Tag: Love

John Donne Effigy

(John Donne Effigy by Nicholas Stone, 1631, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London)

 

Valentine’s Day once again turns our thoughts to romantic love. Interestingly, one of the UK Telegraph’s “10 Best Love Poems” was penned by a man of seeming contradictions: A man who could capture erotic impulses in words that resound in elegance, he also embraced the Christian faith, becoming a priest and one of his era’s best spokesmen for the faith.

John Donne (1573-1631) was born in the Elizabethan era, a time of prosperity and of the flowering of literature in England. Donne’s writings shine along with those of his contemporaries William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Sir Francis Bacon.

The poem selected by the Telegraph for special honor is “The Good Morrow” published in his 1633 collection Songs and Sonnets. I love the second stanza:

If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

For Donne it was a deep and abiding love that altered the course of his life. While working for Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, he fell in love with Anne More, Egerton’s niece. They secretly married without the approval of her father, for which Donne was fired and prevented from obtaining a government position. He lived in poverty, struggling to provide for a rapidly growing family (Anne bore him 12 children). In 1614, formally blocked by King James I from any employment outside of the Church, John Donne took on holy orders.

By all accounts, Donne was a very devoted husband. James Kiefer, in his online sketch of the life of Donne, has opined: From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne’s professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love.

Donne was devastated by Anne’s death in 1617. He vowed never to marry again, despite the troubles that would cause in raising his children. He threw his energies fully into his priestly work, rising quickly to the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He gained fame for his sermons, and was regarded in his day as the best preacher in England. Phrases from his writings remain familiar to us today, such as “death be not proud”, “for whom the bell tolls” and “no man is an island”. Here is an excerpt:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death dimishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne–meditation 17)

He fell ill of stomach cancer, but managed to rise from his death bed on Feb 25, 1631, to deliver a final sermon entitled “Death’s Duell,” to a stunned audience at Whitehall Palace. Izaak Walton, in his The Life of Dr. John Donne, wrote: “When to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face.” His publisher called it “The Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon.” Donne exhorted his hearers with these final words:

There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.

A marble effigy of Donne made soon after his death can be viewed at St Paul’s cathedral, where it survived the 1666 Great Fire of London. He is remembered with a feast day in the Anglican Church calendar, on March 31.

Valentine’s Day brings the annual punctuation of Winter’s cold by the arrows of Cupid. We are put in mind of romance and love, as we wander the rows of pink and red cards, and navigate the bewildering assortments of chocolate and flowers. We may find ourselves reading delightful poems by Donne or Byron, or perhaps thinking of tragic love stories from ages past.

Since we are observing the holiday this year on a Sunday, this is a good time to recall the deepest and oldest, and perhaps most tragic love story of all time. This story eats Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for breakfast. It is more intriguing than the pathos conjured by Tolkien’s “Lay of Beren and Luthien”. The story in view here, of course, is the tragic tale of God’s deep love for humanity, for his created beings whom he made in his image, and endowed with the gift of life. He has loved us despite our rebellion and waywardness. God has endeavored to woo us back. The shocking finale is that God wrote himself into our story, taking our humanity and all its joys and sorrows upon himself.

As in the words of an old Lutheran hymn (Adapted from Thomas A Kempis)

“Oh, love, how deep, how broad, how high,
Beyond all thought and fantasy,
That God, the son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortal’s sake!”

Sadly, that love often has gone unrequited. In the end, a soul that says, “leave me alone” gets its wish. In the title above, I invoked the idea of Hell, which I won’t try to fully define here. An important aspect of the definition is that the ultimate curse is the precise opposite of the ultimate blessing, as expressed in the famous “Aaronic benediction”. Instead of God’s presence, there is absence. Instead the light of God’s countenance shining upon his beloved, there is only darkness and loneliness.

