Lewis Smedes once wrote, “Yahweh is the sort of God who sticks with what He is stuck with.” Any love that does not “stick with what it is stuck with” is not sacred and soon surrenders its splendor. A sacred love is precious, deep, and sacrificial. It’s unconditional and goes the distance. Once such sacred love is experienced, it transforms the recipient. If there has been no transformation, there has been no real receiving. God’s love is constant, but our reception of that love can be flawed, fickle, mercenary, fleeting, and presumptuous. Sacred love on God’s part must be matched by a sacred love on our part – not out of duty or fear or a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of religion, but because we realize such love deserves a similar response.
There is a prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures who discovered this secret about God’s sacred love. Hosea lived in the 8th century B.C.E. and had remarkable insight into the nature of God. He lived in a time when Israel had forsaken her covenant with Yahweh, worshiped other gods, trampled on the poor and vulnerable, and presumed on God’s allegiance to defend Israel no matter what she did. Hosea compared Israel’s relationship to God to that of a wife who walks out on her husband one day and turns herself into a prostitute. And she doesn’t do this out of desperation. It’s not because her husband will not provide for her and love her. She does it out of a desire to hurt him. She spurns him and flings herself at any man who will have her.
Hosea says that God’s heart is broken. This divine husband is so heart-sick over his beloved’s unfaithfulness that he pleads with her to come back to him. God sings a love song: “I am now going to allure and romance her. I will lead her back into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the days she came up out of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:14-16)
“Back to the wilderness” is a reference to the original honeymoon the Hebrews experienced after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Now there will be a second honeymoon where Yahweh’s courtship will bring her to her senses and she will repeat her wedding vows, but this time with devotion and commitment. She will say “My husband” and mean it.
This is the secret Hosea discovered about God. God is the lover of Israel. God loves God’s people with a sacred love that will not let her go. Prior to Hosea, the relationship of God with Israel went something like this: “I am your God, and you are my people.” With Hosea, the relationship of God with Israel becomes, “I am your lover, and I want you, Israel, to be my lover.” Prior to Hosea, no one dared speak of God as a Lover in the way this 8th century prophet does, but Hosea catches a glimpse of the great truth Jesus came to proclaim and incarnate: “God is love.”
Jesus invites us to join God in the experience of this sacred love – the mutuality of a love that goes both ways. Sure, God’s love will always be deeper, greater and purer than our love can ever be. But because God’s love has touched us in such profound and holy ways, our discipleship can become a relationship of mutual love as we respond by loving God and others.
If you were to ask me what follower of Jesus in the history of the church I admire most, my answer would be John Woolman. I believe he provides for us the greatest example of a true disciple of Jesus for our day. Woolman was an American Quaker who was born October 19, 1720, in what is today New Jersey. His own account of his spiritual transformation and journey can be found in his journal which to this day is considered one of the greatest pieces of literature produced by our culture. In that journal he writes, “True religion consists in an inward life, wherein the heart loves and reverences God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness toward others.”
He started out as a shopkeeper with a dry goods store. He became a tailor, scrivener, and school teacher while tending his orchards. He was married to a woman named Sarah and they had one daughter, Mary.
The Great Commandment of loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving one’s neighbor as oneself became the ever-present guiding principle of his life. Here are a few examples of this love in action:
- He labored all his adult life to persuade and convince slave owners to free their slaves. He was responsible more than anyone else for bringing to the consciousness of Quakers the evils of the slave trade and slavery itself.
- Like many Quakers he respected and honored the First Nations peoples of this continent. On one “mission trip” he took, he reported that although he could not speak and understand the language of that particular tribe, he felt the Spirit of God moving among them. He grieved over the ways First Nations people were used and abused during the French and Indian War as well as how they suffered from the greed and arrogance of those who violently and deceitfully robbed them of their dignity, lands, and resources.
