A few weeks ago, people around the world remembered the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – an awful tragedy that resulted in the loss of more than 1,500 lives. Hollywood and a plethora of books, newspaper and magazine articles have told the stories of how passengers and crew acted and reacted as the ship was sinking. One story, in particular, stands out for me.
Isidor and Ida Straus were passengers returning home to New York after being on vacation in Europe. They were as dear to each other as two human beings could possibly be after 41 years of marriage. When the Titanic was sinking, Ida refused at least two opportunities to save herself, choosing instead to die with her husband, a well-known philanthropist who owned New York’s Macy’s department store. As the Titanic went down, Ida resisted the pleas of officers to climb into a lifeboat, insisting instead that her maid take her place. She was finally cajoled into boarding the second-to-last lifeboat only to climb out again as Isidor stepped away. Last seen embracing one another, Ida and Isidor were memorialized in a Bronx cemetery with a monument inscribed from the Song of Solomon, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
Now contrast the story of Isidor and Ida Straus with that of the young man who was very much in love with the pretty girl across town. He was always at her house because he said he loved her. One night he even got on his knees and said, “Your eyes are so tender and loving, your arms so inviting, your charms so wonderful, that there is nothing in the world that would keep me away from your side. I’d climb the highest mountain or swim the widest ocean to be with you.” Then, as he was getting ready to go home, he looked at the sky and said, “I’ll be over to see you again tomorrow night if it doesn’t rain.”
How do I know I am loved? Maybe you have asked that question at some point in your own life.
Several years ago, I was reading one of the airline magazines while traveling home from a conference. It told the story of a jeweler who developed a new design to communicate love to his sweetheart. It was a gold pendent with the words, “I am loved.” When the sweetheart wears the pendent, she is telling the world that she is loved. But how do I know I am loved?
So much of what we call “love” these days is pure selfishness. It was the psychologist Erik Fromm who observed that true love is not that I love you because I need you but that I need you because I love you. True love always focuses on the other, not the self. Still, we all have the need to know that we are loved.
One of the main reasons we ask, “How do I know I am loved?” is because we don’t feel lovable. How can anyone love me because I don’t feel worthy of love? When those negative feelings are present, we sell ourselves short; sell ourselves out for something less than love that may feel good at the moment but has no lasting value. We need to understand that there are two different kinds of love. One is “because of” love and the other is “in spite of” love. Let me illustrate.
To love someone because of the way you feel when you are together, or to love someone because of his strength, or her good looks, or the things she says, or the things he does, is one thing. It is something quite different to love that someone in spite of the fact that he or she has faults. To love because of what they do, or how they look, or how they make you feel, means that you could eventually find someone with more “because of” than they have. But to love “in spite of” involves commitment: “I will love you; I will love you in spite of your failures; I will love you in spite of your faults; I will love you simply because you are you.”
The way we learn to love like that is by being loved: this is the message of the gospel. We love in response to God’s love. Only as we realize that we are loved are we capable of loving anyone else, in spite of the fact that they don’t always please us. God loves you in spite of your faults and imperfections. Accepting God’s love enables you to love someone else in spite of their shortcomings. But persons who feel they are not loved are incapable of “in spite of” love; they can only love “because of.”
It took my daughter Allison, who has Down syndrome, longer than many children to learn how to walk. But when she did start walking, she ran-all over the house! At one point, she ran right into a table lamp that broke and shattered on the floor. Allison was visibly upset, but before she could do anything, my wife Heather put her arms around Allison, gave her a big kiss and assured her that everything was all right. Allison was loved and would always be loved. She was far more important than any lamp, or anything else for that matter. Allison learned a great lesson that day about the meaning of “in spite of” love by someone who truly loved her.
And that’s how you and I learn love-we learn from the people who love us. Which brings us to our real question: How do I know God loves me? If we experience love by being loved, how do we know God loves us?
Well, most obviously, Jesus tells us so. He says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And then Jesus says something quite remarkable. He says, “You are my friends.” Now think of that. I suspect that many of us would have difficulty laying down our lives even for our friends. Yet, we have a God who in Jesus has laid down his life for us – a God who is not only our savior but also our friend. Perhaps that’s why so many Christians love that old hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
Let us soak this in: we know God loves us because Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We celebrate this at every eucharist. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we remember that Christ died for us, and so we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Holy Communion is the great symbolic act of the church in which we celebrate being so loved by a God who actually died for us.
Go back to the little pin from the jeweler that read, “I am loved.” That was a sign to let people know they were loved. God gave us a sign to assure us that God loves us. That sign is the cross. Whenever we see it-whether we wear it, see in our churches, sing about it in our hymns, or just cherish it in our hearts-that wondrous cross is God’s great sign to the world, announcing, “By this we know the love of God.”
On Mother’s Day, sons and daughters around North America gave thanks for their mothers who brought them into the world, raised them to adulthood, sustained them, comforted them, and sacrificed for them, even at the expense of their own well-being.
Peter Feldmeier, who teaches at the University of Toledo in Ohio, recently recounted the following story he heard from a visiting Roman Catholic priest at Mass. “Early in the priest’s first assignment, a man named John introduced himself and invited the priest to a family dinner. When he arrived on the appointed evening, the young priest was struck by two things. First, John’s wife Rachel was disfigured. Her face was quite scarred, as were her hands and arms. She also moved haltingly. The second thing was the extraordinary love and solicitude everyone in that family had for each other, especially John for Rachel.
“The next time he saw John alone the priest asked about Rachel’s appearance. This was John’s story:
‘A few years ago we had a house fire in the middle of the night. The whole place went down. When we woke up, we were in a panic. I grabbed Melissa, our 5-year-old, and Rachel grabbed Liz, who was 3. That’s what I thought at least, but Rachel thought I had them both. Outside, we realized Liz was still in there. Rachel immediately bolted back into the house, which by now was really ablaze. She found Lizzy crouched behind the toilet hiding. She threw off her coat, wrapped Lizzy up and ran out of there – but obviously not before getting terribly burned herself.’
“‘I’m so sorry,’ the priest responded. ‘Thanks, Father,’ John replied. ‘But, you know, the whole ordeal forced Rachel and me to rely on God totally. And we’ve learned to love each other with a depth we never knew we had. When we were married, we were barely Catholic; now our faith dominates our lives. We’ve never been happier or more in love. And every time I look at her I see not only my beautiful wife; I also see my eternal hero, who saved our baby’s life.'”
All of us who are parents, fathers as well as mothers, understand why Rachel had to run into that blazing house to save her daughter. When you love, when you truly love, no sacrifice is too great.
So how do we know God loves us? Just gaze at the cross-God shows the depths of his love by dying for us. God runs into the burning houses of our lives and saves us from our sins, our shortcomings and even from ourselves. There is no sacrifice God wouldn’t make for us. Why, God would even die for us – and in Jesus he did.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster in London, Ont.
Text – John 15:9-17