My back ached and my knees were sore. I had probably been sitting still at my desk for about two hours straight and I simply had to get up. So, with a deep sigh I pushed my office chair out, slowly got to my feet and stretched. My knees, ankles and hips popped and I pulled a muscle in my side as I reached for the hateful florescent lights above my head. I put my glasses back into their familiar divots on my face and strode from the room as I started my walk.
One of the many things which I’ve learned from my industrious, smart and beautiful better half is how to “people watch.” She began teaching me the skill when we first started dating. There were times when we would be out and about and, while I had eyes (googly ones) only for her, after blushing when seeing my gaze she’d go back to surveying the bustle about us. My education in people watching wasn’t anything necessarily purposeful at first. Instead I just followed her gaze and would note what she was observing and then make some observation of my own about it. I always thought I was being clever with my own observations, saying something like, “I think that little kid is about to get it from his mom. She doesn’t look very happy.” But then my soon-to-be bride would respond, “Actually, I think it’s the boy’s dad who may be in trouble. The mom seems upset not so much that the kid did that, but that he learned to do that from somebody.” And she’d be right of course. The mom would then scoop the little boy into her arms, kiss him on the forehead and then stalk off raising destructive little clouds of dust with every purposeful and vengeful stride in the direction of a man we could only assume was her husband.
After years of her employing this amazing magic trick of interpretation, I’ve become a little more adept at it myself. Maybe not with the interpretation part (yet), but certainly with the observational part. Perhaps one day, when we’re old and wrinkled I’ll astound her with an insight at which she has not already arrived, but for now I’m perfectly content with just being aware of the right goings-on in our surroundings in order to understand the references she makes with her uncanny interpretation.
With that distant goal in mind, I try to exercise my observations as I’m walking around. Instead of retreating into my thoughts all of the time when walking or driving by myself, sometimes I try to observe and listen more carefully to those around me. Sure, sometimes a man must simply think. Sometimes it’s important to think about nothing at all. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn a problem over and over in one’s mind until a conclusion is reached. And still other times it’s necessary to go through a list of reminders about conclusions which one has already reached about an important topic. For example, I doubt that one could ever think ‘too much’ about how great and awesome God is; therefore reminding oneself of the perfection of the rising of the sun each day, or the power in the currents of air seems like a good thing to mull over while driving under a blue sky.
So … back to my walking break from work: After stretching, popping my joints and muttering under my breath about how much it stinks to get older, I walked out of my office and began strolling down the huge hallways of my building. Though I’m an office worker, sitting unmoving in front of a computer screen and wasting away to flabbiness because of it, I work in a building with a huge industrial area where people are hard at work; good, honest, physical work. In that area of the building jet engines are broken down, cleaned, repaired, refurbished and then reassembled. There are even entire Boeing 707 jets inside the building undergoing their regular heavy maintenance. It’s a fascinating place and makes for fascinating “people watching.”
I had only walked a hundred yards or so when a couple stepped out of an intersecting hallway and into the path in front of me. Both of them were smiling and I was able to deduce almost immediately that the man was taking the opportunity to proudly show his wife around the building in which he worked. He animatedly pointed things out, with her gaze following his gestures, and I couldn’t help but smile as they deepened their relationship by sharing. He was proud and excited to show her and she was excited to see and, in turn, proud of the work her man did.
Then I came closer to the point that I could see them more clearly and hear their voices. He was a tall, spindly creature; as if one of his parents had been a mantis. He was an easy 6’ 4” but must have only weighed 120 pounds. On top of his head was a tousled mop with wisps of wiry, straw-colored, graying hair, and he wore a pair of coveralls which covered all … except the bottom seven inches of his disintegrating boots. His voice was a thick, country version of … well … country. Yes, even for a country accent it was country. There was nothing refined or especially “attractive” about him.
Unless, that is, you were to compare him to his wife. She was as short and stout as he was tall and sinewy. Suffice it to say, she was a plain woman, with plain tastes. But it was her voice which really describes her. It was nearly as countrified as her husband’s, but with a shrill, discordant, raucous pitch which made me think immediately of Edith Bunker’s screech in the All in the Family theme.
To be honest, the couple was perfect for each other.
