This Thing Called Love
Some fragmented thoughts on Scripture, the Apostle Paul, Romans 8, love, some favorite dishes from recent weeks, and what's growing in poor soil
Thursday, June 23
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Hello, friendly reader.
The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of travel: Prince George, British Columbia, for a regional council meeting of the United Church of Canada; a long layover in Vancouver spent wandering that beautiful city; a short trip to Boston to see my family; a visit to North Carolina to preach at Crosspointe and to interview Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church for Evolving Faith.
Every stop brought its own goodness and beauty as well as its own particular exhaustion and disorientation. On my last day in this frantic stretch, as I went up the elevator to my hotel room in Raleigh, I struggled to remember my room number.
I was so glad to get home to my Tristan and my Fozzie and our little half-finished house on Monday evening, and this week has been about trying to reestablish routine. The rhythms of home are steadying. When you’re a freelance writer and an itinerant preacher, every day is different, and there can be frustratingly little consistency. So when I’m in Grand Rapids, whatever my mornings bring, Tristan and I try to sit down for lunch together every day. And whatever the rest of the day holds, we try to do the same at dinnertime.
Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, whether I’m on the road or in my study being overwhelmed by my messy work table and the oppression of my overflowing inboxes, I find myself returning to a few familiar passages of Scripture: Psalm 121 (“I will lift up my eyes to the hills...”), which my grandmother taught me. Psalm 34 (“I will bless the Lord at all times...”), which summons me to disciplines that don’t come naturally, except for the “taste and see” part. The last section of Romans 8, where the Apostle Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
It’s something of a surprise to me that Scripture has become such a touchstone, given the long seasons of my life when I didn’t want to read the Bible at all. As with so many others, I’ve experienced Bible verses as bludgeons against my belonging. Every claim regarding its allegedly obvious clarity feels like another brick being laid in a wall between me and the church—a wall that sometimes seems unbreachable. What if I have questions? Do my doubts make me less faithful?
More recently, I have been reminded that no human interpreter owns this text and that it’s folly to allege that you could possibly know exactly what these ancient words, so often translated and mistranslated, mean for our modern contexts. And all that work my elders and my teachers did to plant seeds of affection for Scripture have lately blossomed into something resembling love. Sometimes it can be a complicated love, a difficult love, but it is love nonetheless. My grandma, for example, modeled Scripture as a spiritual anchor—which is to say, handy if you know how to use it and stabilizing if it can find good holding in the seabed. And my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Warner, taught me to read the Bible as literature, distinguishing among genres and daring to wrestle with its ambiguities.
Of course our feelings about Scripture and its characters can evolve over time. Mine have. I know many people get irritated at Paul, and legitimately so: He can be deeply annoying and, depending on your hermeneutic, even offensive. I’ve moved past my irritation at Paul into some true affection for him as my appreciation for the profound humanity in his writing has grown. I think I’ve shifted the focus from the “Apostle” part to the “Paul” part, remembering that before the honorific was given to him, there was—and then there remained—a flawed, complicated person. He was, just as we are, a product of his times. He was, just as we are, being shaped and formed by clashes of culture but also by a longing to be loved and to understand how grace works in the world. He was, just as we are, struggling with what it means to be human.
Paul can be hilariously petty. Elsewhere in Romans, for instance, he issues a sideswipe against vegetarians (“Some believe in eating anything, but the weak eat only vegetables”). It just makes me laugh because it is so unnecessary, so gratuitous, so cranky—so real.
And then there are the moments when his tenderhearted side comes through—and that, I think, is when his writing sings. The last part of Romans 8, where he’s reminding the motley, wildly diverse church in Rome of the divine love that holds them together, the love that endures, is one such section. It’s just gorgeous.
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As I was battling potato beetles and weeding in the garden yesterday—the ragweed and the crabgrass and the bindweed really love when I’m away for a few days—this passage came to mind. I don’t really know why, though I guess there’s never a bad moment to contemplate God’s expansive and life-giving love.
I was supposed to preach on this Romans passage last month, at a church here in Grand Rapids. But I had to cancel, because I was still testing positive for COVID. Though I’m hoping to join that congregation another time, I always write my sermons for that particular moment, and I know I won’t use what I’ve already written. So I thought I’d share a snippet of it with you:
For so much of my life, I’ve felt like I’ve been trying to chase down love. If only I could push myself more, do more, be more, perhaps I’d finally feel loved. If only I could work harder, move faster, be better, perhaps I’d finally feel loved.
Perhaps this is true for you too. On my better days—or honestly, it would be more accurate to say, in my better moments—I stop chasing. Because I will never have the strength or the endurance to chase down what I’m actually seeking, nor is my pursuit a worthy one.
When I chase love as I have in so many seasons of my life, as I still sometimes do, I neglect simply to look around me—at the witness of those God has put into my life, at the testimony of the Pacific Ocean and Lake Michigan, at the example of the robin and the Jack Russell terrier, at the faithful vows of my husband and the silent solidarity that the best kind of friend offers, at the utter grace of the sunshine breaking through the clouds and the spiky protrusion of a peony sprouting in the springtime soil and the very breath that God has placed in my lungs—and in yours. Love is here, they say in glorious chorus. Love is here.
