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.

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A Letter to a College Freshman (and anybody else who has ever felt insecure, inadequate, or unimportant)

Dear College Freshmen,

Do yourself a favor. Put down your monthly planner for five minutes. Don’t think about tonight’s social or tomorrow’s exam or your ongoing roommate conflict. Close out of that Buzzfeed article. Step away from the research paper. Surely you’ve noticed by now that #CollegeNoParents is a ridiculously busy time of life. And in the midst of welcome back mixers and test anxiety, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re really getting into.

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You’re three weeks into the most important year of your life. Is that too bold of a claim? I don’t mean to exaggerate. This is the year that you are going to answer the questions that matter. You aren’t going figure out the specifics—what you want to do with your life, where you want to settle down, or whom you’ll marry—but you’ll answer the big questions, the ones that quite literally shape the rest of your life—Who am I? Why am I here? What type of a person am I going to be?

But there are other questions that seem to come before the big ones—the questions we ask ourselves every single day, questions that that run around in our brain before every first date or paper deadline or rush event—Do I belong? Am I good/cool/attractive/funny/spiritual enough?  Am I loved?

Two years ago, I showed up on Baylor’s campus—an insecure 18-year-old with something to prove.  During my freshman year, I couldn’t go to the gym or the dining hall or even Church without feeling the need to be funny, be known, be successful, and be liked. I was constantly trying to prove to others that I mattered and I belonged. And here’s what happened—a lot of times it worked. My efforts to be something I wasn’t paid off. The guys laughed at my jokes, the girl texted back, and the paper came back with an A at the top.

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I lived for the approval of others, for people saying “hey you’re smart” or “hey you’re cool” or even “Hey you really love Jesus.” I looked to people around me and let them determine my value and my worth. But here was the problem. No matter what they said or how much I succeeded in winning their approval,  there was always somebody else to impress and there was always another task to prove myself with. Trying to find my identity in girls or groups or grades left me exhausted, empty, and unfulfilled. Finally I quit. I quit asking people around me if I was good enough or successful enough or even loved enough. I quit asking the people around me and started asking somebody else.

I took those questions to God, and here’s what He said back:

Vince, you live life behind a mask, trying to put forth a plastic image of perfection that people will like.

But you and I both know that image is a lie. Vince, you’re messy and sinful and broken. Worse than that, you spend your days trying to hide that from everyone around you.But here’s what I want you to know.

My Son took care of it. He came to Earth, lived the perfect life you never could, hung on a cross for your sins, and rose again. You don’t have what it takes, not even close. But He did.

And I want you. I want your heart. I want you to find your identity in me. His sacrifice cover your sins. His sacrifice cleaned up your messes. His sacrifice filled in your holes. Now come follow me. Come live in me. Come love like me.

God told me through friends who loved me enough to point me to Jesus when I would try to find my identity in them. He told me this through an incredible church that brought me back to the Gospel each and every week. And He told me through the Bible, His immaculate love letter to His people that have done nothing to deserve his love.

Here’s the point of the letter. If you’ve been skim-reading to this point, tune in for these last couple paragraphs and hear this message loud and clear. What Jesus has done on the cross changes EVERYTHING about those questions (Do I belong? Do I matter? Am I loved?) that are rattling around in your head.

So if you get one thing from this post, get this. You matter. You belong. You are loved. Not because you’re successful or funny or attractive or even kind, but because the God who made you says so. He’s made a way to be His through the sacrifice of His Son. What does that look like? It’s simple: Admit your shortcomings and sins, Believe that Jesus paid your bill on the cross and rose again, and then Choose to follow Him—striving to live and love like your Savior.

But wait a minute, what does this have to do with college? What does Jesus have to do with sorority functions and midterms and late night pillow talk with the roomies? Everything. When you stop looking to others to answers those pesky questions of insecurity that rattle around in your head, when you stop letting other people determine your worth, then these four years of life start to look way different.

Finding your desire to be successful, your sense of belonging, and your need to be loved in Jesus changes everything. Rather than walking around your campus looking for approval, affirmation, and acceptance, you start looking for ways to dish out all the love that’s been shown to you by your Creator.

Your ideas of success, the way you keep score, the way you view the people around you, all of it starts to shift when you’re rooted in the love of Jesus. Everybody you bump into—the people across the hall who play the music too loud, your rival fraternity, your roommate who hits the snooze button six times every morning—becomes an opportunity to show the love and grace that has been shown to you. Jesus transforms #CollegeNoParents from a period of insecurity and self-absorption to an incredible period of your life full of opportunities—opportunities every day to show the love of Jesus to every single person you come in contact with.

Whether you’re a freshmen or a fifth-year senior, here’s my hope for you and me:

Let your roots grow down into Him(Jesus), and let your lives be built on Him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. Colossians 2:7

Let it happen. Cast off the questions and the doubts and the insecurities, and plant your roots deep in the person of Jesus. Fill up your glass with His love, grace, and truth, and watch those things overflow on your campus.

Sincerely,

Vince Greenwald