Oniontown Pastoral: The Orphan’s Question: Where Is Love?

Oniontown Pastoral

The Orphan’s Question: Where Is Love?

Kathy’s breaths of sleep come and go. Awake at dawn, I’m in a high school choir concert 45 years ago, a musical’s lyrics forming behind my closed lips:

Where is love?

Does it fall from skies above?

Is it underneath the willow tree

That I’ve been dreaming of?

This is tear-jerking of the first order. Locked in a cellar full of empty coffins, Oliver Twist wants his mother, any mother.

The orphan’s question catches in my throat. “Where is love?” Does it lie in repose with the crying boy’s mother? In this season, is love like dry bones waiting in a valley for sinews and breath? 

But I’m ahead of myself. My starting point should be, “What is love?Some kinds come naturally. Who needs a commandment to kiss a toddler’s fair cheek? Why bother chiseling into stone, “Hold your beloved close”? And again, don’t normal citizens often flock to survivors’ aid after a natural disaster and assist a family whose house burned down—almost out of instinct.

Alan Kurdi‘s fair cheek (C. 2012-2015. Credit: Wikipedia)

Without such love, existence would be barren. Still, stopping here is lazy. An ambitious definition of love resides in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth. He writes of the need for patience, kindness and hope. Scholars hold that the Corinthians were neither getting along well nor behaving themselves. Irritable and resentful, those ancient city dwellers may have been, envious, arrogant and rude. They needed to be called out.

My every muscle embraces 1 Corinthians 13, but as foundational as Paul’s love should be for people of faith and/or good conscience, the qualities he extols are so familiar as to be low-hanging fruit.

Love demands a yet higher reach. The rich young ruler in Luke’s Gospel comes immediately to mind. He hears Jesus’ summary of scripture’s commandments and replies, “All these I have observed from my youth.”

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler (Credit: Painting by Heinrich Hofmann on Wikipedia)

“One thing you still lack,” Jesus says. Sell everything, give the money to the poor and fall in. 

The same goes for Paul’s take on love. One thing is lacking: Imagination.

An ostensibly shining city on a hill centuries later begs to hear what the apostle leaves unsaid. Love without imagination is a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.

Sure, imagination is abstract, a flabby term. As a pastor who regularly fails to love, then, I’ll tighten the focus. The prerequisite for patience, kindness, etcetera, is this: As a Christian and hopefully decent human being, I have to imagine belonging to a tribe I’m tempted to dismiss as foreign, to a people whose ways may trouble me. And I owe friends and family the same effort.

Make no mistake, imaginative love takes courage. It confronts and shames. It hurts.

The woman who shares my life and bed, for example, endured much frustration early in our marriage. In short, I was terrible about sharing chores. Is this confession banal? You decide, but after 38 years, I realize how dispiriting it must have been to come home and find that I hadn’t done what I’d promised—dishes, laundry. Weary from her own jobs, dealing with our kids and left holding my responsibilities, she likely felt quietly abandoned. 

My failure wasn’t a wound of one sabre thrust, but a thousand pin pricks. Either way, joy bled from my wife.

“I was immature,” I can say. Or, “I’m much improved.” Whatever. For decades I seldom found the imagination that could have saved Kathy from grinding sadness. I remain sorry and realize how often, then and now, I stand in need of forgiveness. 

But wait. If such uncomfortable reflection stops at my hearth rug, I’ve learned nothing. Love worth a tinker’s damn compels me to put myself beneath the skins of those I’m inclined to hate. The word that Christians bandy about on Sunday mornings sets aside sword and shield and walks into shadows where aliens lie in wait—if only those who lurk in my fears.

Iraqi refugee children (Credit: Rachel Unkovic on Wikimedia Commons)

You pat my shoulder. “God bless you, John, you’re an idealistic one, you are.”

Point taken. Hearts of flint are commonplace. Many eyes assume that what they see is the one true picture. Spirits by the legion refuse to accept that a neighbor’s claim on justice and bounty equals their own. Animus forever possesses the reptile brain.

“You have to face the truth,” a therapist once told me, “but you don’t have to like it.” Exactly. 

Where is love that’s enfleshed by imagination? It’s everywhere. At the same time, its absence is grievous and glaring.

Mourners at Emmet Till’s Funeral (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When my ears are closed to a stranger’s peril or story, love has failed. So, too, when I can never be asked to sacrifice wealth, material comfort or status. Or when my personal understanding of the world tramples all others. Or when only the rights I treasure are inalienable. Or when demeaning others becomes routine.

Imaginative love is raw, exhausting work, and I have as much of it to do as anybody else.

“Every night I kneel and pray,” Oliver sings. “Let tomorrow be the day.” 

Or I could start right now.

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