L is for Lovers

Do you remember the slogan, “Virginia is for lovers”? The abbreviation for Virginia is VA (or at least that’s the ugly post office abbreviation). So yours truly, back in the day, enjoyed seeing (maybe it was just imagining?) bumper stickers and the like that read VA IS FOR L♥VERS.
    Well, the Almighty is for lovers too. Indeed, he is the greatest lover of all.
    It’s a bit slow in appearing in the Bible, and rightly so: Creation is not an act of love. Love involves mutuality, as the lover bestows himself (herself) upon the beloved, and he (she) returns the love to the beloved in an act of counter-bestowal. Love is a dynamic of giving and receiving and giving back and receiving back, and what is given is not extraneous but is in fact one’s own being.
    I can give you a box of food without loving you. It doesn’t make my gift a bad thing. God can give us a world of food, indeed a whole garden, a paradise! But that doesn’t mean he loves us.
    As I said, the Bible is slow to affirm that God loves us. It finally happens in Deuteronomy, where we learn that not only did God love Abraham and his descendants, but God wants us to love him. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .”
    I like to point out that Harry Potter is under no obligation to love J. K. Rowling, his creator. But we humans are in fact under an obligation to love our creator.
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    God is our lover because God wants to give us himself, give us divinity so that we can be on a level with him and love him in return.
    Herbert McCabe wrote that the most important statement of Jesus, ever, the absolutely most important thing he said, was: “The Father loves me.” When we look at Jesus, we see God loving a human being. Jesus demonstrates that it is possible for God to love us, possible for us to love God, possible for a sort of equality between us and God to be established.
    Something is on offer here that is bigger than mere creation. And creation is rather big and mysterious already; it’s nothing we can be “mere” about! But love is bigger.
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    Robert Jenson (see his commentary on the Song of Songs) emphasized that there’s no explaining love. Why did God choose Israel? No reason; he just did it. He loved her. Why did I fall in love with Susan? Why have you, dear reader, loved those whom you have loved?  We can give “reasons,” but all our reasons fall short of the reality. God’s human representatives often told Israel: God didn’t choose you because you were especially great or beautiful. God chose you because, well, God chose you.
    But—here’s the point about this Lover, the greatest of all lovers—having chosen Israel, he made her able to love him in return.
    That’s why the Song of Songs is in the Bible. And why it’s one of the best books of the Bible. In my view it is superlative, surpassed only by the book of Job. But that’s another essay for some other letter of the alphabet.

Water Power

An hour or so after a sudden afternoon thunderstorm, the creek was at full flow. Marooned on the little curved concrete span below the theater were tree branches: the water had been that high. Portions of the path beyond were mud-covered; much of the park grass had washed-up styrofoam, plastic, and odd paper. Under a car-bridge, one of the homeless was tucked into his dry niche, singing as I walked past. Ahead, I found the creek so high that it covered the path, so that gentleman had to see me twice.
    There is an old concrete dam—this is not much of a creek, so the dams are helpful in creating ponds. This one is, I guess, 15 feet high and 20 across. The last few feet of its width are lower, and it’s down that edge that one normally sees the water trickle over. But this evening water was pouring over the dam entire: the spray, the sound, the white splash, all spoke of a power that is normally unseen.
    It’s a little creek, named for a little hard-shelled creature, but my, what hidden energy was revealed. Eliot speaks of the river which is tamed by civilization and becomes only a problem for “the builder of bridges.” Nonetheless, the river remains “ever, however, implacable” with “seasons, and rages.” Its implacable power is a “reminder of what men choose to forget.”
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    We may choose to forget it, but water is, in its first biblical instance, not our friend. Water is chaos; it has no form. God creates the firmament (the sky) to hold it up, and down below he pulls water back so that the dry land can emerge. But the water above can tear through the firmament and flood the land. And destructive tsunamis can bring ocean water back from its exile. We may choose to forget it, but the restraint of water is a work of divine providence, and a work ever provisional.
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    These things are signs. Water symbolizes the destructive chaos that never goes away. This chaos is around us. It is around Israel throughout the Old Testament, the enemies, the Philistines and others, who are ever at Israel’s borders.
    But worse, water is the chaos that is within us. Waters of chaos are inside the human being, from which hidden place they break out from time to time in violence. The Bible shows us this with signs and with plain speech. Consider sacrifice of animals: it is just there in the Bible, not asked for by God (until Genesis 15), but done. Subsequently we find that the worship of God, laid out in such detail in (for instance) the book of Numbers, calls for a continual sacrifice of burning animals every day.
    I have learned from Robert Sacks to think of the sacrificial system as a concession that God makes to this violence in the human heart. Since this chaos exists within us, we need law to tame it, to regulate it, to limit it to particular places and times and means.
    The chaos breaks out in other ways: from one person being cruel to another, to violence in the streets, to ritualized combat. These are the waters with power that we try to forget, yet they are there, just like the power hidden in a little creek, waiting.
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    On the other hand, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit. He tells the woman at the well that he has a water that could be within her and, there within her, spring up to eternal life. Jesus, that is, has a different kind of water. His water is the Spirit who will change our hearts, who will expunge the old chaotic waters and replace them with eternal life.
    Think of it. At the beginning, in Genesis, the Spirit hovered over the waters.
    In Jesus, God gives us the Spirit who is living water.

 

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."