what is love?: John 19

read John 19.  An old boyfriend and I used to text each other almost every day the question: “what is love?”  The answer varied.  Sometimes it was joking.  Okay, usually it was joking.  Sometimes it was serious.  But it wasn’t the answer we were interested in.  It was the question itself.

Why?  I don’t know, but I think maybe there’s a deep asking inside each of us, and that the asking out loud makes us feel loved.  But we can’t ask just anyone.  We have to ask someone who loves us.

If you want to laugh out loud, you can click on this link and watch Jim Carrey lip synching in a car to the Haddaway song: what is love?  It kind of proves my point – there’s something about just asking the question that cheers us up.  Okay, so maybe it’s Jim Carrey’s face that cheers us up.  But I think it’s the combination – Jim Carrey’s cheesy grin, shining white teeth, along with Haddaway half-shrieking the words:  “what is love?”

So what is love?

As with my texting, the answer varies.  We can look at 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter we have heard read at almost every wedding we’ve ever been to, perhaps even our own, and know love is patient and kind.  We can google it – according to the Economist it was the most googled question on the planet last year, replacing the question “who is God” – and we’ll find cute little affirmations, usually from children, saying things like:  “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”  Bobby, age 7.

So what is in the room with us at Christmas when we stop opening presents and listen?  What is whispering to us?  What shimmers in the air around us?  What is in the room with us when we’re alone with someone we love?  What is in a city with us when we’re walking on a crowded sidewalk and feel love welling up inside us and know all is right with the world, for no apparent reason at all?

And what’s in the room with us on Christmas Eve when we find ourselves all alone and know it’s wrong to be alone on holidays?  What’s in the room with us at a party when we look around and realize everyone else is a couple except us?  What’s on the street with us when everyone walking toward us bumps into us, scowls, and doesn’t look back?  What is love then?  What does it look like?  And why does love exist if it seems like we alone, out of all humanity, can’t have any?  What is love when the world seems dark?  What is love when someone we love is bleeding, or has cancerous tumors growing out of them, so big and ugly they pierce through the skin?  What is love when we see someone who once grinned at us, with a grin as wide as Jim Carrey’s, giving that same grin to someone else, and turning to us with indifference?

It’s a strange thing about feeling unloved, but when we’re in the moment, it feels like we’ll never be loved again.  Apparently this feeling is a “documented” stage of grief.  When we lose someone we love, it’s “normal” to feel like no one will never love us like that again – and then, strangely, unexpectedly, when we least expect it – they do.  Until they don’t, all over again.  And we go back into that “stage”, that deep knowing, that certainty, that no one will ever love us again.

And so we keep asking the question.  We ask the question when we feel loved, and we ask the question when we don’t.  No matter what our circumstances, no matter what our relational status, no matter whether we’re healthy or sick, happy or sad, busy or bored, we still want to know, we always want to know: what is love?  What is it?  We ask, and ask, and the more we ask, the better we feel, because we somehow sense we’re on the right track.

We humans are conditioned to think that we have to know all the answers.  But maybe knowing the right question is even more important than knowing the answer.  Maybe just asking the question WHAT IS LOVE is more right than we can know or imagine.

Maybe it’s the very question God wants us to ask.

But, as I discovered with my texting boyfriend, we have to ask someone who loves us.  And when the humans we love leave us, or die, or just fade away into busyness, and we find ourselves alone in the dark, who can we ask?  Who loves us?

We can whisper the question into the dark, and in that moment, we might feel worse.  Prayer, I often find, doesn’t make us feel better in the moment. But it always, always, makes us feel better afterward.  “You should smoke pot,” a middle-aged friend cheerfully shouted at me over the music at a party recently.

“Why,” I asked him.

“It makes you see things – understand things from a distance.”

“I do other things,” I told him, “to get that feeling.”

“Really?”  He’s a bright man, and curious, and he seemed genuinely amazed that something could produce the same feeling as drugs.  “Like what?”

“Um.  You really want to know?”  We were at a party.  It was a fun party.  Did he really want to hear about God?  I doubted it.  And yet, he was asking.

He nodded.

“Prayer,” I said.

He looked at me blankly. He didn’t seem to believe me.  He didn’t seem to understand.  So I reached for a way to explain. I reached for an honest answer about where I get that feeling, not a pious mealy-mouthed answer.  “Or reading a really great novel.  Or listening to a great piece of music.”  That hit home.  He could relate to that.  He agreed.  Like I said, he’s a bright man.  And he knows what it feels like to get “high” on reading a great novel or listening to music.  But the “high” of prayer, he seemed to not know.

If you haven’t tried prayer, it’s hard to understand.  Especially, I think, because my experience of prayer is that a lot of times it makes us feel even worse when we begin.  Prayer means “going there.”  It means entering into our hurts, and then going even deeper.  We buried them for a reason – they hurt so much we don’t even want to know about them.  But they’re sitting in there all the time, anyway, so, my feeling is, hey, we might as well get them out into the open.  They’ll sabotage us if we don’t.

But we don’t want to do it alone.  We want to “go there” with someone who loves us.  When we do, it’s like the connection we feel when we’re buoyed by a really great novel, or listening to a piece of music that touches us deeply, that makes us feel alive, that makes us feel like someone understands us, and is, perhaps, like us, too.

