I hope this won’t send anyone into a panic, but Valentine’s Day is only three days away. What will you and your sweetheart do? Go out to dinner? Exchange cards? Eat candy?
Back when I was in grade school, Valentine’s Day was a big deal. We’d decorate little paper bags with red and pink hearts cut from construction paper, write our names at the top in big black letters, and set the bags so they’d stand up on our desks. And at the appointed time, we’d all walk around the room and drop in our tiny valentines—with their images of Scooby Doo, Archie, and Tom & Jerry on the front and signatures, in our best penmanship, on the back. After all the passing-out was done, the teacher would bring out those little candy hearts, and sometimes chocolate and sweet-tarts too, and we’d get a chance to look through all the cards and feel cared about and included.
When my kids were in school, I remember feeling excited when I saw the valentines’ cards appear in the stores, which typically happened not long after Christmas. I remember my daughter’s My Little Pony valentines—they actually had fuzzy pink and purple tails–and my older son’s shiny red, green, and black Power Rangers cards. The year my younger son was in second grade, I can’t remember the valentines he got for his classmates, but I do remember—and still have—a memorable one he received. It was from a rather opinionated girl named Margaret and it had not only a signature on the back but also a note offering what she apparently offered as constructive criticism: “It’s too bad you’re so bossy.” She wrote, “If you weren’t, you might be a nice boy.”
The idea and ideal of Valentine’s Day—a day on which love is lifted up, shared, and truly appreciated—has perhaps lost some of its sparkle and glitter today. I’ve noticed a kind of bah-humbug attitude about it. “Oh, we don’t do anything for Valentine’s Day,” a husband said to me at the hospital last week. “It’s just a Hallmark holiday, anyway.” His wife nodded and said, “Besides, why would you want to go out to eat on that one night? The restaurants will be so crowded.” I pushed back a little and said, “I don’t really think that’s the point—Valentine’s day is about love.” And they both laughed and called me a romantic. Which I guess I am—or, at least, a lover of Love.
The holiday has roots that stretch all the way back to the 4th century church. Valentine was a priest in Rome who was being persecuted for his Christian faith. He was interrogated by the emperor himself, who was so impressed with Valentine’s intelligence that he tried to convert him to paganism. But Valentine refused and his execution was ordered.
The night before his death, the story goes, Valentine performed a miracle and healed the blindness of Julia, his jailer’s daughter. The legend says that she and all 46 members of her household converted to Christianity that night. Just before Valentine was executed, he wrote a farewell note to Julia, signing it “from your Valentine.” Other stories about Valentine say that he handed out cutouts of parchment paper in the shape of hearts to encourage the Christians of his day to stay strong in the face of persecution.
Through the centuries, Valentine’s Day has appeared many times in literature. Chaucer mentions it in his 12th century writings, Shakespeare includes Valentine’s Day in Hamlet in the early 1600s, and of course, the well-worn, “Roses are red, violets are blue” poem appeared for the first time in a book of nursery poems in 1784. It actually goes like this:
“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”
And of course we Friends have a big connection to Valentine’s Day. In 1868, the Cadbury chocolate company, founded by Quakers John and Benjamin Cadbury, created the first heart-shaped box of chocolates ever made, and that design quickly became the standard holiday confection. Today you’ll find the shelves at Kroger full of heart-shaped boxes of all sizes and styles, filled with everything from dark chocolate truffles to tootsie rolls to gummy worms. Sweets for the sweet. Whatever your preference, whatever your taste, sharing something good with one you love—husband, wife, partner, friend, child, grandchild, or dog (okay, well, please don’t give chocolate to your dog)—sharing the goodness extends and expands the Light. Sharing affirms the goodness of Love and magnifies it. The generous gleam of our hearts when we share tender moments with each other reminds us that God’s love is shining in our hearts, in our relationships, in our lives.
In Jeremiah we hear God say, “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” reminding us that even as we yearned for rest, even though we’ve been through difficult times, God has been watching over us all along, drawing us near, holding us close. We might not have even known it. Perhaps we weren’t in a place where we could feel it or let it in. Maybe we have been so upset and rattled by the booming disharmony in our world that we’ve missed the quiet, consistent, comforting rhythm of God’s heartbeat, continuing unabated in the peace at the center of our souls.
And isn’t that message just what we’d all love to see on our own valentines? “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” That’s a love that knows we can be bossy sometimes and loves us anyway. That kind of love understands that we’re imperfect and unfinished and doing the best we can, and that’s good enough. Truly. An everlasting love. Do you ever wonder what that would feel like if we could really let ourselves receive it?
ln last week’s message, I mentioned Dr. Rick Hanson. He’s the author of a book I’m reading right now, called Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Hanson is a psychologist who has done research on the neurophysiology of happiness—what causes it, what inhibits it, and how it impacts us physically, emotionally, and psychologically. He’s found that our experiences, and what we believe about our experiences, have helped shape the way we view ourselves and the way we think about what’s possible for our futures.
