We sit at breakfast, light falling easy through the curtains, isolated in a moment that feels slower.
She pauses, putting her toast on her plate, chewing on her bottom lip. ”Mom, I’m not sure about the words on some of those Valentines.”
I knew we would come back to this conversation. Last year, when I had been way more on top of the whole Valentine’s Day thing, I had tied packets of pink lemonade powder to water bottles with red ribbon (an idea I found on Pinterest). I had made new labels that said, “Love Juice,” in romantic script. Zoe had rejected these and insisted I make labels for her bottles that said, “Friendship Juice.”
“I just don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea,” she’d said.
This year, already the calendar stomps on me like a bully. I bought the box of gummy fruit candies with attachable pre-printed stickers, realizing this would eliminate the need to affix a card to a piece of candy. The stickers say things like, You’re EPIC, Valentine and Happy Valentine’s Day, BFF and U R 2 Cool and Be Mine. When Zoe got home from school and discovered them, she pulled up the class blog to make sure she had all the names and started writing and sticking with enthusiasm. She chattered about what sorts of Valentines she might receive from her friends, while Riley wondered aloud if they did Valentines in middle school. Riley just loves to pass out love, and I had thought of that too. I bought her some bags of heart-shaped lollipops to share liberally. I had been surprised that day that Zoe seemed unconcerned about the wording on the stickers, but I didn’t mention it.
“It’s just…I wonder if they’ll know I just randomly put those stickers on.”
I smile at her across the table, sipping my coffee, breathing. I think maybe I’ll just listen. But she waits.
“Honey, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Do you really pay attention to those little cards? Or, do you just notice the name—OH, this one’s from Harry—and then eat the candy?”
She wrinkles her nose, waffling, unconvinced. ”Maybe I should just change the words. You know, cross them out with a pencil and write other ones.”
This is all a bit too much for Kevin and me, sitting there reluctant to embrace the day, the living. We can’t help the riffing.
“Well,” I say, lifting my fork, for emphasis. ”You could do that. You could cross off the BF on BFF–just put an ‘x’–and then it would just say F, for friend.”
“I think you should just make your own,” Kevin says, his face betraying nothing. ”Don’t get the wrong idea, they could say.”
“It’s just a piece of candy,” I offer. ”I barely know you.”
“If you were the only other person in class, we might be best friends,” Kevin says, smiling at me.
“Or you could cross off EPIC and write, ‘not that great.’ You’re not all that, Valentine, or I had to give one to everyone, okay?“
Kevin and I erupt with laughter. ”I think we could market these,” he says to me.
Zoe gives us a look she’s practicing these days, a look that suggests her real parents might have recently been abducted by aliens. ”Maybe I should just cross the names off,” she says, seriously. ”I wasn’t really thinking about what they said when I wrote the names. If I had just left the stickers off, I could have given them to anyone.” She puts a hand on her forehead dramatically.
“Honey, no one cares what the stickers say. They just want the candy. Really. It doesn’t matter. Someone you hardly know will not suddenly think you’re best friends because you give them a Valentine that says BFF on it. Besides, they’re all your friends.”
I put down my coffee cup, intrigued. ”Zoe, of course they’re your friends.”
“Not really. We don’t really do anything together. “
“That doesn’t mean you can’t think of them as friends. We should love everyone.”
“EEEW,” she says, drawing her knees up against her chest. ”That’s just gross.”
“No,” she says, closing her eyes, turning her head away.
“There are different kinds of love, Zoe, you know that.” I say this smiling toward her. These waters feel familiar to us, the current of the conversation is one we both remember. ”Just remember whom you’re following. You’re a Christ-follower. Your life is about becoming like Him.”
“I like everyone, I just don’t want to have to do anything.” She blurts the truth, twisting in her chair, growing visibly more agitated.
Kevin and I look at each other and laugh out loud, confronted by her brutal honesty, forgetting how sensitive she is about feeling that we find her amusing. Across the table, tears gather in her eyes, and I see the storm coming.
“Honey, don’t cry. We’re not laughing at you. Why are you sad?”
“You embarrassed me,” she says, struggling to say it without breaking apart, the words tearing at her resolve.
“Oh, honey, no. Daddy and I laughed because you’re saying what we all think but don’t have the guts to say.”
“Exactly,” Kevin says, serious. ”It’s a very human thing. We want to love the people we like and we really have a hard time loving the ones we don’t. We don’t want to have to do anything that’s inconvenient or uncomfortable.”
“Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart,” I tell her, speaking in the Spirit as her sister. ”Loving other people is loving Christ. If you love Christ, you will love other people. And that means doing something.”
In this conversation, I hear echoes of another one Kevin and I had earlier in the week about loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), about remembering that difficult people were made in God’s image too, about knowing He loves them, about the annoying way the Spirit whispers God’s, he’s God’s, she’s God’s just when we feel justified by critical thoughts, critical words. And the closer I grow to Him, the more adamant He becomes, always insisting on flooding my heart with images of leprous Miriam, the echo of God saying, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not be confined outside the camp for seven days? Confine her outside the camp (Numbers 12:14).”
When I fail to live love, God wants to spit in my face.
He is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him (1 John 4:16), and whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8). But love isn’t a fluffy feeling; it isn’t saying the words and doing nothing; it isn’t just for the people who make us feel good; and it isn’t something we can do God’s way unless He loves through us. God-loving requires surrender.
“I’m not saying you have to stop playing with your friends and go play with people you don’t feel as close to when they have other friends to play with. Your friends are God’s gift to you. You’re meant to enjoy them. It’s good to enjoy them. But I am saying that if you’re playing with your friends and you look up and realize one of these other people you don’t know as well is hurting and alone, you need to realize that God is showing you that they’re hurting and alone, that He’s why you looked and saw, that He loves them, and He wants to love them through you. You need to care enough about them to stop playing with your friends and go love them. You need to be Jesus. Do you imagine that Jesus ever stopped short of loving, that He worried about what people would think, or about giving the wrong impression?”
“Yea, what kind of Valentine would Jesus write,” Kevin says, half kidding, trying to lighten our daughter’s concern. I’m sure he had something clever in mind, poignant, but funny, something that would make her giggle.
But I am too intense to make such a quick transition. I turned toward my husband, looking in and past and through. ”It would say, ‘I love you so much I died for you.’” I say it thinking of how as a girl I longed for a love deep enough, passionate enough that my man would die for me. And well, He did.
And in my heart, a thousand love letters, pinned, sewn in, pressed from the Book. I love you enough to give up everything. I love you enough to let them spit in my face and nail my hands and press thorns in my forehead. I love you enough not to protect myself. I love you so much I sacrificed myself.
Kevin and I need not say then what we’re both thinking, the ouch, when we realize how far we have to go to love as He does. It passes, the whole conversation, in silence, just in the looking.
But I wonder just then, feeling God’s fingers reshaping my heart yet again, if the love I am writing with my life is of the human, self protecting kind. Is it the me kind? Is it the don’t get the wrong impression, don’t get too close, don’t expect me to do anything, only if I really like you, only if I think you’re safe kind?
Or am I, in this life, rewriting the love letters He used to make this redeemed heart, the vulnerable, open, tearable heart that replaced so much thick-walled stone? Does my love reflect the sacrificial, everything surrendered love of the One who is my life?
Because this life, it isn’t mine anymore. These hands, they’re not mine.
Be mine, He breathes, so close to me. Love mine.