Some might ask us how we square the idea of a loving God with a concept like Hell. I was recently listening to an old message by Tim Keller, of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and was struck by a statement, that we will never really understand the depth of God’s love for us without believing in Hell. What did it cost God to love us? Was it nothing? What did Jesus actually endure on our behalf?

It turns out that what really makes Jesus the “man of sorrows” arises from much more than the mere physical tortures inflicted upon him. It wasn’t just the weight of the cross that bore him down. Christian theology teaches that Jesus had to endure abandonment and forsakenness, the sudden disintegration of his relationship with the Heavenly Father. In other words, Hell.

I recall wasting a couple hours in 1997 watching “Event Horizon,” a science fiction horror film that is almost exactly like “2010” crossed with “Friday the 13th”. It begins creepily enough with a ghost spaceship returned after disappearing into a black hole, and a team of astronauts and scientists travel to investigate. From this promising start, the movie degenerates quickly into a fairly brainless gore fest. The spacecraft is orbiting what turns out to be a portal to Hell, and one of the characters gets possessed by a demonic entity. But there is an interesting point: At the end of the movie, one of the remaining crew members willingly enters the portal to Hell, in order to save the others.

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He took on Hell so that we might escape it. That’s a love that is astounding and unfathomable. However, if we try our best to understand it and embrace it–to take it into our hearts–it will be life transforming.

So, reflect on that, and happy Valentine’s Day.

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”
(Yogi Berra, 1925-2015)

Here is a source of some other “Yogi-isms”:
“50 Greates Yogi Berra Quotes” at
USA Today.

The recent Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, has for now closed (perhaps we should say foreclosed now) the debate on marriage that has been raging in the secular world, and has legally redefined marriage to include relationships other than heterosexual couples.  In light of this landmark ruling, some are jubilant, others dismayed.  The temptation for us is to say nothing, let our progressive friends have their day of rejoicing, and remain focused on our core ideals.  However, we would be remiss to refrain from commenting on so important a moment.

Unfortunately, the media’s full court press on this issue has left Christians being pilloried as being “against” something that is now seen as wonderful.  I will sidestep the temptation to speak of what we at this site may or may not be against, in order to affirm instead what we are for.

1. We are for love.  Love between people is a reflection of God’s love for us.  “God is Love” declared St. John the disciple. Love is a gift, and a very great one.  Love is about something deeper than romance and genitals, as I have written elsewhere.  Love at its best is “other elevating” rather than “self gratifying”.  It sacrifices all for its beloved.

2. We are for gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgendered persons, as well as those who have other kinds of sexual appetites.  We love you as we would any other brother or sister.  Love means, however, that we cannot offer you a poisoned gospel.  Blessing and absolving anything that God has not condoned is an act not of true love, but of love’s opposite, and it does you no favors in eternity.

3. We are for sexuality, which is a gift from God.  It is a garden of delights.  However it is clear from sacred scripture, which we recognize as God’s revelation, that for our own good, and for that of our children who need stable families, God has put a wall around that garden. We recognize that we are not above our Creator, and therefore we respect that wall. We respect it even to our personal detriment. We respect it even in the face of a potential loss of fellowship with those who now find such a stance to be outrageous. Obeying God has never been without cost. We have always been asked to “surrender all” for the cause of Christ.  Again, that is the result of our love for God–we honor our Beloved.

4. We are for marriage.  We believe, with scripture, that marriage is sacred and holy, instituted by God.  We believe that it is a pillar of civilization.  We mess with it at our own peril. Marriage has been understood for millennia as the union of man and woman. Let me be clear on one point–it is heterosexuals, and not homosexuals, who have done the most damage to marriage.  And the church, the institutionalized body of Christ, has also let the world down on this one.  We have contributed to the confusion about the definition of marriage. We should repent of the bigger sins that we have allowed to slip by us in the 20th century, and put the “holy” back into “holy matrimony.”

