November 1,,1995. I’d been in labor for 20 hours. As much as you can be in labor in a hospital hooked up to monitors numb from the waist down. I could see I was in labor because every time there was a contraction my stomach would do this weird contorted thing, as if the baby’s bottom was pushing up on the higher portion of my belly and his head was pushing up on the lower part and in the middle was the valley. Like an alien had taken over my body. Amazing and weird.
But that wasn’t the extraordinary thing. The extraordinary thing was the amount of love I felt for this tiny being whom I finally birthed into this world. A love that saturated my entire body. I wept in awe and wonder at this feat of creation that we had participated in. His father, the baby, me and God.
I like to imagine as I wept at the birth of my children, God weeps when another one of us comes into the world. Weeps in awe and wonder at the miracle of creation that we are and says, “Now that. That is really, really good.” And experiences the love he has for us as extraordinary and breathtaking.
The Great Commandment is the culmination of verbal sparring between the religious elite and Jesus in the preceding chapters of Matthew’s gospel. Starting with Jesus overturning the tables and benches of the money changers in the temple to the 4 stories that come before Matthew 22:34-40. According to Matthew after Jesus cleanses the temple he’s in the temple courts teaching and this is when the Pharisees and Sadducees challenge his authority to teach. Jesus passes their tests and leaves them speechless in the end. Then Jesus throws down the microphone after his response to this, the religious authorities final question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Laws: and Jesus distills Jewish law from 613 commandments to two.
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. This is the first commandment.
My tendency and perhaps yours, is to jump right to love your neighbor as yourself, maybe because even if it seems impossible sometimes, it seems a lot more manageable to love ourselves and our neighbor, because we’re right here. We can see and touch our neighbor. We experience ourselves in the world and in relationship to others. But loving God can seem like an undertaking beyond anything we might be capable of. Who is God? Where is God? How do we love that which is incomprehensible, vast, mysterious? But Jesus says the first commandment is to love God, with everything we have, and all that we are.
Writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner, asks, “Can we? Do we even know what loving God looks like and feels like – not just taking comfort in him as an idea, not just believing in God as a possibility, not just worshiping God, (because there was never a man or woman yet who didn’t have to worship something, so why not God), but actually loving him: wanting at least to be near God, wanting at least to do things for God, because that is the least of what love seems to mean?”
A couple of weeks ago my mom and I were talking about love. We were talking about it in the context of romantic love, and she asked me, “What is love to you? What does love mean to you?”
And so I thought about it, and thought about and continue to think about it. And so far, this is where I land: Love, and not just romantic love, but love in its myriad of types: eros, sexual passionate love; philia, friendship, those focused on companionship, understanding, dependability and trust; storge, familial love, like the love of a parent for a child; and agape, spiritual love. unconditional love, bigger than ourselves, a boundless compassion, an infinite empathy kind of love… is showing up. Showing up when all hell is breaking loose and the last thing I want to do is show up. There’s risk involved, because to love fully, whole heartedly, means the stakes are high and my money is in it to win, no reservations. Love means no makeup, morning breath, standing as a naked, vulnerable, fragile human being, opening my arms wide, with an invitation of radical hospitality and welcome. And as Frederick Buechner says, doing things for the sake of doing them for someone, and being near them, because it feels good and right.
Jesus is calling us to love God like that. All in, no reservations, whole heartedly, in all of our vulnerability, fragility, and humanness. To love in spite of our insecurities, skepticism, and uncertainty. I seem to love God a little bit like that when I’m out of options, out of ideas of what to do next. When all that I have relied on to get me by has broken down. When my intelligence, my talent, my ambition, has failed me. When I feel utterly alone, defeated and terrified. Those have been the moments when I have dragged my naked, vulnerable, and fragile self to God and said, “Here I am.” Lead me, guide me, show me the way. In those moments, I’m pretty willing to do anything, and stay very close to God. In those moments, like a toddler, shocked awake by a nightmare, arms held high for his mother, for her comfort, security, warmth, reassurance, that’s how I love God.
We’re lucky, because when we forget what God is like, we need only look at the life and ministry of the itinerant, backwater rabbi from Nazareth, and we get an idea. God is fierce in God’s love for us. God sees us, all of us, the truth of who we are, not who we pretend to be. God is healing love and compassion and reaches us for us, like a lover in the middle of the night, who reaches for our naked, vulnerable self and draws us in as close as they can get us to them. God draws us that close when we are willing to be drawn in.
The miracle that happens then, when I have allowed myself to be stripped down to my most naked, vulnerable and fragile self, willing to show up for God, demonstrate my love for God, that is when I have stumbled upon a love and acceptance for myself that I had not previously experienced. The acceptance of my own humanity, vulnerabilities and insecurities translates into acceptance, love and compassion for you. The drawing nearer to God when there’s nowhere else to go and allowing the love of God to heal my broken heart, my defeated spirit, and transform my fear into faith, generates into more love. A love that draws me closer to God, to you, to myself, to the world.