I had a chance to do a wedding yesterday with a Jewish cantor by the name of Claire Metzger. It was a lovely, combined Christian and Jewish service, complete with vows and rings exchanged, blessings sung, the breaking of the glass, all under a Huppa, the traditional Jewish Wedding Canopy, right up here on our altar. Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Ledwith are well and truly wed.
I’ve always enjoyed weddings. Helping two families celebrate the love that has brought their children together is one of the nice perks of my job. I told you last week that I’m a hopeless romantic, as if you didn’t know that already. Despite the challenges of our times, I persist in believing that love is the heart and soul of what we’re supposed to be doing here. Jesus’ words, in this morning’s reading, have always seemed pretty clear to me; love God, love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. What could be clearer than that?
But what about Unconditional Love? Unconditional love, for me, is an idea that traces clear back to my childhood. I remember this idea of unconditional love because it was the name of a song we used to sing in my Methodist Youth Group. Of course, growing up in the sixties, it seemed like we were talking, and especially singing about love all the time. Most of our favorite pop songs were about love; from Dillon, the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, the Mama’s and the Papa’s, Chet Powers. You remember Chet Powers: “Love is but the song we’re singing. Fear’s the way we die.” No matter how outdated the 60’s may seem to you by now, love is still the song we’re called to sing. And fear is still the way we die.
Besides all the pop groups, that was also a rich time for Christian folk singers. Maybe you remember Jim Strathdee, Dave Farley and Pete Seeger. Among that same group, Unconditional Love was a song by a man named David Yantis. David Yantis was a singer/songwriter that came into the ministry through a very powerful, personal life experience. On his website, he told the story this way…
On December 13th, 1967, a day that changed my life forever, I drove our big station wagon up our rather steep driveway, not remembering to set the brake, and got out of the car to open the garage door. Just as I reached for the handle to open it, the car started slipping back down the driveway. My wife Dottie tried to reach the brake from the passenger side but hit the gas instead. I turned just in time to become the hood ornament as that powerful car drove me through the garage door and then through the back wall of the garage. For the next eight and a half weeks I lay in traction with plenty of time to think about why God had spared my life and just what direction my life was to take. Not long after I had healed, I found that direction by becoming one of a new breed of Christian Song Writers. With a renewed appreciation and commitment to my faith and family.
Now, I like that story partly because I have a similar story of my own. One bright afternoon, my first year in the Coast Guard, I was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident. I was riding down a highway. I leaned into a corner and when I came up there was a 1965 Chevy right in front of me. My bike went under the car and I flew over it. The accident left me in the hospital for three days, wondering why God had kept me alive. Stories like this sometimes play into the background of people serving the church.
Unconditional Love, Yantis’s first album, came out shortly after this powerful experience he had. The title song went like this:
Unconditional Love. The love God gives to all.
Unconditional love is what the world needs now.
A love accepting others as they are,
Demanding nothing in return.
It had a catchy tune. But like a lot of songs I grew up with, I didn’t think too deeply about the message. It just stayed floating around in the back of my mind for years.
Until, shortly after Pam and I were married. At which point, my new father-in-law invited me to join him for a lecture that was being given at a college in Hartford. The speaker was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and she was talking that night about Unconditional Love. Honestly, I can’t recall too much about what she said. She was in favor of it. I do remember that much. But my clearest memory was that, after the lecture was over, Jim and I were walking back to his car and he asked me; “What do you think about Unconditional Love?” Again, I don’t really remember what I said, apart from basically agreeing with the speaker. What I remember, is that Jim did not agree. He said, “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a love without conditions.
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I wasn’t about to argue with my new father-in-law. Not only was he Pam’s dad, he was also Dr. James Lambert Kidd, the Senior Minister of one of the biggest and fastest growing churches in our denomination. I hadn’t even started seminary yet. But all these years later, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what he said, and I would love to have that conversation with him. Perhaps someday we will.
What I would say, is that I agree with him, up to a point. As far as human relationships are concerned, I would agree that there is not any such thing as real love without conditions. If you think about it, conditions are simply limits. They are points beyond which we cannot go without doing serious damage to ourselves and others. And our love for one another needs those limits if it is going to be healthy and appropriate. It is not healthy to say, “I will love you no matter how you treat me. I will love you if you beat me, if you betray me, if you violate the vows we have given to one another.” That kind of behavior sometimes goes by the name of unconditional love, but what it really is, is abuse. In order for our loving relationships to be healthy, there have to be limits.
But where I would like to challenge my father-in-law, is when it comes to God’s love. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was talking about unconditional love in human relationships. But David Yantis was talking about divinity. Unconditional love, he wrote, is, “the love God gives to all.” Now clearly, there are plenty of people who do not believe that even God’s love is unconditional. God has expectations of us. “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God,” for starters. If you want to build a case that not everyone is going to get into heaven, you will find plenty of ammunition in the bible. No question about it.
But unlike people, God is not limited. Our best understandings of God all include the idea of infinity; no boundaries, no borders, no limits, no conditions. And the difficulty of understanding unconditional love, is that we inevitably think about it from the standpoint of our own limited humanity.
Henri Nouwen wrote a piece about this that I found in the devotional book, “Bread for the Journey.” In the February 5 and 6 entries, he talks about unconditional love in this way.
What can we say about God’s love? We can say that God’s love is unconditional. God does not say, “I love you, if…” There are no ifs in God’s heart. God’s love for us does not depend on what we do or say, on our looks or intelligence, on our success or popularity. God’s love for us existed before we were born and will exist after we have died. God’s love is from eternity to eternity and is not bound to any time-related events or circumstances.
Then, Nouwen goes on to say…
We often confuse unconditional love with unconditional approval. God loves us without conditions but does not approve of every human behavior.
That’s the key. Unconditional love is not the same as unconditional approval. We can see this clearly when we look at parents raising children. We love our children about as unconditionally as it is possible for human beings to love. But we do not allow them to play in the street, or bite their sisters, or eat candies they find dropped on the sidewalk. We try to affirm and love and encourage them, but we also tell them “no” many times in an average day. We do this out of love. We do this because, in order to grow up into healthy and loving adults, they must learn where the limit are. They must know what is healthy and what isn’t. They must understand that some things will and some will not be tolerated.
True love always begins with conditions. But as we learn, and as we grow, when things go as they are supposed to, we are gradually drawn more and more deeply into the infinite love of God, the love from which we cannot fall. At the one end of the spectrum of the love we know as people, we find a very conditional understanding of who we have to be in order to exist in love. At the over end is God’s love for us, that cannot fail and never ends. A human life is a journey from one end of the spectrum to the other. The more we know about who God is, the more we realize that, even if we can only partly understand, God’s love is every bit as infinite as God is.
This love is beautifully expressed in the image of the dance of God’s love. That image is what the hymn I’ve asked us to sing in closing is built around. I’d like to read you the words, and then I’d like all of us to sing them together.
I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.
I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up.
From love to love we circle, beyond all knowledge grow,
For when you lead we follow, to new worlds you can show.
Love is the music round us, we glide as birds in air,
Entwining soul and body, your wings hold us with care.
Your Spirit is the harpist and all your children sing;
Her hands the currents round us, your love the golden strings.
O blessed Love, your circling unites us, God and soul.
Your arms from the beginning, embrace and make us whole.
Hold us in steps of mercy from which you never part,
That we may know more fully the dances of your heart.
(Chalice Hymnal #290: I cannot dance, O Love)
Let us close our worship by joining together in this beautiful hymn.