Contrary to what you may have thought when you read the title of this blog post, this is not a post about me having a romantic relationship or falling in “that kind” of love.
This is not a post about dating or getting engaged or planning to get married.
This is a post about when I was so deeply, kindly, gently loved by an entire group of people over the past month that I not only smiled, hugged and handshaked…..but I embraced them and said, “I love you.”
I’ve spent the past month as the author-in-residence at a church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Right after my book launched, they booked me to come to a one-day event. So I flew in, stayed at a hotel, spoke on a Sunday morning and then again that evening. After the evening event, the pastor said, “I can take you to a restaurant for dinner, or you can come have dinner with me and my family.”
I don’t usually go to people’s homes when I’m on the road, but the thought of having a home-cooked meal was enticing, so I said, “I’ll come home with you.”
His wife, who co-pastors the church with him, was indeed cooking up a storm. I came to their place, sat around the dinner table with the pastors and their two children, and felt for the first time in a long time (because I’d been on the road traveling and speaking so much) that I belonged somewhere.
A few months later, the pastor called me and said, “When we were at our last church, we brought in an author-in-residence and it went really well. We were wondering if you’d be interested…..”
So last year I came and stayed for a month and did a lot of events around the idea of “story.” I taught an adult Sunday School class where every week we watched a 20-minute clip of a movie and then talked about where we find ourselves and God in that story. I taught a spiritual memoir-writing class. I did events with the youth group and talked about their stories, too.
This year, I came back again to spend another month as the author-in-residence. This time, I talked about reaching out to other people. I did a book group about Richard Stearns The Hole In Our Gospel. I taught an adult Sunday School class about how God uses us in the world. I preached one Sunday. I met with the college group and talked about ordering our world, our choices, our vocation around God.
And, in addition to the events I did, the people at the church adopted me. I went to the home of the pastors and talked late into the night about theology, church life, and the recent love interest who broke my heart. I went to dinner parties hosted by the women of the church. Two of the women took me clothes shopping and, when we couldn’t find anything small enough to fit my post-malaria frame, had an alterations party where they sewed everything to fit me. Another woman decided her earrings looked perfect with my new outfit — and took her earrings off and put them in my hand.
They brought me meals, lent me books, bought me coffee…..and once again, made me feel like I belonged.
Today I have to say good-bye. In less than 24 hours, I’ll be at the airport flying to Chicago to resume my speaking tour. This morning I had to say good-bye to some of them, and this afternoon I have to say good-bye to more.
As I hugged some of them today, I spontaneously said, “I love you.” After that I emailed one of the women and, at the close of the email, wrote “I love you!” without thinking about it.
In romantic relationships, we say those words to people we’ve decided to commit to.
I said these words today because, before I even knew them well, these amazing, loving, hospitable, generous people, had committed to loving me.
In this experience, I have seen the Gospel lived out in real life. John says that we love God because he first loved us.
I have come to love these people. Because they first loved me.