A Love Story

Last week, we had guitar virtuoso David Smart helping to lead us in worship. For all of you who weren’t here—you truly missed a treat as David shared his musical talents and pushed us, entertained us, inspired us, and let God move through him.

Before the service last week, someone asked me whether I was going to play my guitar with David and do a duet. I assured that person that once they heard David play, they would understand that I had no business even looking at a guitar while David was in the house. And he did not let down.

When I got home, I saw my guitar in its case by the wall. And I couldn’t decide if hearing David play inspired me to practice more, or if now I should give it up completely—given that I will never be able to play like that.

So guess my surprise when God told me I needed to bring the guitar this week to worship. And guess how much I protested. We had words—God and I. But God won. God always wins, eventually.

And anyway, if nothing else, my playing today will remind you of how awesome David was last week, and I trust you will express your gratitude for that to God—even as you pray for me and my improvement.

Sing Me a Love Song, by BarlowGirl

The tension is thick in the air Making it hard to see
I fear what is to come And what will become of me
I say a prayer help me not run away Will you please hold me

And sing me a love song again Say the words that heal my heart
Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am

You’ve never failed me before Why do I feel betrayed
If I close my heart to you now The darkness would have its way
I crave your voice help me not fall away Will you please hold me

And sing me a love song again Say the words that heal my heart
Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am

‘Cause you are all I need And all that I want is you with me
You are all I need And all that I want is you with me

So sing me a love song again Say the words that heal my heart
Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am

Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7

 

Love Stories

“Let me tell you a love story……”

You hear that, and you just settle in a little bit, don’t you? Everyone loves a good love story, and the best thing about a good love story is it doesn’t matter how it ends. Unrequited love, tragic death, “happily ever after”—they are all fair game, and usually equally well received.

Love stories just draw us in. This past week I encountered a moving love story told by a young man with severe OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder (“OCD”). His story, I warn you in advance, is a tragedy.

He spoke of his anxiety—locking doors 17 times, flipping light switches 13, avoiding cracks in the sidewalk…… And he spoke of his nightmares: germs sneaking into his skin, awful car accidents, being murdered because he forgot to lock the door, the house burning down because of lights left on……

But the first time he saw her (he says), everything in his head went quiet—all the tics, all the images—it all just disappeared. And at first it was all great—she liked that he kissed her goodbye 16 times, and that she felt safe because he definitely locked that door. But then things started going wrong. She said he was taking up too much of her time. She told him it was all a mistake.

But how, he asked those hearing his story, how can it be a mistake that he doesn’t feel the need to wash his hands after touching her? “I want her back so bad,” he says, “that I leave the door unlocked. I leave the lights on.”

Somehow, his story warms my heart and breaks it at the same time. Maybe that is why the tragic love story seems to be the most common of all.

Love Songs

And of course equal in pull to the love story is the love song. Since the invention of music, I believe we humans have been singing love songs. And many (if not most) of them are tragedies.

On the last day of the Mission Summit in Overland Park, I brought my guitar. I knew I would have a bit of downtime, and the plan was to rendezvous with a friend and play some bluegrass together, partly to draw some attention to his booth in the exhibit hall. Before long though, some other exhibiters were inviting us to come to their booths so they could sing along. Thus we became traveling minstrels of a bluegrass persuasion, something I’m not sure ever existed before that moment.

Anyway, one exhibiter told us it was his anniversary. His wife was at a different booth on the other side of the hall. Would we be willing to stroll up and sing a love song to her? At this point we were already feeling sufficiently goofy, so we agreed. We just needed to find a song we both knew.

“Oh, I know!” One of us said. “Sittin’ on Top of the World”!

It was in the spring, one sunny day
My good gal left me, Lord she went away
Now she’s gone and I don’t worry
Cause I’m sitting on top of the world.

Well that didn’t work. What about “Love on a Mountain”?

My Papa used to talk about the young days
When he and Mama first settled there
He would talk about the love of the mountains
That he and Mama shared together there

It was about here that we remembered this was a song about the singer’s dead parents. Probably not ideal for our purposes. Oh! I’ve got it!

