unconditional love

roses

It's funny to think about some of the things that inspire certain pieces and how long it can take to actually complete one even after the original idea has come to you. This piece was inspired by an older show that I watched when I was younger. One of the characters has a rose motif, and part of her personality combined with some ambient creative energy to give me the initial image that I used to conceptualize this piece, throwing around some abstract ideas critiquing how we tend to think about love, specifically romantic love, and how roses have traditionally been one of its icons. I suppose in some sense, that means that this post vaguely fits into my summer friendship series, but just tangentially.  

One last thought: I'm definitely not a poet, and I would've always been hesitant to use poetry as a literary medium until recently, but I originally tried to put this piece through the filter of a couple different written mediums and it just turned out better this way, which was just so strange to me. I would've much rather done this as a short story or as nonfiction, but it came out in this form, so I decided to run with it. I just think that's so crazy sometimes, how your writing takes on a little bit of its own sentience and guides you as you're shaping it.

 

roses

--

Maybe roses didn’t always have thorns.

What if they grew them to protect the frailty of our hearts,

To warn us of the neuroticism of fantasy,

That spews lies about romanticism,

Supposedly sealing its essence behind petals and chlorophyll?

//

Maybe the roses knew better than us,

That four letters encompass much more than mere emotion,

But we’ve deluded ourselves into believing,

In gestures and rules about courtship,

When empirical theories can’t begin to encapsulate this dance of affection.

//

Maybe the roses were trying to teach us,

How to actually love without conditions that hinder,

So they prick our fingertips and draw blood,

To pierce our hearts and spurn nonchalance,

But we shunned their wisdom and chose to indulge fairytales and false magic instead.

//

Maybe we should’ve listened to the roses,

When they said we’d have to work and fight pain,

As we toiled in our own gardens in order,

To grow the love we dream about at night.

Now these thorns are the only remnants left reaching out for our attention.

when marriage has a monopoly on love

This is the second entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”  

American society seems to be going through something of a love crisis if you ask me. We’re completely captivated by love, or at least the idea of love. There are hundreds of songs, movies, books, plays, and talk shows, among other things all revolving around the concept of love. I’d wager that it’s probably one of the most commonly talked about things in this entire country. Without our fascination (or perhaps obsession) with love, I would also be willing to bet that the majority of pop musicians and young adult authors would probably be out of work.

 

But at the same time, it appears as if we don’t really know all that much about love despite our insistence on saturating our existences and media with talk of love. According to the American Psychological Association, somewhere between 40-50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, with subsequent marriages only having higher rates of divorce. For the one relationship that we’ve all been taught and socialized to view as the epitome and encapsulation of love, it’s not doing the best job at upholding the standards that we’ve been spoon fed with love songs and romcoms. And yet, we still hold to these sensationalized stereotypes of love that don’t seem to quite square up with reality. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good Taylor Swift album as much as the next (and seeing her in concert is still up there on my bucket list), but I think that all the emphasis that our culture has heaped upon love, specifically romantic, idealistic love, has poisoned and tainted our view of what love really is and how it covers a lot more ground than American pop culture is willing to give it credit for. Instead of giving us a well-rounded, holistic view of what love is, we’ve been offered a distorted version of love with all the rough edges blurred out until it’s been censored to a warm, fuzzy feeling inside that gets us drunk on fairytale delusions and leaves us with false hopes when reality rouses us from our stupor.

 

The craziest part about this counterfeit love that we’ve been sold our entire lives is that it also gets us to buy into the false notion that love somehow doesn’t exist in its purest form prior to marriage. Sure, we might be able to state as a fact that we love our parents or that we love our siblings or that we love our friends, but when it really comes down to it, we don’t really believe it, or at least that how it appears to me. Rather than recognizing those relationships as true forms of love, I think that we tend to rationalize our devaluing of other forms of love by qualifying it, spewing out phrases like “just friends” or “love him/her like a brother/sister.” Though diminishing the worth of those types of love might not be our goal when we use phrasing like that, it still serves to create both a psychological and sentimental division between the different kinds of love that we experience. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, especially when you consider the fact that Greek has somewhere between 4-6 different words to describe love depending on how you categorize them, but the danger comes when that mental separation is combined with the American cultural idea that romantic, sexual love is somehow on a higher plane than the other forms of love that we experience.

 

We've been sold a counterfeit idea of love that says its purest form exists in marriage and only in marriage.

