I have been thinking lately what a work for God it is, just loving people.Lilias Trotter
I was fresh out of the University of Oregon and did not even know if I’d like kids, I’d not been around any for years. But my home church in Milwaukee needed a Youth Pastor and offered to pay all my seminary bills, if I’d work there on weekends while attending classes during the week. It also seemed a good way to learn about the working of a church, so I took the job.
One of my first assignments was to teach the 2nd grade Sunday School class. The class had 7 robust boys and 1 introverted girl. No adult was willing to teach this wild bunch. So, I jumped in. The first Sunday was tough. The 2nd Sunday, almost impossible, I didn’t finish the lesson, but managed to keep the kids under control for the assigned hour. However, the 3rd Sunday I lost it. 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 at those 8 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.
When the class dismissed, I sat down at my desk to rest, when I became aware of a presence beside me. Tommy. Tommy was my Huckleberry Finn, hair sticking up in all directions, face usually smudged with dirt. He was the youngest and was probably often overlooked. Freighted with various signs of disadvantage from his difficult and undisciplined circumstances, he felt deeply and fought fiercely for attention. He needed to be needed. Tommy had worked his way into my heart.
“Tommy? What’s the matter?” I asked.
“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, “Tommy, you are a very special person. I love you and I love having you in my class.”
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 asked cautiously, wondering where this was going.
“I don’t like you whenever I am naughty”
Many years later I still ponder Tommy’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, if we’re honest, certainly affects our feelings towards others – and their feelings 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 Tommy, and any given relationship – however loving – is limited by life’s circumstances.
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 we live and work with. 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 we are imperfect people, so 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 cannot muster the love ourselves. Love without limits!
Jesus’ love is bigger than circumstances or deserving. His love transcends and transforms the limits of human caring: a source of inexhaustible strength and comfort.
At times I’ve wondered about Tommy. Whatever became of him? Did he learn of a love that trumped behavior and the inconstancy of place? Who doesn’t desire to love more perfectly our parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers? 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.”