Advent love

David James Duncan once wrote, “People often don’t know what they’re talking about, but when they talk about love they really don’t know what they’re talking about.” In his humorous way, he was acknowledging a challenge that has faced teachers in the church for millennia. Like hope, peace, and joy, love is a deeply challenging concept. Talking more doesn’t always mean that more is communicated. Love is an essential part of learning about the life of a Christian, however. The Bible puts it directly: God is love. To fail to understand love is to fail to understand God. Love is also a behavioral and emotional mandate for Christians: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God , and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Love is so much more than the powerful surge of emotion that sweeps over an adolescent the first time their hormones kick in, but that doesn’t mean that adolescents don’t experience love. Like many other parts of life, love is something that is known at many different levels. Layer upon layer of experience and knowledge add up over a lifetime. After 47 years of marriage, we know more of love than we did when we first took our vows, but our love was as genuine then as it now is.

Love is so much more than romance.

When teaching about love, church leaders often speak of unconditional love. God’s love is given without any limits or conditions. You are loved by God simply because you exist. You don’t have to earn that love. You don’t have to do anything to be loved. You are simply loved. You are always loved. There is nothing that can separate you from God’s love.

We also teach about sacrificial love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love is putting the needs of the other ahead of one’s own needs.

The story of our faith is that love came to us in the form of a particular human being. God’s love was expressed in a unique way in Jesus. In Jesus, that love became human with all of the qualities of human nature, including mortality. Unlike many other religious leaders, we speak of the death of Jesus as an expression of that love. Still, we also teach and believe that love never dies.

It is a confusing concept.

Because we cannot fully describe love in words, we often resort to analogies. “Love is like . . .” And analogies can be helpful for our learning, but there is no substitute for actual lived experience. We know love because we are loved. We can love others because we have been loved.

And, since God is love, it is impossible to be fully Christian all by yourself. Ours is a communal religion, learned best in community and expressed in community.

We have tied to live love in our lives. We grew up in loving families. We have been faithfully committed to each other for over 47 years. We served as ordained ministers for 42 years. But we are still learning. When it comes to being grandparents, we are relative newbies. Our oldest grandchild is just nine years old. We believe that teaching about the core values and concepts of our faith is a responsibility of grandparents. We take the commandments about teaching our children and our children’s children about God seriously. We are still learning, however, how best do do that job.

When we lived far away from our grandchildren, we made up packets for Advent and mailed them. Each week there was an activity and resources to engage in that activity. Now that we live close to three of our grandchildren, we have the joy of spending time with them every week. During Advent, we have been hosting them in our house on Sundays and we plan each Sunday around the theme of the week. We have our advent wreath, of course, and light the candles each week, but we have tried to also plan fun and games and crafts that engage them in exploring the multi-dimensional ideas of our faith. We know that all of us learn best by experience and words are not the only tools of teaching learning. Words, however, are important. We are learning that lesson once again as we help with other schooling lessons with our grandchildren. Recently our grandson complained about his weekly spelling words. “I don’t need to know how to spell. I can already read.” Of course he will learn, as I did, that spelling actually is important and that clear communication depends on known how to use words effectively. Despite the challenges of spelling drills and weekly tests, there is real learning going on and he will be grateful for having endured the frustration one day. I know it because I can remember rebelling against spelling when I was his age. I can also remember the hard work I had to invest to catch up when I entered college, a place where misspelling wasn’t tolerated.

Today we speak and engage in experiences of love. It is something our people have been doing on the forth Sunday of Advent for thousands of years. Each generation has succeeded in passing on the core concepts to the next. It is now our turn and the fruits of our efforts will be known decades from now when our grandchildren teach their grandchildren about love.

Of course, our faith is not just something that we teach to our own children. Just as God’s love is not restricted to any single group of people, our mandate to love is to love all of the people of the world, even those whom we have identified as enemies. Our faith specifically teaches about loving our enemies. Extending love to those who seek to do us harm is a challenge. Loving one’s enemies is not a popular political position. So today, as has been the case in other years, we will be engaging in acts of love for strangers. We’ll be making up lunches for the food distribution program of the United Church of Christ congregation in the town where our grandchildren live. We’ll be delivering those lunches together and talking about how we express love to people who we will never meet.

Best of all, our grandchildren are teaching us as much as we are teaching them. God’s unconditional love flows in both directions. Advent is about learning together.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!