How do you experience love?
Well, back in 1995 a minister and marriage counselor named Gary Chapman considered this question. You see over the course of his years as a therapist, he noticed that couples experienced problems in their marriage because they did not understand how their partner experienced love. So, he wrote a book that outlined five ways to express and experience love which he called the “love languages.” These five ways or categories are: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of devotion, and physical touch. The book is called The Five Love Languages. And in this book, Chapman suggests that to discover another person’s love language, one must observe the way they express love to others. He theorizes that people tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive love, and better communication between couples can be accomplished when one can demonstrate caring to the other person in a love language that the recipient understands.
Here’s an example of what I mean. If a husband’s love language is acts of service, he may be confused when he does the laundry and his wife doesn’t perceive that as an act of love but rather as simply performing household duties. The disconnect in communication here comes because her love language is perhaps words of affirmation; verbal affirmation that he loves her. Thus, she may try to use what she values, words of affirmation, to express her love to him, which he would not value as much as she does. But if she would come to understand his love language and let’s say, mow the lawn for him, he would perceive it as an act of love; and likewise, if he would tell her that he loves her, she would value that as an act of love.[i]
So, the crux of Chapman’s premise leads us to conclude that understanding how another person feels love and being able to communicate in that language is the key to a successful relationship. Now, what if we were to apply this same logic to our relationship with God. What if we were to take a step back and think about how we feel loved by God.
This is where Psalm 139 might help up out. 139 is a “creation psalm.” But not one that delves into the vast mysteries of how the universe came into being. Instead, this psalm is about God’s ongoing work in bringing human beings to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us, and loving us all the while. In a very real way, this psalm expresses God’s love language in a very personal and intimate way. You see, while much of the Bible is about “the people,” this one is about a person, you, and tells you that you are unique and of immeasurable worth.[ii] I’ve heard it said like this: “we are not mass-produced but custom-made.”
But isn’t a relationship supposed to be reciprocal? If we are known and loved by God, how might we express our knowledge and love back to God? Well, a couple of things come to mind here.
First, we need to be authentic. I read a story recently about a “young Rabbi Zusya, who was quite discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. In his desperation he consulted and senior rabbi, saying, “why can’t I be more like Moses?” Said an older rabbi to him, ‘When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, “Why weren’t you Moses?” No, God will say, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'”[iii]
An important part of being uniquely created is to recognize, and then live out, our uniqueness. We’re all different from one another. We’re all on individual paths of faith; the path we were created to follow. And all people are created in the likeness and image of God; an image that transcends color or race or nationality; it transcends gender or sexual orientation or religion. And this is important. It’s important because none of us travel this path alone. We’re surrounded by family, friends, and a faith community. And our journey is affected by relationships beyond our inner circle; we are influenced by the wider culture.
But it’s within this diversity that we find our greatest strength and purpose. And that leads us to the other aspect or our “expression of love back to God” that I would like to lift-up today; we authentically live out our love of God, and our uniqueness, by loving others. And this speaks to the purpose of the church. We are a diverse collection of individuals finding our way together. Walter Brueggemann says of this journey, “What a stunning vocation for the church, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful – and to think, imagine, dream, and vision a future that God will yet enact.”[iv]
My friends, as we move forward into the coming year, how might we, as individuals, think or imagine our way ahead? How might we as a church community dream into reality a future that God will yet enact?
One final thought this morning. This weekend we are invited to celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by serving our neighbor. His nephew said (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said that Monday isn’t a day to rest, or a time to pull out the grill, rather it’s a day to live-into the ideals of his uncle. It’s a day to think of the other before self. It seems to me that this invitation is in lock-step with the gospel message.
However, as a nation, I fear we’ve wandered from the path. Over the course of this past year, we see racism, sexism, isolationism, and fear-mongering dominate the conversation. Make no mistake, these -isms and perpetuations of fear fly-in-the-face of the gospel message. And this isn’t a political position, it’s a Christian position. The core of Christ’s ministry and the tone of his message challenged his listeners to be more accepting, more loving, more compassionate; and he challenges us, still today, to think of the other before self. Psalm 139, along with many other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures informed Jesus’ teachings. He treated all people as if they were beloved by God. Because he knew they were. He crossed religious and social boundaries because for him the ideals of justice and equality and peace outweighed the dogma of the religious and political leaders. Jesus respected the uniqueness of all people while showing them, and us, a better way.
I would like to leave you today with a quote from Martin Luther King. It’s one that I’ve used before, but I’ll say it again because it finally leaves us with at least a fragment of hope today. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends toward justice.”[v] May it be so. Amen.
[i] Gary Chapman The Five Love Languages (Northfield Publishing) 1995 (via Wikipedia)
[iii] Ibid Matthews.