Dr. Hanson tells the story of being a shy, nerdy child, the one who was always chosen last for kickball on the playground. After spending all his growing up years as an awkward kid who avoided social interactions, he had an experience in college that showed him he could change his experience by helping himself really “take in” the good that came his way. One day a friend asked whether he wanted to join a few of them for pizza, and although Hanson would normally say no (because it made him anxious and he’d rather just go home), he said yes and let a sense of gladness sink in. He noticed that he felt pleased he was invited. So he took a moment and just let himself enjoy that feeling. Throughout the evening, instead of judging himself and letting his thoughts remind him that he was socially awkward, he tried to hold on to the feeling of gratitude he felt–gratitude for the invitation, for the welcome of the others, for the smiles they sent his way, for feeling included.
No one else saw what was going on in Hanson’s heart or mind, but the whole experience of letting in the good helped him feel closer to the people he was with instead of making him feel more isolated and withdrawn. I think he happened onto something that illumined the reality that he had a choice in that moment: He could allow love to help him feel connected to others or he could allow fear to convince him that he was separate and alone, flawed and awkward, not fit to be part of a group.
In his book, Dr. Hanson shares a four-step process that can help us learn to take in those moments of love. It takes just a little practice, a little remembering—maybe only 5 to 10 seconds a couple of times a day—to literally rewire our brains so they will be better at noticing and receiving love on a daily basis. The steps he suggests correspond with the letters of the word HEAL:
- H stands for have, as in, “have a positive experience.” This is simply noticing something good that’s going on in a particular moment. Maybe it’s your spouse smiling at you. Or the dog curled up on your lap. Or the beautiful color of the sky.
- E stands for enrich it, and by that Dr. Hanson means to give yourself time to really enjoy the experience and maybe expand it a little. For example, if you’re feeling good about the smile your spouse offers you, maybe you can notice the kind look in his or her eyes, too, or think about how much you like the sound of his or her laugh. If you’re enjoying the dog’s cuddling, you might just appreciate the closeness and also notice how warm she is or how soft she feels.
- A stands for absorb it, which means to really take it in. Here you recognize that this moment of goodness is a gift for you and feel yourself just breathing it in, as though you’re taking it all the way into your heart. Dr. Hanson recommends we stay with this sensation for several seconds if we can, because as we practice the ability to really let in and truly feel the love we experience, we are changing the way our brains receive and respond to love and light.
- The L, he says, is an optional step, and it means linking good experiences with difficult ones from the past that have caused you pain. He gives the example of being badly frightened by a big dog when he was a child and then later, as an adult, having a joyful afternoon playing on the floor with his daughter’s dogs. He said he spent a few moments recognizing his positive experience (that’s the H), then enriching it by appreciating the dogs, petting their coats, and laughing at their funny antics (that’s the E); then he took in the good by letting himself feel the love as fully as he could (that’s the A); and finally he linked the wonderful experience of playing with the dogs as an adult back to the childhood memory of being frightened by the aggressive dog. The good, loving experience became connected in his mind to the old, scary one, and the old memory—which had caused him to be leery of dogs much of his life—simply lost its power. Now when he thought of dogs, he remembered the joyful playtime on his daughter’s living room floor.
I love this idea of really taking in the love, cherishing it, absorbing it, breathing it in like the life-force it is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for God to know that this year, we’re doing our best to receive and really feel all the valentines we’re given—from loved ones, from nature, but most of all, from God?
When we can let it in, that’s the kind of love that transforms us from the inside out, not only by rewiring our brains so we can see “that of God” in everyone, but also by joyfully pouring itself out, overflowing into our homes, our neighborhoods, spreading throughout our culture and our world. This to me is what John meant in our New Testament reading when he wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is born from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” He adds, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” There’s the heartbeat of existence, the life-giving and everlasting love of God, already present within us, awaiting only that moment of quiet when we can be present enough to really let ourselves feel it, absorb it, be it.
Valentine’s Day or not, it’s all God’s love. Whether we receive that love wrapped in a colorful heart-shaped box of candy, in a breathtaking sunset, or in a freeing and unexpected moment of grace, we can open our hearts long enough to let it in. God made us that way–for relationship–and God will help us along the way, because God wants us to feel and fully grasp the everlasting love God has always had for us. What a great Valentine’s Day present it would be–for God–if we could let ourselves truly feel the divine tenderness that shines out to each of us, unique and beloved of God.
How will we respond? Maybe with smiles, maybe with tears, maybe with awe, maybe with valentines of our own. In the quiet of prayer, we might simply whisper, “thank you.” But something completely new begins when we let ourselves receive God’s love–not just the rewiring of our brains or the awakening of our hearts–but a brighter, more confident step, sure now of our place in the divine heart as we continue along the road to “everlasting.”
- OT: Jeremiah 31:1-4
- NT: 1 John 4: 7-12