There’s scene in the 2009 movie Up in the Air in which a young man is having second thoughts about getting married. The wedding ceremony is about to begin, but he has a serious case of cold feet. He’s not sure he can go through with the wedding. A member of the family, played by George Clooney, trys to talk to him.
The young man says, “I don’t think I’ll be able to do this.” George Clooney’s character asks, “Why would you say that today?” The frightened young man says, “Well, last night I was kinda like laying in bed, and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I started thinking about the wedding and the ceremony and about our buying a house, and moving in together, and having a kid, and then having another kid, and then Christmas and Thanksgiving and spring break, and going to football games, and then all of a sudden they are graduated and getting jobs and getting married and, you know, I’m a grandparent, and then I’m retired, and I’m losing my hair, and I’m getting fat, and the next thing I know I’m dead. And it’s like, I can’t stop from thinking, `What’s the point?’ I mean, what is the point?”[i]
What is the point? What is the point of marriage? What is the point of the church? What is the point of life itself?
Love. Love is the point.
“Without love we are nothing,” the Apostle Paul said.
“Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God,” said the Apostle John. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
`All the law of Torah, and all the prophecies of old,’ – Jesus taught – ‘it all boils down to this one thing: Love. Love of God. Love of self. Love of neighbor.’
I saw a bumper sticker not long ago – it was a twist on the old milk commercial – which simply said: “Got love?”
“All you need is love,” John Lennon sang. “Love is all you need.”
And yet, there are so many misconceptions about love—in the world, as well as in the church. It is undoubtedly the most inspiring and, at the same time, least understood subject of poets, songwriters and artists, as well as psychologists, theologians and scholars.
What I thought love was when standing next to Diane in front of a minister thirty-one years ago, looking into her eyes and saying “I Do,” is not exactly the same as my understanding of true love today. In the years that have passed since our wedding day, that notion of love has gotten a whole lot more complex and difficult to understand.
Although, and here’s the odd thing, it’s also gotten a lot easier to do.
Like the man who decided, one night, to show his wife how much he really loved her. After dinner he began to recite romantic poetry, telling her he would climb high mountains to be near her, swim wide oceans, cross deserts in the burning heat of the day, and even sit outside her window and sing love songs to her in the moonlight.
After listening to him go on for some time about this immense love he had, she ended his monologue when she asked, “Yes. But will you get off the couch right now, go into the kitchen and wash the dishes for me?”
No doubt, our concept of what love is all about changes over the years: as we grow in our relationships; as we mature in our faith; as we experience more and more of life—its ups and downs, its gains and losses, its joys and heartaches.
In Christian tradition love is called agape; and it has a sort of sequential quality that originates with God. It unfolds like this: When we discover – and experience the depths of – God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, then we are enabled to respond in kind with love toward God. For, as we allow God’s grace to come more fully into our hearts – by repenting of our sins, by letting go of regrets, failings and resentments, by relinquishing our self-loathing – we gradually learn, more and more, how to see ourselves as God sees us.
We begin to see ourselves – not as the wretch the old hymn describes – but rather as a child of God—redeemed and beloved. Thus, the urge we have to compensate for our ailing self-esteem begins to dissipate. We start losing the drive to prove ourselves in order to make up an inadequate self-image. We no longer feel enslaved to the unreasonable demands of others for the sake of their wounded egos. We are no longer compelled to live up to the expectations of a materialistic world.
In other words, those various obstacles which `derail’ the potential for the expression of healthy love are gradually removed.
Because once we are able to accept God’s love as the basis of a healthy and holy self-love, we are finally enabled, by God, to start loving others with – at least a human approximation – of God’s love as well.
The late Christian ethicist, Paul Ramsey, argued that Christ came precisely to embody such agape for the world and to teach his disciples both the possibility and the priority of such love. Ramsey further suggests that these two greatest commandments reveal a divine ideal that is the hallmark of Christian discipleship. [ii]
“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christian by our love.” And understanding, embodying, enabling, empowering, proclaiming and mobilizing the divine reality of that love is the main purpose of the church.
As Stephen Covey would say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” And the main thing is Love. All you need is love. Love is all you need.
I recently reread something that the late, great William Sloane Coffin once wrote: “The highest purpose of Christianity—which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief—is to love one another. And the first fruit of love is joy, the joy that represents meaning and fulfillment.”
“Love,” said William Sloane Coffin, “and you are a success whether or not the world thinks so.”
William Sloane Coffin concluded: “Socrates had it all wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken; `Cogito ergo sum’ — `I think therefore I am’? Nonsense! `Amo ergo sum— `I love therefore I am.’”
