Last week I received a phone call that stalled my heart and revived it at the same time.
I was eating dinner with my two sons. We were laughing hysterically as the boys blasted one perfectly timed bad table manner after another from various openings in their little bodies. When mama eats dinner with us, these bursts of humor are always and rightfully considered ill-timed, so I'm sure our prison break mentality only fueled the raucous. I confess, I'm a sucker for the boys' laughter. Those laughs that hijack every second into time until I've long forgotten where they started. They suck every ounce of love I have for those boys inside out until I end up blurting out, "do you guys know how much I love you?"
The boys always give me my moment. They pause and acknowledge that they do know, then get right back to another ill-timed piece of comedy.
We'd barely exited this scene this particular evening when my phone rang. The screen lit up with the name of a buddy I hadn't talked to in some time. We'd spent a year or so working together several years ago, but hadn't kept in touch. We always had fun together, so I was excited to see his name. So much so that I skipped the normal greetings and answered the call with a boisterous "hey, where have you been hiding buddy?"
There are cues in life: cues it's about to rain, cues one could afford to lose a few pounds, and cues that a friend's life has been tragically upended. My buddy's unexpected muffled and tearful response to my greeting made it sadly clear - I was receiving one of those latter clues.
Through sobs and intermittent cries that life was suddenly unbearable, my friend told me his 8 year old son died that day. He'd been battling strep throat like so many other kids do, but then unexpectedly died from it, a tragically rare ending to a kid strep throat story. In one sentence my friend went from telling me about racing home from work to find his only son's body cold and lifeless on a couch to proudly describing that same son's first home run during the last game and last at-bat of the recent baseball season. I felt his struggle to describe his son's life in a tense that horrifies this dad to imagine: past tense.
Then my friend answered a question I never thought to ask myself, really, until several hours after that call. In his moment of despair, a despair I couldn't possibly be expected to have comfort or answers for, why on earth did this friend I'd spoken to only a few times the last several years call me?
My friend unknowingly answered that question when, after painfully releasing what had happened to his son, he said, "I'm calling you because I know how much you love God and how much you love your boys."
Several hours later, the magnitude of that hit me. Personally, those words were encouraging. If I can write the words that go on my tombstone, I will write them to say "he loved God, he loved his family." In that order. Nothing more. But the more I reflected on his words, the more I realized my love for my God and family isn't just personal. In fact, considering what loving God does for me personally may be the worst place to start when considering the value of my love for God. It may actually reduce my desire to seek to love God stronger and more openly each and every day.
In the bible, when Jesus was pressed to offer the greatest of the commandments, without hesitation he commanded us to love God.
Jesus replied: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.
(Matthew 22: 37-38)
Over the years, I've considered the possibility that to many non-Christians, and likely many Christians as well - to include this one - this command can be off-putting. What kind of father would order his kids to love him? Thankfully, I've loved God long enough to realize all he's done throughout my life to demonstrate his love for me and loving him back is a natural response. Much like I hope our boys have a natural response of love for their dad. But I get that's not the case for everyone.
But maybe this command to love God isn't all about God's needs or desires at all. Maybe God, in his divine wisdom, knows that our loving him is the foundation for him to show how much he loves the people around us.
In the immediate aftermath of my friend's life turning horrifically upside down, he was a drowning man frantically reaching in all directions for a life preserver. And there's a gulf of sadness in the difference between drowning in a swimming pool and drowning in the sadness of losing a son. The life preserver he reached for, the only one he could imagine keeping him afloat, was God. Not God the theory or God the superstition, but the God who physically loves someone out of the darkest days of their lives.
God doesn't need us to love him for him. God needs us to love him because when his people are hurting and suffering, he needs them to know exactly where to turn. When we have medical emergencies, we know to dial 911. When people know we love God, we allow ourselves to be the 911 that instantly connects them to God's comfort and grace.
As a Christian, it's easy to get caught up in the challenge of defining and defending God and lose sight of the importance of simply loving God. I'm not sure what value there is in the people around us knowing what God looks like if they don't know what it looks like to love him. I continue to pray God's love will comfort my friend and his family. I pray their little boy is homering at every at bat on heaven's field of dreams. And I pray that God will continue to help me understand that he doesn't need me to love him, but the people around me just might.