My mother-in-law, Norma Holtslander, leads a weekly chapel in the seniors’ apartment building where she lives. This past week she planned a trip to visit her aunt specifically so she could be home in time to be there as usual. God had other plans! She was stranded thousands of kilometers away in Toronto by a huge winter storm. Her usual go-to substitutes are my sister-in-law and my husband, Barry. My sister-in-law is away in another part of the country, and Barry is not at full capacity after having surgery. As it turns out, God had done all the necessary preparations for me to be ready. What follows is my little sermon given at the chapel at First Baptist Place, Regina. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.
When Norma texted Barry and I to let us know that she was not going to be back in time for chapel tonight due to the snow in Toronto, she mentioned that she had been planning on giving you a short history of Valentine’s Day and talk about some verses about love. Her mention of Valentine’s Day and love immediately brought something to mind that I thought I could share with you, so I volunteered to take her place!
This past weekend my kids and grandkids all came over to visit. As they were leaving, we were at the door saying, “Good-bye! I love you!” The last to leave was our son, Jasper, carrying his 2 year old son, Silas. We said, “Good-bye!” and Silas said, “Love you too!” Laughing, Jasper told us that currently, Silas only says “I love you too,” never just “I love you” even if he is the instigator of the exchange. As I closed the door behind them, Barry and I both had the same thought: there’s something spiritually significant in only saying “I love you too.”
I grew up in the evangelical church. I heard regularly that God loves me. But I also regularly heard that God would send me to hell if I didn’t do some things right, that God was disappointed in me when I made bad choices, that God was angry with me when I gave in to temptation. I wanted very much for God to love me and accept me, to be kind to me. But with the messages I received about God, I was never sure I was doing enough to get on God’s good side. My life was about trying to measure up to the standards of an exacting God. I’d like to say that I at least was saying over and over, “Notice me! Love me!” but really, I think I was very absorbed with constantly evaluating my behavior, trying to gauge how I might be measuring up to God’s standard and didn’t often send direct messages to God at all.
A few years ago, though, I met someone who began to teach me a different view of God. For her, and now also for me, all other attributes of God are secondary to this: God loves me. It sounds so simple and yet is profoundly difficult as a human being to actually grasp and live out. God loves me. I always had the belief that God loves human beings, but was never sure that God loved the particular human that is me. The Spirit, my spiritual director, and my community are teaching me that indeed, God loves ME. I’m still on that path of learning, but I have come a long way!
There are a lot of verses in the Bible that talk about God loving people, but I want to look at a few verses in 1 John because they go beyond God having love for people, to God being love.
In The Message, 1 John 4:17-19 says
God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day – our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgment – is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. God loved us first.
God IS love. Let that sink in. Sometimes I think we hear some things so often that we don’t pay attention to their implications. God is LOVE. God is not condemnation. God is not judgment. God is not even justice. God is love. Valentine’s Day has come to be about expressing love. But God doesn’t need a special, set-aside day – as the verse says, “Love has the run of the house.” Every day, every moment of every day, God is expressing love for us, for me, for you.
Did you notice that these verses describe so well my former life? A fearful life, one with fear of death and fear of judgment, of falling short, of not being lovable. Such a life is not fully immersed in love. Over the last few years, the Spirit has been teaching me what it means to take up permanent residence in a life of love. Lesson number one was and continues to be: God loved and loves me first. I’m never the one initiating. God is love, and so is loving in every moment. Why is that important? Because then it’s not up to me to try to live up to any standard, or make every decision correctly, or always be on my best behavior, never make mistakes. When love is given first, it’s never dependent on anything I do or don’t do, think or don’t think. God’s love is truly unconditional because it comes first.
And this brings us back to Silas, who only says, “I love you too!” That phrase, “I love you too” is a response. It caught our attention and makes us giggle exactly because it’s the response, not the initiation of the exchange. What is it a response to? To someone saying, “I love you!” The Spirit continues to teach me the path of love, this time through a small child. Like Silas, I want to say only, “I love you too” to God’s expression of love. This will help me to remember that God is ever initiating, “I love you! I love you! I love you!” I only need ever respond, “I love you too!”
Photo: Anniversary Flowers – Heather Holtslander