Those Four Letters

Once every seven years, when the Sabbath and February 14th line up, you expect the pastor to take the holiday as a chance to transition into a sermon on marriage or God’s love, but there was no mention of Valentine’s Day in the sermon today. No “Happy Valentine’s Day,” no nod or gesture was given to the only holiday that can get me into a Hallmark® store. The omission felt intentional, not like some sort of a Christian boycott but more like there was no reason to reference a holiday that had more to do with chocolates and lingerie than any substantive meaning of the word love. 

We ask those four letters to do a lot.

We love our dog and we love our friends and we love Panera.  Watch any romantic comedy and you’ll more than likely see a couple fall in love, make love, and then fall out of love briefly before it all ends happily ever after. The same word, over and over again, is used to describe really different things.

The word “love” is littered over every inch of Western culture. Beyoncé is putting the “love on top,” Elle Goulding is begging somebody “love me like you do,” and Bieber is telling his girl that if she likes the way she looks that much, then she should go and love herself. Subaru has the love campaign, Southwest is the airline company that love built, and McDonald’s is lovin’ it.

Yes, we ask those four letters to do a lot. And I’m afraid that when we take these shallow definitions of love and apply them to the deepest of human relationships, the result isn’t pretty. Millions of marriages have been destroyed by the shape-shifting, feeling-driven idea of love that describes some sort of fairy-dust combination of chemistry and attraction.

A few months ago, I got engaged to the love of my life. By the grace of God, Caroline said “yes, of course” to my stammered proposal. I’m a lucky man.

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I gave Caroline a leather bound scrapbook on the day that I proposed. It was full of little mementos from our relationship, 4×6 pictures and old receipts, plane ticket stubs and post-it notes.  Engraved on the leather cover are the words The Book of Love. 

There on that scrapbook was that four-letter word that we ask to do so much. A month before the proposal, I tried to put down on paper the difference between the feelings-driven come-and-go love of this world and what our God has shown love to be through His son Jesus Christ — a selfless commitment to put another before yourself.  Here’s what became the first page of The Book of Love. 

I will read this book of love. I will turn the pages carefully and delicately. I’ll savor the sentences and I’ll smile when I read, sometimes a pained school-photo smile, sometimes a Notebook “if you’re a bird, I’m a bird” smile, sometimes a “things are really, really hard and I don’t get you but I’m not going anywhere” grimace. I’ll learn from reading, be changed by the words, grow in grace through them. I’ll scribble notes in the margins and underline the parts I like and put a star next to the parts I don’t so I know to pay them extra attention.

I’ll read every page with love, the real kind, the kind that doesn’t close its eyes during the scary parts or turn its back during the difficult portions. Yes, I’ll read it with love, the kind that keeps on giving and giving and giving and giving, the kind with no scoreboard or tally that keeps track of payback. I’ll read it with love because that’s mostly what binds these tattered pages, that 4-letter word we waste too often on Torchy’s Tacos and what bunnies do.

Love will keep me reading. Love will keep me awake during the dull parts. Love will keep my heart ready for the certainty of change. Our insides, our outsides, change will happen and I’ll read right on through. Love will keep me stooped low, low so I can serve you, low so I can be forgiven and forgive. 

I’ll press the book close to my chest. I’ll hold it, protect it, cherish it. I’ll be willing to die for who is behind the pages. And I will die for who’s behind the pages. Day after day after day—irrationally, inexplicably, unconditionally, I’ll lay my life down. I won’t do this because you’re perfect or because you’re mine or because of some other lie they write on candy hearts. I’ll do it because He did it for us. 

This book was written by our Maker and entrusted to us. We will read it the way we do because He is the way He is. The binding is love because He is love. The story in the book isn’t new. It’s a story He wrote. He wrote the full version—the cosmic level version—and called it The Gospel. The book we will read is the abridged version called marriage. Both books have big words that start with the letter R—reconciliation, rescue, redemption—scrawled all over these pages. We will be so caught up, so romanced by the big cosmic-level version, that the abridged version reads the same. We will never worship the book or each other, only the author. We’ll never bow down to the pages or think we earned them or wrote them. We will love because he first loved us.

As an engaged man, I am no love expert. I haven’t yet said “I do.” I haven’t held the puke bucket late at night, I haven’t coached in a delivery room, and I haven’t grieved the loss of a parent or sibling or child with my wife. But on this journey with Sweet Caroline, it has been more than clear that love is less like one of those romantic comedies and more like the love story that we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And when our love mirrors His love—committed, selfless, and sacrificial—that’s when those four letters do the most.