 

If you don’t believe me, just think about the majority of successful movies that come to mind. Many early Disney movies and romcoms as a genre typically center their stories around a certain couple falling in love and getting married or navigating their romantic feelings for each other. Again, that’s not bad in and of itself, but the majority of those movies treat that relationship as if it’s the beginning and end of all their problems. The conflict of the plot revolves around the romantic and sexual tension between the main couple, and the film usually culminates with a happy ending where the two lovers end up together, strategically placing the curtain call and final fade to black after a declaration of love or a wedding or something else similar, visually and sentimentally communicating that the success or at least the beginning of the success of that relationship is the end of the story and insinuating that all of the problems and conflicts in the film have been tidily resolved because of that relationship when that’s seldom how events play out in real life. Beyond that, the friends and families of the main couple are usually side characters, if they exist, and frequently, their relationships with those main two characters are not elaborated upon. To me, this seems problematic, because it seems to suggest that love only exists between those two people, and it relegates the relationships that they have with everyone else to the background or the sidelines, automatically placing those relationships on a lower level by default while the romantic, sexual relationship is elevated to a pedestal out of reach.

 

The majority of romcoms treat romantic relationships as if they're the beginning and end of all our problems when that's seldom how that works out in real life.

 

This harmful hierarchy of love is something that my friend Nikki and I have realized and are still continuing to unlearn and remind each other. Nikki is one of the bubbliest and most genuine people that you’ll probably ever meet. She’s a joy-filled human being and always sincerely glad to see you whenever you might cross paths with her. Even when she’s sad or upset, there’s still an underlying sense that whatever is going on is just a minor setback, and that’s probably one of my favorite things about her. But also, I think that most people don’t give her enough credit for the wisdom and insight that she has on the world. Out of all my friends who have taught me things, I think that she’s one of the few that’s taught me something that’s actually changed the way that I live and approach the world.

 

Last year, during my senior year of college, we both studied abroad back to back semesters. I was in Spain from the end of August until mid-December, and she left for South Korea mid-February and won’t be back for a couple more weeks until the beginning of July, so I didn’t get the chance to see her all that often, since we were only in the same state and country for about two months total. But I also think that she unwittingly taught me more during that period of extended physical absence than during the previous year when we were around each other all the time.

 

Even though we loved the school that we went to, had great, amazing friends, and were about to set off to travel the world on different continents, something still felt oddly off, like something was still missing from this novel-esque existence. Going to a small Christian college in the Midwest, we naturally attributed this state of dissatisfaction to the fact that we were both still very, very single, essentially pitying ourselves like that one thing was an affliction that drained the joy out of the rest of our lives. It seems illogical to juxtapose those things in writing, but when #ringbyspring is a very real assumption and stereotype of the Christian college that you go to, it doesn’t feel quite as much like the joke that it was originally supposed to be. It felt like a real threat to a happy existence.

 

Though originally a joke, notions like #ringbyspring really start to feel like a threat to a happy existence, because it tells us that we won't be happy until we're in a romantic relationship.

 

While I was in Spain, Nikki and I kept in touch over WhatsApp, and I can still remember the mutual amazement and ecstasy when we discovered that WhatsApp also supported voice messages. That aside, we would periodically send each other long updates on life, something that we’ve continued to do now that I’m home and she’s in South Korea. Over the course of the four months that I was there, I would intermittently revive the topic of our (or mostly my singleness), but she started telling me that I didn’t have time to worry about that because “YOU’RE IN SPAIN!” she would say. Instead, she would ask me about some of the places that we had traveled to, about the food, about the people that I was there with, and that topic would gradually drop off the radar. Maybe she was just trying to get my mind off that one specific topic, but I think that the underlying message that I heard every time she said, “YOU’RE IN SPAIN” was that there’s so much more to life and to love than being in a relationship with one specific person and getting married someday. There are places to travel, friends to make, foods to try, and so much more in our world than simply worrying about falling in love. We were made for so much more than that.

 

There's so much more to life and to love than being in a relationship with one specific person and getting married someday. 

 

And I think that both of us have grown more into that revelation as time has gone on. A few months ago, after she had been in Korea for maybe a month or two, I messaged her on WhatsApp and asked how she was doing with that line of thinking and she answered by telling me that she didn’t really think about it that much anymore. She explained that she was far too busy making friends, figuring out public transportation when the signs are all in Korean, trying out karaoke bars, and traveling all over South Korea to be preoccupied with such a minor detail of life. Hearing that put a smile on my face from thousands of miles away, partially because I was incredibly glad for her, but also because I understood what that felt like, probably because she’s the one that taught me.

 

Understanding that life doesn’t orbit around romance and finding that person was probably one of the most liberating lessons I’ve ever learned, and I’m glad that I had a friend like Nikki to teach it to me, because I’ve definitely heard that idea before, but I don’t think it ever really sank in until she pounded it into my being by constantly reminding me of it. Before, people would say that getting engaged and getting married wasn’t the focus of your life, but they would still act and behave as if it were. I think what really made it real when it came from Nikki was that she lived like it. She reiterated that it wasn’t the center of the universe and then went out and lived and breathed it so that you could see that it was what she really believed. I think that’s what makes every lesson come alive.

