Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beginnings, Middles, Endings

This is my last Sunday as the regular preacher at North Baptist Church.

Four years ago this month, Jean Dinsmore asked Martha to do some supply preaching at the church in August. Martha had other obligations, so she suggested me, a layperson whose preaching skills consisted mostly of fund-raising homilies for American Baptist Churches and other church organizations.

My first sermon here was in August of 2010. Then, like The Man Who Came To Dinner in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1939 comedy, I never left. 

As a journalist, I am familiar with deadlines. But the weekly discipline of studying, researching, writing, and preaching sermons was a new and stimulating experience for me. I am quite aware how lucky I have been to have a loving and indulgent congregation. I am also aware that I often missed the mark when it came to theological insight and interpretation, but I learned a lot. And you listened, nodded, smiled, and occasionally offered an affirming amen. I am grateful for each of you.

Now I’ve reached the conclusion that this is a good time to move on to other ministries, including the incomparable blessing of sitting in a pew with my family on Sundays. And I want you to know that I depart with much gratitude to God and to every one of you. 

I also want you to know that, after a lifetime in church bureaucracies, this kind of transition is old hat to me. Virtually all my church experiences have had a beginning, middle, and an end.

Sometimes I counted the days until the experience was over. When I served as an Air Force chaplain’s assistant in England and Kansas from 1965 to 1968, I couldn’t wait to get home. The three years I spent in the United Kingdom seemed interminable as I struggled to stay in touch with family, friends, and would-be girl friends in Central New York. In the dark ages before email and social media, keeping in touch involved writing on paper, placing the envelope in an APO mailbox, and waiting two weeks for a reply.

While I was in the midst of military duty, I was very conscious of all its unpleasant aspects. Monthly KP duty began at 4 a.m. and ended after we cleaned up from evening chow at 7:30 p.m. Alerts to practice for World War III were called every few weeks, usually at 3 a.m., and I would spend many cold hours on the flight line as an  augmentee guard, an M1 carbine on my shoulder, pacing in front of a parked F4C Phantom fighter jet that seemed perfectly capable of defending itself. Later, when I added a third stripe to my sleeve, I pulled all-night CQ duty – Charge of Quarters – sitting sleepily in front of a telephone in the squadron orderly room in case LBJ called. Usually the calls were messages from the Red Cross that a close relative of some poor airman had died. Then my job would be to awaken the squadron commander – a second lieutenant about my age – and together we would awaken the airman to give him the bad news. 

I hated this monthly routine, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized the four years I spent in the Air Force were very happy ones. As a chaplain’s assistant, I typed the chaplain’s sermons, set up altars for masses and Protestant worship, and hosted chapel luncheons and gatherings that included GI’s, their dependents, and British civilians. I stood as a witness at a dozen shotgun weddings as a sheepish airman and a British girl with an expanding waistline stood self-consciously in front of the chaplain. Sometimes I gave the bride away. I organized official retreats to Rome and Israel, took the train to London on my days off to visit discotheques and see shows, wave at Harold Wilson in front of Downing Street, and spend hours in the visitors gallery at the House of Commons, which I thought was the best show in town. I spent weeks on leave traveling around Europe, and counted the days until my duty tour would be over. 

I mustered out with exultation. But today I don’t have a single unhappy memory of those years. They were, like all of life, years that had a beginning, middle, and an end.

In that sense, my life has been like everyone elses: full of beginnings, middles, and endings. I’m focusing on my professional experiences rather than personal ones, and each experience has offered life-changing and life-renewing lessons. 

I waited too long to leave the American Baptist Churches staff because, after 20 years, I was burned out and needed a change. After I left the Baptists, I worked three years as a newspaper reporter and enjoyed the experience thoroughly, in part because when my stories were filed for the day I could go home and not think about them any more. I learned more about writing at the Pottstown Mercury than I did in all my years as a Baptist editor. When the mayor fired a police captain, I asked Hizzoner why he did it. “Because,” the mayor said, “YOU would be a better police captain than this joker.” Quickly deducing I was not being offered a job, I wrote: “The mayor said his decision was related to performance issues.”

