A number of years ago someone in my extended family made a video—a series of family photos displayed on good old-fashioned VHS—to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. The title of the video came from a twangy song by country singer/songwriter Michael Martin Murphey, and the line settled in as an unofficial theme for my family. The Bates family branded itself as “A Long Line of Love” (just perhaps with a little less cowboy involved than in Murphey’s portrayal—after all, we’re a little too nerdy for saddles and wranglers and boots).
So I guess that’s my heritage—or at least, that’s the goal. As the song says, “I come from a long line of love,” from grandparents to parents and siblings. God blesses me daily with examples of love. It’s my proudest claim with regard to my family.
But here’s an important question: So what? What am I doing about this great legacy? How am I living up to my role as a link in a long line of love? If “of him unto whom much is given, much is required,” then I’ve got an awful lot of love to answer for with my life. Am I up to the task? Can I strengthen the chain? Will my legacy fit the examples of Bateses before me?
Can I really love all that much?
These are important things to consider. And so in the weeks approaching Valentine’s Day, I thought it might be useful to outline how I understand, feel, and seek love, and to reflect on how I show it to others as well. It’s not easy to comprehend love, and I don’t—nor will I ever claim to. But there are a few ways I can see it around me; there are a few key indicators that signal the presence of God’s highest gift to His children.
So I ask myself, what is love?
And here’s an attempt at an answer:
It’s the smile that sparks in Dad’s face when he walks in from work and sees Mom for the first time in hours. Sometimes she’s on the couch watching the news. Sometimes she’s sitting at the kitchen table helping someone with homework. Sometimes she’s standing at the sink scrubbing dishes—in which case, Dad walks up quietly from behind and wraps his arms around her, offering to take over dish duty to give her a break.
It’s the fact that Mom watches the news with her kids, that she helps them with homework, that she scrubs dishes, cooks meals, runs carpools, plans day trips, reads books out loud, calls her daughter for hour-long discussions of morals and ethics, despite the impending long distance phone bill.
It’s the fact that Dad goes to work every day to provide for his wife and their eleven children.
It’s the fact that Mom and Dad braved bearing and rearing eleven children.
And love is more.
It’s staying up until three in the morning with sisters or roommates who let me vent or ramble or just spew out ideas in the hopes that feelings will make more sense in sound than they do in sheer thought. It’s the quiet, patient way friends’ or sisters’ remarks crack my mind open to bring out the truth that hides buried in chaos, confusion, and fear. It’s learning from them and with them and by them and about them.
It’s the moments when learning means laughter.
It’s the moments when laughter is honest.
Love is getting a text message out of the blue. Love is random, unexpected remembrance.
Love is choosing and planning to give people random, unexpected reminders that they’re thought of and prayed for. Love is systematizing those acts of remembrance until they cease to seem random or unexpected.
It’s the giddiness of seeing sunlight reflect off a mountain or office building. It’s snapping a picture to share the moment with others.
It’s knowing I can get excited about Bonhoeffer’s Ethics or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and my family and friends will discuss the ideas with me, even before they’ve ever touched the book. Even when they’ve honestly never wanted to touch the book, and likely never will.
It’s kickball with siblings on warm summer nights. It’s roasting marshmallows with them, or watching The Cosby Show, or belting showtunes on road trips. It’s rewriting the words to famous songs, creating inside jokes that no one but family will laugh at or get.
And love is choosing to break when another is hurt. It’s electing to face disappointment or sorrow or pain, if for no other reason than because someone else feels that way.
Love is bold intervention to call someone back from the perils of sin, self-destruction, and lies.
Love is that hesitant choke in my throat when I wish God could choose someone else to deliver His call to repentance. Love is learning to speak in spite of that choke—learning to hear the words stammer out of my mouth, trusting the Lord won’t let even one syllable fall to the ground.
Love is learning to look someone square in the eye as they confess their sins. Love is learning to preach of redemption through Christ, never breaking eye contact, never turning away.
And love is something else too. I felt it late last March as I sat watching buildings whisk past the window of the train as we pulled out of the station in Simferopol, Ukraine on a bright Monday afternoon. I doubt any tourist would consider those buildings worthy of any degree of admiration. Their concrete sides crumbled, obscuring the graffiti signs that had weathered away over decades. The area immediately surrounding the Simferopol train station is not the most popular tourist location in the beautiful Crimean Peninsula.
And yet, I felt a heavy ache in my chest as I watched the buildings shoot by. I yearned to slow down, to inhale one more gasp of the city’s air, mixed with scents from marshrutky and fields, from bakeries and the shallow Salgir River. I wanted to stay there forever. My heart was attached to the place.
When I first arrived in Simferopol, I felt instantly drawn to the people. As a young LDS missionary embarking on a year-and-a-half adventure of service and preaching and growth, I decided to love the city. I prayed that God would allow me to stay in Simferopol for the duration of my service as a missionary. And, to be frank, I was somewhat surprised by my desire and my prayer. Typically, missionaries move a few times to new cities and regions. But deep in my heart, that’s not what I hoped for. I wanted to stay. And I prayed for that blessing, which—miraculously—God chose to bestow.
Then my mission ended, and I sat on a train that yanked me further and further from the place that I loved. My throat was tight. I felt a piece of my soul pull away as the train sped over the tracks.
I realized the mistake I had made in the first days of my mission when I’d prayed to stay in Simferopol for so long.
Loving deeply means hurting profoundly when the object of our love is removed.
My heart broke as I watched Simferopol fade into the distance, and I felt a pain I would need to learn to live with each day of the rest of my life far away from the city and people I’d chosen to love. My heart wrestled with longing to stay in the past, with fear of a foggy, uncertain future.
And that’s when I felt it. It was calm. It was slight. It crept into my breaking heart, pouring light into the freshly formed rifts.
It was a desire to move on, to go forward, to step toward God’s promise that life does extend beyond then and now to someday and tomorrow. It was a peace that encouraged me to trust that fear is not fatal, and that the future was worth all the past months of love.
Love is faith in God’s promises, hope in His plans.
Love is moving forward and upward and Godward.
Love is a lesson I’m still trying to learn. But it’s one God will never tire of teaching.
After all, scripture provides the best definition:
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God . . . for God is love.” – 1 John 4:7-8.
Love is a process. It’s a journey of faith. It’s a choice and a responsibility. And as children of God, it’s a legacy every person can claim. Love is the bond that connects us with God.
We’re all from a long line of love.