I’m going away to leave you, love, I’m going away for a while
But I’ll return to you some time, If I go ten thousand miles

The storms are on the ocean; The heavens may cease to be
This world may lose its motion if I prove false to thee

Then I stopped playing. This song starts with promise, but also ends with grief and mourning. “How about this one,” my fellow minstrel asked?

Don’t that road look rough and rocky?
Don’t that sea look wide and deep?
Don’t my baby look the sweetest
When she’s in my arms asleep?

Oh yeah. That song is the lament of a husband leaving his wife even though he loves her. How about this?

If death is worth than crying because God took you away
Why do I long each day to be gone
Life without you is worse than the grave

Nice sentiment, but she’s already dead in that one. He’s wishing he could go to heaven to be with her.

I walk the floor, Sweetheart, and wonder:
Have you found somebody new?
And will they always make you happy,
And love you, Darlin’, like I do?

Unrequited love. She left him this time.

We began to get desperate, trying to think of any song with women and love.

Mama spoke to me last night. She gave to me some good advise.
She said, Son you ought to quite this old rambling around
And marry you a sweet loving wife
But there’s more pretty girls than one……

Oi! That’s really not going to work. Ooh! Long Black Veil is a love song!

Ten years ago on a cold dark night
There was someone killed ‘neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene and the all did agree
That the man who ran looked a lot like me

The judge said, “Son, what is your alibi?”
“If you were somewhere else then you won’t have to die.”
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
I had been in the arms of my best friend’s……wife……

Yeeeeah…… Probably not the best song on an anniversary.

I don’t think we ever found a bluegrass love song that didn’t end up involving death, unrequited love, separation forever, or your best friend’s wife.

It reminds me of that old joke. What do you get if you play a country song backwards? You get your house back. You get your truck back. You get your wife back. You get your dog back……

Isaiah’s Love Song

The love song sung here in Isaiah is also a tragedy. It is the story of unrequited love. It is actually the same love story told in the old bluegrass song “Sitting on Top of the World.” In the bluegrass song, the guy sings of his girl leaving him. But as the song progresses, he gets more and more upset about his girl running off. By the end of the song, he is telling her never to come back. With each verse comes the refrain: “Now she’s gone and I don’t worry, ’cause I’m sitting on top of the world.” But the repetition and the blue chords used suggest (to me) the singer is really trying to convince himself he’s better off without her.

The same sort of sadness is found in the song of our scripture reading. Isaiah, speaking for God, announces that he has a love song—a ballad—to sing—a statement that was as sure to draw an audience then as now. The song speaks of a man and a vineyard. In hope and love of what could be, the man works furiously to prepare the soil, ensuring it is fertile through sweat and backbreaking labor. He buys the best plants available and tenderly plants them. He builds protection for the vineyard to keep away birds, thieves, and other dangers. He painstakingly builds a winepress so all will be ready at harvest time. But all was for naught. The vines never produced anything edible.

And then, as the story in our Bible is told, the man interrupts the song: “What more could I have done? Didn’t I do everything I could? Am I somehow in the wrong? How did this happen?” As Abraham Heschel has written, “[the man] feels hurt at the thought of abandoning the vineyard He rejoiced in, and in which He had placed so much hope and care” (The Prophets, 107).

But the man doesn’t wait for the answer to his questions—he knows what the people will say: There’s nothing more that could have been done.

So here’s what I’m going to do then, the gardener says. I’m going to let it go to ruin. No longer will I protect it. No longer will I work its soil and keep weeds at bay. Why continue to invest in something that never yields results?

Here’s what the parable means, Isaiah says. You are the vineyard. God is the gardener. I have tenderly and lovingly nursed you. “[You] should have produced the good grapes of Justice and Righteousness, but instead [you] produced Bloodshed and a Scream” (http://www.thecommongood.org/blogs/detail/1216/).