Since then, I’ve enjoyed other professional opportunities that have had beginnings, middles and endings. I loved working for the World Council of Churches. The WCC didn’t pay well, but it had wonderful fringe benefits, especially the frequent flier miles I was allowed to keep. I was deeply saddened when budget cuts at the Council brought the experience to an end. 

After that, I worked for the National Council of Churches as a communicator for seven years that I regard as the most satisfying period of my professional life. When the Council was forced by financial exigencies to radically reduce its programs and staff, I watched sadly as many devoted colleagues called to this ministry lost their jobs.

Looking back over these beginnings, middles, and ends, I remember so many gifted and occasionally saintly people who allowed me to share their walk with them. I should mention their names, but I know you don’t know them – and of course you have special persons who walked with you through the ebbs and flows of life – so I will simply honor these spiritual guides in my heart.

Looking back on any experience – beginning, middles, ends – it is obvious that life has its ups and downs, its gains and losses, its joys and sorrows.

Nothing can change that. But if there is a single message in all the sermons I’ve preached here (and most preachers acknowledge they have but one sermon, repeated, altered, and revised with new anecdotes and poems – I hope it is this: no matter where we are in our life journey, God is with us and God loves us.

And the people who walk with us on our life journeys are an essential component of God’s love: parents, partners, family, mentors, teachers, colleagues, even critics and adversaries. Their influence does not diminish when we move from one phase of life to the next. Fifty years after I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, I still remember as if it were yesterday those whose time and space I shared. And so many of them will forever surround me as a cloud of witnesses to the gifts God gives each of us to help bring a little more peace, a little more justice and a little more love to the world.

So as I bring this wonderful experience to a close, I am reminded of two things:

One, no experience in life is ever truly over. We need not lose touch with one another, and I hope each of you will take advantage of the telephone, computer, and social media to keep us up to date on new beginnings, new middles, new endings.

And, finally, I am reminded that beginnings, middles, and endings are essential and eternal elements of God’s eternal plan.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Scheme Land and Dreamland

Genesis 28:10-19a

I can see it now, as vividly as if it were yesterday.

My mother is taking my baby brother Larry and me on a morning walk around Morrisville. Larry is in a stroller. I’m 3 years old and walking beside Mommy and Larry. We cross Main Street and turn left on Mill Street. We pause in front of a telephone pole while Mommy leans to re-button Larry’s shirt. I point to the looming pole.

“Remember,” I ask, “when I climbed to the top?” 

Mommy stands and smiles.


“But you were right here,” I insisted.

“I wasn’t.”

“You were!”

Mommy sighed and we began walking again. End of conversation.

But I did climb the pole! I remember it so well. 

And Mommy was there and Larry was there … 

It was, of course, a dream. The walk with Mommy and Larry was a daily event, and during nap time I dreamed I had climbed the familiar telephone pole.

And what a vivid dream it was! Even now, nearly three decades after my mother’s death, the memory of this dream invokes the clearest image I have of her as a pretty young woman. 

But at 3, I hadn’t sorted out the difference between dream memories and real memories.

The psychiatrist C.G. Jung raises the question of whether we ever really sort it out. Dreams, Jung said, are windows between our conscious reality and our unconscious spirituality.

“The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul,” Jung wrote in The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man (1933).  Our daily waking experiences overwhelm our ability to remember everything, so we remember some, forget others and lose track of everything else that has happened to us. 

“But in dreams,” Jung said, “we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man … there he is still in the whole, and the whole is in him … It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises, be it never so childish, grotesque, and immoral.” 

Dreams, Jung believed, are spiritual glimpses into memories our brains have forgotten but our souls retain forever.

But Jung cautioned those who would interpret dreams that these glimpses are not always understandable. “The dream is often occupied with apparently very silly details,” he wrote in On the Psychology of the Unconscious (1953), “this producing an impression of absurdity, or … so unintelligible as to leave us thoroughly bewildered.”

About 20 years ago I had a dream that was remarkable in its length, plot, color, detail, and unintelligibility – and remarkable in that I have retained so much of it over so many years.

