Both English and the vernaculars of my earthly home (Africa’s Great Lakes) don’t adequately communicate the depth of possibilities and meaning for what in English we call “Love.” Maybe, even our linguistic shortcoming is actually an indictment of the failings of our humanity. We many times say “I love ____” when our real meaning is “I want ___,” “I need ____,” and “I desire _____.” This is the toddler view of love. In the toddler view love is a means of acquisition for selfish gain.
A few years ago, my older children were quarreling over “fault.” According to each one’s perspective the problem of the day was not “their fault,” but “the fault of the competing sibling.” My youngest at the time was a toddler beginning his language acquisition. When he heard an argument over possession he ran to the middle of the argument pushed his siblings aside, and proclaimed, “No. It is my fault.” His toddler view of love required him to acquire all he could. Siblings get out of the way.
We giggle at toddler view of love as acquisition. Yet, maturity only brings sophistication in love as acquisition.
I’ve spent most of my adult life pastoring. Much of that has been in places of the world with less financial resources than the United States. I’ve seen many moments of both heart break and triumph. All stir our emotions. When our emotions stir we use the language of love to convey what is happening. In these moments we often settle for incomplete love. Our incomplete love sees humans as tools for acquisition. Humanity becomes photo opportunities, blogs, marketing material, and laborers in an acquisition race for more resources and influence.
Sovereign God created language. Humanity is always recreating. At certain moments in time we get it right. During the season that Jesus walked the earth one word to describe love was the Greek word “phileo,” the love of brothers and friends.
|Ballet Rwanda December 2011|
We can’t survive without the love of siblings and friends. Little girls on the playground become friends and share their feelings. Little boys quickly find playmates for the games and competitions of life. As time goes on we thrive in a community of camaraderie no matter our age. We know it is the glue of life. It creates a community that plays and laughs together. Our experiences are shared. Even the painful experiences become internal jokes in phileo. High success teams are high phileo teams.
Yet phileo is an incomplete love. It is a love of inclusion based upon common joy in pursuit. What happens when our community must include another who does not share the common past? What happens when jokes aren’t funny? What happens when another’s fashion is awkward? Even what happens when someone on the team smells bad? If our love is only phileo it is incomplete. This is particularly true for those of us called to shepherd. Maybe it is even more so for those of us shepherding far from our shared joy in pursuit?
|CCR's Covenant Handover of Gabriel Mugisha Jacobs|
Before Jesus began walking the earth his Hebrew predecessors used the word, “hessed” to describe love. English has no single word to describe this love. Many translate it as “steadfast loving kindness.” When our colleague doesn’t share our past, tells bad jokes, wears awkward fashion, and smells bad; we must make a choice. We choose to practice hessed. We remember we live in covenant. We’ve made a commitment to this relationship and this endeavor. The commitment is one we cannot leave. In fact, the Old Testament uses hessed to describe this hessed love of God in its fullness. God keeps His covenants even when we humans abandon ours. He is always there for us. Also, His care is the gentle nurture of kindness. Hessed makes our love more complete. Typically, we see it in matters like enduring marriages and business partnerships. Local churches thrive when they have a consistent pastoral presence. Hessed is seen when you watch couples at 50 year anniversaries giggling and flirting with one another. It also is seen when business partners retire as friends. Pastors who practice hessed answer late night phone calls. They come to be with their people when the easiest thing to do is to hide behind professionalism. Hessed is one of the reasons I am such an advocate for marriage when a society is recovering from internal turmoil. Hessed brings unity. It broadens and strengthens extended families. Over generations hessed builds national unity. Yet, hessed is an incomplete love.
Hessed is about kindness in covenant. What happens when covenants are not formed? What happens when our covenant community has conflict with another covenant community? Feuds and civil wars come with such fury because our internal hessed desire has gone astray. In fact, humanity’s greatest tragedies of depravity were ones when covenant became exclusive. What united was the destruction of another community. Hessed can be an incomplete love.
One of the pitfalls of hessed is that we do not “feel” with all other humanity. In conflict we tend to dehumanize our opponents. We strip them of humanity and portray them as demons. Conversely, we tend to make our leaders such human demi-gods that we forget God is the hero of humanity’s stories.
I am an American evangelical who has lived most of my adult life in Africa’s Great Lakes. My hessed community is a very broad and at times a contradictory one.
|Kampala Kids League Simba Team|
One of my favorite memories from our Uganda season was volunteering with Kampala Kid’s League (KKL.) It once pushed my hessed to the very edge of my humanity. I was once assigned to coach the Libyan ambassador’s daughter. My American evangelical clan would have wanted for me to consider this child an enemy. During our first practice she called me, “Sir.” She was a good athlete. She was a born leader. She cheered for all the other kids on our team. She won me over rapidly. For her, race, nationality, and religion were irrelevant to both our humanity and our shared team goals. I found myself deeply regretting the hatred my American evangelical clan had taught me towards Libya. I never met her dad. The bodyguards quickly ushered her away from practices and games. Yet, she was one of those young people that as time matured I hoped would no longer call me, “Coach and Sir,” but “friend.”
