I could do it for a few months and then I was sure God would reveal His grand plan for revealing Himself. I did my best at loving all involved and a few months later asked again.

“All right, Lord. I’ve been loving them. Now what should I do?”

Quietly then, on the dancing steam of a coffee cup by the ledge of an icy window…

“Love Me and love them–the rest will follow” 

Hadn’t I done that? No matter how many times as I asked, however, I received the same answer: “Love Me and love them–the rest will follow.”

Years on, I have realized that there really is no other answer. Jesus, Himself, makes it clear that every facet of faith (“All the Law and Prophets”) hang on those marching orders: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39).

I am learning that faith in Christ is not about programs or formulas or cultural taboos. It’s not about being the ‘behavior police’ or standing firm against ‘enemies’ or whether our political pendulum swings left or right. The foundation of our faith is love. The expression of our faith is love. The goal of our faith is love.

It is clearly stated in the Bible: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6). Why, then, do we settle for a definition of faith that is anything less?

Perhaps because love, real love, is difficult. Following formulas and creating programs and ticking off boxes is, quite frankly, easier than investing a piece of yourself in someone else. The demands of real love are vigorous–they call us to sacrificial living: choosing to value another’s needs over our comfort, giving away what we’d like to keep, serving when we have every right to be served ourselves. There are no timecards to be punched, no holidays, no long weekends off when it comes to love. True love is much less a sentimental dream than it is a tangible reality involving ears and knees and dishpan hands. 

I am learning that true love is hard. It holds on long after feelings are gone. It digs down and settles in, determined to carry on, despite whatever response it elicits. Affection endears those who love in return; love loves for the sake of loving, no matter what the reaction. Love stays up late, gets up early, and lets someone else take the last piece of chocolate cake.

Love, however, as impossible an endeavor as it may seem at times, is always worth the effort. It is the only thing that will reveal to a hurting world the truth that God wants to heal their broken hearts. This is why we are reminded to do it so often, and why it is God’s first and greatest command. 

I think it is His greatest command not just in the sense that it is the most important, but also in the sense that it is the ‘greatest’–the most wonderful, the most incredible, the most fulfilling. I love knowing the most important job God gave me was to love–not to be perfect, not to be tidy, not to be successful, but to love. 

I am learning that love has its own rewards; that the process of loving changes me and that the bits of myself I have given away somehow multiply and double back, flooding the hollows they had left behind in my heart. Loving someone deeply, presenting them with the knowledge of their own intrinsic glory, watching their walls of pain slowly crumble and blow away is worth every lost moment of sleep, every inconvenient conversation, every sink of soapy water. Loving God and loving others has been the greatest experience, bar none, of my life. I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything. 

And I know God must feel the same, for He gives me moments that I believe He wouldn’t trade for anything. Has it ever happened to you? Have you ever taken a walk, minding your own business, and then turned a corner and been suddenly swept up in a golden storm of sunset? The yellow blush of sky on earth casting rivers and fields in hues of heaven; the wind laughing through tall grasses, the leaves in the trees rushing to great heights and depths in the dance of eventide. Have the colors breathed out by evening ever made your heart break? They did mine. And all my soul could say was, “I love You, I love You, I love You…”

I don’t know why my God loves me so much. But He does. And if loving those around me is what makes Him happy, then it is my privilege to do it. After all, He's never asked me to love anyone more than He first loved me.

My marching orders remain the same–I don’t even ask anymore. “Love Me and love them–the rest will follow.” It always does.

And so, naten e mire, dear ones. Gjume ju embel. Zoti ju bekofte dhe mos harroni se ju dua. “Good night, sweet dreams. God bless you and don’t forget that I love you…”