The Meaning of True Love: Beyond the Rose

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By Joe LaGuardia

In the next few weeks, the season finale of The Bachelor will air without little drama.

If you’ve never watched the show, I’ll fill you in on the plot: Basically, a bachelor spends two months with a few dozen women to find the love of his life.  During the show, he eliminates a woman until one lucky lady is left to marry.

Ever since I heard about The Bachelor, I thought it preposterous.  Who would sign up for a show like this?

Now, some 15 seasons later, we see that there are many people who are eager to find the love of their life by flaunting their passion on prime-time television.

I have watched only a few minutes of this past season, and it seemed to have changed very little from previous years:  Women go around telling the cameras how much they love the Bachelor.   She loves him, and she loves him, and she so completely loves him. (There’s a lot of love on that show.)

Then there’s the bachelor:  He doesn’t want to hurt this one’s feelings or break that one’s heart, but its inevitable.  It’s always a wonder, he says, how a person can love two women at the same time.  That’s how affairs begin, dummy.

Our favorite moments of the show happen when a contestant just loves the bachelor–she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, she wants to have his babies.  Then, as soon as she is eliminated and is driving home in the limousine, she changes her tune:  The Bachelor is the biggest jerk in the world.

I think the real mockery in all of this is that the show confuses what true love is really all about.

Have we as a society become so shallow as to think that love is something you can just find on a reality show, something that is entirely driven by emotional responses to what amounts to nothing more than sensual desire?

Striving for love is something that has been around a long time.  We even see it as far back as the Old Testament:  God is indeed a God of love more than God is something of the myth that claims the Old Testament God is a God of wrath, but Israel fails to realize that.

God tries to convince Israel over and over again that God’s first commitment is to His people is a posture not of fleeting, emotional love, but of “steadfast love.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it implies the same kind of compassionate, self-giving love as the Greek word, agape.

Yet, we find people in the Old Testament about as anxious as our lovely contestants on that reality show.  They know they want love.  They strive, and they long, and they reach for love, but find it in all the wrong places.

It begins in the Garden of Eden. God “walked with Adam and Eve,” and spoke to them in the cool of the evening breeze.  There is an intimacy there.

But then sin happened and humans get eliminated—no roses for them.  They get into a limousine, and they tell the camera, “Oh, who does God think he is?  That God isn’t about love after all!”

Since the very beginning of the New Testament, however, something happens.  God confounds our notions of love by becoming a person, Jesus Christ, who lives among us.

In Jesus, God heals the brokenhearted, interacts with the lonely and left-out, cooks breakfast on the shores of the Galilean sea and gathers disciples around the table.

And it is Lent that reminds us of true love: God’s love doesn’t come in the form of a rose, but a cross.   God suffers and experiences death in one of the most humiliating ways ever in order to express three simple words to us: “I love you.”

There was something that God had to do, and that was to experience suffering and testing and temptation on our terms.  It is not love built on lust, but sacrifice, for as scripture tells us: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

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God’s many gifts of grace

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By Joe LaGuardia

My father was what you might call an armchair theologian.  An armchair theologian is someone who knows a lot about life and just enough about the Bible to give some decent advice.  Most of the time.

For instance, when I was a child and I used to watch Star Trek with him, I’d ask, “Dad, are aliens real?”

He would often respond one of two ways.  One way was to say, “Stop asking questions, and watch the TV.”  The second way was, “Well, if they do and they visit us, they better know the Bible and Jesus.”

I asked him that same question years later when I was in high school.  I got the same answer:  The Bible and Jesus.  Two staples of my father’s life.

One of the greatest lessons he taught me, however, revolved around grace.

When my wife and I were first married, we were still in college and needed to borrow money now and then.   My parents were generous with their loans, and we’d always pay them back in a timely fashion, although paying them back was somewhat of an adventure.

“Dad, how much do I owe you?”, I’d ask; and he would respond (every time), “A million dollars.”

I’d chide him, and he’d explain: “You owe a million dollars because that’s how much you’ve borrowed since you were born.”

Dad would think about it for a minute as I grew restless with his answer, and then it was his turn to ask a question, “Wait a minute.  How old are you?”

I was in my twenties when these conversations happened, so I’d answer in kind to which he’d respond more forcefully, “In that case you owe me two million dollars.  A million dollars every ten years.”

A few minutes went by and then that great lesson of grace would follow as he’d say something like, “Just give me $300.00 and we’ll call it even.”

