On February 14, 1999, Valentine’s day as it turned out, I was employed by a church as their youth minister, and that was the day I made the decision to be baptized.
I’ll come back to that. But first, Philadelphia.
If you’ve ever been there, chances are you went to liberty hall, saw the bell, pretended you were in National Treasure, and ran up the steps like Rocky. But there’s also a pop art sculpture there that is a global icon. It is the LOVE sculpture: huge, red steel letters in Didone font, the L and O stacked on top of the V and E. The O is slanted so the negative space points to the V. It’s interesting and simple and quirky and fun and all the things you hope an art landmark will be. It was created by an artist named Robert Indiana and was brought to Philly in 1976–also the year I was born–on loan for display in the city’s U.S. Bicentennial celebrations. Indiana offered it to the city for $45,000, but they couldn’t afford it. He began prepping it for travel back home when the owner of Philadelphia’s NBA team, the 76ers, made him an offer of $35,000. He took it, and it’s been in JFK Plaza ever since, the quintessential photo backdrop.
This sculpture has been copied, translated, and mimicked in just about every way imaginable, even in Hebrew, which reads right-to-left. It’s been on postage stamps, posters, postcards, and pottery. It’s been Christmas ornamented, yard signed, and bumper stickered. It’s been mugged, tumblered, glassed, and gobleted. It’s been on the sides of buildings and made into bookmarks. Why?
Because when love becomes art, something transcendent happens. It touches your soul in a place reserved for the deepest and most profound moments.
Like on the side of a coffee shop in South Austin.
There’s a place called Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Ave., where in 2010, local musician scribed a simple, beautiful love letter to the Jo’s owner with a can of red spray paint. On the exterior wall of the shop.
The constant foot traffic took notice and soon people were coming specifically to seek out the wall, taking photos with friends and lovers alike. The site’s popularity exploded and went viral in no time. Now it is Austin’s “LOVE” sculpture, if only in 2D. The text?
“I love you so much.”
Not exactly Shakespeare, I know, but the more you read it…the more it packs a wallop. I certainly don’t condone vandalism, but there’s something about declaring one’s love with the written word that simply has no equal. You’ll never ever get tired of reading a love letter, or a sonnet composed for you, or lyrics and a tune written for you. Love written is love read. Over and over. Forever.
Which brings me to Harry Potter. Or more precisely, Lily Potter, Harry’s mum. In the final book, we get a flashback scene of her final, fateful moments. Voldemort’s attack on Harry is imminent, but instead of running, she’s making her stand and whispering to 1-year-old Harry: “Harry, you are so loved, so loved. Harry, Mama loves you. Dada loves you. Harry, be safe. Be strong.” This is what she chose as her final words before she faced death bravely and without hesitation. In the story, Voldemort tries to kill Harry after Lily, but the curse from his wand not only doesn’t kill Harry, but rebounds and hits him back, causing his body to be obliterated and raising all manner of questions in the process. And all of that turns out to be the backstory to Book 1 in the series.
But it made me wonder…why would Lily tell Harry to be safe and brave if she thought he were about to die as well? The answer is…she wouldn’t. Lily knew that casting herself in front of Harry and taking Voldemort’s death curse full blast would protect Harry with a power far greater than the magic of the Harry Potter universe. Aslan might call it the Deeper Magic. She knew her sacrifice would work. She was sure of it. Her knowing, her being absolutely without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt certain that it would work is the only possible thing that could give a person the courage to do such a thing. “You are so loved.” Those are the words of power, as much for her as for him.
Now back to my baptism when I was a full-time minister. See, I grew up in a very high-church infant-sprinkling protestant congregation, that of my parents. It was full of great folks and much ritual piety, but it was also thirty-eight minutes away from our home, which meant Sunday morning was about the only time I was there. Big church was really all I knew. Fast forward to March of my senior year of high school. My friend Brian leaned over in English class, and said, “Hey my youth group has this retreat next weekend. You should come.” I think I responded with something like, “what’s a youth group? ” I went to the retreat and God sent a million volts of Spirit straight into my soul in the form of bible teaching aimed at teenagers, singing bordering on the angelic, and the most amazing object lesson ever. I wasn’t baptized that weekend, but I certainly had discovered a whole new territory of faith that I wanted to explore, nay conquer. A ‘youth group,’ you say? Indeed. Tell me more.
But as I said, this was March. I didn’t have much time. By the time August rolled around, I had been to camp for the first time ever, learned many devotional songs, and was well on my way to ingratiation. There was a girl at this church who’d just graduated from the university I was about to start in the fall, and she told me about an amazing campus ministry there. I went, met everyone on a Thursday night, and thus began the college years of my faith exploration. Fast forward to my 21-hour senior semester, and I was president of that campus ministry organization and good friends with the youth minister at the church. At my graduation party, he offered me his summer youth internship, and I said yes. My life took another turn, this time toward ministry. It was an amazing summer to say the least, during which I learned so many things, chief among them being that I wanted to pursue ministry as a career.
At the end of the summer, the youth minister was let go and they asked me to be the interim while they went through the process of hiring a new guy. So I did grad school full time and youth ministry full time, and in four years of college and campus ministry, no ever asked me, “So tell me about your conversion story.” In hindsight, I think everyone assumed I’d grown up in a youth group so no one bothered to ask. But that left me in the awkward position of holding a ministry position whilst not having completed the faith pie with believer’s baptism.
Turns out there were a whole slough of bigger theological implications than simply infant sprinkling or believer’s submersion through which I had to wade. But on Valentine’s day, 1999, I decided to sit down with my bible (because no girlfriend, obvs) and not get up until I came to a conclusion. Two hours later, conclude I did, and called my preacher/colleague in his office to ask if I could come in and be baptized.
I think he dropped the phone.
Then we had a great, deep laugh.
Every day since has been a journey of what it means to bring love into the world. Sometimes that love is painted, sculpted, hammered, hand-lettered, projected, caricatured, designed, or welded. Because when love becomes art, when love goes from abstract to the tangible, something transcendent happens. God wasn’t content to give us the Word. He sent us Word Who became Flesh.
Every day since has been an exploration of God saying I love you so much, not with red spray paint but with the red blood of Jesus. It is not written on walls, but on hearts in the pages of Scripture. Diving into these words is our love letter. It sounds much like God’s words in Jeremiah 31:3,”The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.”
Every day since has been a chapter in the story of God being for us–us!–that we are so loved and worth the sacrifice which he was beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt certain would end with resurrection. That he asks us to be brave and strong in the writing of the story seems a small ask by comparison.
These elements are so true, so universal, so common to the heart of humanity that even the world echoes it in places like Philadelphia, South Austin, and Godric’s Hollow. Truth is too vibrant, too robust, too alive to remain in places like bible pages and congregations. It is so vast, dangerous, and breathtaking that even the world sees it. The difference is love is not just something we create, display, or speak. It is who we Jesus-followers are meant to be, to the witness of the world. So says our Lord in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
May we be so known.