A reflection on Psalm 63.1-8
As a young pastor, I befriended a young man whose life had become a tragic series of disappointments. His name was Stuart. Stuart’s drug addiction had alienated his already dysfunctional family. His move to Victoria from northern Queensland had separated him from his fragile support networks. Since his arrival in Melbourne, his repellant behaviour had soured the few friendships he had made. He was alone and reduced to living in a back room of a sex shop in St Kilda where he worked during the day and slept at night.
In order to see Stuart, I had to go to the shop at night and sit with him on his sleeping bag laid out on the floor. I remember on my first visit, sitting nervously in my car just outside the shop door. It was a busy road and there was no back entrance. I was convinced that as soon as I got out of the car to enter, a deacon from my church would drive by. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
I had never before nor have I since sat with someone for whom the absence of love was so tragically evident, nor for whom the longing for love was so palpable. Stuart would sit so close to me on the floor I was often uncomfortable yet his need for human warmth was painfully clear. When I led his funeral six months later, the consequence of an overdose, I was the only one there.
For the last five Sundays, we have been reflecting together on the desires that drive us, the longings that compel us forward in life. Guided by Hugh Mackay’s book What Makes Us Tick?, we’ve explored the desire for something to believe in, the desire for ‘my place,’ the desire to be useful, the desire to belong, and the desire for more. Today we conclude with the desire for love.
In the very last paragraph of his book, Mackay describes the desire for love as the deepest and most profound of all our desires, the one that sits beneath and within every longing we know. Indeed, the longing for love is a defining element of what it means to be human. From a Christian perspective, this desire flows directly from the fact that we are created in the image of a loving God. As God loves, so we love. As God craves our love in return, so we crave love in response to our own. It’s because of this that the thought of saying anything helpful about love is overwhelming. Love is such an all-encompassing thing, such a deeply complex and emotionally loaded business that speaking of it in any meaningful way is fraught with difficulty.
It’s a bit like Mothers Day. When all is well and life is ideal, celebrating a day like this one comes easily. But life is hardly ever entirely well or ideal. The airbrushed images of motherly love, of maternal dreams and longings realized, of tender embraces and perfect smiles, don’t often match the reality of our lives. For days like today can be unwelcome reminders of what we have lost or never known, of what has be taken from us or failed us, of our own unmet longings or disappointments. While some of us can rejoice on days like today, and we should, others cannot.
As Mackay says so well, when it comes to the love of family there is the ideal and there is reality. In the ideal, love begins in our mother’s arms and continues in a family of perfect security. It is here we learn the nature of unconditional love; we learn of love unearned but given freely and without reserve. It is here we experience the appropriate intimacy of love and the healing power of touch and refuge. And it is here that we experience the life-giving connection between faith and love, embraced by those who believe in us unreservedly and who stand beside us no matter what. All of this, however, describes an ideal, a picture of love at its best. The reality is often quite different. Tragically for some, the ideal is almost entirely absent and days like today are nothing but a cruel reminder of this fact.
So it is, too, with romantic love–love with that special someone. We long for it, we aspire to it, we idealize it, we thrill to it and hold it tenaciously when we find it, feeling things in its grip we have never felt before. And yet when this same love fails us, eludes us, crumbles beneath us or is defined by society as out of bounds, we feel a pain that cuts so deeply we can barely function. It can leave us bruised, scarred, exhausted. Still, no matter how bruised, our desire for it never lessens. The truth is, no matter how many years pass, no matter how wrinkled the skin or sparse the hair, our need for love–our desire to express it and feel it in return–remains as strong as it has ever been. As Mackay says:
‘There is no evidence to suggest that as we age and mature, the desire for love diminishes. We still need the affirmation of love, the comfort of love, the reassurance of love, the rich reward of having our offer of love accepted, the particular form of emotional security that only comes from being loved.’
Despite the dominant images in our media–the ones that define love as overwhelmingly youthful–the longing for love is universal. No matter our age, our gender, our sexuality, our life experience, education or personality, what we all have in common is a desire for love. It is with us for life. In the words of Mother Teresa, the need for love is ‘a hunger much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.’ The desire for love runs deep. It was so for my friend Stuart, and it is so for us.
