April 2010

Do You Love Me?

That’s a question Nora and I ask one another from time to time.  I remember seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, and hearing Tevye ask Golde: “Do you love me?”  In my head I can still hear the plaintive tone in the voice of Topol, the actor portraying Tevye, as he sings it: “Do you love me?”  If you’ve seen the show, you remember Golde’s answer.  She responds with a long list of all the things she has been doing for him for twenty-five years, as though that should answer his question.  But Tevye persists with his question again and again.  Then it’s as though she realizes three things at once.  She realizes that doing those things doesn’t necessarily mean she does love him; she realizes that though their parents arranged the marriage, she does in fact love him; and she realizes that in addition to all the ways that she shows him her love, she needs also to say it to him, “Yes, I suppose I do.”  Tevye needed to hear it.  Don’t we all?

            And yet, just because someone can say it doesn’t necessarily make it true.  There are all too many stories of relationships in which one party has voiced love for the other, only to betray those words with behavior that is anything but loving.  It is with a kiss that Judas betrays Jesus.  It is in the marriage of word and deed that we see truthfulness and authenticity.

            At the end of John’s Gospel we read of an encounter between Jesus and Peter.  It is a moving and powerful moment.  We hear the challenge and confrontation in Jesus’ voice.  We hear the plaintiveness in Peter.  Jesus has been betrayed, abandoned, brutalized, and executed.  Peter is one of those who betrayed and abandoned him, despite all his previous protestations of love and loyalty.  No doubt he is experiencing guilt and shame in Jesus’ presence.

            Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Like Tevye, he persists with his question again and again.  Three times he asks him, “Do you love me?”  Three times Peter responds tremulously, “You know I love you.”  Despite all that has happened, despite his failure, Peter knows that he loves Jesus and desperately needs to know that Jesus knows that.  Jesus does know it, but Jesus needs Peter to know it, deep in his heart and in his bones.  Jesus’ reassurance for Peter comes in the form of a charge.  He gives Peter a new chance, a fresh start.  Jesus gives Peter a new opportunity to show in word and deed that he loves him.  Jesus commissions him to feed and tend God’s flock, to shepherd God’s people.

            This is the story of Easter.  It is a story of grace and mercy, of failure and forgiveness.  It is the story of death and resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus is the source and power for our resurrections.  Yes, I hold that as a hope for life beyond the grave, but just as importantly, I hold that as a hope for life on this side of the grave. 

            When I sustain a great loss, when I am reduced to grief, pain, or anger, when I push God away, there is a dying inside me.  When I fail to be true to my values, to my relationships, to my faith, to my God, there is a dying inside me.  The lights go out.  It is a little bit of death.  It is in that “valley of the shadow of death” that Jesus may come to me and ask, “Do you love me?”

            In the midst of my pain over what has been done to me, or what I have done to myself and others, Jesus may come to me.  Out of divine compassion, God seeks us out.  God opens to us the experience of the cross.  God knows what it is to die.  But God also opens to us the experience of the resurrection: the rebirth of hope, the rebirth of faith, the rebirth of love.  In those moments, we may pour out the anguish within us and we may question God: “Do you love me?”  God replies, “Come with me to Golgotha; yes, I love you.”  Then God may question us: “Do you love me?”  When God helps us, as Tevye helped Golde, to say and hear ourselves say, “Yes I do; I do love you”, then we shall hear again God calling us to: “Feed my sheep and tend my flock.”



What is this love God has for us and why does He want us to share it with others? When I think of God's love for me it can become overwhelming as I grew up, like so many do, not really understanding what it means to truly love anyone, be it parents, siblings, or that "special other". It was not until I began to grow in faith that I was able to understand the concept of God's love, and yet I still wondered for such love seemed impossible to maintain. There was a Broadway play a while back that was called "I Love You, You are Perfect, Now Change"! Of course it was a comedy, a spoof on the all too human side of love.

I thought it sounded silly and yet, it set me to thinking. God's love, human love, hmmm, what is the difference between both? Finally, the light broke through! God loves us unconditionally, without reservations, without judgment, without expectations.

It does not matter what we do or what we have done, forgivness is ours for the asking because Jesus said so! Wow, this is awesome. On the other hand, human love has lots of expectations, sets lots of conditions, judges others without mercy at times.

Now, the light really began breaking through. God, whose love is spiritual, uses us to teach one another how to grow into His love. Is such really possible one might think, can we really learn to love as Jesus does? I believe we can come very close to this ideal, especially if we learn to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes for in this manner we can experience compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, (remember there is a lot of power in these last two) and most of all patience.  We cannot love others as God loves or even come close to this ideal until we can accept and love ourselves as we are.