What we find when we go into our wounds in prayer is that there is something very, very particular about love.  Love lies in the details.  While we express the concept of love in universalities, it can’t live there.  Love lives in the fine print.  Love is particular.  Love notices every detail of someone’s hair and face.  Love notices every detail of our hurts and wounds.  Love is “going there” – going into the fine print.

That’s why the 19th chapter of John – the one where Jesus is crucified – is so detailed.  I’ve included it in the Amplified Bible version above, the version that expands the original language so that we can picture it, live it, breathe it, in all its details.  It’s the chapter where the soldiers twist a crown of thorns and jam it on Jesus’ head.  It’s the one where they flog him with a lead-tipped whip.  It’s the one where they deck him out in a purple cloak.  It’s the one where Pilate goes back and forth, back and forth, between talking to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and then listening to a shrieking, jealous, angry, violent crowd who want to murder Jesus – and where one senses they are shrieking not about Christ but about the sin in themselves, the darkness that lurks in their hearts, the things about themselves they hate and want to murder.  It’s the chapter where we watch Pilate go back and forth between innocence and guilt, guilt and innocence, and then judges the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent – even though, all along, Pilate says, and knows, that Jesus is innocent.  It’s the story of a weak man, sensing his weakness, knowing his weakness, having his weakness rammed home in his face, and yet giving in to his weakness anyway.

And so Pilate turns Jesus over to be crucified.

It’s the story of how we can see love, know it, want it – and reject it anyway.  It’s the story of how we can know right – and choose wrong.  It’s the story of how very very detailed our poor choices are.  Our bad choices, our sins small and large, our selfishness and pride, are written not just in black and white, but in vivid techni-color, painted in blaring, neon colors all around us, for everyone to see, for us to see, no matter how hard we try to bury them.

And yet, what is so moving about the story, is that it’s the story not of our shame, but of Jesus’ seeming shame.  Jesus is the one mocked here.  He’s the one people strike.  He’s the one who is nailed to a cross.  He is the one who meets every clawprint of hatred and venom with love, forgiveness, grace and mercy.

“Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you,” Pilate says to Christ.  You can almost hear Pilate’s voice crack as he shrieks with the hot air of the powerless.  Jesus calmly explains to Pilate that he wouldn’t have any power unless it were given to him from above.  This is Love.  Love is when God meets our powerlessness with His power.  It’s when He meets our shrieking with His calm.  It’s when He meets our wrong with His right.  It’s when He cuts through our pride with His sword of Truth.

Even as He is on the cross, Jesus then takes the time to give his mother Mary to the disciple John, and John to the disciple.  It’s a strange detail, in a way, because we know Jesus had brothers and sisters.  So it means that at that moment, Mary’s own children were not in a place to look after her.  It means that sometimes, even our own family can’t be there for us.  It means that God knows this, and looks after us in other ways, ways we didn’t think we wanted, ways we couldn’t have predicted.  This, too, is Love. Love doesn’t always look like we think it should.

And Jesus is the one who thirsts here.  We thirst for love.  That much is obvious.  We ask what love is because we’re thirsty for love – perhaps even thirstier than we realize.  “R u thirsty,” a friend texted me recently before picking me up for a party.  Yes, we are all thirsty.  But for what?

We know WE don’t want a crown of thorns.  We know we’re not thirsty for being whipped.  We know we don’t want to be rejected.  We know we’re thirsty for love, for acceptance, for grace, mercy and kindness.  We know we want someone to see us at our worst, and accept us anyway.

So, actually, we all know what love is, don’t we?  So why do we keep asking?  What are we really asking?

Maybe what we’re really asking, is just to be loved.  Maybe we’re asking that someone see, know and care about all the details of our lives.  Maybe we’re asking for someone to always have our back.  Maybe we’re asking that our deserts be turned into gardens.  Maybe we’re asking that no detail be wasted, that everything have meaning, that every tumor blossom into beauty, and that every thirst be quenched with streams of living water.

Maybe, then, our thirst is a gift.  Maybe it’s a gift to want to know what love is.  Maybe it’s a gift to be able to sing, along with a grinning Jim Carrey, what is love?  Maybe it’s a gift, because Love already is.  Maybe God made us to connect with Him by asking what love is – and the moment the question is on our lips, He is in our heart, saying: Love is me.  I am Love.  And I already Love you.  I made you for Love.  I died to bring you to life. I took the neon purple colors of your twisted shame, so that you could fly free, unencumbered by guilt.

So maybe all that God asks, is that we ask the question of Him.  What is love?  Just keep asking.  Because, as Someone far wiser than I once said:  To seek is to find.

To ask is to be answered.

To want love, is to be loved.

To know you were made for Love, that you want Love, that you thirst for Love, is to know Love Himself.

He already knows us, in all our vivid techni-color, our subtlety, our nuance, our whispers and our shrieks.  He knows it all; He bore it all; and He loves us.  After all, He made us that way, and He doesn’t make a mistake.

He just wants us to know Him.  Because if Love already knows us, then we are, more deeply than we can ask, know and imagine, loved in the finest detail imaginable.

What is love?

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on August 1, 2012