Psalm 63 is a psalm of David. It was written long ago from the wilderness of Judah, a place of exile and isolation for its author. Bereft of friends and family, suffering under the weight of his own moral failure and surrounded by enemies ready to gloat over his defeat, David expresses his need for love. He thirsts for it. His flesh faints for it. To quench this thirst, he calls upon the love of God, the only love he knows to be secure and dependable: ‘your steadfast love is better than life,’ he declares, though in the thick of his own tears I imagine. David nestles down into the shadow of God’s wings as he clings to this love. And it is here that he finds the resources to return to the challenges of his life and relationships, restored and empowered.
There are three things about the desire for love that I want to simply underline this morning.
Firstly, our desire for love is both gift and burden. It is gift because through it we discover the beauty and richness of life. Through it we are healed and enabled as David was. Through it we find our reason for being in the world and we can face whatever life holds. But the desire for love is also our burden. For living in love is the most demanding and costly calling. Many of you know that first hand. Our love can be refused, abused, taken for granted, misunderstood or thrown in our face. Our thirst for it can cause such anguish of heart that we sometimes wish we could be done with it. Our endless yearning for it can send us into addictive behaviours that cast shadows over our lives and relationships. At its best, love can give the deepest joy; at its worst, the deepest pain. It is both gift and burden.
Secondly, in our desire for love we cannot have the gift without the burden. We cannot know love in all its liberating, life-giving grace without the experiences of pain and struggle. To walk away from the burden is to walk away from the gift. David could only plumb the depths of God’s love because he had known the depths of despair. As painful as love can be, as demanding as it is, as consuming that our longing for it can become, the only alternative to bearing the pain is to shut ourselves down and harden our hearts. And what profit is that, to ourselves or to others? The joint commandments to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves depend entirely on our willingness to remain open to love, to have hearts that can sore the heights and navigate the depths. We cannot know the gift apart from the burden.
Thirdly, this desire for love is God given and common to us all. To desire love and intimacy is part-and-parcel of what it means to be human … for all of us. The debate in our society about the rights of the Gay and Lesbian community to the ritual of marriage is far from resolved. Even here in this church we are not uniform on this question. Thankfully what we do agree on is the basic Baptist commitment to freedom of conscience in our approach to an issue like this one, our commitment to name injustice when we see it, and our determination to stand on the side of the marginalized. The freedom you give Carolyn and I to speak out on issues like these is a great gift and soon Carolyn will take her place in a very public event on this very issue. Whatever our views on marriage equality, let me say this. For the church to actively promote the expression of fidelity and faithfulness in love between two people while at the same time denouncing all expressions of covenant love between two people with a different sexuality raises some critical questions for the church. If we are created with an inbuilt need for love and intimacy in our lives, all of us, then to cheer on the expression of that love for the majority while having nothing to say to the minority but the exhortation to ‘stop it,’ seems to run counter to our resounding affirmation of God’s love for all humanity.
My friend Stuart craved love. Through his actions and choices, he inadvertently pushed away the very thing he longed for. His unmet longing led him to an early death. I can only believe that the steadfast and enduring love of God received him into the love he so desired all his life and that there he rests today. But you and I are still here, craving love just as deeply–to experience it and to express it. That is at it should be. We are made for love. May you know its gift from God and may you never cease to bear its burdens with faith and hope.
As we draw this series of reflections to a close, I want to suggest that we reframe this idea of ‘desires that drive us’ to ‘longings that inspire us.’ We know that every human drive has as much potential for darkness as for light, but as people of faith we believe in the transforming power of God’s Spirit. Rather than being held captive to the drives of selfishness and personal gain, we aspire to the resurrection life of God. In Christ these drives are reshaped into God-given longings: the longing for something bigger than ourselves to believe in and live for; the longing for experiences of home, community and belonging that include all people; the longing to know our worth in God and not in the fickleness of our own achievements; the longing for more of all that is good, just and life-giving in the world; and the longing for love that gives and receives in equal measure.
May God lift our vision and entice us forward into the fulness of life.