Text: John 15: 1-8
Love has not been an easy topic for me to talk about. I don’t know about you, but the first thing that comes to my mind as soon as I start pondering on love is how I grew up with mixed feelings about love. As the youngest of the three children, I had been given lots of attention and love in my early childhood. At least that’s what my sister who is 7 years older than me often told me with an envious tone, meaning she had not received as much.
Was there love in my family? Absolutely. But so was what we call abuse these days. There was physical punishment, neglect and a lot of fighting as much as care and love. After my siblings and I had grown up, we often congratulated each other on how we survived the dysfunctional family despite the scars we sill carried. But I couldn’t reconcile the existence of the two extreme opposites: love and violence in domestic life. More and more, I am realizing how much I was affected by the culture of violence in general, which could be found everywhere in my upbringing – school, work place, society, military and home.
The church was no exception. After I began my ministry, it didn’t take long for me to be disillusioned with the abuse of power within the church, which caused unforgettable scars on so many innocent good souls. The problem of the abuse in the church is that it was done in the name of love or worse yet in the name of God. The church in any time and place can be a dangerous and disguised stronghold of the dominant culture. When it falls into that temptation, it preaches fear not love to ensure obedience.
Bell hooks explains the difference between fear and love. She says, “Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation.” But love, on the other hand, promotes the desire for connections. She says, “When we choose to love we choose to move against fear – against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect—to find ourselves in the other.”
Whenever you listen to news reports or to somebody preaching, including me, I want you to discern whether the message you hear promotes more separations which is based on fear or more connections which based on love. The message of fear is so pervasive and often convincing that unless we pay attention to where the message is coming from, we can easily swallow it. There is nothing more shocking than finding ourselves repeating the very behaviours or words that we hate most.
For example, even though I refused the patriarchal culture, and I dreamed of gender equality, I still found myself struggling to embody what I truly believed in. My journey in Canada has been like peeling onions one after another – the influence of sexism, ageism, ableism, and racism. I am still in the process of moving from the place of partiality and power over to the place of affirmation and power with. I have been looking for a perfect love, or more precisely a community which embodies a perfect love.
The word, love has been so misused that it requires clarification. We use the word, love all the time. When we say ‘I love chocolate or ice cream’, we mean, we like what it does for us, giving us pleasure. We don’t use the word, love in relation to the things or people that have nothing to do with us, like we don’t say I love strangers. Similarly, when we say ‘I love somebody’, do we mean we affirm and accept the person as they are or we love the part we like? We have seen how love fails us, how it turns into hatred, envy, or judgement. We know love is fragile and vulnerable, yet we are still longing for love. Lovelessness is precisely the reason we are yearning for love. The mass media often describes love as something we can desire for as if it is something we can take, or something we can experience momentarily but never satisfies us completely.
I wonder if it is we who have betrayed love, by not honouring it as it deserves. First, we would love better if we used it not as a noun but as a verb. Love is what love does as in the 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” Although, our emotions are close to our souls, love is so much more than a feeling. I found the following definitions of love helpful.
“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”- Iris Murdoch
This definition is helpful because it puts ourselves into the right relationship. When we are in love, the relationship changes from I – it to I – Thou, from a subject-object model to a subject-subject model. In this relationship, we know we can’t be in control, and we must accept the unknown and the unknowable, while celebrating and appreciating others.
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”- M. Scott Peck
This definition of love clarifies that love and abuse cannot coexist. We can’t claim to love if we are hurtful, judgemental or abusive. It also acknowledges that love is a process of nurturing. As long as we are committed to nurturing our own or another’s spiritual growth, we never stop loving, and there are no boundaries. Yes, we can even love our enemies and strangers if we care for their spiritual growth.
“Love is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are.” – Angel Kyodo Williams
This is my favorite definition of love. It acknowledges that we all can access the space within ourselves where we can understand, affirm and accept others not as they should be but as they are. That is in alignment with my understanding of how God loves us. God made space for us to dwell in God’s enormous heart. This self-emptying love is what makes everything alive and flourish. So we can say that the whole creation is an expression of God’s love. There is nowhere else other than the whole creation where we can experience this life-giving love. Better yet, we all can access to this source and share it with everyone else. All we need to do is to abide in the space as Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
I am still yearning for love. More precisely, I am dreaming of a community which embodies love, the community that can reflect such spaciousness in everything they say and do. And I know it’s not just a dream but a reality if we choose to love, if we choose to move against fear, to connect and to find ourselves in the other.