Love is strong as death,
Passion fierce as the grave.
(Song of Solomon 8:6)
We gathered at the park on a warm, sunny day—a day that would have been lovely if not for the urn that contained the ashes of my neighbors’ baby. I stood by the urn and looked out at the people seated in folding chairs: the baby’s three agnostic/pagan parents, her staunch Baptist grandparents, friends and family of assorted religious and political leanings. All of them heartbroken.
The pagan priestess who had planned the service with me and agreed to give the sermon had canceled just a couple days before. There I stood, a baby’s ashes beside me, aching eyes staring up at me. There I stood, looking out at all of those people who were waiting for me, the pastor, to say SOMETHING—something that would make the unbearable lightness of those ashes at least a little bit bearable.
That was the first funeral I officiated. The first time I felt that funeral weight of love for heartbroken strangers who were looking to me for comfort. The first time I felt the heaviness of the funeral words crawling out of my mouth. The first time I dealt with the weighty anger because my words were not enough, because death was not fair, and this God I was supposed to serve had a lot of explaining to do.
This heavy love-in-grief has revisited me through the years: when I had to move our Easter sunrise service to the hospital bedside of a beloved church member; when I sat with a young man devastated by his porn addiction; when I talked with parents struggling with a child’s mental illness; when I heard that the diagnosis was ALS and, when the time comes, he doesn’t want a feeding tube.
It’s a pastor’s job to bear the weight. A friend’s job too, I suppose. And a parent’s, and a sibling’s, and a lover’s. I used to think my words should lighten the burden. It’s an easy mistake to make for a girl who fell in love with Emily Dickinson in elementary school and went on to major in creative writing. I believe in the power of language almost as much as I believe in the power of God. And if I could just find the right words, I thought, I could pry the weight off of the crushed hearts around me.
Turns out, though, that the words don’t work. More often than I would like, the words turn to dust in the ears of the grieving. My dusty words may or may not be beautiful—it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the words born in love bear witness that I have been there, with someone, under the weight of their grief. What matters is that, with or without words, love calls me to be present in the pain with my whole self. Which is hard. And heavy.
I think of Job’s friends who sat with that destitute man for seven days and seven nights before they opened their mouths. Most of us can’t handle that much weight.
Love in grief, funeral love, is heavy. But wedding love . . . I know that marriage is an imperfect institution—that many marriages involve dissatisfaction and heartbreak and grief if not outright abuse and trauma—that the history and much of the present reality of marriage is patriarchal and heterosexist. I know. But still, wedding love, for me, is light. It is joyful and sacred and full of promise.
I have been privileged to officiate weddings for many people I love: my gorgeous graduate school officemate who escaped a nightmare marriage and found Mr. Dreamy Triathlete; young men and women from my church, who I baptized and preached to and prayed for; two women who contacted me to see if I would be willing to do their wedding because they wanted to be married by a Christian pastor and they were having a hard time finding one to officiate; two men who had been married already for years, but wanted to finally make it legal and wanted to do it in my town where one of their fathers, who had refused to come to the first wedding, was eager to be part of this one.
Yes, weddings, for me, are light love. But these last two hold the story of a heavier love. Because not everyone in my religious tradition sees the beauty of two women or men in love committing themselves to each other in holy matrimony. Some of my fellow pastors would refuse a request to officiate such a wedding. Some of them tried to get my pastoral credentials revoked because I said yes to such a request.
Still, I am called to love them: the ones who called and wrote to explain to me my faulty theology. The ones who voted for my ordination to be suspended. The ones who testified in front of an entire delegate body about why I am unfit to be a pastor.
As a Christian, I (try to) follow the teachings of Jesus who said, “Love your enemy.” (Other faiths echo this concept as well.) Even if I disagree with someone. Even if I deeply dislike someone. Even if someone is really and truly a supreme jackasses. I am called to love them.
That is heavy love. Heavy and awkward.
Loving people through grief is hard and heavy, but it is, at least, recognizable as love. The weight bears down in a familiar way, and you just bear it because you have to. You let the heaviness settle all over you, press your limbs, your gut, your heart, firmly down like a lead blanket.
But loving the enemies? Loving the jackasses? What does that even look like? How does it feel? It’s uneven and distorted. For me, the weight rests less in my heart and more in my mind. I have to try to figure out what that kind of love looks like.
It doesn’t look like refusing to marry same-sex couples for the sake of “church unity” and some people’s misguided biblical scruples. It doesn’t look like smiling and nodding when an angry pastor tells me that in his entire congregation of two hundred there are no gay people. It doesn’t look like leaving the convention hall so that people will be more comfortable when they talk about why I shouldn’t be a pastor.
But it also doesn’t look like snarky name calling, or refusing to listen, or leaving the table.
Like the funeral words, the words of this heavy enemy love also come slow. But not because they are painful and feel meaningless—because they are weighty with meaning. Because, when it comes to loving enemies, there is a fine line between being honest and being brutal, between being polite and being a coward. When it comes to loving enemies, the words do matter. A lot.
Like, for example, “jackass.” It is a fine word to communicate to you the struggles I feel in loving difficult people. But if I were writing or speaking to an actual jackass, I would need to find a more appropriate, more loving word.
Perhaps the heaviest love of all is love of God. The centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer service is the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” This flows into the v’havta: “Love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart, soul, and mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This teaching is so important to the Jewish people that when Jesus, a devout Jew, was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37).
The scriptures teach that loving God is a deep obligation for people of faith. And that is rather intimidating—to be expected to love the Creator of the universe—the Creator of love itself—in any sort of meaningful, worthwhile way.
How does one even begin, really, to love God?
Maybe that’s why Jesus, after revealing the most important commandment, goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:38). So we circle back around. The weight of loving God comes from the obligations such love carries to also love other people and to love ourselves.
The love of God is, for me, the Love that compels the other loves of my life. The Love that nudges me to continue to pray for and speak (mostly) kindly of the woman who sent a nasty email about me to everyone in the church. The Love that sets me down right in the middles of heartbreaking grief. The Love that leads me to officiate gay weddings and engage in meaningful conversation with those who claim homosexuality is a sin. The Love that demands I consider what is good rather than what is polite, what is true rather than what is easy.
The obligations of love are heavy. Still, so many times I experience this weight as a gift, a grace that keeps me grounded and strong.