A few years ago, I found myself driving to Bakersfield to see my mother. She was in a convalescent center. She had fallen the Sunday before and broken her pelvis. Now she was in a bed in a nursing center in Bakersfield, flat on her back. Now my mother could be difficult at the best of times. I was not looking forward to this visit. I knew I would have to really have to sell the physical therapy to her. She would not be cooperative with the therapists, I knew.
I also knew I would have to face the woman who lived with her and helped her out in exchange for free rent. Twice, I caught this person stealing from my mother. Checks were forged and altered. We tried to convince my mother to send this woman packing, but she wouldn’t. My mother forgave everything.
So while I was on my way to what I knew was going to be an aggravating day, I could not help but wonder why I was doing it. I mean, my mother was an alcoholic all her life. True, she could be sober for months at a time, but she always had her relapses, as do most addicts. I know that because of her addiction, I did not have a “normal” childhood in any sense of the word. I know that many of the problems I have today are due to the way I was raised—or not raised, as some would say. My mother nearly got me killed on a couple of occasions, thanks to her drinking, but those are other stories. Let’s just say that I had every reason to push her away. My life would have been a lot easier if I had just left her on her own with her own problems. God knows I didn’t need any more problems than I already had.
But there I was, on the road, in a rental, driving for over two hours to see her. Of course, I knew why I was making that drive. It was because of love. Of course, you expected that, so I’ll tell you another story. That week, we were administering standardized tests. Now logic might tell you that when the social worker called and asked if there was any way that I could come up to Bakersfield before Saturday, I would, of course, simply call in sick, drop everything, and head on up there. But I didn’t. I didn’t because those kids wouldn’t do as well on the test if a substitute administered it. It’s not that we give the test differently; there is a script we have to read. But there is something in the sound of a familiar voice that gives the students confidence, that puts their minds at ease. My students needed me, so I said there was no way for me to go to Bakersfield until Saturday.
Any reasonable person would feel that my obligation to my mother was far greater than any obligation I had to my job, or to a bunch of strangers’ kids. But I could not let those kids down. It wasn’t about my job. It was about those kids. They needed me. So I put off my trip to Bakersfield until the weekend. I did that out of love. It would be what my mother would have wanted me to do. It would be the way the sort of person she wanted me to be would behave. And so, in doing this, I show my love for my mother and for my students.
This is not the type of sappy love that you see in Disney flicks, or the type that those “born again” evangelicals talk about. This is a deeper love. According to Jesus, we are called upon to love one another. We love one another; but we don’t have to like one another. I don’t have to always like my mom. But I love her. I don’t have to always like my students, but I love them. And because I love them, I have an obligation to them. It is not an obligation that I take on out of duty. There is no external thought of selflessness that causes me to do these things. I do these things because it is what I MUST do. There is no choice in that matter. I could not NOT do them.
Because we love, we do what has to be done. That is why parents must sometimes stand back and watch their children face the consequences of their actions when it would be much easier to step in and fix everything. That is why we put up with the people we marry, even though they can be really obnoxious from time to time, even though we don’t always like them. That is why my beautiful wife puts up with an asshole like me. That is why soldiers throw themselves on grenades to save their buddies. It’s why firefighters run into burning buildings, something that makes no good sense at all. It’s why moms and dads get up early to make lunches for their kids to take to school. It’s why they get up in the middle of the night to care for a human too little to have any real personality to like.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father's commandments
and remain in his love.
"I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one's life for one's friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another."
And if you don’t believe those are really the words of Jesus, then look at what his follower, John, wrote in one of his letters:
Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
To love one another—that is our only commandment. It’s the only thing that God wants from us. Being a Christian doesn’t have anything to do with being gay or straight. It has nothing to do with sex. It has nothing to do with drugs, or liquor, or smoking, or dancing, or creationism, Darwinism, evolution, or any of those things. It doesn’t even really have to do with believing that Jesus was God. It has to do with keeping that one commandment—to love one another. Not to like one another, but to love one another. Life is love and love is life. All of the commandments are contained in this one word.
Saint Martin was the most famous saint in all of Western Europe during the middle ages. He was known for one particular act. He was a Roman general. He led the legions in the area we now call Germany. His legions were pagans, but they respected Martin, a Christian, for one deed. Once, on the emperor’s business, Martin and his soldiers came upon a starving, naked beggar along the road. Being unable to stop and care for the man, Martin took off his cloak, a general’s cloak and quite expensive, and gave it to the poor wretch, along with some food. This act of charity impressed his troops. Soon, this act of kindness was known throughout all of the empire.
Later, Charlemagne (another relative of mine, by the way), the Holy Roman Emperor, obtained this relic, and placed it in a church he built. It is from this cape, “capela” in Latin, that we get the word “chapel”. This Christian church was built on an act of love. In fact, the entire Christian church was built upon an act of love, the sacrifice of Christ. Do not let the fact that the church has failed miserably on countless occasions to spread the love of God throughout the world, distract you for the message of Jesus the Christ. His message is clear. All we have, we have from God (or whatever you want to call that force). And all God wants in return is that we love one another, not out of duty, but because it is what we do.
And that is why I was on the road to Bakersfield that week. And it is why I was on the road to Bakersfield again and again and again, until that day that I no longer had a reason to go there, and on that day, I wept. She taught me how to love. I will continue to do what must be done for my students until the day I retire. And I will keep giving money to that guy on the freeway on ramp with the bad leg. I will do this because and the love of God lives in me, not because I love God, or know God, but because God loves me. God knows me. By the way, God loves you too. So do I.