I’m in the large reception hall of a great house. The floor is marble, the dark wood walls are elegantly polished, and a vast staircase spirals upwards toward a dim yellow light. As I watch passively, several two-dimensional heralds who look like fugitives from a stained-glass window enter from the right, their glass feet clicking against the marble floor. The heralds trill their trumpets shrilly and begin to march up the staircase. Pope John Paul II enters from the right and follows the heralds upstairs. The Pope looks harried and tired as he makes his way up the steps. He is surrounded by hundreds of people of all races and ages, chirping in cacophonic unison. Some are in modern dress, others wear medieval rags, some are adorned with armor, and still others look like cartoons and computer-generated grotesqueries. Their noise intensifies as they process up the stairs. The Pope turns to look at me. He shakes his head and shrugs. As he continues up the staircase, I notice he is wearing black pumps with two-inch heels.

What the heck was that all about? Was I receiving a divine revelation about Pope John Paul, perhaps a message from on high that the church needs to welcome and affirm all God’s people? Or was it silly nonsense, “producing an impression of absurdity”?

Beats me. Jung said he could not interpret his own dreams, and he pointed out in Psychology and Religion (1938) that the church was reluctant to interpret random dreams. 

“In spite of the Church's recognition that certain dreams are sent by God,” Jung noted, “she is disinclined, and even averse, to any serious concern with dreams, while admitting that some might conceivably contain an immediate revelation.”

Dreams play a profoundly dramatic role in many biblical narratives, so the church has to take them seriously. 

In today’s narrative, our friend Jacob – the “Heel” of the “Hairy and Heel” brothers we met last week – is on the run, fearing for his life.  

After using a bowl of steaming lentil soup to coerce his brother Esau’s birthright from him, Jacob goes on to seal the deal. 

Covering himself in hairy animal skins to simulate his brother’s hyper hirsuteness, Jacob presented himself to his blind, dying father. It’s a good thing for him that Isaac was blind, because Jacob must have looked like one of the gorillas in the Nairobi Trio

But the ruse worked. Isaac, thinking the prickly hairs beneath his fingers belonged to his elder son, gave the younger son his blessing – and, along with his blessing, all his sheep, goats, tents, and worldly possessions.

Giggling and cackling to himself – and persisting with the Nairobi Trio analogy – Jacob has figuratively drummed his mallets on the derby of his betrayed brother.

Esau, whose digestive system has processed the fateful lentil soup ages ago, is understandably furious. In fact, the usually slow-thinking Esau has a plan for regaining his lost fortune: he will kill his brother.

As the scene opens in today’s scripture, Jacob is on the run. In his exhaustion, he falls asleep.

And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:12-15)

The dream message was so reassuring Jacob had no thought that it was a Jungian impression of unintelligible absurdity. He believed it was a message from God.

Our first thought is to wonder why such a good thing should happen to such a bad patriarch. Whatever the angels on the ladder were intended to symbolize, Jacob believed they were signs that God intended to use him for great purposes.

Subsequent scholars suggested many other interpretations. Hebrew sages suggested the Angels were souls, descending from heaven to dwell in newborn babes, and ascending to heaven at the close of life.

Christian sages have interpreted the ladder as Christ himself, and God’s message is that Christ is the bridge between earth and heaven. The dream is an image of Christ as the means of reunion between earth and heaven.

It’s not likely the original authors of Genesis had any such thought when they reported the tale of Jacob’s dream thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. But, as Jung suggested, the interpretation of dreams is anyone’s guess.

But getting back to why such a nice dream is happening to such a bad patriarch: perhaps the dream offers some good news for all of us.

Jacob, fearing he is about to be murdered by his brother is wracked with guilt about the terrible things he has done. He understands he has done nothing to win God’s favor and may believe he is condemned to wander the barren earth as a wanted man.

That would make sense given the ancient Hebraic understanding of a vengeful God.

But Jacob’s dream is also a new stage in God’s gradual revelation of God’s nature. It is God’s message to Jacob that he doesn’t have to earn God’s love through his behavior. God is revealing to him that no matter who he is, what he has done, or why he has done it, God’s love for him is unconditional.

There could not possibly be better news for Jacob, or for any of us. Which of us would deserve God’s love if it were conditional on our good behavior? 

