A LOVE SONG FOR GOD
Song of Songs 2: 8-13
In 1542, a man small of stature but strong in spiritual strength as an adult was born in a Fontiveros, a small village near Avila, Spain. He was Juan de Yepes, the youngest of three brothers, and as he grew, his sharp intellect and his passion for causes became apparent. At age 21 the administrator at a local hospital urged him to be ordained to become a chaplain, but Juan felt more called to the contemplative life. He entered the local Carmelite monastery there. He grew in wisdom and connected with Teresa of Avila. She was working to reform the Carmelite monasteries and Juan joined the cause. The resistance to return to stricter standards was great, but Juan, who history knows as John of the Cross, and Teresa, persevered to their own harm. The Spanish Inquisition took a dim view of such reforms and ordered them to cease and desist. When John refused to stray from their established strict reforms, he was captured by an emissary of the church leaders and imprisoned in the Carmelite priory in Toledo, Spain. That action was done under the authority of the church of the day! His prison was a privy, a toilet the walls of which were six feet wide by ten feet across. It was in that cell, in total darkness except for a very small crack of light high on one wall, that St. John of the Cross encountered God in an extraordinary way and wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” John’s familiarity with the Song of Songs in the Bible perhaps influenced his experience in the dark night, for the dark times when he felt far away from God, or when God was hidden from him, eventually evolved into a kind of “love affair” with, or a deep appreciation for God, surrounded by a sense of love and light. It is this event that came out of what John called his “dark night of the soul.”
But today I want to suggest that sometimes we are poor at telling those we love that we love them! Remember the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof?” Tevye sings to Golda, his wife of twenty-five years: “Do you love me?
It’s a new world… A new world. Love. Golde…”
Do you love me?
Do I what?
Do you love me?
Do I love you?
With our daughters getting married
And this trouble in the town
You’re upset, you’re worn out
Go inside, go lie down!
Maybe it’s indigestion
“Golde I’m asking you a question…”
Do you love me?
You’re a fool
But do you love me?
Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously wrote:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
In 1970 teenagers flocked to see Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw in the tear jerker movie “Love Story,” where their characters, Oliver and Jenny, foolishly taught the movie audiences: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Was that love?
In 1996 people of all ages read the Nicholas Sparks book called, The Notebook or saw the movie, learning about the incredible love Noah had for Allie. And radio stations and I-Pods are often filled with love songs. Love songs have been written since time began, and they are still being written! Songs, poems, films and bestsellers continue to use love as a subject. But sometime these portrayals stay romantic rather than realistic. More often than not, human love is offered with conditions; when that is the arrangement, it is called: “conditional love.” “I’ll love you if you do this, or if you don’t do that.” We do it to our children, to our husbands, to our wives, and to our friends. Many counselors and therapists say that’s not “real” love.
There is another kind that is: it’s “unconditional love,” love that is offered with no conditions: that is harder to find! It is, however, found in the wide-open arms of Jesus on the cross. It is also found on his lips when he taught: “Love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.” That’s pure love. There are still cases in the world where a parent loves like that, or a spouse or friend loves like that. That is grand, but rare.
So how can we, children of God, disciples of Jesus, or those curious about Jesus, offer love to God, or to Jesus? And what form should it take?
Today we learn from a biblical songwriter in a small book called Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon. It is included in our Old Testaments. The 12th century commentator, William of St. Thierry, said that this writer wrote words “wholly without modesty.” This book, though not pornographic, is intensely descriptive of physical love. Perhaps that will draw you to read this book! Or perhaps it will repel you not to! According to one source, the Song of Songs is one of the three most commented-upon books in the Bible. Even though it is nothing like any other Biblical book, the so-called Church Fathers decided it was worthy to keep in. And it has become providentially important. Our daughter, Jenny, a Presbyterian minister, insisted that a passage from this book be used at her wedding. Fine singing groups with whom I have been associated have sung a selection from this book that can melt one’s soul: “Set Me as a Seal Upon Thine Heart.” And one small man, confined to biblical and spiritual readings, found these words contained in the Song of Songs so moving that he memorized them! He was not planning to marry, so it wasn’t to learn a love song for a lover. Instead, his memory banks became a wealth of information in one terrible time in his life. During that time, at first he felt like God had disappeared; he believed that he could no longer hear God, and that he could no longer see evidence of God’s presence as he had before. Of course this was in that dank, torture chamber for eight months with almost no light. Perhaps, almost like the gift of an angel, the words of the Song of Songs flooded his mind. Instead of thinking the beloved was another human being, he decided his beloved was God! God had not deserted him, he decided! God was with him! And he wanted to love and adore God, a natural state of praise for human beings. But in his location and with an invisible God, the setting was not conducive and there he was too constrained to do much physically. So he sang! He sang like Paul once sang in prison according to Acts 16! John sang, and perhaps spoke to God. And in so doing, he used the Song of Songs as a basis for a love poem he wrote! It was so powerful to him, and his time so focused, that he memorized his words. When he finally escaped from prison, he wrote down his words and he commented on them all. It is contained in his classic masterpieces called The Dark Night of the Soul and The Living Flame of Love. Canadian singer and songwriter Loreena McKennitt read the works of John of the Cross and used them as a basis for her own song. A stanza of her work goes like this:
Upon a darkened night, the flame of love was burning in my breast;
And by a lantern bright, I fled my house while all in quiet rest.
Shrouded by the night, and by the secret stair I quickly fled,
The veil concealed my eyes, while all within lay quiet in the dead.
O night, thou was my guide! O night more loving than the rising sun.
O night that joined the lover to the beloved one,
Transforming each of them into the other.
So, the Bible has a love song that many interpreters say is a love song to God. A biblical man, St. John of the Cross, had his spirit and perhaps his life saved by remembering that love song and then composing his own. And others, like Loreena McKennitt, picked up on those words and turned them into an interpretation all their own. No matter who you love, remember to say it and show it genuinely and sincerely. It’s not just a Valentine’s Day thing to do! And when it comes to your Creator, or your Savior, how might you show your love? With words; with actions; with both? Children of all ages can show kindness to others, and tell others about Jesus; they can sing a simple song of adoration like “Jesus I adore you, lay my life before you; how I love you!” Some of you grew up with an old hymn with the first line that goes like this: “My Jesus I love Thee I know Thou art mine—For Thee all the follies of sin I resign; my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.” How ever you do express it, let Jesus know of your love for him! Let him know it if you feel his love too, and let that love overflow to others. Love is one emotion, like an eternal well, that will not run dry; there is plenty to share. When you share your love with others, consider also the ways you can show love and gratitude for your Savior.
Let us pray:
Ah Holy Jesus, we pause to consider how much you loved us; so much that you gave up your life for us! Such love is the ultimate love. Now we hope you will know our hearts, and even see words we write or words we say or sing: we adore you, love you, and thank you. In a world when love notes and thank you notes are mailed less and less often, we are letting you know our feelings now. Until we tell you again, please don’t forget it Lord: we love you! Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 30, 2015