Pardon my language when I tell you that Anne Lamott says Easter “hope is about believing this one thing: that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” The 23rd Psalm tells us (in PG language) that love is bigger than the valley of the shadow of death, and John tells us love is so big that it lays down its life for its friends. These are beautiful, Easter-sized sentiments, but they make love seem too big to get a handle on for a regular, non-heroic person like me. Laying down your life is rather lofty. I’m just trying to figure out how to love Nate when he forgets to wash his dishes. If only I could find the receipt, I’d like to return 1 John and exchange it for the beginner’s manual. This stuff is advanced. I wouldn’t even qualify as intermediate!
Like most people I find Love to be quite pleasant as an idea or as a dream but it is a near absurdity as a real-life situation. Real-life Love is elusive and complicated—hard to obtain and hard to live out. First of all, there is the Hollywood version to muddy the waters. The movies fashion for us a sort of pseudo-love where life is a fairy tale, and this idealism doesn’t help me much. The church tries to offer an alternative to Hollywood, but more often than not they have fashioned a pseudo-love too, where life is a straightforward line-up of right or wrong choices, and that over-simplification doesn’t help either. I hear the preachers say it again and again—love is a choice, not a feeling. And while John himself agrees that love is active, I don’t think he would go so far as to pretend like you can sterilize love of its feelings. But sometimes the church makes it sound like you can clean the emotions out of the way and reduce love down to the bare basics of a few simple choices. Simple choices can go a long way in a strained relationship, but we all know that loving another human being is never a simple act. Gosh, you cannot even love a dog without involving yourself in a mess. Even with pets, there is everything from dog slobber to dog cancer to contend with. Try to love a human, and nothing can protect you from heartache, longing, worry, disappointment, and the nauseating regularity of failure.
The encouraging news is that Christ first loved us, and thereby made it all possible. Yet it is sooo difficult to wrap our minds around the extravagance of divine love, harder still to feel wrapped up ourselves by its warm embrace. The divine love, despite its ferocious pursuit of us, is elusive, and it is no wonder with human models serving as our initiation into the experience of love. Most everyone has suffered the pains of human love: a relationship—parental, romantic, or otherwise—that was supposed to provide you safety, grant amnesty to your mistakes, and fill your empty places, but instead you were betrayed or ignored or just plain disappointed. How can we believe in the divine love when human love has often been a dissatisfying frustration?
I am slowly learning that even when I don’t have a good role model, I can be one, to myself. Yes. Love myself the way I want to be loved by others, because when I really stop to evaluate things, the biggest jerk in my life is often me. I am perfectly pleasant and respectable and forgiving towards other people. (At least, I try to be; I am a pastor after all.) But I am not pleasant and respectable and forgiving to myself. I am not a pastor to myself. I am a drill sergeant to myself, and not a very nice one.
Until recently, I found it confusing to talk about self-love because our tradition so emphasizes the sin of selfishness. It feels like we are being selfish to love ourselves. But there is a huge difference between selfishness on the one end and self-care on the other—the two are worlds apart. I find that the energy we expend on selfishness is driven by an underlying self-loathing, and we are trying desperately to satiate our own insecurity. By contrast, a healthy self-love frees us from the mad clamor. We become miraculously less self-conscious. When you love who you are, you are far less worried about how you appear to others, and you are freed up to do and be what really matters. Notice that in the text Christ lays down his life on his accord. It seems to me you cannot lay something down that you do not first possess. That is to say, you cannot give something as a gift that you have discarded like trash. You have to treasure your life in order to give it away.
Anne Lamott says she has learned to be militantly and maternally on her own side. Particularly if you didn’t have a good mother figure, be one, to yourself. It is about time you blessed the little heart of your inner child. “There, there, everything’s going to be okay. You are loved.” Somedays we must repeat those words to ourselves like a mantra.
Anne Lamott also wrote the following about learning to love a part of herself. She was traveling on a cruise ship, and she tells this story:
The aunties have put on weight since our last trip to the tropics, the aunties being the jiggly areas of my legs that show when I put on a swimsuit. I had fallen in love with them five or six years ago, the darling aunties, shyly yet bravely walking exposed along the beaches of Mexico. Used to having them hidden in the dark of long pants and capris and the indoors, I suddenly understood that they carried me through my days without complaint, strong and able, their only desire to accompany me, on beaches, in shorts, and to swim in tropical water. I vowed to include them from then on, to be as kind and grateful as possible. But that had been nearly fifteen pounds earlier.
I put on some shorts and announced to the aunties that we were going for a walk on the ship’s deck. They are so in love with me, as if I were a gentleman caller. Half the time I am hard on them, viewing them with contempt, covering them up, threatening to do something drastic—I’ll make them start jogging, that’s what I’ll do! Sometimes I catch myself being mean to them, and my heart softens, and I apologize, hang my head, and put lotion on them, as if laying on hands.
