Love Thrives in Tough Times by Greg Albrecht
Friend and Partner Letter from August 2015
The popular idea of love, particularly among the young, is of a rapturous, eternal, sun-soaked, care-free day at the beach. Two young people who are head-over-heels “in love” dream of having children and a family, but give little thought to sleepless nights and dirty diapers. Smitten by infatuation, young people can only imagine the future as being picnics in the park and endless passion in their bedroom.
It doesn’t take long for two people who are in love to realize that this thing called love encompasses all the days and times and moments of their lives – love shares joy and sorrow. If and when young love grows, it can overcome the heartaches that two selfcentered people inflict on one another. Amidst the bitter accusations, recriminations and pain, couples do well to reflect on those distant words: “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…”
“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.” (lyrics from “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen).
The poetic lyrics of the song “Hallelujah” (one of the great love songs of recent years) combine mystical, symbolic and real descriptions of the pursuit of love. The word “hallelujah” is the oft repeated chorus of this haunting, soulful song of love. Hallelujah is a Hebrew word – an imperative command to “praise the Lord.”
The first part of the word is “hallelu” which means “praise” and the second half of the word is “jah” – an abbreviation for Yahweh, one of the Hebrew names of God. “Hallelujah” (the word and the song) is not a suggestion, but an imperative, insisting that praising God is not reserved for only the good times – Hallelujah is critically important in tough times.
The song “Hallelujah” builds on the Hebrew word hallelujah to describe how we express our love for God, but also about our quest to love our family and “loved ones.” Love can grow when we experience and survive the blood, sweat and tears of life. Adversity and heartache test love, revealing surface commitments that are inadequate to deal with the tough times that call for a cold and broken hallelujah.
The love of God we are given by his grace does not disappear when the sun goes down. God’s love is for the shadows of the night – God’s love is for the valleys of the shadow of death far from the light and vitality of the sun. The grace and love of God are often particularly evident, appreciated and understood during lonely and dark times. When the sun is out, light can be taken for granted, but even a flickering match gives comfort and hope in the dark pit of remorse and heartache. God’s love is for good times and bad – thus God’s love and grace is “not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.”
God’s love is not one and the same as the emotional high we experience during a victory march of our team or the nationalistic and patriotic feelings evoked by a conquering army, triumphant over its enemies. God’s love grows even in defeat – especially in defeat. But try as we might to love another, because we are imperfect, so is our love. Our hearts soar to inspirational lyrics that describe the beauty of love, but as hard as we may try to create love and “make love” in all of our lives (not just in the bedroom) we inevitably fall short. We have all experienced many times when our love was revealed to be inadequate – when our love just wasn’t enough for the trial we faced. This month is a month when I think of a painful and trying time Karen and I endured three decades ago.
During the early morning hours of one long hot August night in 1985, an incoming phone call jolted us out of deep sleep. The ringing of the phone next to our bed was part of our lives in ministry, and my wife and I had long ago become accustomed to the tragic circumstances such calls announced. At that time in our lives, when I received phone calls in the early hours of the morning, part of my job entailed being a “first responder” – leaping out of bed, driving to the scene of an accident or to the side of a bed in a hospital where someone was fighting for life. Early morning phone calls were always bad news.
When I picked up the receiver all I could initially hear was high-pitched shrieking and wailing that stood my hair on end. I heard that completely unnerving howling, but I couldn’t identify the caller’s voice. Whoever had called our phone number at this hour was obviously in a state of shock. Within a few more seconds, I was able to discern the voice of my stepfather saying, “She’s dead, Greg.”
I immediately understood that “she” was my mother, his wife. In the next few seconds, my stepfather was able to stumble through the horrific news about a tragic automobile accident. My mother had been visiting Texas, celebrating her older sister’s 50th wedding anniversary, and on the way back from a celebratory family meal my mother, my Aunt Esther and Uncle Alvin had all been killed.
At first it seemed like all the air had been sucked out of our bedroom and that I was emotionally suffocating. My wife Karen was now sitting up on her side of the bed – though she couldn’t hear the shrieking sobs of my stepfather, and even though she had heard me say very little, instinctively she was fully aware that something horrible had happened.
Then it seemed the air returned to our bedroom, perhaps because adrenaline flooded my senses. Momentarily dazed, now I was fully alert, and I sat there struggling to digest and comprehend the news. In a still highly agitated but less hysterical voice my stepfather then told me that the police in a small Texas town had just called him and informed him of my mother’s death.
Then, like an aftershock of an earthquake, another shock wave sucked all the air out of the room again. I looked at Karen, who had heard me say enough to gather that my mother had been killed, and I could see that almost simultaneously we both had the same horrific thought. Our son Scott, who at that time was 13 years old, was out of school for summer vacation and had accompanied his grandmother on this trip (our older daughter Cherie remained home because most of the younger relatives Scott was going to pal around with “on the farm” were boys).
“What happened to Scott? Is he OK?” My stepfather then assured us that our son had gone home in another car, and he wasn’t involved in the accident – though Scott had been told that his grandmother was dead. I assured my stepfather I would come right over (my mother and stepfather only lived about ten miles away from our home) after Karen and I called Scott. After I briefly talked with Scott, my wife continued the conversation while I pulled on some clothing and jumped in the car.
As I ran up the steps to the apartment where my mother, Alice, used to live, for some reason the title of an old movie popped into my head “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” My stepfather and I embraced – we hugged, we cried and for long periods of time we said nothing. Sometimes words are not enough. “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.” As I sat with my mother’s second husband, who grieved the loss of his wife, I tried to imagine life without my mother.
I was only 38. I tried to remember the last things I said to her. I tried to imagine where on that highway near a small town in Texas (where I had enjoyed so many visits earlier in my life) that horrible accident happened.
Our only son had survived – but at what cost to him emotionally? How would he cope with this loss? My wife and I could not gather him in our arms – he was 1500 miles away. We talked to him on the phone, but phone conversations are a poor substitute for hugging, reassuring and crying together. Then, as we walked down the hall to her bedroom to wake Cherie, our 15-year-old daughter, to tell her this tragic news, and to hug, assure and cry with her, we wondered how would she be affected? She was also very close to her grandmother.
I have often reflected how, some years later, I could look back and see this tragic event as but one of many in the space of a decade that opened my eyes to how spiritually bankrupt my life was. As I look back, I can see that God’s grace ministered to me during this time – that was one of several dark and perilous times in my life when God started to reveal the fullness of his love to me.
I had no strength or courage to face this enormous upheaval in my life. And even while God supplied my need, the inadequacy I experienced revealed a terrible spiritual void in my life. Toward the end of “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen writes and sings of the cold and broken moments in his imperfect attempts to love his beloved and to be loved. He says, “even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”
God gives us his own love, so that we may feel his embrace and assurance, in order that his love and grace may live within us and be shared through us with many others. Paul assures us:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:35, 38-39.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Thank God for his grace, mercy and love. May we rest in Christ, assured of God’s love and thus stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah!!