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.

Scenes from the Wedding

There are certain scenes from life that stay with us and shape us. This weekend was full of those scenes. Here are just a few.

Scene #1:

Setting: cramped hotel room in the Hampton Inn

What Happened: Miles introduced all seven groomsmen and four ushers and talked about why they were here and how they helped him get here. Alex had shown him what passion for the Lord looked like. Wade taught him more about the gospel and marriage than anyone else. Aaron taught him what being a follower of Christ meant. On and on, down the line, we walked away from that night knowing that the things we love about Miles were taught to him by other people. Then we all gathered around him on a lumpy mattress and prayed for him.

Takeaway #1: Find your groomsmen before you find your bride. Otherwise she’s going to be disappointed in the man she married. Friends are an avenue that God uses to make us into who He wants us to be.

Takeaway #2: Pray with your friends.

Miles got into some trouble at the Bachelor's party

Miles got into some trouble at the Bachelor’s party.

Scene #2:

Setting: Community center turned reception hall with walls that echo. Some kid with hipster glasses next to the groom stands up and grabs the microphone.

What Happened: I gave the best man toast. The speech started harmlessly enough with a couple of jokes and ended with me in tears as I described why Miles is my hero.

Bro, you are strong, smart, and wise but that isn’t what makes you a hero. You’re my hero because you are humble. You lay down your life for the people around you just like Christ laid down His life for you. You held the door open for your classmates every morning for all four years of high school. You served behind the scenes in so many ways at Wheaton, and wherever you’ve been, Ecuador, or Bolivia or some other country I’m forgetting, you’ve touched so many lives because you love and you serve the people around you. Everybody in this room has felt it and seen it, none more than your lovely bride.

I broke down somewhere in the middle and I wasn’t even embarrassed. It was a privilege to cry in front of 270 people because I love my brother so much and I see so much of Jesus in him.

Takeaway #1: Be vulnerable. Everything about our world tells us that it isn’t safe to be real with people and invite them into your life, especially people who you barely know. But Jesus frees us from that.

Takeaway #2: My brother is an incredible person because of his humility. I want to love and serve the way that he loves and serves.

Reception selfie with the bride and groom

Reception selfie with the bride and groom

Scene #3:

Setting: A crowded church in Portage, Indiana. Two people in the front look significantly better than everyone else and read from notecards.

What Happened: My brother read his vows to love Emily for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health, until Christ called them home as she wiped a tear from his face. He vowed to love her as Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for the Church, to lay his life down for her and to serve and cherish and sacrifice for her. He put down the card and Emily read her similar vows.

Takeaway #1: “Vows give love a chance and create stability so the feelings of love, always very fitful and fragile, can grow strong and deep over time.” -Tim Kellar

Takeaway #2:  Christ frees us to say those words and mean them. Human love quits when the other person gets sick or the bank calls for the house. Vowing to love like that is ridiculous without the redeeming and transforming love of Christ.

Mr. and Mrs. Greenwald leave the church.

Mr. and Mrs. Greenwald leave the church.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about how the wedding went. I tell them all the same thing. It was an incredible celebration of Christ’s love.