 

And what a poignant lesson. I know a number of people who have gotten so wrapped up in trying to find romantic love that they’ve either cast aside their friends, fallen into a state of depression and self-pity, or both. But maybe if we finally decentered romantic relationships in our universe and knocked down the pedestal that they sit on, we’d be able to open our eyes and see that the world truly is so much more vivid and rich than that. Maybe we’d be able to love our friends better and be more satisfied by them if we weren’t always so fixated on finding the one, because the world is so much bigger, brighter, and richer than that.

 

Coming up in this series on friendship: covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media if there are any other aspects of friendship I should write about!

A Response to the Response to Caitlyn Jenner

Well, the internet surely has been on fire with the Caitlyn Jenner story in the past week, and likewise has it been flooded with a myriad of different responses from Christians and non-Christians alike. Unfortunately, it seems as if the majority of the Christian responses have been very disheartening, vehemently arguing that Caitlyn Jenner is an insult to women, comparing her to soldiers (which is already a flawed comparison regardless of how you see the situation), and many other hurtful articles. That makes me sad and makes me think that Christians aren’t doing their job, their one job, seeing as I’ve only read maybe 3 articles talking about Caitlyn Jenner in even a vaguely positive light.

People keep asking whether this is right or wrong, whether it agrees or disagrees with the Bible, and whether or not we, as Christians, should be supporting a person like Caitlyn Jenner. What if I told you that all of those people are asking the wrong questions? What if I told you that the answers to those questions are irrelevant? What if there’s only one question to ask and that question is this: How can we love?

The answer to that question doesn’t need the answers to the other questions as prerequisites. That’s why it’s called unconditional love.

Jesus told us in John 13:35 that we would be known as His disciples by our love. That is the one sign that Jesus Himself said that we would be distinguished by. So, what happened to that?

I think that somewhere between today and the first century Christians have fallen back into the trap of the Pharisees’ mindset, a mindset that basically says that we are supposed to function as the morality police for this world, telling people what is right and what is wrong and making sure they don’t step out of line. I mean, doesn’t that sound familiar? Religious people claiming that it’s impossible for LGBT people to be Christians. Religious people defending their own even when caught in sin. Religious people “excluding” others from grace.

Did anyone want to be around the Pharisees? Did anyone feel like they were worthy to be around the Pharisees? Did people feel welcome around the Pharisees? Did people feel condemned and shamed by the Pharisees?

Answer those questions and then reflect on the church today.

Then, think about this: why were people drawn to Jesus?

People were attracted and pulled to Jesus because of His love and acceptance. He didn’t turn anyone away, not if they were caught in adultery, not if they were ceremonially unclean for years and years (akin to “living in sin/uncleanness”), not if they were Romans, not for any reason. Jesus was living out love. He was doing love.

So that’s what we should be doing, loving, otherwise it shows that we don’t really care at all. For everyone writing or sharing articles that slam Caitlyn Jenner by saying that she is an insult to women or anything like that, what is the point of that? What is that supposed to accomplish? What are you really trying to say?

To me, it displays a profound amount of selfishness, because it is evident that the authors of these articles (yeah, I’m looking at you Matt Walsh) don’t truly care or love Caitlyn Jenner at all. It demonstrates that all they care about is winning an argument, winning the theological decathlon that they think they’re competing in, all the while disparaging, attacking, and tearing down another human being who is still made in the image of God.

Something overly sentimental and not very practical, but nonetheless theologically accurate, that I learned in church once is this: before you do or say anything to another person, think about the fact that they are made in the image of the holy triune God and that God loves that person.

How powerful is that now.

So what do I think?

Personally, I have no moral or theological qualms with Caitlyn Jenner. Galatians 3:28 states that there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, and one of my philosophy professors once mused about how it’s interesting that all three of those things seem to be “issues” that the church has had to wrestle with at various points in history. I think that’s a valid point, but then again, it doesn’t really matter what I think anyway. What matters is where Caitlyn stands before the Lord and I am in absolutely no position to make that judgment. All I’m called to do, just like every other Christian on this planet, is to love, because love is supposed to break down barriers.

So what should we do? I believe that the only thing to do is what we’re called, to love, and to love unconditionally. That’s our only job. Christians aren’t called to be the morality police. Christians aren’t called to approve or disapprove of others’ choices. All that Christians are called to do is love, and if we’re not doing that, then I don’t see the point in even calling yourself a Christian.

So let me end this post this way. You might not agree with her choices. You might not think that what she’s doing is right. But here’s the bottom line: Caitlyn Jenner is made in the image of God and Jesus loves her to death. Jesus was bruised and battered, whipped and pierced, and He died and rose again for Caitlyn Jenner’s soul just like for yours and for mine. All of that sacrifice was not so that we could decide that her choices are “too out there” or “too unbiblical” to love.

The Bible and the Christian faith as a whole are both ultimately stories about love, unconditional love. The word Christian means “little Christ.” Our job, then, as Christians, is to reflect our namesake. Jesus said that we would be known for our love. Can we please try and make that a reality?