All of these impressions I got in a moment’s glance and hearing. I realize that it’s not at all what I should think about regarding other children of God. I realize that I shouldn’t snap at judgments, or make rash valuations from what can be seen on the outside. But, when confronted by such paragons of generalization, the mind tends to move faster than the will of the saint. If the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison, then the rash mind is completely devilish.
Therefore, I did my best to rein my mind in and remind myself of what I had seen from afar: two loving people who were sharing something special. I had to constrain my mind in for two reasons. First, I knew that the judgmental side of my mind was likely to carom out of control if I allowed it. And second, I knew I wanted to tell my wife what I saw later and I needed open-minded observations to do it properly.
I followed close behind them as we walked down the pathway beside massive machines used to refurbish or fabricate precision engine parts. Though it was painful, I listened carefully to their conversation. “That’s whar they grahnd the blaydes dowhn to purt neer nuthin’,” said the old man, gesturing one way, and then turning and gesturing to a large table, “And that’s whar they re-bayend them befohr the fahnuhl buff.” He bent at the waist pointing things out to his short wife and she stood on tip-toes to hear against the sound of a water jet cutter that had just been started. She asked a question which couldn’t be eavesdropped, but the man pointed in another direction as he answered. Their eyes met for a moment and I saw the glint from both as I nonchalantly passed them by and continued my walk.
I stopped my people watching at this point as my mind turned over what I had just seen. If you were to take an auditorium full of people and parade the old couple I had just seen in front of them, pausing them only long enough for them to speak into a microphone briefly before hustling them backstage again, easily 99% of the auditorium would declare them “unattractive” or “uncouth” – with the remaining 1% simply trying to be nice. Objectively speaking the couple simply wouldn’t be the example which would come to mind if someone raised in our culture were asked to think of a loving man and wife. Instead you’d probably have some couple come to mind which looked more like the one you saw on the bothersome jewelry commercial which aired in your doctor’s waiting room last Thursday. Sadly, that’s the way we’re conditioned. Love is for the young. Love is for the good looking. Love is for the refined. Love is for the man who buys a diamond-studded tennis bracelet and for the woman who receives it.
But I had just seen different. While walking by I had seen the glint in both their eyes as they looked at each other. There was a link of love there that was inspiring and that was much more intense than any of the adolescent infatuation which passes for love on television or in the movies.
Now, upon reflection I could probably write a lot about how sad it is that our culture has such a stunted view of love. However, I don’t think that’s completely necessary. All cultures in all times and in all places have had a stunted view of love. In fact, if we were to be completely honest about it, our sinful nature kind of stops us from ever seeing love for what it is. If God is love, and our sin clouds our vision and understanding of Him, then we can’t be surprised by our lack of perspective on love.
Instead we only have fleeting visions of love in its true form as it burns brightly for a moment and demands our attention. It is a lot like the sudden bursting of light as a match is struck in a darkened room. Your eyes simply must flick over to the light. It’s instinctive. That light is comforting in a primal way, as much as in a primal way the dark seems threatening and foreboding. With love, it’s the same. When an especially bright spark of love erupts in the darkness of our world’s evil, we can’t help but marvel at it and bask in its comforting glow. For a moment it transforms our countenance by filling us with hope; a hope that says, “Maybe, just maybe, there IS such a thing as goodness and beauty.”
Regarding this, perhaps the saddest thought of all is that the striking of the match seems to happen so seldom, that it burns so dimly and that it ends so abruptly. To be sure, some men and women, in propitious fortune, find their whole lives illuminated by that struck match. They drink it in their whole lives and benefit from it immensely. Because they know the love of a husband or a wife or a parent or a child, they see that there is something good still at work in this world which has no physical presence at all. After all, is love corporeal in some way? Though all five senses can perceive it, you can’t place any form upon it that is truly objective. To one person it may be their wife, to another it may be their daughter, and to a third it may be their grandfather. And when the death-specter’s scythe inevitably cuts a swath across the lives of even the most fortunate beholder of the flickering light, the plunge into darkness becomes terrifying and core-shaking.
It is almost as if it is worse to have seen the spark of love for a moment and then have it taken away. We would not know what light is except for the striking of that match, living as we are in the enveloping darkness. Nor would we know what love is except for the selfless sharing of life with another, living as we are in this world’s omnipresent evil.