But in the depths of Jacob’s despair, when be believed his evil schemes had ruined his life and forfeited his soul, God opened a pathway to heaven and told Jacob he was loved.

And God has the same message for each of us, no matter how far we sink in discouragement and guilt. God loves us unconditionally. And God will never seal us off from the passageway from earth to heaven.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Brotherly Shove

Genesis 25:19-34

Any parent of boys knows there’s nothing unusual about Esau and Jacob. They were prenatal wrestlers, and their tussles intensified after they were born and continued long into adulthood.

So it was with my three brothers and me. I was a privileged only child for the first two years of my life. Then came my brother Larry. 

A lifelong architect, Larry is a gentle and peaceful soul who has two boys of his own. Recently he has rechanneled his artistic talent into watercolors, and – although he and Rhonda live in Oregon now – keeps in touch via social media. Today, he’s not only my brother; he’s my Bro’.

In fact, a warm friendship exists among all my sibs, including Jim, Paul, and Susan. I only wish we lived closer so we could gather more often.

But that was not always the case. As the earliest born, Larry and I played as aggressively as Esau and Jacob. Indeed, there was a sharp passive-aggressiveness in our play. 

When we about 3 and 1, Larry and I played with a tall, narrow dresser in the bedroom of our small apartment. I opened the six drawers to show Larry how they could be used as steps to the ceiling. But Larry, an inarticulate pre-toddler, looked bored, so I pushed him into the bottom drawer and closed it. Slowly, the top-heavy dresser plunged forward onto the hardwood floor, and all the drawers slid shut.

Mom, who thought we were playing quietly, ran into the room. She stared dumbstruck at the prone dresser.

“How on earth?” she asked, her voice shrill and tense. Calculating I might be able to blame the incident on Larry, I shrugged one shoulder.

Mom could not see well in that period of her life because of a cornea disease, but she sensed something was wrong.

“Where is your brother?”

I shrugged the other shoulder.

In a panic, Mom’s veiled eyes darted around the room. Inside the bottom drawer, Larry began to cry.

With a surge of maternal adrenalin, Mom pushed the dresser upright and pulled open the bottom drawer. Larry, who would be quiet and taciturn all his life, frowned silently as Mom lifted him into her arms.

“Larry!” I shouted. “How you get in there?”

I don’t recall what, if any, consequences resulted from the incident, so they couldn’t have been too severe.

And of course, the dresser event was merely one in a long string of brotherly aggressions. Later, when we were playing Superman on the top bunk, I fashioned a pair of Clark Kent glasses out of cellophane tape and pasted them over Larry’s eyes. Then I pushed him off the bunk, only mildly surprised that he couldn’t actually fly. Later, on one of those rare occasions when I played the bad guy in our cowboys and crooks game in the living room, Larry stabbed me in the back with a butter knife. It didn’t break the skin, but it prompted me surrender to the good guy immediately.

There isn’t enough time or room to relate all the tales of sibling aggression that took place when the five of us were growing up. Our parents probably despaired that we would ever reach peaceful accommodations with each other.

But the truth is, siblings have always fought among themselves while competing ferociously for parental attention. 

Several thousand years after the tale of Esau and Jacob was spun, Jesus told the story of two brothers who contended for their father’s favor and property. One son took his inheritance and lost it through immoral and profligate living. The older son remained loyal and stayed home at his father’s side. When the prodigal returned home and begged and received his father’s forgiveness, the loyal son was furious and resentful. 

In larger families, all kids are the angry older son, bitter that their disloyal and undeserving siblings are loved equally. It takes a lot of growing up to discard that feeling.

Some family therapists maintain this competitive behavior prepares children for adult life, although the benefits may not be evenly distributed. In The Book of Guys,  Garrison Keillor suggests an important distinction in formative play:

Girls . . . were allowed to play in the house . . . and boys were sent outdoors . . . Boys ran around in the yard with toy guns going kksshh-kksshh, fighting wars for made-up reasons and arguing about who was dead, while girls stayed inside and played with dolls, creating complex family groups and learning how to solve problems through negotiation and role playing. Which gender is better equipped, on the whole, to live an adult life, would you guess?

