Love has been my central theme of 2022 thus far. I experienced a stark lack of it at the beginning of the year, and it sent me off on a journey to discover what love actually is.
Where does it come from? What does it feel like? Is there a way it should look? What is the true definition?
Somewhere in my process, I wound up studying Romans 12. And when I say “study,” I mean that it took me 18 days, four commentaries, 24 pages of notes, learning Greek, Hebrew, and an unnamed ancient language, and every English Bible translation available to get through 21 sentences.
I was probably two-thirds of the way through this chapter when I was gob-smacked with a realization - this chapter is about love!
Don’t pretend to love others. Really love them. How? Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection. What does that look like? Taking delight in honoring each other. How? Be ready to help when God’s people are in need. Be inventive in hospitality. Bless those who mistreat you. Be happy with those who are happy and weep with those who weep. Be sensitive to each other’s needs. Do not think you are better than someone else. Don’t act like you know everything. Search for beauty in everyone, even those who hit you. Celebrate mutual commonalities and differences. Why? Because God has transformed you into a new person, and as a Christian, you are called to hold fast to faith against the power of your enemies, your temptations, and your persecutions.
And then I realized something else – love is a VERB.
In case elementary English grammar has escaped your memory😉…a verb is an action-word. It DOES something. It reveals an activity (read), an occurrence (flourish), or a state of being (am). Almost every sentence in the English language requires a verb.
Sure, we feel the emotion of love…and said emotion leads us to a series of actions. We flirt; we mature; we connect; we serve; we appreciate; we forgive.
Love is a verb.
Before we walk much further, I need to give you some context. This is how most of January and part of February looked: I was really sick. I couldn’t move on my own. I was sleeping 20+ hours a day, every day. I couldn’t make food, couldn’t shower, couldn’t run errands or keep the house in order. I could barely go to the bathroom on my own.
My husband is a full-time engineer, immersed in a time-consuming project with a short deadline. He was working 9-hour days. He was also a full-time caregiver – he was making meals, counting carbs, giving insulin, changing sites, monitoring sensors, giving supplements, dressing me, and helping with bathroom trips. He made sure I was sitting up, moving when possible, and always comfortable despite my immense pain. And he was also trying to take care of a house on top of all that.
We did all of this alone.
We had two family members call every day to check-in, to encourage, to remind us to smile a little. And that was it.
We have been heavily involved in our local church and our community for about a year…and no one showed up. TR was essentially working three full-time jobs with no help and no reprieve. Everyone knew. Everyone knew how sick I was.
No one cared. No one called. No one offered help or meals or grocery runs or pharmacy pick-ups.
We learned that the words “I/We love you” mean next to nothing.
Because love is a verb.
As the end of February approached, I realized I was walking back into a community where there was deep relational hurt and familial relationship where I had been profoundly rejected. I had been told I was less valuable because of my character and my disability, and I had no idea what loving these people looked like in that place.
I didn’t know how to walk forward in these spaces.
I had no desire to fight for my inherent dignity and worth any longer. I was weary. I had no ability to sit and educate people on what “image-bearer” means and how that ought to look. I was disheartened. TR was burnt-out. Advocating for better when there is no desire for that seemed pointless.
Frankly, it seemed impossible.
And then I ran into Mark 10.
In this chapter, Jesus and the 12 disciples are traveling to Jerusalem for Passover. The important thing to note here is that Jesus is crucified after Passover. He was walking towards His death, and He knew that.
The disciples were trailing after Jesus, debating who amongst them was the greatest. They were fighting about who would get to sit at His right hand one day. There were varying expressions of pride, angst, offense, and disgust. Two of these men caught up to Jesus and asked Him outright if they could occupy the spots of highest honor.
Jesus rebuked them gently. He informed them that they had no idea what great suffering He was currently experiencing and was about to endure. They assured Him that they did, so He gathered the 12 together and told them that the one who leads will be the servant. The one who garners respect will be the slave of others. The one who serves and sacrifices for others is the one who will be honored.
This has nothing to do with love.
But for some reason, all I could see was the way Jesus loved these men.
As I spent more time with the words, all I could hear was the Holy Spirit saying, “Ava, THIS is how you love your people. Do THIS.” All I could see were the parallels between this part of Jesus’s life and mine.
Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem was long and lonely.
My road to health was (and still is) long and lonely. Jesus walked His path without the understanding and support of His community.
So do I. Jesus had a heart full of anguish and agony.
Same. Jesus was grieving and weary.
And then I saw how Jesus responded.
He continued investing. He continued instructing them, correcting their misperceptions and mistakes. He patiently endured their arrogance while lovingly modeling better. He walked out in front, leading by example. Jesus refused to turn away. He did not ignore the ignorance, and He did not sweep unholy beliefs under the rug.
The Holy Spirit nudged me again. “Ava, THIS is how you love your people. Do THIS.”
I sat, stunned. Lord, I cannot do this. How could You ask this of me?! I’m just a me! I’m tired and I’m weary and I’m hurting. These people have hurt me! My heart cannot take any more wounding. I cannot embrace those who choose hypocrisy. Lord, I do not know how to do this.
I returned to Jesus’s response.
Despite His internal agony, He continued teaching. Despite His fatigue, He led the way. Despite the pain it caused Him, He shared His story. Regardless of the countless times He had taught these people the same lesson, He did it again. He needed His community to rally around Him and strengthen Him, and when they didn’t, Jesus drew strength from His Father, and He sat with that same community.
