Love Is

“Love and say it with your life.” 

–Augustine of Hippo

Saturday afternoon found me driving through some of the most rural parts of Iowa. You’ll know you’ve arrived where I was going when you’re almost to South Dakota and not quite in Minnesota.

Early in the drive, I talked on the phone (using the bluetooth feature in my car, in case you were worried about my safety). But there’s virtually no cell service west of Waterloo, so my preferred recourse for entertainment was Iowa Public Radio. A podcast called Snap Judgment began airing, and I found myself transported to Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011 – the day an EF-5 multiple vortex tornado tore the town apart.

Like me, you may recall news stories about a group of people who survived the storm huddled together in a gas station beer cooler. All told, 24 people survived in that small space, while everything around them was destroyed. People sheltered in beer coolers in other gas stations and didn’t survive. But for some reason, these folks did.

The podcast revisited that day, talking to several individuals who had been present. I listened to a mix of their reminiscences and audio taken at the time of the tornado. One young man spoke of getting to the gas station with his best friend, moments before the tornado hit, and pounding on the locked doors to be let in. He told about lying in the dark cooler as the storm raged outside, fearing for his life. Into that chaos, his buddy whispered “Hey man, I love you.”

That’s when they cut back to the audio recorded that day in the beer cooler. You hear a youthful male voice say, “I love you. I love all you all.” He’s answered by other voices, calling out to the strangers sheltering beside them in the dark, in the storm: “I love you.”

Listening, alone in my car and hurtling down the highway with nothing in my sights but blue sky and green, green cornfields, I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. Tears came easily to my eyes, rolling down my cheeks unchecked. Love. It is the natural state and impulse of the human soul, I thought. We get busy, we get distracted, and we lose sight of this truth amongst all the static modern life throws our way. But love comes back to us in moments of extremity: its the impulse that made so many on a plane over Pennsylvania or in the twin towers on 9/11 call their loved ones; the urge that made people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando text love to their mothers and partners; it is in the reflex that makes brave souls run toward a burning building or a car crash to help – or causes a Dallas police officer to shield a mother and her sons from a sniper’s bullets.

Love is our highest calling and our most natural state.

Love is the only house, as the song says, big enough for all the pain in this world.

Love makes us human. And yet, being human, we constantly lose sight of it.

Thinking this, isolated and alone in the bubble of my car, I wept. I allowed everything within me to mourn a week in which all of America seemed to have forgotten about love; to have forgotten that we are made to love one another. I cried for Philando Castile; for Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Laquan McDonald. My tears fell for Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Krol; for Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. I cried for their families, friends, communities and for all of us gripped by the overwhelming grief of their deaths. I cried for my own inability to know how to help or change things, and I cried because I am complicit in all these deaths through my own privilege and inaction. I cried because the impulse to love is not enough if it doesn’t lead to some expression: I love you. I love all of you.

In the aftermath of my crying jag (seriously, it was an ugly cry with snot and everything), I remembered a conversation I had once with my Dad. I had been recalling my grandfather telling me about the gun he kept in his glovebox “because of the niggers”. I told my father, who had just been named the local NAACP Chapter’s Man of the Year, that I was proud of him for overcoming the racist attitudes he was raised with. He said, “That’s your mom’s doing. I fell in love with her and she taught me to be a better person.”

There it was again: love. That powerful force that calms fear in chaos and can teach us to be better versions of ourselves. Love, it shelters and it nudges. And it is what will get us through these dark days if we allow our truest selves, our deepest humanity, to be our first and best impulse. After last week, after the recent months of anger and discontent and violence, it must be clear that choosing love is not the easy route; nor am I advocating some fluffy Pollyanna-ish wish-upon-a-star. Love in action is often hard. It calls upon us to stand up and speak up and lead up. It calls us to be our best selves and to look for the best selves not just in others but in “The Others” – whomever that is in our lives. When it gets particularly difficult to do, take this sage advice from C. S. Lewis, ““Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” Acting from a place of love will always take us somewhere better than acting from fear, disillusionment, anger, blame or finger-pointing ever will.