Clearly, Esau and Jacob employed the kksshh-kksshh form of developmental interaction, as did my brothers and I.

If you are fortunate enough to have a sibling or siblings with whom you have established a friendly relationship, it would be interested to take one of those internet quizzes such as, “Which Star Trek character are you?” or “Which state would you live in?” Which brother are you: Esau or Jacob?

The writer of Genesis portrays Esau as a “skillful hunter,” but an impatient and impulsive man – two traits that every hunter knows may be dangerous on the hunt. If Field and Stream needed an attractive cover model, Esau would not be it.

Even so, if you were a hanger-on at Isaac’s tent and had to choose between the brothers, I think you’d conclude Esau – although perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer – was morally superior.

According to Genesis, the brothers’ sibling rivalry began earlier than most: when they were still in Rebekah’s womb. The boys wrestled and twisted so violently that Rebekah thought she was going to die. 

In the days before obstetricians, she went directly to God with her complaint, and as with many modern doctors, God was only partially helpful. God did give her prenatal information that went far beyond the gender or health of the fetuses:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.

That’s nice, but God did little to ease her violent cramping. The wrestling continued until the time of labor. When the boys finally hurled themselves down the vaginal track, Esau burst out first. He was startlingly red and hirsute, so they named him Esau, which of course means Hairy. His brother, struggling for the advantage down to the wire, is dragged out grasping his brother’s heel. They named him Jacob, which means Heel. 

As it turned out, both names were appropriate. In a future updating of the New Revised Standard Version, they may re-translated as the Hairy and Heel brothers.

The boys’ bitter rivalry was exacerbated, as often happens, by parental favoritism. 

Rebekah, whose postnatal soreness must have lasted for months, loved Jacob because he was smooth-skinned and liked to hang around the tent with his mother. Jacob loved Esau because he liked his meat and Esau the hunter had more steaks on him than a Lady Gaga dress.

The climactic chapter of the boys’ rivalry is reported almost too casually. The passage that should have begun more ominously, as, “It was a dark and stormy night,” opens like a gentle fairytale: “Once.”

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)

Neither brother looks good in this account. Esau is impatient and impulsive and convinced that if he doesn’t eat immediately, he’ll die. Jacob refuses to feed his brother until Esau gives him a prize of enormous value – his birthright to all his father’s lands, servants, riches, sheep, and property. How can Jacob be so selfish, so calculating? And how can Esau be so stupid? (Or, if we take the biblical account literally, how can he have been so hungry?)

“Thus Esau  (or Hairy) despised his birthright” is the cliffhanger for today. 

The Common Lectionary wants us to reflect on this moment before we’re allowed to read on. 

No doubt many of you have already read past Genesis 25 into subsequent chapters, and if you have, please, no spoilers. Developments in future episodes will keep you on the edge of your Kindle: deception, betrayal, murder threats, fugitives living in poverty, erotic bating-and-switching – a mini-series that will make The Tudors look like Ozzie and Harriet. Future chapters will also provide subtle reminders that if you’re looking for models of clean living and Republican family values, Genesis is not the place to look.

Fittingly, the Gospel reading prescribed by the Common Lectionary for this Sunday is Matthew 13:1-9:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

The parable of the sower is a helpful metaphor to keep in mind as we re-encounter the familiar histories of the old Patriarchs. 

When God first approached Abraham and told him his seed would conceive a nation as populous as the stars in the sky, God didn’t mention how rocky that sowing would be. 

The Patriarchs were not perfect. Many of them were distractingly quirky, and it’s easy to get angry with Jacob every time you read of his cruelty to his brother and his deceit of his father. Some of the seeds the Patriarchs sowed fall on rocks, others on thorns. 

But God remained faithful to their covenant, and in the end their seeds grew incalculably more than a hundredfold. The Patriarchs, imperfect as they were, remind us that God’s seeds have also been planted in us – and as imperfect as we are, God has promised to bring forth a sumptuous harvest.

Esau and Jacob weren’t perfect either, and throughout most of their lives they weren’t even easy to like.