  • We have not created stable and loving marriages.
  • We have been complicit as the culture cheapened and redefined “love” itself as something other than the sacrificial love that is advocated in the Bible.
  • We should have refrained from blessing terrible relationships between abusive heterosexual couples when we were aware of them.
  • We (mainly Protestants in this case) should not have caved on the issue of mixed faith marriages if we knew full well that means a loss of children to a foreign god.
  • Better premarital counseling and guidance might have helped some couples avoid making mistakes, or else given them tools to improve communication, reduce stress, and remain committed during the rocky times in a marriage.
  • We must be honest and admit that no-fault divorce and easy remarrying has done more to shred the institution of marriage than anything gay marriage could do.

We already have allowed society to redefine this institution from a lifelong stable union into an intellectual fig leaf for transient sexual gratification between consenting adults. It is a short step to either lose the fig leaf and just fornicate, or to extend it to other kinds of relationships. Both of these have happened, and often the church has been complicit.

5. We are for children.  We believe, as is also demonstrated in numerous studies, that they thrive best and prosper most when raised in a stable two parent family with a mother and father who love them.  I would go further and say that they should be in a loving Christian family.

6. We are for the U.S. government.  As people who love God, we would hope that our nation would seek after Divine blessing rather than curse.  Still, we know that we enjoy the fruits of liberty and have lived under a more benign government than most in history have known.  Christians in Ancient Rome were under a hostile regime, yet sought to be best citizens they could be, except where conscience forbade it (such as in the worship of Caesar as a god).  We also aim to be our nation’s best citizens.  We will continue to pray for the U.S and its leaders.  We can and should pray for revival. We should always ask that the holy Spirit of God would blow through our land, to refresh the churches and to bend the hearts of the people back toward their God.

7. We are for truth.  We must not give up on speaking the truth for the sake of popularity or other personal gain. The civil definition of “marriage” has changed, but God’s definition of “holy matrimony” has not. The corollary of “what God has joined together let no man tear asunder” is “what God has not joined together, let no man try to do so.”

8. Most of all we are for God, the maker of all things, to whom we owe our very existence.  God didn’t merely flick us into existence and go away, but has loved us and offered us a relationship.  We have been invited to enter the divine dance.  We are still to be witnesses to God’s love in a hostile world. We must “walk in love as Christ loved us”.  We must stand fast to our calling to share the good news. That hasn’t changed.

What do Valentines Day, Wuthering Heights, Vine the poison dragon from the game “Dragonvale”, and the beloved author CS Lewis have in common? Not much, at first glance, but let me push on a bit.

Vine is a dragon that loves people, but is toxic to them: “The poison dragon loves people. Not for breakfast, it just thinks they’re great company. Unfortunately, people don’t often react well to their deadly neurotoxin.” (From the DragonvaleWiki).

Our love can similarly hurt people, if it is selfish and possessive. I recently watched two movie versions of Wuthering Heights, in which the brooding and passionate Heathcliff loves Cathy deeply, but his love is poisonous and selfish. It rips apart two families and destroys many lives. Hell on earth is the result.

Love can and should echo heaven. In fact, scripture tells us that “God is love.” But this is a deeper kind of love than mere affection, or than the Romantic love of Cupid and Valentines Day, or than the Eros and passion of Heathcliff and numerous late night movies. Jesus says that “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The love of God, that we are called to emulate in all our relationships is a selfless, sacrificial love, that is called “agape” in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Agape isn’t merely about self sacrifice, though. In its fullness of meaning it is “other elevating”. C. S. Lewis put it like this: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained”.

C.S. Lewis wrote eloquently of Iove, delineating four types of love, and analyzing them as potential reflections of God. He also discusses how each of these loves can be twisted and warped by humans if we are not careful. For more on this I commend his book, The Four Loves, as well as the parable Til We Have Faces.

My slightly belated Valentine’s wish for you is that your earthly loves do not poison, but rather exalt. And may you feel yourself lucky enough to be the recipient of such exaltation. It is a glimpse of heaven.