It didn’t matter how much I owed him.  It could have been $300.00 for plane tickets to New York or $500.00 to help with a rent payment.  It would always be a ballpark figure of $300.00.  That was grace.

And that was my father.  Now, just imagine how much grace our Father in heaven has when he cancelled all our debts when he sent His son to die for our sins.

Here we are, growing in our indebtedness by the sins we commit, and Jesus died so that we can be free from the penalties of that which would otherwise put us in over our heads.

The Christmas story is, if nothing else, a story of God’s many gifts of grace to us.  Sure, Jesus died for our sins, but the grace did not begin there.

God’s grace began so long ago when God did not give up on humankind, but instead made a covenant with humankind to ultimately save humans from themselves.

That covenant reached its apex when God visited a humble, peasant family in Nazareth some 2000 years ago.  This family was not made of money.  They didn’t live in a big city.

Yet, God chose this family–Joseph and Mary–to bear the very gift who embodied the very reign of God on earth:  Jesus, whose kingdom and mercy has no end (Luke 1:33).

Joseph and Mary recognized this gift for what it was, and they knew that this gift of grace would turn the whole world upside down.  That gift would empower the powerless with God’s favor, scatter the proud, transcend the rising and falling of empires and nations, and “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:46-55).

This Christmas, when we give and receive so many gifts with loved ones, let us not forget the many gifts of grace that God has given us.  They are gifts that span the biblical record, a gift that came in the person of Jesus Christ, and the many gifts that are still available today to those who call Jesus Lord and Savior.

160 Sheep missing; Imagine if it was only 1

Germany Shepherds ChampionshipsSeveral weekends ago, a little town in England ironically called Wool fell victim to a mass sheep theft ring.  Shepherds returned to an industrial farm on Monday morning to find 160 sheep missing from the fold.  Authorities claimed that the heist was one of the largest in cattle history, and the thieves would have had extensive knowledge of sheep and sheep transportation.

When I heard this story, I could not help but chuckle a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong: I feel terrible for the lost sheep, which surely amounts to a great deal of money for farmers who have a living to make.  Their loss should in no way be an opportunity for our entertainment.

But 160 sheep is a lot of sheep!  Just all gone in thin air!  Its a comically peculiar situation.

The amount of sheep has made headline news for sure, but what if only one sheep went missing?  No one would notice; there would not be any reporters or interviews.

In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus told a parable about one lost sheep.  Of course, in typical fashion, Jesus started the parable in the form of a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

This question seems simple at first, but it has actually garnered some debate.  Would Jesus’ original audience, agrarian peasants familiar with life on the farm, affirm this question without hesitation?  Sure, they would search for a sheep because each sheep is valuable.

Or would Jesus’ audience understand the question to be a form of satire?  No one in his right mind would leave an entire flock for one sheep, especially if the flock was in someplace as dangerous as the “wilderness.”

Perhaps, the debate focuses on the wrong point.  Perhaps the real point comes about only when we measure the amount of sheep found (one) with the exuberant amount of joy that the shepherd had in finding it: there was joy, rejoicing, and a party with neighbors…over one little sheep!

Now, regardless of how the peasants in Jesus’ day would have answered the question, they certainly would have balked at this second part to the parable.  Yes, perhaps a shepherd would search for one sheep even if it meant letting the herd be vulnerable for a few minutes, but throwing a party?  For a sheep?  Nonsense!

So whether Jesus’ initial question is controversial or not is not so much as scandalous as rejoicing over a sheep.  160 sheep, maybe; but not one.

That’s where the heart of the parable is found.  Jesus wanted to accentuate the joy that comes with finding even the most overlooked of sheep because when it comes to God’s agenda for salvation, no one person is overlooked.  Each person is valuable to God, and each sinner saved calls for rejoicing, joy, and a party of reconciliation both on earth and “in heaven.”

Let us not forget why Jesus told this parable in the first place.  The Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners (15:1-2).  It was one thing to preach God’s message of salvation to sinners; it was another thing to welcome and eat with sinners.

Jesus was guilty by association, but he did not come to spend time with the righteous, he came to save the lost.  His welcome of the lost was a divine invitation that embraced people right where they were, with no strings attached.  Jesus exhibited God’s grace, which both sought out the most neglected soul and then forgave the debts of the most undeserving and vile of men and women.  Now that’s something to celebrate!