The Arab Spring struck a small terror in my heart. I had not seen this delightful young woman in years. I guessed her family could be in danger. I searched for her on Facebook. I asked old coaches if they knew how she was doing. I even asked friends in media and government who may have known the family’s whereabouts. The ones who may have known giggled. Only a pastor could ask these questions and be taken serious. If they knew the answer they had to be quiet.
I know many in our Great Lakes of Africa region have Libyan friends. I chose to pray for this girl publicly at Christ’s Church in Rwanda. I watched heads nod among my African brothers and sisters when I said, “I have Libyan friends. I don’t know if they are safe. I don’t care that much about the politics, but I do care about my friends. Can you pray with me?” CCR is a multi-national church. An American Embassy employee told me he felt the same way. Yet, another couple of Americans were offended and left.
As my concern increased, and I could find no news through relationship networks I turned to Google. I created a bunch of different searches. I found my old friend. She was safe. She had signed a petition about the environment at a university function. My guess is her family had decided to keep her almost untraceable, and I stumbled upon her last voice. It was classic for her. She was rallying others to a cause that was good. In the Google search I also came across a list of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi mistresses. One suspected mistress was the grandmother of my friend. The internet is a strange source of news and information. It thrives on rumors. Sometimes it whispers what we all intuitively know is true, but cannot say or document. Sometimes it just spreads untruthful mythology. Was my friend, Gaddafi’s granddaughter? I do not know, but the story has elements of consistency with what I know of her body guards, connections, and inherited athleticism and charisma.
When much of the world cheered at Gaddafi’s death I grieved. I remembered a little girl who called me, “Sir,” and brought out the best in our team. Phileo and hessed had taken me to a new place of love called compassion. The thought of a little girl as a young woman crying over the loss of her grandfather caused me to cry in pain.
|After weeping with Mary and Martha Jesus brought Lazarus to life|
The Greek language of Jesus’ day used the word splaxna to describe this love of compassion. Splaxna is the word from which English creates spleen. Jesus’ compassion was the love that causes us to literally have “shaky guts” for others. It is humanity in our created glory. When one in our community is in trouble we feel their pain. Our bodies and spirits feel inconsolable pain with another. The shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept (John 11:35.)” We memorize it as children. As adults we remember it when we cry for joy at weddings and weep with grief at funerals. Compassion is the point where our human dignity in the flesh meets the divine. We feel the emotions that God himself feels. These emotions are passionate. They strengthen all the parts of our incomplete loves of phileo and hessed. Compassion makes us both better friends and better covenant keepers. Compassion reminds the old married couple of who was holding their hand when they woke up from surgery. Compassion causes middle class families to adopt orphans and give them full legal and relationship rights. Compassion causes us to sacrifice for another with joy. Compassion requires for us to move beyond feelings to action.
Yet, compassion is an incomplete love. Compassion requires for us to be present. It is neither a distant love nor a fantasy world. The Aid industry thrives on incomplete compassion. In fact, during December as year-end gifts are sought pseudo compassion becomes a thriving marketing tool. The west is bombarded by images of poor children in developing nations. A missionary friend of mine called this marketing tool, “vicarious grief.” The emotion is truly felt. Yet presence is not given. Vicarious grief makes it easy to “like” on Facebook and re-tweet on Twitter. Vicarious grief makes it easy to stop for a moment in channel surfing. Vicarious grief allows one to feel they are a participant when they are not. It actually leads to a dulling of humanity. It strips the suffering of their dignity. It creates an emotion, but it is not an authentic emotion of presence. Vicarious grief becomes an addictive cycle of seeking a more shocking photo or story to stir emotions and raise resources. It is no wonder why so many thought leaders outside of the United States emotions quickly turn to anger at marketing that promotes vicarious grief.
Phileo, hessed, and splaxna are love. They are real. They are part of being human. They bring us to a place of behaving like God. Yet, each in a certain way is a love with a reward. Phileo creates friendship. Hessed creates trust. Splaxna creates passion. Life requires all.
Yet, these loves are completed in another word in which both English and Great Lakes’ vernaculars cannot express in a single word. The Greeks called this word agape. This is the love of relinquishment. It is the love of sacrifice. It is the love where there is no personal return. It is the love that endures over time. It is supremely seen in Jesus, the Son of God giving up all the glories of heaven to dwell with men. He laughed with us. He made water to wine to keep the party going. He called us friends. He covenanted and promised to always dwell with us. When he saw our pain he wept. He used his full authority to remove our pain. Yet, his authority could not remove the eternal pain of suffering our sin created. Thus in the love of agape sacrifice he laid down his life. His surrender was brutal. His agape bought our freedom.
Today, agape completes our incomplete love. We rarely truly see agape, because it is the love of relinquishment. It brings little glory. It returns little in the immediate. Yet, it is the love that endures. Maybe, we see agape best when one after a long struggle relinquishes all the rewards of the struggle? Maybe, we see it best when a leader steps aside in his prime of leadership so that another generation can lead? Maybe, we see it best when a leader chooses to make his institution stronger than his charisma?
Agape completes our hopes of human love. It takes us beyond the love of toddlers for acquisition. Our words can barely express this sacrificial love of relinquishment. May we instead live it.