If Jesus could hurt more than I do and still minister perfectly to those hurting Him, I can be wounded and demonstrate Jesus’s love to the ones who wounded me.
Not because I can, but because He can.
So I walked back into these seemingly impossible relational spheres.
I did it with tears streaming down my face. Lord, I cannot do this. I am not capable of doing this. I do not know how to endure suffering and agony unimaginable to these people while patiently walking them through their mistreatment of me. I cannot educate anymore – this anguish is too great. I am too weary. I do not have the strength to walk in front and lead. Lord, I cannot do this.
I was reminded by a little sentence in a book I was reading at the time that the purpose of all of this is to draw attention to Jesus. It is meant to prod others to remember Jesus. This is why I suffer. This is why my hurt is blessed.
And I realized I was not to remain silent about what we had endured.
I candidly wrote a letter. I texted the leaders of my community group. I met with staff at my church. I shared what January was like and how it felt. I shared that regardless of the intent, this was the impact; here was how these words and these actions landed.
And friends, it was scary as hell.
I honestly expected the worst. I figured my people would be defensive and argue with me. I thought they’d focus only on their intent. They’d assume I would fill in their gaps. We anticipated the burden being placed on us. We anticipated being invalidated and gaslit. I thought they would argue with me over my experience. I expected to be misunderstood on purpose. That ableism and pride would prevent seeking togetherness. I was prepared to fight to be heard. I did not think any of them would care to feel my pain and embrace my grief.
I wish I could tell you that none of those things happened. That I was assuming the worst.
But I can’t.
These things did happen. In varying degrees and some conversations were certainly worse than others. But almost every one of those worst-case-responses occurred at some point as I shared the pain I had withstood.
Here’s the crazy thing.
I am still in relationship with each and every one of these people.
We’ve talked about all the forms of love this month. The ancient greats knew what was up! I think I’m going to add another one, though.
It’s the kind of love that keeps me interacting with people who deeply wound and reject me. It’s the love that allows me to care for them even when they decide my life is less valuable. It’s the love that trumps my weariness, my exhaustion, and my fatigue.
This love holds my identity, my dignity, my worth secure despite other’s attempts to destroy it. This love is grounded in my image-bearing of Imago Dei. It’s a combination of enduring love and imperfectly displayed agape love. It’s a love that has an incorruptible hope in better.
It’s called “risky love.”
It invests in hard relationships. It addresses incomplete realities, correcting errors and fallacies. It endures presumptuous assumptions. This kind of love leads by example, engaging erroneous expectations, and consistently pointing to better.
It instructs. It has the capacity to open eyes. It is vulnerable. It is consistent and persistent. It sees the potential for growth and change instead of focusing on present failings. It is faithful to encourage, and it perseveres in kindness.
And friends, it does all this healthily. Without allowing boundaries to be crossed. Without being walked over. Without approving emotional abuse and manipulation. Without validating ableism. This love does all of this without accepting poor behavior!
Risky love: the willingness to experience emotional hurt and relational pain.
It’s walking into spaces where I am not welcome and being vulnerable anyway. It’s knowing I will be misunderstood and sharing my heart regardless. It’s giving those who say “we love you” yet another opportunity to finally match their actions to those words. It’s knowing my words will be twisted and speaking anyway. It’s expecting my character to be attacked and laying my heart before them.
Risky love runs the chance of being hurt for no other reason than this: I love you, and I value this relationship. Risky love confronts the one reality/one perspective notion because “I love you, and I long for better for you and for us.” Risky love endures rejection and repulsion simply for the sake of an unconditional, all-encompassing, Jesus-reflective love.
This was the kind of love I needed to more deeply embrace in order to walk back into this community. Into this family. Into my church. This is the kind of selfless love and courage I needed more of. Heck, I still need more of it!
It’s a love I am still growing into. Opening my heart, being vulnerable, is not something I am naturally built to do. Being vulnerable with those that choose to either intentionally or unintentionally stomp on my heart is not something I look forward to…I’m not sure any of us do this willingly.
And yet here I am. Doing just that.
It’s new…those initial conversations have just happened. I have a list of people I still need to talk to…people who need a larger view of disability; people who don’t understand suffering quite yet; people who forget that folks like me exist.
There is work to be done in my heart – learning how to love better, learning how to live out what I have learned, sharing more holistically and fully instead of hiding the disabled parts of me away. I am sure I will discover more along the way, too!
And there is work to do in my community – setting boundaries, enforcing said boundaries, educating, correcting, and helping them grasp a more whole view of the disabled community and our place in this world; my place in their lives.
I stumbled across a verse in Deuteronomy, and I turned to a commentary for help understanding it. Lo and behold, it was an example of risky love!
The people had greatly provoked God, yet they longed to know Him. In compassion for their misery, He extended mercy.
That is risky love. God knew these people He was (yet again) embracing would turn their backs on Him. Good grief, this happens in the 5th book of the Bible…there are 34 more Old Testament books mostly full of how these same people had hurt, rejected, ignored, lied to, lied about, and treated God poorly.
Risky love is Biblical.
As we leave the “month of love” behind us, let me encourage you to embrace risky love with me. Where do you need to courageously walk forward? Who do you need to extend risky love towards?
What kind of inner healing do you need to experience in order to engage this form of love?