In one of his many great lines, our Presiding Bishop says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
That’s definitely true for the Gospel reading we just heard. Here’s the first line again. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
That’s a beautiful line. It is good news to know that we abide in Christ’s love.
But there are different ways of knowing Gods love. Knowing with our head that God loves us is not the same as truly feeling God’s love in our hearts. How can we get that head knowledge down into our hearts, where it really makes a difference?
The problem is, we can’t control what we feel. I can’t grit my teeth, and tense my muscles, and shake really hard, and, by sheer force of will, make myself feel loved.
In the final analysis, it is up to God, not us. We feel God’s love when God gives us the grace to feel God’s love.
And sometimes, God doesn’t. God still loves us. But sometimes we don’t feel it.
One of the great saints and mystics of our tradition, Saint John of the Cross, talks a lot about those times when we can’t feel God’s presence, much less God’s love. John speculates that God lets us go through these dry spells so that we will hunger more intensely for God and so that we will be grateful when God does give us the gift of feeling the love, of feeling deep down inside that we truly do abide in Christ’s love.
John of the Cross is probably right. But that doesn’t make dry spells easier to bear. So what should we do, if and when we are in a dry spell, if and when it doesn’t feel much like we are abiding in Christ’s love?
Jesus offers us some guidance. Jesus says we abide in his love when we keep his commandments. And his commandments ultimately boil down to one simple rule. “Love one another.”
The way to feel loved is to love others. The way to feel God’s love is to love God’s children.
We can turn that around, too. Sometimes we don’t feel God’s love because we have put up a block. We don’t feel God’s love because we aren’t loving someone else the way we are called to do.
When we don’t love others, when we don’t love people whom God loves, we become less sensitive to the love that is all around us all the time. We blind ourselves to God’s love, God’s love for them and, by extension, God’s love for us.
I think about the last year, about the isolation so many of us have experienced during the pandemic. We could only be with the small number of people in our “pods.”
It’s hard to be Church when we are living in our separate pods. And sometimes, when we can’t be together, when we can’t show our love for each other, we feel feel disconnected from God’s love, too. We may not feel much like we are abiding in Christ’s love, or anyone else’s love for that matter.
A possible remedy is to reach out, to give someone a call or send a card, to pray for others by name, to do whatever we can to live our love for each other, to get deeper into the currents of love that swirl around us all the time, to connect with God’s children and so with God.
But reaching out, loving others, is not always enough.
On this Mother’s Day, I think about the most intense period of mother love I have witnessed up close and personal.
In the summer of 1999, Carrie and I were blessed by the birth of our second son, Nicholas. He was a happy and healthy child. But like every newborn, Nicholas needed a lot of love and care. At the time, our older son Benjamin was not quite three. He needed a pretty good bit of love and care too.
Then, when Nicholas was five weeks old, Carrie’s mother had an incapacitating stroke. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Carrie’s mother also needed a lot of love and care. Carrie’s parents were divorced, and she was the only child, so the needs of Carrie’s mother fell heavily on Carrie.
We were lucky in a lot of ways. Carrie was a student, and I had a flexible job. We had enough money to get by. We had the support of family and friends.
But the load of care-giving was crushing. It was crushing enough for me. It was considerably more crushing for Carrie. She spent hours each day loving and caring for our children. More hours each day loving and caring for her mother.
Carrie was pouring out love. But not enough love was pouring in. Carrie was getting drained dry. A lot of that is my responsibility. And I say again, we were blessed in some really powerful ways during those years. But it was a hard time.
What we needed, what Carrie especially needed, was a stronger feeling of God’s love, of God’s strength to help carry that burden of love and care.
And sometimes it seemed like God wasn’t giving us the love and care we needed.
That’s not right, of course. God did give both of us the strength we needed. God carried us through our hard time. We were, in fact, abiding in Christ’s love the whole time.
And looking back, I can see that grace was at work. Carrie and I are stronger for that challenging time. We are stronger individually, and we are stronger as a couple. John of the Cross is right that dry spells can be good for us, even if they are hard.
But I think again about what we can do to open ourselves up to God’s love when we are not feeling it, when we are doing our best to love others. I think about what we can do while we wait for God’s grace to enable us to feel God’s love once again.
I asked Carrie what kept her going through that time. She talked about the need for self-care, to do her best to get sleep and exercise, to eat right, to carve out bits of downtime.
But the most important thing Carrie said was to stick with our spiritual practices.
We were eating supper, so that was about as far as Carrie wanted to take it right then. But I can fill in the picture. We need to keep praying even if we don’t much feel like it. We need to spend time with Scripture. We need to draw on the wisdom and strength of the people around us.
I got a dose of all that at contemplative prayer last week. We read the first few sentences of our Gospel reading three times, with short periods of silence and sharing between readings. It was a powerful experience, sitting there with sisters in Christ, letting words about Christ’s love wash over us, and praying together. The Holy Spirit was swirling around us, grace was at work, and God’s love sank a little deeper into my heart.
And so, on this sixth Sunday of Easter, I give thanks to God for the love we know in Christ. I thank God for the invitation and the grace to feel God’s love deep inside. I give thanks to God for spiritual practices and companions that open us up to God’s love. And I pray that God will continue to open us up ever more into God’s love. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan