February 14, 2008

My Tricky Valentine

It seems to me that we Presbyterians have had a kind of tricky relationship with romance in general and Valentine's Day in particular. The month of February has no particular place of honor in our church year, falling midway between the bright festival of Christmas and the rather ominous season of Lent. The liturgical planners rather plainly dub these weeks "ordinary time." Blah.

But February is renowned among our neighbors for being a month of love, romance, and even passion. The symbols of this abound in shops and on cards: hearts, candy, flowers, and more shades of red and pink than you ever knew existed. But what's a baptized life to do with all this talk of passion? What's the church to make of romance—is it virtue or vice?

In general, we Presbyterians tend to be a little wary of our emotions, or at least the public display of them. We take Paul's decree to do all things "decently and in order" to its most logical extreme! We have often had a kind of love/hate relationship with our inward affections. We know all good things come from God, and yet we always have in the back of our minds the fear that all good things can also become our idols and our masters. A person who quite naturally "falls in love" is one thing; a person ruled by passion and enslaved by affection is quite another. More or less, we have publicly steered clear of the whole matter, recognizing that there is hardly a thing less "orderly" than romance! It can wholly undo even the most put-together of lives.

Perhaps we have overcorrected. We need to learn again how to be courageous exegetes, daring interpreters of the Scriptures, relearning the art of claiming the inherent giftedness of a thing without succumbing to the temptation to exploit it. See Genesis 2 for a story about goodness and exploitation. Or consider the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. I was never really satisfied growing up with the official explanation I was given as to why a sensual, romantic love poem was in fact a Holy Spirit-inspired, church-endorsed member of the sacred canon. "It's about Christ and his church," we were told. Please. Adolescents are not so easily fooled. It's a hot-blooded valentine, written from one beloved to another, played out in the presence of God. Shocking! Indecent! And Biblical.

Must this love poem be some sort of cryptic ecclesiology in order that its place in our Bibles be legitimated? Is our embarrassment about affection the Bible's problem, or ours? Could it not be that the romantic love and sensual affection—created by God and born out in the covenantal relationships of men and women—is endorsement enough for its place in the canon, and for affection's station in the baptized life?

But, you say, sins and saints tend to hang together. The goodness, even greatness of such emotions is rarely so pure and undefiled. Just look around.

Yes, I know: Nothing like a little total depravity to ruin a good date. Granted, that's true. We do live in the world, this world, and we often fall short of the glory so manifest in the goodness of God in Christ. Our affections easily become our idols and we are prone to sin all over. We let affections in marriage grow cold. We let affections beyond marriage kindle just enough to entice us. Obvious affections in others we watch with both envy and disgust. Let's not pretend, most who are alive have known these and many other romantic temptations. Theologically speaking, the whole thing is just downright messy.

Maybe old Paul is helpful here. Consider 1 Corinthians 8. It might be worth a read this day. His whole argument there is about food and sacrifices—issues that seem light years away from us. But substitute romance for food and suddenly the teaching comes alive. When romantic affection becomes the idol we worship, we are in trouble. The passion is only sinful when it passionately drags us away from God.

When we are in love with being in love, when we hunger for passion because our own has long faded, when we organize our life and time in order that our thin sensualities might be satisfied, when we pour out affections on others in order that they might recapitulate them and in turn give us meaning and purpose … these are the angst-ridden alters of romance which mistakenly command our worship and, as such, ruin our lives. Paul's point is this: Even that which is so good and right can become terribly demonic. Don't stumble, he says. And don't cause others to stumble either.

Instead, if you have it, let passionate romance for your beloved spring out of the baptized life, out of your response to God's passionate mercy in Christ, in honor of the goodness and divine image with which you have been endowed, in celebration of the marvelously mysterious affection that cultivates between woman and man, out of the deep gladness for the strength and stability of your marriage vows (or those soon to be), and as an expression of your gospel agape for your beloved, your loving acts that build up the other's life. Out of these matters let your romance flow—without shame, without embarrassment. This is your worship, says Paul, living your life before God.

"For there is only one God, and through him do all things exist." All things. Even romance.

Have a blessed St. Valentine's Day.