I don’t use the word “chorus” lightly, because it speaks to the collaborative nature of life itself. Sometimes I think we turn what is supposed to be a collective walk, hand in hand, into an individual marathon. We say to ourselves, “I can do it,” when in fact that was never the assignment.
What if, when Paul said that we are more than conquerors through love, he was telling us all that there was a better way than the human impulse toward competition and conquest, individual achievement and merit-based compensation? What if he was suggesting that God was offering us an alternative to a world that constantly tells you to work harder and do more, post more vociferously and act more righteous, carry more on your shoulders and hold more in your arms? Don’t misunderstand: I am not urging us toward laziness or complacency. What if Paul was calling us to a countercultural way of being—one that indeed might inspire us to work harder and do more, not because we have something to earn or something to prove but because we are responding to the beauty of God’s lavish grace and wish for others to know that beauty and grace too?
In other words, our action is not the cause but the effect of love. And the thrill of this self-driven chase, which, let’s be honest, is not that thrilling, can’t compare to the wonder of opening ourselves up to what’s beyond us—the wonder of sitting and observing and recognizing beauty and acknowledging all the evidence of love that surrounds us even now. From that flows the awe that comes from sharing that divine and life-giving love with others who long for it too.
In this, we are more than conquerors: We are beloved, and we get to love.
What I’ve Been Eating: I’m more and more convinced that we live in extraordinary times when it comes to food. There is good food to be found almost everywhere these days. Though it sometimes takes a little effort to search it out, we also have more tools than we ever have to help us. This kind of research doesn’t feel like work to me. I delight in the cross-referencing and the reading, discarding reviews that complain about poor service (look, I grew up eating in Chinatown) and trying to ferret out the ones written by diners who care about the things I care about.
I’m still thinking about a few meals that I had over the past couple of weeks.
In Prince George, a small city (pop. 74,000) that sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers, I relied on the old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendation. I got to talking to the guy behind the front desk at my hotel, an immigrant from India. “Where would you suggest I go for the best Indian food in town?” I asked.
I think this question wasn’t easy for him to answer, because he had a few others he had to work through first. I’m imagining he was wondering how adventurous I was, and maybe how committed. “You’d have to take a bus,” he finally said. I said that was fine, and he sent me to a small restaurant well outside of downtown called the Madras Maple Cafe. Scanning the Interwebs on my bus ride, I learned that the proprietors were from the south of India, so that helped steer me toward the Mysore masala dosa, a crisp-on-the-outside, tender-within, crepe-like creation. The batter is made with rice flour, and inside you’ll find a well-spiced potato masala. I also ordered Grandma’s Goat Curry. My wager was that the restaurateurs wouldn’t dare bring their grandmother into disrepute by putting her name on their bad dish—and goat is a meat that I rarely get to eat. Both were outstanding. It was probably enough food for three people, but I ate it all myself.
In Vancouver, I went to Chinatown and tried my best to counter-program against the one tragic time I have gone out to eat at a Chinese restaurant here in Grand Rapids—let us never speak of this error again. My bowl of barbecued pork noodles at Chinatown BBQ—my people have never been all that creative with their restaurant names—helped tremendously: flavorful broth, crisp-tender Chinese greens, succulent slices of pork with just enough fat to make it feel luxurious, and a generous serving of fat noodles ready to be slurped up.
And in Raleigh, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, part of the award-winning chef Ashley Christensen’s little restaurant empire, served up not just perfectly fried chicken (I got a wing and a thigh) but also extraordinary sides. The best: the pimento mac-and-cheese custard, which I believe is made from the chef’s mom’s recipe. Don’t let the word “custard” fool you: It has structural integrity. Essentially, it’s a tender block of cheesy, starchy heaven.
What’s the best, most comforting thing you’ve eaten lately?
What I’m Growing: I’ve been tinkering with the relatively poor soil on the south side of our house. That’s where I planted garlic two years ago—and what I neglected to harvest last summer just kept doing its thing. So this week, I got to collect some garlic scapes, which are just so elegant.
I also planted some tomatoes—a gamble that the good sun and consistent watering would serve those plants well. I did not expect that the tomatoes there would be the first to flower, even before the ones in the richer soil in our backyard or the ones in the community garden.
Spending some time in conversation with Bishop Curry was part of my inspiration for devoting this week’s letter to you to love. And I have to say that I showed remarkable self-discipline by only asking him one question about preaching at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding! Please clap.
Bishop Curry spoke so movingly about love. This is a man who has been through so much in his life, and it’s remarkable to me how steadfastly he proclaims his conviction that love is our only way through the mess that humanity has created. We invited Bishop Curry to join us at Evolving Faith in October. Because he won’t be able to be with us that weekend (October 14 and 15), he invited us to Raleigh to record the conversation ahead of time. We can’t wait to share the video. And I hope you’ll join us at the online conference. You can sign up here.
Here’s hoping that you’ll be attentive to the signs of love around you this week. As always, I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.
Best wishes and warmest regards,