Those bizarre-looking squiggles above have actually meant a lot to me these past couple days. It's Hebrew of course; three Hebrew words. More specifically it's the constantly repeated refrain of an ancient worship song recorded in the Bible as Psalm 136, which I will preach on this coming Sunday. Every single one of the short verses ends with these three words, which translate "for his loving-kindness endures forever." That is repeated 26 times in this Psalm. 26! And some people complain today if worship choruses are sung a mere 6 or 7 times!
Why 26 times? Why sing the same repetitive words over and over? You almost get the idea God is trying to pound something into our heads and hearts, which is exactly what I think is going on here. Of course that begs the question of why this particular idea needs to be pounded so heavily.
I think the reason is that God's love is so foreign to our human experience of love. We hear phrases like "God's love is unconditional" in churches, and we get that at one level. But do we love that way? Have we been loved that way by another? Not often. I got to thinking about this earlier this week while corresponding with my friend Mike Maeshiro. Mike made the observation that really, truly loving someone is more than just an act of the will or a commitment. Real love happens when we're so caught up in God's presence and so full of his love that we simply love. Whomever. Not by determined choice (as if we didn't really want to) and certainly not because they deserve it (conditional love), but simply because the reality of love is alive in our hearts. My words, his point.
I agreed with him, and then it occurred to me that this is what I've always understood and taught about God's love: that his love for us has nothing to do with us, but rather it has everything to do with him. When I'm in awe of God's love for me I am not supposed to conclude that I must really be something special - as if God loves me because I'm some really swell guy, and hey who couldn't love me once they got to know me? Instead, I'm supposed to conclude that God is an amazing lover, precisely because he would love someone so unworthy of his devotion as me. God's love for me doesn't call attention to me, it calls attention to him.
Human love, on the other hand, typically arises in response to the value of the one loved. We love things and people who give us pleasure, and in whom we see value. No value or pleasure, no love. And what happens when someone who used to please us no longer does? We often say we've "fallen out of love" with them. My point here really isn't that human love is shallow - I think it's still real. But my point is that human love is contingent. It fixates on something worthwhile, and arises in response to that. Human love is like a garden hose with a spray nozzle: the water only goes to the places you direct it. You choose which plants you want to water (roses, yes! weeds, no!) and only the "good" plants get the benefit of the water.
God's love is more like the sprinkler in the middle of my lawn. It indiscriminately soaks everything in its radius: grass, the annuals in the flower bed next to the grass, the dandelions and clover growing in the middle of my lawn... even the kid in the bathing suit who ran through the spray on a hot afternoon. It simply doesn't matter! The sprinkler doesn't distinguish between "good" targets and "bad" ones. Everything within its reach gets soaked with the life giving water, because by its very nature the sprinkler is an indiscriminate broadcasting device.
That's when my mind drifted back to Psalm 136 and it's lengthy series of repeated declarations that God's loving-kindness endures forever. Because that's what I think this Psalm is saying about God. By his very nature he is a lover. He loves anyone - in fact everyone - not on the basis of their worth or lovableness, but on the basis of his own nature as a lover. God's love is self contained, self-referencing, or (to put it in the Apostle John's terms) God is love.
I feel that there's something simultaneously humiliating and freeing about that. On the one hand, it drives home the idea that God doesn't love me because I'm a swell guy. I can't earn this kind of love, and I don't have it any more than anyone else. On the other hand, what kind of security does this provide!?! I'll get wet even if I am no better than a stinkin' weed. I am loved by God regardless of who and what I am, because God is a lover and nothing I can do can change who he is. THAT is security.
And as Psalm 136 says, that's reason to give thanks to God: because his loving-kindness endures forever.