First Love (Eavesdropping on Valentine’s Day)
I spent Valentine’s Day evening in the romantic hotspot of Tim Hortons with a book for companionship. The kids were at band rehearsal across the street at church and I was killing time while they practiced. I found the quietest corner on offer and settled in with my book and a crappy latte, hoping for an hour or so of peace to read. This was, alas, not to be the case.
First, a group of teenagers descended upon the table across from me. For the next fifteen minutes I (and everyone else in the room) was forcibly regaled with tales about their various brushes with the law, run-ins with school authorities, appalling instances of deprivation (several had had their iPhones confiscated earlier that day), and general frustrations with the myriad idiocies of adults and rules and “the system.” By the time they (loudly) departed the scene, I was thoroughly impressed with the heroic courage that was required to navigate the many injustices that they were daily the victims of.
No sooner had quiet returned to my Tim Hortons corner, when a middle aged man and woman came and sat right beside me in front of those ridiculous fake fireplaces that many Tim Hortons now have. I would guess they were in their mid-50’s and both looked like they had been through a few battles. She was wearing a jacket with the logo of a local trucking company. Her voice was raspy and ragged. He was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs hat and looked sheepish and unsure of himself. Their backs were to me, but they were so close that it was impossible for me to avoid hearing pretty much their entire conversation. After a few minutes, it became evident that this was a first date or first meeting.
“So, this is kinda neat, eh? A fireplace….”
“Um, yeah…. Sure.”
[Silence. Awkward smiles. Shifting feet.]
“So what do you like to do?”
“Did you ever do anything with your ex-husband?”
“Um… Nothing really. My ex bought a trailer once but we never went camping… I’m not sure why… He said it was my fault, but he always blamed me for everything.”
[Silence. Both stare at the TV screen above the fake fireplace. It’s showing the weather in Nova Scotia…]
“Well, I don’t really have a lot of expectations for this… But sometimes I like to go on trips… Would you ever want to come?”
[Long silence… More staring at the TV… News headlines… She sips her coffee…]
“So sometimes I like to go curling…”
My daughter texted and said they were done practice. I hurriedly packed up my stuff and gratefully made my way to the door. Before I reached the parking lot, I cast a glance back at the couple by the fake fireplace. They were wearily looking up at the TV. He was drumming his fingers restlessly on his Tim Hortons coffee cup. They both looked tired, defeated, and not terribly romantic or optimistic on this particular Valentine’s Day.
The scene had an almost unbearable sadness to it. These two people, at least halfway through life, labouring through strained and superficial conversation, combing through their tangled mess of disappointments and betrayals, dancing around previous loves and losses, trying to salvage (manufacture?) a new beginning out of all the sadness and bitterness of pasts that wouldn’t leave them alone. There they sat, staring at recycled news over a fake fireplace in Tim Hortons. It seemed so depressing and awkward, so predictable, so utterly, pathetically human.
We have such a deep and undeniable hunger to love and to be loved. And yet we are such miserably unskilled lovers. We love selfishly and inadequately, temporarily and superficially, partially and poorly. We try too hard and we give up too easily. Our efforts are so often misguided. We are quickly and selectively wounded. We are careful record-keepers of wrongs committed. We don’t know how to ask for what we want and we don’t know how to answer when we are asked. Even when we do the best we can to love in the right ways and for the right reasons, we are easily misunderstood.
It is surely among life’s more perverse ironies that the very thing that we humans need the most, the thing we hunger for most deeply, the thing so many of our unarticulated longings grope towards —love!—is the very thing that we so often seem unable to offer or receive well.
One of the most hopeful sentences in all of Scripture, in my view, comes from 1 John 4:19:
We love because he first loved us.
He first loved us. Every single one of our halting and stumbling efforts toward love, whether it’s romantic love or love of neighbour or love of God himself, proceeds from, is rooted and can take refuge in the prior truth that we are already loved. God’s love does not depend on ours. When we inevitably love badly, God loves us perfectly, patiently, persistently, stubbornly, graciously, unconditionally. Even when we have made a mess of love, even when we don’t know what to want or how to want it, what we need or how to need it, God’s love remains, propping us up, inviting us into better things, calling us to deeper and more costly fidelity, coaxing us and nurturing us into the lovers we may yet become.
God loved us first. And God loves us still.