How deep is your love? The 1977 song by the Bee Gees came to mind as I was preparing this article. I am thinking of this song not as a romance between lovers but as a way to reflect on how deep my love is toward my neighbors and my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Before I became a full-time minister, I was a professional musician. Being a good musician requires not only technical skill but also the ability to project emotion. My job as a musician is to absorb a song’s emotional energy and make it my own, so that the audience can feel it too.
I mention this because I want to differentiate between real love and sentimentality. As a musician, I can be sentimental. I can transfer a sentiment or emotion to the audience. But that does not make me a loving person. Love is more than a feeling or a sensation. Love is more than transferring emotions.
When we dream about an inclusive society where all cultures are respected and celebrated, that seems like a good feeling, right? But if the feeling is the ultimate goal and not an actual transformation, we are not going anywhere.
In the United States there are many celebrations of cultural diversity. This year we’ve added Juneteenth. Celebration is wonderful, but without action and willingness to be transformed together, our expressions of love are mere sentimentality.
When I received a call to minister in the United States, I was excited about the diversity I would experience here. But during my first year of ministry I discovered I was living in a cultural bubble without real knowledge or experience of the cultures around me.
I was a naïve Indonesian living in Queens, New York, perhaps the most diverse neighborhood in the world. But I barely knew even a word in Spanish. I had no deep relationships with people from different cultural backgrounds. I lived with a sentimental idea of diversity but without actual transformation.
For me, true love is about stepping out of my comfort zone and being willing to do the work to get to know people. That is why, when I got a chance to do intercultural work in a diverse environment, I took it. I’m grateful that I left my sentimentality behind and started doing the real work of love.
Drew Hart, in his recent book, Who Will Be a Witness?, says that agape — the highest form of love, which comes from God — is not about sentimentality. He says, “The meaning of love has been domesticated and manipulated and is frequently weaponized.” I agree: We need to redefine love once again. God’s love is constructive, not condemning and abusive. God’s love is restorative, not punitive.
Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus was not a rock star performing sentimental love songs. He came down from heaven and became human — surely the most uncomfortable step ever taken. He was rejected, misunderstood, betrayed, humiliated, tortured and killed. Only real love could have caused him to endure all of that.
Jesus joins us in our suffering. He was willing to take the biggest step imaginable in order to show us how to live together as a beloved community.
How deep is jesus’ love? Infinitely deep.
How deep is our love? I think we need to ask these questions:
What does love look like for us, in our cultural moment today, in a time of division, suspicion and tension?
Do we love people with different cultural backgrounds?
What actions will show real love to our neighbors?
Do we stop loving when the going gets tough?
I remember how uncomfortable I was the first time someone left their shoes on in my apartment. (In Indonesia we leave our shoes at the door.) But it doesn’t bother me anymore. This might seem like a small thing. But love in action starts with small things.
Maybe, at first, our small acts of love will make us uncomfortable. But if we keep doing them, I believe we can grow deeper in our love for God and others.