One would think that this beautiful, biblical love would trump all other human desires. Why would anyone desire to pursue anything else? Maybe biblical love is just misunderstood. Maybe people need to be more informed. Or maybe biblical love is understood all too well. I John 4 tells us that true love originates with God. God is love, and he first loved us. However, John doesn't leave love there. He tells us that anyone who truly receives God's love will be so transformed by it that they themselves will inevitably love others in a similar fashion. The only way we are true partakers of God's love is if we love in the same manner as him. I'm not speaking contingently here. God doesn't love us because we love others. He loves us before we love - while we are still enemies and sinners. Instead I'm speaking of a result. If we truly accept the love of God, it means that we must and we will love others in the same fashion. How could we receive God's love and not be transformed? If we don't love others as God has loved us, then we don't truly understand and desire the transformative love of God. We desire to maintain control and pursue our own selfish ends more than accept a love which would cause us to lay down those things. We desire to maintain our kingly status over our own lives. While the desire to be loved in a biblical sense is ubiquitous, the cost of loving others in like manner is too much for most of us to accept.
This truth leaves us in a strange paradox. The King of the universe became a nomadic nobody and laid down his life for his enemies. But we - finite, frail, and impoverished humans - seek to be kings of our tiny, temporal microcosm.
God has been showing us this king/vagabond dichotomy a lot over the past few months, mostly by sending us those who are obviously "vagabonds." God first sent us a vagabond named *Alexa. Alexa, a member of the Roma community, had come to our door begging for food a number of times. Sometimes we gave her food, other times we turned her away. Eventually, God convicted us of our coldheartedness and we invited Alexa in for coffee. She has been coming back several times each week since then, sometimes to do work we provide for her, sometimes to have coffee and chat about her problems, and sometimes to ask us for money or food. Just a few weeks ago, while Alexa was waiting for us to arrive home, one of our neighbors saw her waiting outside our house. After she left, our otherwise passive and congenial neighbor went into a tirade about having gypsies come to our house. Our neighbor was above Alexa. He was a king and she was below him. Were it up to our neighbor, Alexa would be cast away so as not to bring shame or a burden on the community.
Besides interacting with Alexa, God has also sent us a neighbor couple who fits the vagabond profile. During the winter months this couple began coming to our house and asking to fill up with our water because their tap froze over, or they couldn't pay for it, or something like that. All winter the doorbell would ring several times a week, often at the most inopportune times, with one of our neighbors asking to fill up water. It wasn't all that long until they began asking to borrow money, asking for food, having us drive them to work, etc. One day, a different neighbor saw this couple come into our house. After they left, this neighbor came up to me and was absolutely livid - not with me, but with the vagabond neighbors who were taking advantage of us. She told me that our needy neighbors were just coming to us because we're foreigners and they feel they can manipulate us. She said these neighbors just used the money they didn't have to spend on water for alcohol and cigarettes (which I can vouch for, since the man was usually drunk when he would come to our place). This wonderful neighbor, who frequently gives us fresh cow's milk for our kids, was only looking out for us. She was ashamed that her countrymen and her neighbors would do what they were doing to us, and told me a number of other evil things they had done in their history living in this small community. She told us to stay away from our evil neighbors and not even to let them in our house.
I remember telling Catalina about our neighbor's warning. Foolishly, I told Catalina that I wasn't sure what to do. I knew our concerned neighbor was right about the people she condemned, but I wanted to love our needy neighbors too. At the same time, I didn't know what to do because I didn't want to go against our one neighbor's admonition and ostracize the majority of the community by associating with the outcasts. Wouldn't it be rude to dismiss what our nice neighbor said? When I told Catalina that I didn't know how to proceed, she looked at me with a little incredulity, and said, "Of course you know what to do. We keep loving." It was a much needed slap in the face for me, a lifelong people pleaser. Did I really think that adhering to my community's expectations - to keep vagabonds at arm's length - was really loving to anyone? Of course it wasn't. Such a thing would keep the unlovely unloved and entrench the regal superiority of the self-righteous and unloving community. To push the vagabonds away would be to hide the gospel from all parties. The only way anyone would see God's love through us was if we actually loved. If we actually put ourselves out of some food, money, and time to help our unlovely neighbors, even after we found out about their past and even if it meant ostracization from the community.
We have other vagabonds who stop by now and then. Sometimes a Roma girl comes by selling blueberries she picked from the mountain. A lot of people won't buy from the Roma, but they see us doing it. We also have another Roma couple we see periodically who we've helped out with food and transportation, while everyone else just looks the other way and ignores them. And of course, God knew our vagabond loving wouldn't be complete without sending us true, Romanian vagabonds. "Vagabond" is actually a Romanian word which means "stray." As you can see from the picture, we have recently acquired two puppies who we found living outside in our bushes. We also kind of have a stray cat who comes to visit us periodically. In a very small way, we feel like we are becoming a place for vagabonds - for strays.
In one of his most famous songs, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," Elton John wrote a line which I think is very profound. I know he and I would disagree on a lot of things, but I think he got this one thing right. He says,
"And can you feel the love tonight? How it's laid to rest
It's enough to make kings and vagabonds believe the very best"
Elton John may not have been talking about biblical love, but I think he recognized the unifying force that true love could be. No matter who you are, a king or a vagabond, love unites us in hope, admiration, faith, and all other good things. In fact, Paul tells us in I Corinthians 13 that it is love which infuses meaning into anything that's meaningful. This true love is for everyone. I think that making one minor change to this song, though, would perhaps make it more fitting in describing true love. Instead of saying that Kings and vagabonds "believe" the very best, I would say that it makes kings and vagabonds "leave" the very best. The love of God in me only becomes hope because he didn't leave my wandering soul empty and searching for all eternity. I have hope because my King left the very best in order to bring me to him. He didn't just love in the ethereal realm and provide me with some feeling or esoteric belief. He actually came to me and loved me. He didn't strip himself of his authority to love me. In fact, he kept all of it. Jesus commanded the demons, the dead, and the waves. But he left all of the comforts, protection, and pleasures his authority deserved and was guaranteed, so he could command my love by first commending his love to me.
As I think about our ministry here in Romania, it's easy to view ourselves as royalty in many ways. We are relatively wealthy, we have a relatively high degree of theological training, we are respected in our immediate community, and we're in a position of power to a certain degree. While it may be true that we have a high level of power in our small community, we must remind ourselves daily that the love of God calls us to leave such blessings and positions to incarnationally embrace the unseen and the despised. It would be terribly sad to have moved our family half way across the world to minister to others without actually ministering. But even worse than this, it would be devastating to stand before God on the day of judgment and have him say to us, "I never knew you," because the love of God did not abide in us. We are tremendously blessed that God brings us face to face with clear choices to love those who are unlovely almost every day. Even with these choices ever before us, we often fail to love. But God is patient with us as he graciously keeps teaching us how to love others by loving us in our weakness and failure. It causes us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as we come face to face with the darkness which still resides within us, while we pray for God to help us to walk in his light and love which transforms us to become like our savior.
My prayer for all of us is that God would illumine our world so we can see the many opportunities he has given us to love, to condescend, and to live an incarnational life. Love is how Christ redeemed the world. Love is how others will know we are his disciples. Love is the only provider of meaning. Without love, our lives and our actions are nothing. However, I know that such a prayer is incomplete, for it is not possible for you or I to muster up such a powerful force as true love. That is why I also pray God would open our eyes to his tremendous, unconditional, persistent love - a love that sought us and follows us through the deepest failures of our lives, and into the darkest recesses of our pasts. True love has redeemed the world. True love will continue to change the world. But it must change us first.