Last night I forced my three children to sit at the kitchen table to write letters and draw pictures for the children we sponsor through Compassion International. (I know, I know, if I was a better mom they would have been begging me to do it.) Though he won’t receive it for a number of weeks, I cut out a pink heart valentine for 11 yr-old Joshua, explaining to him about the American Valentine’s Day. Cognizant of Compassion’s instructions to avoid writing to kids about excessive American indulgences—which, honestly, often leaves us very little to report—it was nothing if not an interesting exercise. I labored over each word:
On February 14 we have a holiday called Valentine’s Day. People give cards and candy and flowers to the people they love. Boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, spend special time together. I love you.
Because I’ve visited the country where Joshua lives, I knew that they also had cards and candy and flowers. That some of the poorest women, there, would pick a roadside flower to style their hair convinced me my letter could pass the cultural sensitivity censor. As I signed my name I did have a slight worry that “spend special time together” could be misconstrued—or not misconstrued. Still, I felt like I’d done my best to share a bit about our culture while attempting to whitewash the ugly reality of Valentine’s Day.
There are some things Joshua just doesn’t need to know yet.
CNN reports that Americans will spend a whopping “$18.6 billion” on Valentine’s Day purchases. Though I happen to be a math-lover, it’s a number around which I’m simply not able to wrap my mind. (The only other multi-billion-dollar-figure which has stuck in my noggin, is the research I once read estimating the price tag for alleviating world hunger to be $80 billion.) A bit over half of what’s spent for Cupid’s big day will be for spouses and other significant others—the ones enjoying the “special time” together—and the rest will be spent on friends, schoolmates, other friends, etc. CNN reports that $815 million will be spent on pets. (Pets, people!) The National Retail Federation—really, they’ve got their own federation?—estimates that the average person will spend $130.97 this year on Valentine’s swag.
I don’t know who this average person is, but for every person like me—who depends on the kindness of mail from Grandparents to remind my kids it’s a weird retail-driven holiday—someone else is spending $261.94. (See? Math genius.) While I’m tempted to think the National Retail Federation is making up these outrageous figures, just to justify their little club, the chaos at my children’s Middle School this morning suggests it might be true. Approaching the school, I saw three mylar balloons drifting toward the sky. Once I was on campus, it seemed as if every child (except mine) was carrying balloons, candy, flowers and gift bags. Since I knew the school would not tolerate any disruption of learning with school-day deliveries among classmates, I started to wonder if all of these children had more thoughtful loving parents than my kids did.
Whoop! There it is.
As a culture, we’ve been hoodwinked. Drugged by Godiva chocolates laced with guilt, as dopey as Dorothy’s friends napping in a poppy field, we’ve bought what this federation of national retailers are selling. On this day, and so many others, we’ve bought the lie that “love = spending.” (#badmath)
Now, as Christians, we might possibly have the good sense not to swallow the koolaid—i.e. forking over our dollars to aforementioned retailers—when it comes to plastic glow-in-the-dark Christmas tinsel and wind-up Easter bunnies that poop chocolate eggs. (Possibly.) And with the whole “darkness” around Halloween, we might even have the strength to resist planting an inflatable 15-foot skull in our front yards. But Valentine’s Day? They’re selling love, right?
We Christians are nothing, if not suckers for love.
Let’s not, however, confuse retailers’ abuse of the word with the kingdom kind that was practiced by Jesus. Namely, if the definition being used on February 14 has to do with romance, and warm fuzzy feelings, and sweet-smelling flowers, it’s sort of the opposite of the way Jesus describes it, and lives it, in the gospels.
Red Letter Love—just meaning the kind which is particular to Jesus—is a different sort of love…
- To love is to love the people who make you boiling mad: your enemies.
- To love people who love you right back really isn’t so special at all. (Jesus’ words, not mine) So don’t fool yourselves. (My words)
- To love is to pattern your life after the guy who washed stinky feet and gave his life for his friends on a cross.
- To love is to extend mercy, kindness and generosity to people of other races and religions.
- To love, like Jesus’ Father loves, is to sacrifice.
- To love, the way Jesus loved Lazarus’ family, is to weep with another.
- To love is to keep the commandments of Jesus. To do what he did.
- To really love—the biggest love you can exercise—is to lay down your life for a friend. (Or enemy.)
Perhaps the most vivid black-letter moment where Jesus fleshes out “love” for those of us, like Peter, who claim to follow him, occurs after the resurrection. It’s recorded in the final verses of the gospels.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Bro, do you love me?”
Three times, Peter insists, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Three times Jesus reminds Peter how love—true love—is expressed:
- Feed my lambs.
- Take care of my sheep.
- Feed my sheep.
It is Jesus’ signature definition of kingdom love.
Forget what I said.
Every day, in the kingdom, Christians who want to pattern their lives after Jesus love people they like and people they don’t like. They feed the hungry and care for the sick. They spend special time visiting those in prison.
I love you.
Margot Starbuck is a speaker, volunteer and author of The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail and Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor. Her next book, Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously Among Sinners and Saints releases in March 2013.