I went by the café and asked the aunties what they might like for a snack—bread pudding or fruit salad. They wanted half a sandwich, a lot of bread pudding, and one small whole-wheat bun. I think they would have ordered a bread beverage if they could.
I found a lounge chair and ate my pudding. Every so often, I looked up and smiled at people walking by. If Jesus was right, these are all my brothers and sisters. And they are so letting themselves go. This is not how Jesus would have seen them, but at first I could not help it—I saw an expanse of walruses, big wet bodies flopped down on towels, letting it all hang out. I drank my soda and put more lotion on the aunties. They loved it out there on the deck, watching the company onboard. I felt safe with the people around me now. This sense of safety suddenly made it clear to me that, looking at us, God saw not walruses but babies: radiant and befuddled, all these hearts at temporary rest. When you rest, you catch your breath, and it fills your lungs and holds you up, like water wings, like my father in the deep end of the rec center pool.
When I read stories about people who’ve learned how to be comfortable in their own skin, I realize that the main reason I am so hard on other people (and thus paralyzed from really loving them) is because I am even harder on myself. I can’t accept my own flaws and quirks, and so I expend myself in an exhausting, unending game of comparison, always hunting for at least one person who I am clearly better than, and at least one thing about every single person that I can trump. But when I am gentler with myself, I begin to be gentler with others, less uptight, a bit more forgiving. When I am gentle with myself, I actually start to believe that God loves me, just as I am. When I stop being a drill sergeant on the inside, and start treating myself the way I want to be treated, start treating myself the way the Gospels suggest Jesus would treat me, I slowly start to see past the dire perspective I’ve had of myself all this time, and see myself through the divine eyes instead, as a child created in the image of God, full of life and beauty and wonder. And the people around me turn into children too, full of laughter and neediness, worthy of love.
Last week I was mad at Nate about something I usually get mad about, until I looked over at him, curled up on the couch, all six feet of him, and he looked so much like a little boy that I melted a little and felt compelled to bless his heart. It seemed to me, in that moment, at least, that starting a marriage is like two five-year-olds on the playground. When you get married, out pops your kindergarten self—that version of yourself that wears your need for attention on your sleeve. Your imperfections and quirks are on display—those embarrassing flaws you’d learned to manage so expertly suddenly resurface and you are desperate for this person you’ve married to love you anyway. Beginning our marriage has been like carrying a huge poster-board that reads, “Will you love me, please?” We are both carrying signs, but I rarely notice his because I am so busy adorning mine with glitter and rhinestones and swirls that I hope he will like. I am sticky in glue and desperate for approval. But last week I caught a glimpse of his poster-board when he was curled up at my feet. His poster is full of his favorite colors, not mine, decorated with his favorite zoo animals, not mine, but come to think of it, I finger-painted my own sign with the same self-absorption, uncomprehending that we are different people. But tonight I study his sign, and I can see his soul between the paint smears. He has penciled in the words, “Despite everything,” above “Will you love me, please?” I wholeheartedly whisper, “yes,” and for a couple of holy and sacred minutes, I do not even worry whether he has noticed my sign, the one I’ve spent ages on, the one he sometimes makes fun of, the way we all use mockery to feel better about our own creations.
Love, I think, is the miracle of looking up from your own poster, and by this brave act of self-acceptance, you actually begin to see your neighbor. Love is when the tunnel vision focused on your own needs is replaced by something bigger, like your eyes just woke up a little wider.
It is too simple, I think, to say that love is a choice, as if we could rule the most wild beast known to man with a mere effort of the will. As best I know, from my admittedly limited life experience, there are only segments of life in which we really love another human being, where we lay down our poster-boards, our vying for attention, our hungry insecurity, and are freed to love others genuinely. When those miracle moments occur, fueled by nothing less than the very love of Christ, we lean into them as long as they last and let them carry us into sacrificial acts we did not know were possible. The rest of the time, we make small decisions to be gentler with ourselves, and consequently, gentler with others. Little by little, we wrap our minds around the divine love, and little by little we actually feel wrapped up in its warm embrace. We don’t fret about our slow our progress is, because that would not be gentle. We don’t wallow in guilt or resentment if we can help from it, because that would not be gentle. We treat our lives like the treasures that they are, granting them a place of honor, because we will never be able to give our lives away if we’ve swept them under the rug in shame. We practice the extravagant love of God, first on ourselves and then on our neighbor. We are pushed to the outer fringes of love again and again by our mistakes and their mistakes, and that’s where we learn that what we thought must be the edge of love was really only the beginning. We were wading in the shallows all this time, afraid love didn’t go any deeper, but it turn out there’s a whole ocean of love, big enough to swallow up even death itself.
The writers of Scripture try one way and then another, desperate to get this Giant, Easter-sized Love past our thick skulls and down into who we are. So perk your ears and listen to their wisdom, free yourself up to be surprised at just how much you are loved.