I have been thinking lately what a work for God it is, just loving people. 25 April 1891
It was my first year of teaching. A life time ago – or so it seems. But one incident remains as fresh as the day it happened. My third-grade class, with a standard number of students, was squeezed into a half-sized room due to a new construction site adjoining the old building. To add insult to injury, only a wall separated me from the desk of the principal who, by default, was an audio-witness to all that occurred within the confines of my classroom.
This day was particularly difficult with a build-up of disciplinary challenges. Finally, in desperate disregard of any pedagogical training, I took on the class, full voice, and basically blasted out my disappointment and frustration with my little charges. Upon conclusion of my verbal tirade, I looked out a sea of crestfallen faces, sobered and silenced. Having now their full attention, I attempted to reassure them that I loved them: it was their behavior I didn’t love. I went on to reinforce the message (and offset the damages!) by adding, if anyone had any questions about my caring about them they could talk to me personally after class.
Fast forward to the end of the school day. I was seated at my desk when I became aware of a presence beside me. Danny. Danny was my Huckleberry Finn, hair sticking up in all directions, face usually smudged with dirt, dressed in siblings’ clothing several sizes too small or too large. Freighted with countless signs of disadvantage from his difficult and undisciplined circumstances, he felt deeply and fought fiercely for his very equilibrium on school turf. Danny had worked his way into my heart.
“Danny? What’s the matter?” I asked the agitated little being.
“You said to tell you if we think you don’t love us. I don’t think you love me.”
I pulled him closer to me and looking into his eyes I said, “Danny, you are a very special person. I love you and I love having you in my classroom.”
He stood motionless at my side. Clearly still troubled. “There’s something else,” he finally added. “Sometimes I don’t love you. Sometimes I don’t even like you.”
“When don’t you like me?” I ask cautiously, wondering where this was going.
“I don’t like you whenever I am bad. Even if you are not there.”
All these many years later I still ponder Danny’s inability to separate even his unobserved misbehavior from resentment of one the few authority figures, at that time, in his precarious life. Consider the standard line of teachers and parents alike: “I love you; it’s your actions I don’t like.” What does the recipient really hear? It is difficult at any age to distinguish judgment of our behavior from that of acceptance (or lack thereof) of ourselves: our essential worth. Of being loved.
February is the month in which romantic love is celebrated. Valentines embellished with lace and ribbons, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, flowers or plants in pretty pots. Dinner by candlelight. Soft music in the background. All set the stage to say, “I love you.” Romantic love has managed to work its way to the pinnacle of the hierarchy of love. Even when we know that rarely does that state of ecstasy sustain itself indefinitely. Even when, at its best, infatuation eventually settles into the lovely, loving bulwark of security and devotion.
Unconditional love. How we crave it! Yet any form of love – romantic or otherwise – seems to have its limits. Behavior certainly affects our feelings towards others – and theirs toward us. In truth, much of love is conditional. Limited by the fickleness of feelings, the behavior of individuals, or even disagreement over cherished viewpoints – be it political, religious or any matter of belief. Furthermore, conveying love can be limited by time and place. People come in and out of our lives, as with Danny, and any given relationship – however loving – is limited by life circumstances.
Certainly, this was the case with Lilias. While “loving” was her calling – her “work for God” – the focus of her love was determined by time and place. Leaving England at age 35, where she had intended to spend the rest of her life “loving London,” her focus changed to the Arabs of North Africa. Her early years she lavished her love on the Arab people in the Casbah of Algiers. As her ministry broadened to the villages of nearby hills and beyond into the oasis communities of the vast Southlands, her love expanded to embrace ever more people – whom she could touch only briefly – and pray that God’s love would penetrate their hearts without her presence.
Unconditional love matters most with the people who matter most to us. And this can strain our very being as we work to love the people closest to us: home, extended family, neighborhood, workplace and, yes, church Even as we struggle to love our so-called “loved ones” in the dailiness of life, we long for them to love us with the very love we struggle to give them. Unconditional. How easily we hug our slights and grievances. How deeply we long for someone to truly understand us. To cut us slack. To love us – unconditionally. But imperfect people, we love imperfectly.
It is in the recognition of that lack and longing that we begin to understand more fully the love of God. A perfect God who loves perfectly. Who sees our very hearts – the deepest and darkest places – and still loves us. No matter what. Unconditionally. A God who has promised to love others through us when we can not muster the love ourselves. Love without limits!
The following words, part of an ancient Jewish poem, were found inscribed on the wall of a patient’s room in an insane asylum.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
These words professing God’s love in the bleakest of situations, inspired Frederick Lehman to add them to a song he was writing about the love of God. A love bigger than circumstances or deserving. A love that transcends and transforms the limits of human caring: a source of inexhaustible strength and comfort.
I’ve often wondered about Danny. What ever became of him? Did he learn of a love that trumped behavior and the inconstancy of place? Lilias continually experienced the ache of leaving even as she longed to linger in a given place to transmit God’s love to hearts hungry for love without limits. Who doesn’t desire to love more perfectly our parents, spouse, children, friends? And to be loved in turn by them. But we can take comfort for ourselves and for others in a love that transcends all the limitations of humanity and boundaries of place. “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
Oh love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure,
The saints’ and angels’ song.