Britt Carlson is the pastor of community life and outreach at Portland Mennonite Church. A native Oregonian, Britt holds a bachelor of arts from Seattle Pacific University and a master of divinity from Duke Divinity School. She has served churches in North Carolina, El Salvador, Texas, Seattle and Portland. When not in the office, you can find her hiking, reading, laughing with family and friends or enjoying (though not necessarily cooking) good food.
According to the poet Christian Wiman, it’s very difficult to use the word “love” in poetry. The word, he says, has “decayed; it’s almost lost its meaning from overuse.”
The word “love” is hard to use not just in poetry but in all human communication. It’s hard to use because we think we know what love means. We point our fingers confidently and declare, “That is love.” I’ve found, however, that the thing we’re pointing at often tends to be stressful, grinding work. For example, love for me this week has meant:
- Persistently following up with social service agencies
- Peeling away that one last section of paper from the packing tape so that it can be recycled
- Putting up money to get a homeless family housed for a night or two.
If love as a verb looks like this, its first definition in the dictionary is responsibility and hard work. In fact, it’s often the case that the more painful or inconvenient it is to do a task, the more we feel proud of ourselves for doing it and the more we feel like we’ve really loved.
There’s a problem with understanding the word “love” like this though: it’s exhausting.
Viewing love as hard work usually tires us out and leaves us feeling resentful.
We live in decayed interpretations of “love,” but Jesus has always liked to step into tired out understandings and bring words that are alive. Consider the fresh words he brings to Martha in Luke 10.
Martha is stressed out and resentful. Love has meant being the first to arrive and the last to leave. It’s meant washing the dishes the others just left there. It’s meant being a Proverbs 31 woman. Martha thought that love looked like unhappy work.
In the middle of that understanding of love, Jesus’ words ring fresh and new: “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing.” That one thing is being with Jesus.
Martha — who thinks she’s loving because she is so busy and stressed out — has actually lost sight of the Lord who himself is love.
Mary, on the other hand, is commended for her love. But her love looks nothing like actions as we usually think about them. Mary’s action is simply sitting. And listening.
Love for her means being with Love himself.
Mary’s contemplation of Jesus is love as a verb. It’s the verb that Jesus commends over Martha’s hard work.
Contemplation isn’t always what first comes to mind when we think of love as a verb. In fact, I’d bet that many of us, if we were asked to make a list of what love in action looks like, wouldn’t have “being with” anywhere near the top. A verb seems to imply action, and contemplation doesn’t seem like very active action. Yet in the surprising way of Jesus, contemplation or “being with” is exactly what God commends as true love.
Recently, a woman named Sarah came through our doors at Portland Mennonite Church. She was raised a secular Jew and spent a few decades as a devout Buddhist. Not a Christian but drawn to something at PMC, Sarah explained to me that she has spent the past years doing what she called “inner work.” She said that while her husband is very action-oriented and works at a local food bank, she hasn’t had the same pull to action like he has. Instead, she said, she been drawn to meditation and reflection. And it’s been deeply healing for her.
I could tell she felt a little guilty about not being more pulled towards “service” or “action” but there was no need. Christians are those who are constantly being surprised by Jesus, and one of those surprises is how Jesus defines love.
If we take Jesus’ words to Martha and Mary seriously, it makes sense that Sarah was drawn to the still, quiet work of meditation.
What’s interesting though is that recently something has changed for Sarah. After years of inner work, suddenly a new pull is emerging within her. “I need to wash the feet of the homeless downtown,” she said. “I need to be there with those people.”
Her desire to be at one with herself is leading her now to be at one with others. The action of meditation is drawing her to the action of foot-washing. An action that isn’t coming because she has to but because she’s now free to.
If we allow ourselves to be with Jesus, we find that we are drawn to actions that are different than the drudgery we expected. Instead of seeing love as stressful and exacting, love becomes the free response of wanting to be connected to one another.
We don’t have to define love by how painful it is. We don’t have to feel guilty about taking time for actions that might not seem very active. We don’t have to live in the exhausted understanding of love as exhausting work.
In Jesus, our worn-out conversations can take new turns. Words that were decaying can become green and fresh once more. And if we’re lucky, “love” might once again surprise us.