Remembering Johnny

My friend Johnny would have been eighteen years old today.

I met Johnny in the Fall of 2012 in a brick house a little south of Robinson, Texas. Robinson is a mid-sized town south of Waco on highway 77. It was my first time to lead the Bible study that Johnny and his friends had been in for years.

Johnny asked big questions that made other people in the group think. Johnny texted a lot. Johnny was the first pick when we played tackle football. Johnny challenged me to a wrestling match before I left. I got his number that first meeting. Over the last few years, I watched him play football and basketball, and we got meals together. I loved Johnny. He walked around with a smile on his face, a swagger in his step, and hurt and pain in his heart that now I wish I would’ve known about.

Another kid in my Bible study, Kyle, called me at 10 AM on Wednesday, May 20th. His voice was shaking when he told me the news. Johnny had taken his own life minutes earlier in the parking lot of the school. I went out to the high school to hold my guys, to weep with them, and to pray with them. No one said much. What could you say? God made tears for moments like that, not words. I came home, grabbed a picture of my K-life guys that sits on my desk, and wept like I’ve never wept before.


I pulled myself off the couch and grabbed my prayer journal.

Lord, I don’t know why Johnny took his life this morning. I’ve got so many questions swirling around my head and I’m feeling guilt, Lord. HE WAS MY K-LIFE GUY. We met up. Just last month, we were planning to get a meal together. And today he took his life.

After a day of grief spent with my K-life guys, that night I went to the prayer vigil and sat next to my Bible study co-leader Jordan. Jordan is a mountain of a man, 6’4″ 220. I’ve never seen him frown, let alone break down like he did that night. We sang some songs and prayed some prayers and it all hurt so deep.

Death cuts deep. It takes our own away from us and knocks the people close to them down on their knees. It causes fear. It causes pain. It takes us out of our daily routine, our 9-to-5, our day-to-day existence that feels so dependable, so within our own control. It leaves so many questions swirling around our heads, questions with answers that would tie any bows around what happened. Why wasn’t I more aware of his pain? Why didn’t I schedule that lunch date? How’d he get to that point? Could I have done anything?

Asking those questions and looking for those answers doesn’t help. They don’t make anything better or bring anybody back.  Jordan and I sat in the first row of the balcony and lingered after the service, weeping like 21-year-old males aren’t supposed to do. Those questions were pulsing through my mind and I could feel those questions running through his mind. Guilt. Shame. Blame. All of it, pulsing through my mind, pulsing through his mind. I didn’t love Johnny perfectly. I have regrets. I wish I would’ve texted him more. I wish I would’ve told him I loved him more. I wish I would’ve pursued him and told him how precious the Gospel told him he was. But I can’t do any of those things anymore.

Jordan and I sat in those pews and spoke aloud in strained voices a few of those regrets. One of us would go—it would start “Man I wish I would’ve…” and it would end in tears. After a few turns back and forth, I spoke aloud what a friend had told me earlier that day. “Jordan, we can’t take this on us, and we can’t let our guys or our buddy Alex take this on them either. We can’t live under that. We’re too weak and we’re too frail and we’re too broken.”

Our tears kept flowing but our conversation turned a corner. We started telling each other that night that we were going to cling to Jesus tighter and love better because of this. We told each other that we wouldn’t let guys slip through the cracks, that we’d love every one of our Bible study kids like crazy from this point forward, that because of this tragedy we were going to love better and love deeper and love more like Jesus. We walked out to the parking lot, hugged for longer than tough guys are supposed to, and got in our cars to go grieve somewhere else.

Two weeks later, our wounds are still open. They’re more open today because this was supposed to be a day of celebration of eighteen years of life.We’re still hurting deep. There are still questions, and there are still no answers. I don’t think there ever will be answers. There are still regrets. I don’t think mine will ever completely leave.

For me, here’s the only answer to any of this grief. Here’s the only sentence that makes any sense or brings any peace to my soul. My days here on earth are precious and fleeting, and while I’m here I’m going to follow the example of my Savior and King Jesus Christ, loving others deeply and proclaiming boldly that life to the full, eternal life, is found in Him. That’s all I can say, that’s all I can cling to, that’s all I can live for.

Robinson friends and family and anyone else who’s feeling this pain or has ever felt this pain before, we can’t carry any burdens of guilt or shame or blame in this.  Let them go so you can grab onto Jesus Christ, the only Answer that brings peace or healing. We can’t love Johnny back but we can love better in his absence and in his remembrance. 

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