Which is why, I suppose, that the writer of Hebrews’ line about our God being a “consuming fire” resonates so well with me (12:29). If a momentary glow of a struck match is an accurate metaphor for the love we achieve in this world, and if striking it comes at such great cost to us when investing in it and when it finally burns down, it seems glorious to me that God could be an all-consuming, self-striking, self-fueling blaze; a light by which we see all and a love by which we know all!
God, in His all-consuming love-fire, converts our pitiful match-light into a roaring blaze. Without Him the match-light may be beautiful and life-transforming, but it takes all of our power and energy to keep it alive, and when snuffed out by an external force it leaves us broken and consumed ourselves. However, if overcome by the self-sustaining intensity of the fire of God, our power and energy becomes bolstered by the inexhaustible reserves of the Almighty Himself. A struck match inside the blaze of Christ becomes a part of that living and eternal fire. Love kindled with eternal love becomes in itself eternal. Death cannot snuff it out, nor circumstance cause it to fail.
Those who live in this dark world must be careful in their striking of matches; they only have so many available to them and they are, as a consequence, extremely precious. A match struck and then snuffed out is painful and jarring just as investing in a love unrequited, or a love short-lived is destructive. Callouses on the heart and reticence to strike the next precious match inevitably follow. However, if living in “the reckless, raging fury that we call the love of God” (Rich Mullins’ words) we gain a boldness that is not our own. We are able to become reckless ourselves. We are able to be love-arsonists, kindling fires everywhere with the express goal of expanding God’s transformative, reckless, raging fury of love.
I don’t think that we fully realize just how transforming God’s reckless, raging fury of love is, though. If we did, we would certainly become reckless ourselves – loving others the way Christ first loved us. This knowledge should, at our very core, change the way we see everything around us. As I said earlier, God’s blaze is a light by which we see all and know all. Not in some sacrilegious or mystical “third-eye” way (certainly not!); but instead by transforming our perceptions. Instead of stumbling around in the darkness of the world, hands groping in front of us for any sign of the dim light which can be kindled by man, we walk confidently in the illumination of the pure light of Christ. And by that pure light we see things clearly and perfectly.
This isn’t easy. Since we’re sinful and broken, seeing what is around us properly – illuminated by the pure light of Christ – doesn’t happen often, or for very long. But when it does happen, it is glorious and should be something we try to cultivate by continually trying to live like Christ.
For a brief moment, while walking around my building, I saw love in the eyes of that old and odd couple and maybe, just maybe it was not of the type that the world sees. Shining between them was not a flickering match-light of the momentary, dim variety, but instead a raging, furious love, kept alive by something more beautiful and more bright and more eternal than man’s wretched production. I think, for a moment, I saw God in their eyes. God’s radiance shone through them and their momentary, physical appearance didn’t – doesn’t – matter. For a moment, his coveralls and her homespun dress were replaced by lovely garments of light as love transformed them into a lord and lady.
Certainly this is an over-romanticism of who they are and maybe even of the quality of love which they share. I know nothing more about them than that one observation. But I saw for a moment what I believe God wants us to see all of the time: a glorious representation of the value of His creation – limitless and furious in its beauty.
Love is certainly not a feeling. Feelings are fleeting and deceptive. They come and they go based on external circumstance. No, love is not a feeling, it is a willful and purposeful act. It germinates from a decision to transform one’s life in order to accommodate another. It springs forth from a resolution to put another person ahead of oneself. After germinating and springing up, it brings fruit that may or may not nourish the one who planted and fed it. Because love is a decision, it shouldn’t matter to the one who made that decision whether he/she gets anything out of the deal. The decision has been made and the selflessness of it should extend in a reckless way.
Pain may be a result of this reckless, selfless love, and it’s hard to invest eternally as a result. “Love your neighbor as yourself” becomes a command to impoverish oneself physically, emotionally and mentally. “Love one another as [Jesus has] loved you” becomes a command to love others even to the point of death. But we’re called to love recklessly anyway.
Groping about in the cold darkness is no way to live. Nor is it good to pour all of oneself into the weak flicker of a match which will momentarily burn itself out. And though it will consume all of who we are … though it will demand every bit of strength we possess … though it will pound and transform us … the “reckless raging fury” of the love of God will also give us a strength beyond ourselves that will then transform those whom we love and even the very way that we see and interact with the world.
The world saw a strange, country couple. I saw a flicker of love … but only for a moment by the light of God’s consuming fire. I want to see more. I want to be consumed by His love so that I can better love. I want to be a reckless arsonist.