February 14, 2014

Chester V. Clark III: That first love

— I found it in a box of tangled cables and antiquated gadgets. Of course “antiquated” is a relative term, meaning only a few short years when it comes to electronics. It had once been the latest and greatest of the new frontier of smartphones. Just seeing it brought back the memories.

And then I turned it on. The battery was depleted so I quickly untangled its charger from the box’s web of wires and plugged it in. As the phone booted with its familiar tone and flashed its iconic logo I waited, trying to remember just what navigating the old interface was like. A pixely picture blinked onto the little screen, which immediately identified the era from which this time capsule was being retrieved. There we were, my wife and I, back when we were dating. It was taken on a weekend afternoon, while hiking in the Georgia mountains.

My mind wandered back to those days, soon after a friend had introduced us. I was completing a graduate degree in Michigan, while pastoring in Chicago. She was part of a busy medical practice in Dalton. Just looking at this old phone took me on a journey down memory lane. Those drives by myself from Michigan to Georgia and back, sometimes in the blinding snow of a winter storm, almost always stretching into the night and early morning hours. Just one day when we were both off work would be enough for me to make the trek. It really didn’t seem that far, back then. I was in love.

Sacrifices don’t seem like such when you’re in love. There’s no tallying of them for future leverage, no demands for commensurate concessions, no requirements for their recognition. They come naturally, instinctively, although perhaps not fully altruistically since deep down inside you know you’re also being benefited and blessed by the mutual relationship.

In the second chapter of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the church at Ephesus, who he commended for many positive accomplishments. But there was one thing for which the Savior reproved this first century church: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” (Revelation 2:4)

No, this church wasn’t comprised of members who had abandoned their first teen crushes. That’s not what Jesus was talking about at all. He was reminding them of how they had felt back when they first met him — and gave their lives in loving service to him. They had been overwhelmed by the love he had so selflessly demonstrated by carrying their sins all the way to his death on Calvary’s cruel cross. “We love him because he first loved us,” they had breathlessly declared (1 John 4:19). Swept off their feet by the love of the man who was God, they had found their delight and joy in reading his Word, communicating with him through prayer, and doing the work he had left them in this world to do. Their sacrifices for him hardly seemed such; in fact, they counted it a privilege to be able to make such comparably small sacrifices in the service of one who had given his all for them. Sacrifice was to them a delight, and obedience a pleasure. They were in love!

But something happened. Their relationship with the Savior of course needed to be put into human terms, their teaching of his message had to be systematically defined. But their theological theories and intellectual descriptions of the Gospel somehow began supplanting their relationship with the person who was the Gospel. Some even began trusting their ideas about Jesus, their sacrifices for Jesus, or their obedience of Jesus, as if these could save them from the depths of sin. They lost their first love.

But Jesus still loved them. And so after pointing out their falling out, he pleads with them, in the following verse: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5)

Remember. Repent. Restart.

Remember what it was like when you were in the first bloom of true love — the feelings, the focus, the fascination. Repent as you realize you’re not anything like the lover you once were, selfless, sacrificing, always ready to send a loving message, and certainly never too busy to read one. Restart doing the things you used to do, waking up early or staying up late, just to be with him. If you can remember what that first love was like, revive those early attentions, those heartfelt little expressions. Regain your first love.

As I clumsily navigated the old phone’s menus I found myself gazing at text messages shared between us so many months ago. Some were silly, some were serious, and most were pretty simple. But they were frequent, and heartfelt.

“Lord Jesus, thank you for the reminder. I love you. Please help rekindle our first love and keep it glowing brightly — forever.”

Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. His column runs the third Saturday of the month.