Saturday, June 15, 2013

Love and vulnerability

I have been thinking lately about what love is, and how God loves us. It is a simple issue, perhaps, but it is not an easy one.

We take love for granted, of course. Those of us who grew up in supportive environments have heard "I love you" enough to know that love is a good thing, that we are loved and that we should love, but what does that mean exactly? I know that I am supposed to love, but how am I supposed to love?

Love is easier witnessed than explained, so we look to those who love us to discern some things about what love is. I think about my parents' sacrifice, their encouragement, the giving of their time.

I also think about their vulnerability, which is a strange thing to say about love, but as I reflect upon my own marriage (and as we prepare for our first child), I am reminded that being vulnerable is a vital part of love, and it may be the very hardest thing in life. If I am not vulnerable--if I do not share a part of myself with you--I do not respect your humanity. I am treating you as an object, an "it," rather than another being (a "thou"). You cannot love without sharing of yourself, any more than I am really actually loving when I say that I love barbecue. Yes, I enjoy barbecue, but love is something else, a feeling of shared being. The theologian Howard Thurman shares it this way: "If I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and you see the genuine in you, I can go down in myself and end up in you."

As a private person, I can tell you that this kind of sharing--this kind of vulnerability--is not easy. When I love, I am forced to pull back the armor that guards the deepest part of my heart in order that it may be exposed.

This is well and good, but if you and I are doing battle, and you sense an opportunity to strike, you are going to go straight for the exposed part. There is nothing more dangerous in battle than having a part of the body exposed, especially such a sensitive part. Love means that I am so invested in you that even though I recognize that you are capable of doing damage to that most hidden part, I am willing to share it anyway in the high hope that when I share my hiddenness with you, you will feel able to share your hidden heart with me.

This is difficult stuff, love, and there are no guarantees with this kind of vulnerability. The list of things that could go wrong is miles long, and yet, when I love, I am willing to risk those complications. I pull back the armor anyway. I grab hold of the curtain and pull it aside, exposing that which lies at the Holy of Holies, the very image of God within me.

It is hard enough to love one person, to love a small community of people. I can only imagine how God must feel, how it must feel to deeply love every person who has ever lived, to love all of creation.

It means that God is vulnerable.

I do not offer this thought lightly, for I believe in God's great authority that stands above everything else. But I also believe in the power of weakness, and I believe that God's weakness--God's vulnerability--is powerful in and of itself. Think of the cross, that great matter of obedience, the Christ who was so vulnerable that he was willing to die. There is power in vulnerability.

Think of creation, the matter in which God said, "Let us create humankind in our image," a sharing of God's self with all of humanity. There is enough electricity in that statement to power of all of creation, to create something from nothing.

But vulnerability is not easy. For another account of creation shares that one of the first acts of humankind is to abuse that vulnerability, to strike God directly in the exposed area of God's deepest heart.

Still, knowing that the strike is possible, God shares that heart in an act of deep vulnerability, and it is a wonder to me that all of creation does not break down from the frequency of God's cries. Instead, God keeps desiring more from me, keeps wanting to meet me at that genuine place.

This, of course, is love: that God keeps desiring relationship, that God is vulnerable, that God shares God's heart with me and expects--even pleads!--for me to share my heart with God. This is a holy responsibility not to be taken lightly, for it is a high honor to be invited to the high holy place in which God removes the armor and invites me to remove mine.

The incredible power of that vulnerability, at least as I see it, is that even in the face of sin, of broken relationships, of the foolishness I do in the name of being a modern person, God still loves. That love--that weakness, that exposed-ness--is far more powerful than a simple command to love. You cannot order love, any more than you can easily define it. Love only happens when you are so deeply moved by the exposed-ness of another's heart that you are willing to pull back the armor and risk the strike.

Love is a holy responsibility. But love is so desperately needed in this, the world with which God has entrusted us.
(Note: a version of this post previously appeared on this blog in July of 2012.)