I asked my friends on FB this week to tell me what film or novel gave their favorite portrayal of love. I got all kinds of answers—movies and books I knew, and some I did not. The Notebook made a couple of folks’ top choice—but, as an English major and lover of literature, that really limits the expanse of choices we have in this world where writers and poets try their best to capture that feeling that songwriters and therapists say we are all looking for.
Before I ever fell in love, I was caught up in the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet—star-crossed teenagers who spend an evening together—yep, just one, and proceed to die in each other’s arms. Even though I was a good southern girl, and read Gone with the Wind in the 6th grade, Scarlett was just too mean for me to identify with her Ashley/Rhett dilemma. I always loved Jane Eyre—Jane loved Mr. Rochester but would not be with him until she could meet him as an equal. The love of Catherine and Heathcliff was a big one for me—hearing Catherine proclaim, “I am Heathcliff, he’s more myself than I am”—that seemed like love was supposed to be. Enough for me to read that book so many times I could recite that speech verbatim, just waiting to meet my own Heathcliff.
Later in life I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God—and followed as Janie discovered love with a younger man called Tea Cake. And Tea Cake tells her, “You got the keys to the kingdom, baby!” Some take that to mean that he offered her her heart’s desire—the budding theologian in me took it to mean that their love brought them closer to God’s kingdom.
In my 20’s I read The Bridges of Madison County—does anyone remember that one? Clint Eastwood made the book into a movie. While I could not relate much to the story of a 50-something woman in a loveless marriage having a passionate affair with a photographer who wandered into their small town—all while her husband was away for the weekend, my MOTHER read it after I did and loved it! That one made me uncomfortable!
In the last decade or so we’ve had young adult love—Bella’s love for Edward the Vampire and Jacob the werewolf in the epic called Twilight and the agonizing love triangle in the Hunger Games novels between Katniss and Peeta and Gale—which one will she choose? Who really loves her? Is it real? Is it pretend? Will we ever know? And who could forget the great love story of Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter Novels?
I’m more of a reader, but honorable mention goes to all those on-screen love stories that we love, or love to hate: Rocky and Adrian, Danny and Sandy from Grease, Jenny and Oliver from Love Story—or maybe you go back to the years of An Affair to Remember—Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant rushing to the Empire State Building. How’s that for love?
Couples who have obstacles to love—couples who can’t be together—love that isn’t requited—love that is lost and found again—lovers whose families disapprove—lovers who get hit by a car on their way to the Empire State Building— all the examples I could think of as I was preparing to write this sermon this week—while they were fun and certainly entertaining, none of them really captured what I think love really is.
Most of them didn’t even come close. Scarlett didn’t really love Rhett or Ashley, she loved Tara—her family’s homestead, and she loved herself. Even though Katniss ended up with Peeta, you’re never really sure she loves him. Bella’s love for Edward does not seem healthy or realistic in any way, shape or form—sorry, Twilight fans. As much as I love the movie An Affair to Remember, I laughed out loud when Deborah Kerr says at the end, wrapped in a blanket on the couch—“Oh Nickie, if you can paint, I can walk!” “Yo Adrian” stopped working years ago as a pick up line. Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights were hateful and selfish people whose love was really not romantic or sentimental—they only found peace as ghosts who walked the moors of England.
As I eventually grew older and wiser, I looked someplace OTHER than my favorite romance or the epic saga of Ross and Rachel on Friends. I looked at my faith and I looked at God’s word to help me understand what love truly is. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not boastful or envious—I knew that much, that scripture is quoted at every wedding you ever attend, isn’t it? If you dig a little further, you’ll find surprising passion in the love affair in Song of Songs, where love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. Wow, those are some serious words about love, huh? But there’s more—an example of love that is not about romance, but rather deep and abiding commitment. Ruth and Naomi love each other, commit to one another, and teach us what commitment is really about when they say to one another, “Your people shall be my people, your god my God.” The mundane concerns in the Book of Ruth—working together to find food and shelter—seem much closer to my own life and experience of love than ghosts wandering the moors.
As Allen and I were negotiating the early days of our love, I read a couple of books by a professor of sociology, African American scholar called bell hooks. She has several books about love, and our ability and inability as human beings to love well. It was bell hooks who pointed me to look deeper into the book of 1st John, where we are told beyond all doubt that God is love, and that all love comes from God. In a world of insecurities, anxieties and uncertainties about love—and this was the part that captured my focus—1 John tells us that: “there is no fear in love.”
When I look back on my own dating life and the dating lives of my friends that I closely observed for many years, this promise of scripture seems so important—so essential to understand. bell hooks finally put that together for me: helping me to understand how it often takes an individual coming to a place of confidence in oneself and confidence in God—in a sense SELF love—before he or she can love without fear: no fears about whether or not the other person would call for another date, no fears about his or her own worthiness, no fears about his or her appearance, no fears to hinder two people coming to truly know, care for, and love one another.
At one point or another in our lives, most of us have confronted our own fears about relationships—the romantic love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. But certainly, we know love goes much deeper and much wider than romantic love. In fact, most of our loving relationships extend beyond the bounds of romantic love—our children, our parents and families, our longtime friends who are close to our hearts. It is also in these relationships that loving without fear can be the most challenging. 1 John tells us, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Too often, deeply rooted fears are at the heart of why human beings hate one another—the dynamic behind “us and them” is more often fear than anything else: fear of change, fear of difference, fear of other, fear of losing oneself, fear of the unknown.
The words in 1 John echo Jesus’ final commandment to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus was the perfect model of love without fear—loving his disciples, loving children, loving the poor, the sick, the lame, loving the outcasts of his society, even loving Roman soldiers and betrayers like Judas—never thinking twice about superficial differences, only looking at the child of God within every person. To love without fear is our example as Christians—it is our commandment, it is our calling, and in the words of 1 John, it is the way in which we show our love for God. Love without fear is about justice, love without fear is about equality, love without fear is about overcoming prejudice and preconceived notions and cultural and social barriers.
Some of you may hear this and exclude yourselves from those who fear—so often we are tempted to become defensive about the fears within ourselves and our society, and say “Not me, I don’t do that, other people do, but I don’t.” We think about our friends who are different from us in some way, and think that certainly we could not be guilty of harboring any prejudice or fear of those unlike ourselves. We think to ourselves, “I’m a Christian,” I love everybody!
We must remember again the wisdom of Jesus Christ as he spoke his last final words about love: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. If it were something simple and easy that everyone already does, and required no thought or effort on our part, Jesus would not have given it as a commandment. It is not an easy road to follow the perfect example of Christ—we are flawed humans, after all.
A life following Christ’s commandments requires a lifetime of effort—two steps forward, one step back—slowly and painstakingly moving closer to God and accepting more of God’s unconditional love and grace. It might be pretty impossible to find real love in literature or film or television these days. It’s definitely NOT on the The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, and you can’t really see it in any of the unhealthy relationships in the Kardashian family. I pray for all of us—Kim and Kanye and all of you and myself included—that we will come to know love without fear in our lives. It is a wonderful love to receive; it is an even more wonderful love to give. I pray the Holy Spirit work in our lives and in our communities to shed light on our hidden fears. I pray the Spirit sets us on fire to push those fears out of our lives to allow more love to enter. And I pray that love gives us the strength to stand against the fear in our world and live boldy the life Jesus Christ showed us! Amen.