- He understood Paul’s insight that “the love of money is a root of all evil.” He saw the motivation of greed behind war, slavery, the annihilation of the First Nations, and the impoverishment of the poor whites who were pushed into the wilderness in an attempt to survive. He even had compassion for the alcoholics of his day because he realized that many of the poor used liquor to numb themselves from the pain resulting from economic oppression. Woolman was one of the first proponents of simple living in our culture. Like Gandhi he knew that there was enough in this world for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed. His call to simple living was not for the purpose of saving money for the future. His plea was to live simply so that what was needed for a good life could be shared with those in need. One of his more famous quotes is, “To turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”
- Woolman refused to benefit or profit from practices and conveniences which stemmed from the oppression of others. For example, he wore undyed clothing. The dye most used in his day was indigo which was produced by slave labor. He refused to purchase or accumulate what he called “superfluities.” He took great delight in his family, his beloved Mount Holly small farm, the wonders of nature, the books in his small library and those he borrowed from other Quakers, and above all communing with the God he loved. His life was full and blessed. He neither needed nor wanted to be seduced by that which was unnecessary and distracting from the beauty of the life he had found with his family, God’s beautiful creation, his Quaker meeting and friends, and his deep experience of the Divine.
- His tender compassion was even extended to the natural world and animals. Some of my friends believe in reincarnation. I joke with them that if I had to come back as an animal, I would want to belong to John Woolman. Some historians say that he was a vegetarian. He had a “reverence for life” long before Albert Schweitzer coined the phrase. His journal is full of references to the harmony of creation willed by God—a harmony he believed was instructive for the preservation of society. I can only imagine what he would say to us today as we face the climate crisis threatening not only humankind but the whole of creation. (Actually, I know exactly what he would say.)
In 1772, Woolman journeyed to England to address the London Yearly Meeting (the Mecca and headquarters of Quakers). Instead of traveling in the cabins reserved for passengers on the ship, he bunked with sailors in their sloppy, cramped quarters. He did so in order to minister to them, and so he could empathize in a small way with the squalor of the slave trade. When he arrived in London, he pled with the Quakers (especially with the wealthy Quakers who owned slave ships which carried Africans to the American colonies) to realize that slavery was contrary to the gospel of a God who loves all and who calls Christians to love others. In a world that regarded these African slaves as inhuman, he saw them as children of God equal to himself and all others. He was laughed at because of his attire (undyed clothing) and his unkempt appearance. He was not so politely invited to go back to the colonies and leave these complicated issues to the more knowledgeable and sophisticated. But Woolman did not leave. He stood there and wept and continued to plead until the assembly of Friends heard him and began the process of disinvesting in the slave trade and agreed to include an anti-slavery statement in the Epistle they sent to all Quaker meetings.
From there he journeyed to northern England. He walked the entire way because he believed that the coach business abused animals and overworked its drivers, coachmen, and boys. He would not be complicit in such a greedy and brutal business. When he arrived in York, he came down with smallpox, which he dreaded more than anything. The family who attended him was humbled by his desire not to be a burden to them in any way. On October 7, 1772, John Woolman died and is buried in York, England where anyone may visit his grave, although very few people know what a great saint rests there.
When I grow up I hope I can be one-tenth the follower of Jesus Woolman was. The problem is that I have already outlived him by twenty years and I don’t have much more time to grow up in my walk with God. Not many of us will incarnate the sacred love of God to the extent that John Woolman did. If you read his journal, you realize that his love flowed from his experience of God’s love – God’s love for him, everyone else, and every part of creation. His was a nurtured, sacred love. Even in the relative simplicity of the 18th century (relative compared to our own), he realized that he needed to take the time to be with his God if he was to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love others as he loved himself. Such sacred love became the priority of his life. And, although little is said about him today, more than anyone else he brought to the consciousness of America the evils of slavery. But his message, just like the message of his Lord, was far deeper and fuller than the scourge of slavery. His life, I believe, could be the key to how we today can live faithfully as Jesus’ followers.
But we should never let his example discourage us by its astounding faithfulness. All he did came from his deep inner experience of God’s sacred love for him. And in that love he discovered God’s sacred love for the whole world. If we would let that great sacred love fill our hearts, we would find our own way to join God in loving this world into its healing, liberation and joy. God the Lover wants us as lovers, and in that sacred love we will find a life worth living.