When did you choose to act out of love?
What I mean by that question is when did you choose to love someone you were not obligated to love? When you loved someone outside of your social circle, your family, colleagues or friends? When you chose to love someone….
Love is certainly a difficult word and concept to define. I’ve learned in my lifetime that the more I age, the more I realize how little I actually know about a lot of things—including love. Love is so much bigger, mysterious, random, and more undefinable than I ever dreamed possible. If you were to ask me: how do you know when someone really loves you? My answers may surprise you. Perhaps your answers to that question would surprise me!
I want you to take a moment and think about this.
When do you know that someone really chooses to love you? What does that kind of love look like? What does it feel like?
My personal answer is: I know someone loves me when they are not obligated to because of family or societal obligations, or money. I know someone loves me when they treat me well when I’m tired, angry, or annoyed, or not at my best. When someone chooses to love me even though we strongly disagree or we are on different paths.
But allow me to clarify—this kind of love [for me] isn’t dependence masquerading as love. In other words, there are people look for other people who are needy. Why? Because they want to appear loving by attaching themselves to someone who will be dependent on them. This is, of course, co-dependency and not really love. I had a friend in high school who experienced this first hand. His parents showered him with “love” his whole life, but at the same time, they wouldn’t let him choose anything, wouldn’t let him find his own path or make mistakes. They sheltered him from life’s realities. And so he was so co-dependent that none of it felt like love. He resented them. Sadly, this happens all too often in our relationships.
So we are exploring a love that might make us uncomfortable. It will challenge our preconceived notions and societal constructs. This love is not conventional.
Speaking of non-conventional, how about the Gospel of John? The story we are looking at in John 13 is in fact about love, but before we get into it, let’s set the context. It’s right before Jesus of Nazareth gets arrested. He just had a meal with his friends, the disciples. Jesus just finished washing their feet. That was something a servant would do—not a rabbi, or a prophet, and certainly not a powerful leader. But that’s what he chose to do. And Peter [as well as others] didn’t like it one bit. Peter even refused. But Jesus insisted. Then, after the contested foot washing, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ close companions, leaves with some bread. This was significant, because next in the story, Judas sells out. He accepts some money from Roman authorities and tells them where Jesus will be at a certain point so they can ambush him and arrest him. Jesus, in John’s story, already knows that Judas is about to do this. After Judas leaves, Jesus announces a new commandment: love one another.
Now let’s look this word love in its Greek linguistic context. Love is agape in the ancient Greek. A loose definition of agape is: the highest form of love and compassion that is unconditional and transcends love of family or friends, regardless of circumstances. But please keep in mind that agape was not a religious concept and certainly not a Christian concept until many centuries later. In Hellenistic culture and in Israel and Palestine, this type of love was known, but as a cultural concept apart from religion. That being said, there are many other traditions around the world that define this higher love in a similar way.
For example, in Sanskrit [the ancient language of India], there is mettā, which means loving-kindness or friendliness.
And in the Arab tradition, the Arabic word ishq, which means divine love.
Again, don’t assume some lofty, religious, non-concrete love. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Agape, or the higher love, was based on real, human experience. It wasn’t something you talked about; it was something you did. So it makes sense that in John’s story, Jesus of Nazareth keeps on setting concrete examples of what this higher love looks like and feels like. Foot washing—the rejection of social constructs that separate people and make others lesser. Agape love transcends social levels. Forgiveness—which involved debt forgiveness. Agape love did not keep a record of debts. And here’s the most difficult question: what to do with Judas?
I mean the guy did betray Jesus, right?
But after Judas leaves the room, Jesus lays this down: I have loved you so that you also might love one another. This would have been difficult to hear, because we know that the disciples were already bickering over who was the best. They just found out that Judas, one of them, had betrayed. No doubt they were ready to rip into Judas after he left. But they didn’t get that chance. Instead, they were to love each other [including Judas! Come on, you can’t leave Judas out], and they were to love each other in the way that Jesus had loved. This would be the way that they would continue to feel Jesus’ presence, long after he was gone. And this higher love would be what defined them; it would be their primary characteristic.
By this higher love they would be known.
Look, I’ve been to many different religious communities and I have many colleagues and friends from a variety of religious or non-religious backgrounds. I’ve seen how families treat each other and how friends and colleagues treat each other. In all cases, there are people who choose to love, and there are people who choose not to.
I’ve seen a parent choose to accept and love her grown child who now identifies as non-binary. Though it may be outside of this mother’s thinking and difficult to understand that her child does not clearly identify as one gender, she chooses to love.
One colleague of mine [who happens to be Muslim] was once asked: if your college-age son decided to leave Islam and no longer be a Muslim, what would you do? His answer: I would be disappointed, because I do think that following Islam can help him become a better person, but that’s less important and not really my answer. My answer is that I would choose to love him.
I know it’s not the norm in society and I know it’s rarely seen in churches [sad, but we all know it’s the truth], but this choosing to love is the real deal. It’s action; it’s not easy. It transcends. It can change someone’s life and remind them that they matter.
So keep asking yourself: How do I know that someone chooses to love me?
Surround yourself with those people—even if they are only a few.
And then, consider that if you are obligated to love or pressured to love, this is not the same thing as choosing to love.
To close, I couldn’t resist. I listened to Prince a lot in the 80s and 90s. He was an oft-misunderstood artist and person, but much of his music spoke to the deeper levels of identity, sexuality, and spirituality—all at the same time. So I close with a few stanzas from his song Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed:
If I were ever to write my life story
I could truly say through all the pain and glory
I was just a piece of clay in need of the potter’s hand
Cause when you whispered in my ear
The words I so now understand, oh
Beautiful, loved and blessed
I’m better than the day before
Cause you made me confess that I am,
Beautiful, loved and blessed
When you’re free you’re really free indeed
All you gotta do is just plant the seed
Choose to love. Plant that seed.
 Songwriters: NELSON, PRINCE ROGERS / DAVIS, ASHLEY TAMAR
Beautiful, Loved And Blessed lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group