But just as with the gardener in Isaiah’s song, and just as with the singer in “Sitting on Top of the World,” I hear some sadness and grief even in this interpretation. “Everything God did for that vineyard…—every hole dug, every rock removed, every selection made, every planting done, every protection established…and every watchful expectation held—was love’s eager work. And when it all ended in acres of stinking fruit, the rage that followed was love’s other voice. Anger, as C. S. Lewis said, is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it” (Duke, Feasting, 341-3).

They have indeed cut God, and God indeed bleeds too.

But like all wounds, even love can heal from the deepest cut.

So this may be the end of this song, but it is not the end of the vineyard. God’s wounds heal from the cuts inflicted upon God’s love, and the parable of the vineyard is picked up later in the book of Isaiah. God causes a shoot to begin to grow out of a seemingly dead stump.

Isaiah 27:2-6

And then, in Isa 27, we are invited to take up the love song of the vineyard once again—this time singing with God of a vineyard most fruitful. [Read vv.3-6]

There will be life in this vineyard again.

This is the good news: God hasn’t stopped planting and tending vineyards, even those that have caused God pain. Anger fades. Pain subsides. Wounds heal. And the Divine Gardener can be found back at work, coaxing new shoots from old stumps and working soil that has long been beaten down and knotted with thorns.

And God hasn’t stopped singing love songs either. The one I like the best is the song about a son named Jesus, who ran into the burning building of this world in an attempt to save everyone he loved. He didn’t make it out alive, but those he saved continue to croon ballads of his love—even to this day.

Reminders

We sing these songs—and God sings these songs—because we need to be reminded of God’s love and we need to remind others. Sometimes we can hear something over and over and we still miss the point. But in that tender moment when we are open to hearing, we will not remember unless someone is singing.

This book—the Bible—is a love story. It is the story of a God who wants to be in relationship with us. It is the story of a God who loves us. It is the story of a God who fights for us and meets us where we are, even when we just want to run away and hide.

It is also the story of failure—mostly ours. It is the story of grape vines that don’t produce, of spouses who are unfaithful, of blind men picking specks from the eyes of others, of church members who can’t get along with each other, and of following the powers of this world instead of God.

But it is also the story of the relentless, untiring, tenacious pursuit of us by the God who loves us, and who is willing to spare no expense to fold us into that love.

I Don’t Like Mommy!

This past week, my two-year-old daughter ate a bit too much fruit and got diarrhea. Despite our efforts, her poor bottom got terribly chapped and painful. After pooping in a diaper (we quickly got tired of cleaning up dirty panties), my wife couldn’t get her to hold still so she could clean her up. It just hurt too badly. I had to hold my daughter down while my wife cleaned her and put medicine on her wounded skin. All the while she is screaming. My daughter that is.

My wife tried to pick her up to comfort her when all was said and done. It didn’t go well. She screamed for daddy. My daughter that is. So I picked her up, took her into the quiet of our bedroom, held her to my chest, and spoke to her softly of how much she is loved. In a few moments, she picked up her head, began wiping her eyes and sobbed: I don’t like Mommy!

I smiled. But not because it was funny. I smiled because my love for her was breaking through me in a way I could not control. And I spoke again to her of love, emphasizing her mommy’s love for her:

Sometimes (I told her) mommies and daddies have to clean a boo boo and put on medicine in order for it to heal. And sometimes that hurts. But it won’t heal unless we do it.

Does Mommy love you? ——[sobbing] Yeah.

Do you think Mommy wanted to hurt you? ——[still sobbing] No.

Do you think your bottom will get better because Mommy loves you enough to put medicine on, even though it hurt? ——[sobbing a little less] Yes.

Do you love Mommy? ——[wiping tears] Yes.

Daddy? (she asked me), Mommy make my boo boo better? —-Yes, honey. She does.

OK (my daughter said). I get down now.

And that was it. It was not my love that she needed—she knew she had that. She needed to hear a love song, to be told the story of her mother’s love for her.

Some of you may need to hear a love song today too, so this is sort of where I am ending today too. As the Bible and our tradition remind us of the love story between God and us. As we tell it to each other, adding our own chapters. As we plead for God to “Sing us a love song again.” And as we sing for one another.

Let us remember this love story. Let us sing this love song.

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