“Or, as with unconscious eloquence, St. Paul wrote, `Now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ I believe that. I believe it is better not to live than not to love.” [iii]
And when we live our lives in love, it changes everything: our relationship to God; our view of ourselves; how we relate to others. It changes our core understanding of who we are as Christians—and as the church.
It most certainly changes how we understand our marriage and our family relationships.
I started this sermon with a story about a young man about to be married who was `scared to death’ and questioning the point of it all. Let me end with a story about a couple who discover what the point of life is truly all about.
Steve and Lisa met and fell in love while earning their MBAs at a leading university. Young, sharp, and highly motivated they shared a common goal to succeed in business, make a lot of money, and live the American dream. Immediately after receiving their MBA degrees, Steve and Lisa married. Soon thereafter they accepted business positions in a large city. A decade later found them earning huge incomes in major-league, high-finance corporations. Although their jobs routinely demanded sixty to eighty hours of work per week, the money was great, and they loved spending it. They bought a large house in a fashionable part of the city. Between the two of them, they owned four cars. They bought a cabin in the mountains about an hour outside the city. They even purchased a boat. Their entire lives focused on career success, money, and the stuff money could buy.
Steve and Lisa were now pushing forty years of age. With her biological clock ticking louder every year, Lisa wanted a child. About a year later they had a son, whom they named Nathan. Steve and Lisa had it all—youth, success, money, and now a beautiful child. But things were not right in their souls. Since both of them worked an enormous number of hours, Nathan stayed in day care all day, and a nanny took care of him most evenings. Steve and Lisa rarely spent time together and had minimal contact with their baby. And, because of their busy schedules, they had virtually no time for friends, community affairs, or church.
By the time Nathan was a year old, Steve and Lisa had hit a crisis point. They asked themselves, “Is this all there is to life? Do we really want to put in endless hours at work in order to make more money and buy more stuff?”
Eventually Steve and Lisa realized that climbing the corporate ladder of success, making boatloads of money, and buying lots of stuff, was not a big enough life. So, they made a life-changing decision.
On the same day they both resigned from their jobs. Steve took a forty-hour-a-week job managing a small business that paid less than half of his corporate salary. Lisa took a part-time job as a business consultant working two days per week, making about 20 percent of her previous income. They sold their huge house and purchased a simple home in a middle-class neighborhood. They also sold their cabin, boat, and two of their four cars.
Although their new life proved dramatically different, for Steve and Lisa, less equaled more. They now had time for each other, for Nathan, and for their friends. They also got involved in their community and went back to church. And, although they earned substantially less income, life was far richer.
Six years later, when Nathan turned seven years old, his second-grade teacher gave her class a unique assignment. She told each student to write a brief essay and to draw a picture depicting their version of a perfect life. Nathan completed the assignment and turned it in to his teacher. After she graded the assignment, Nathan brought it home, along with some math and spelling worksheets. He laid them on the kitchen table and went out to play with his neighborhood friends. Later Lisa sat down at the table and picked up Nathan’s papers. As she looked at his “perfect life” assignment, tears began to flow down her face. In fact, she began to weep—not out of sadness, but out of joy.
Nathan’s perfect life project had three sections. First, he drew a picture of his modest house. The drawing included Nathan, his mom and dad, and his dog. Under the drawing of his house he wrote “My home.” To the right of his house he drew a checkerboard with faces inside each square. The caption under the drawing read, “My friends.” Next to his friends Nathan drew a picture of a church with a steeple. The caption read, “My church.” Under the three pictures of his home, his friends, and his church, Nathan wrote his brief essay. He wrote: “A perfect life for me is the life that I’m in right now. I have a lot of friends, and a good family too, and a good church. I do not need a perfect life. I already have a perfect life.” [iv]
Please understand, there’s nothing at all wrong with making a good living, or having nice things, cars, boats or homes. The problem arises when money – and all the stuff it can buy – becomes the `main thing’. Steve, Lisa and Nathan figured out what matters most in life. They learned that career success, money, big houses, and status cars are not the main thing. Instead, what matters most are our relationships—with God and with others. And if we, like Steve, Lisa and Nathan can ever figure that out as well – not just in our heads but also in our hearts – then we, too, will come much closer to living “a perfect life.”
For “… when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end.” [1 Cor. 13:10]
And surely that is the main point.
All you need is love. Love. Love is all you need.
[ii] Ramsey, Paul, Basic Christian Ethics, University of Chicago Press, 1980 (reprint).
[iii] Coffin, William Sloane, Credo, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.
[iv] Ibid. Thielen.