Whatever darkness we are in: a beer cooler in a tornado, or caught up in a wicked storm of discontent, violence, divisive politics – love is the light that will illuminate it. Move toward that light; choose love.

I love you.

I love all of you,

Jenion

 

You Cannot See Your Future From Here

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot this summer. It has alternately filled me with excitement and dread. I have found my heart racing with anticipation and with sheer panic. Beautiful fantasies, check. Hyperventilation, check. One day I found myself asking friends, “Which do you think is most likely – that I’ll develop an ulcer or have a heart attack?” (They immediately voted for the ulcer, their reason being I’m in good cardiovascular shape from working out.)

With all this mental and emotional turmoil, it would make sense to pull back a bit and spend some time in calm reflection. Of course, that’s how I got to this point in the first place – calmly reflecting on what it is I want for my life: who am I, how do I intend to live, what is my heart desiring? (I guess you really can’t start out on a journey to change your life and then be shocked when your life demands that you actually change.) Anyway, I did what many of us do when looking for perspective these days, and sat down at my computer. I googled “quotes about the future”, and found some interesting statements, my favorite of which is:

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis
 

In other words, the future arrives in its own time, and all the hyperventilating in the world won’t bring it on any more quickly – or delay it, either. At the rate of 60 minutes an hour, there is time to breathe.

I quickly discovered, though, that a clever quotation – even from such an erudite source as C.S. Lewis – can only stave off anxiety or provide mental respite for a short time. I needed something more “meaty” to chew on. And that is when a friend reminded me of a book I read all the way back in high school. Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard.

This little book is an allegorical tale about poor Much-Afraid, who lives in the Valley of Humiliation, surrounded by her extended family, the Fearings. Much-Afraid is timid and suffers from physical disabilities and deformities which keep her feeling inferior and insecure. However, she has found employment working for the Shepherd, who promises to help her escape the Valley for the high places, The Kingdom of Love. If she will but trust and follow, she will be changed, her imperfections erased, and her feet will become “like hind’s feet”, able to leap gracefully and nimbly along even the steepest of paths.

Obviously, the reader is intended to identify with Much-Afraid. And I did (though not nearly to the degree I did when in high school). It is as she approaches the borders of the Kingdom of Love that the following passage appears:

“It did seem strange that even after safely surmounting so many difficulties and steep places, including the ‘impassable precipice’ just below them, Much-Afraid should remain so like her name. But so it was!”

Then, on the following page, the Shepherd places his hands on her comfortingly and says,

“Much-Afraid, don’t ever allow yourself to begin trying to picture what it will be like. Believe me, when you get to the places which you dread you will find that they are as different as possible from what you have imagined…”
 

And this is how God speaks to us, sometimes. In words or phrases which seem to appear in the moment of our need for them. It seems I read that whole book primarily for these few sentences. The first passage to remind me that everything in my life – my own weight loss, the journey I’ve been on to change so much about myself, the health issues and healings of my loved ones and SO MUCH MORE – should already have created a Fear-Less where a Much-Afraid once stood.

The second passage reminds me that there is no point in borrowing anxiety from the unknown – my creative imagination is not intended as a tool for anticipating, then dwelling on, worst-case scenarios. The reality is that worst cases, when they happen, are never quite what we thought they would be in specifics or scope or duration. Sometimes they are worse than we feared, other times, better or easier. In either case, we have to respond to them in the moment they occur. Having dreaded them in advance is not the tiniest bit useful in that moment.

As I adjust my thinking to encompass these two nuggets of wisdom, I find that my heart rate is slowing. I am not gulping big mouthfuls of air as if there will never be enough oxygen for me. I’ve mostly stopped worrying about an ulcer. Instead, I’m talking myself away from fear and into calm presence in the moment. And in that calm, I am able to identify the location of my next step forward – you know, a step that happens in this particular 60 minute increment of time. And then the next.