But God used these two quarreling, contentious, and unreliable brothers as players in God’s great plan.

And, as imperfect as you, I, and all our contrary siblings may be, God will use us, too.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Love Actually

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
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.”
(Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

The Song of Solomon is odd scripture because it is long on erotic imagery and short on references to God.

Actually, God’s spirit of love resonates in every verse. But not in ways that make us entirely comfortable.

We are usually encouraged to think of God’s love as agape love – a Greek term meaning the unconditional love of God and Jesus for human kind. 

But agape love is difficult for us to fathom. 

Erotic love, which pulsates through this poem, is much easier to understand. We’ve experienced it. When we were young, psychologists tell us, thoughts of sex jumped into our minds every seven minutes. We understand the aching, throbbing love of one human for another. And the basic message of the Song of Solomon is that God loves us with the intensity of a smitten suitor. 

That’s scary, actually. Agape love seems safer, more distant, less intense. We don’t quite understand what agape means so it doesn’t bother us so much. But a God who pursues us like a lover is a God who breathes a little too hotly in our ears.

Some time ago, a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary decided to renew their vows and they asked me to read a passage of scripture at the service. I chose another passage from the Song of Solomon: (4:1-10)

How beautiful you are, my love,  how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins,   and not one among them is bereaved. Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate   behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh    and the hill of frankincense. You are altogether beautiful, my love;  there is no flaw in you.

As I read this provocative passage aloud, I noticed the mature couple exchange glances, smiling or smirking silently, as if to say their private memories of love would remain a secret to their children, their family, and their friends. Their love, it was clear, was the power that had sustained them all their married life.

What is love? There has never been a time in human history when poets and artists have not tried to define it.

You have to study portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to be sure you’re looking at the 19th century poet and not the 17th century King Charles II of England. But her passion far transcended her daunting countenance, and she wrote one of the greatest love poems of all time:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height 
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight 
For the ends of being and ideal grace. 
I love thee to the level of every day’s 
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. 
I love thee freely, as men strive for right. 
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. 
I love thee with the passion put to use 
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. 
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose 
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, 
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, 
I shall but love thee better after death.

There are also more down-to-earth ways of looking at love. Tevye, the milkman in Sholem Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof, is shocked when his daughter tells him she wishes to marry the man she loves, not the man her father chooses. 

In his efforts to understand this radical departure from tradition, Tevye, startles Golda, his wife of 25 years, by asking the unheard-of question: do you love me.

Do I love you? (she asks, aghast).  
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes 
Cooked your meals, cleaned your houseGiven you children, milked the cow. 
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now? 
Tevye shrugs “I know...” But do you love me? 
Do I love him? (his wife asks herself).  For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, Fought him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that's not love, what is?
Then you love me? (Tevye asks hopefully)
I suppose I do, she responds.
And I suppose I love you too, Tevye admits. 
Together they sing: 
It change a thing. But even so. After twenty-five years It's nice to know.

The lovers in Song of Solomon burn for one another, as does the lover uttering Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words. Tevye and Golda were strangers when they were married, but slowly over two and a half decades, they learned to love each other

And there are many other kinds of love:

Possessive love, jealous love, puppy love, selfish love, distant love, lustful love, helicopter parent love, smotherly love. 

There’s even mercenary love. If you go to Kohl’s this week, you’ll see pictures of a gaunt woman wearing a Crofts&Barrow sweater she evidently adores beyond reason because she bought it at a sizable discount. The poster declares: SAVE. LOVE. REPEAT.

The kind of love that is celebrated in Song of Solomon is both intense and pure. They lovers care for each other, they want the best for each other. They want to share each other’s joy. There is nothing self-centered or self-seeking in their feelings for each other. To immerse oneself in this poem is to get a clearer understanding of how God feels about us, how God wants us to feel about each other, and how God wants us to feel about God.

The Apostle Paul is not known for his erotic nature, but he did understand the nature of love:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or 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, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 1but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Finally, returning to the Song of Solomon:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, For love is strong as death, jealousy is as cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, It would be utterly scorned. (8:6-7)

It all comes down to this, actually.

God is love. 

And love is God.