Many few years ago the Kremer family took a quick camping trip, and optimists that we were, we left the house in a driving rain storm. We stopped at a store to look at kitchen canopies and my thrifty wife said, “Let’s wait until they’re on sale.” “Honey,” I replied, “it is raining now.” And rain it did . . . for two solid days. On Tuesday morning we packed our vast load of wet things in the van and headed home. I was interested in what my children would say as they wrote reports of their trip in their journals. Each of my boys wrote an account over five pages long: one mentioned in passing that it had rained a bit; the other never mentioned rain at all. Instead, the bulk of their reports had to do with a magnificent creek that ran beside our campground and of a marvelous large salamander that they had happened to capture, and how, after we had returned to camp after a long and wonderful hike along the creek, we found that the salamander had climbed out of the big white pail that had served as its cage. Two days of rain! Thunder! Lightning! Wind! Cold! Discomfort! But these were minor annoyances. My children had sliced through these annoyances to perceive that the essence of the trip was a journey of exploration, a hunt for magical creatures. The climax of the trip was the capture of a salamander. The tragedy of the trip was the salamander’s escape. One of my children intoned solemnly, “Dad, I have entitled our trip, ‘The Salamander Climbed Out.’”
His mother entitled it “Seventeen Loads of Wet Laundry.” But those were just the facts. Our children had sliced through the external circumstances to behold the poetry of our adventure. What we had really done was embark on a great quest: we had sought, we had found; we had lost; we had endured- -and we were leaving richer for the experience.
The Song of Solomon slices through all the mundane, external circumstance of relationships to grasp the essence of romantic love – “Behold, you are beautiful my love, behold you are beautiful!” What has the poet seen that so many of us have lost sight of in our own lives? I am privileged as a pastor to witness that moment when a bride steps through that sanctuary doorway, as beautiful as she will ever be, and her husband-to-be, dressed in his handsome regalia, beholds her in full beauty. Their eyes meet, and often that electric moment is so full of meaning that tears of joy roll down their faces. It occurs to me that I am watching two human beings on the threshold of a great adventure. And while children cry out of pain, only a mature person develops the capacity to cry out of joy. A groom watching his bride nearing the altar should be thinking the timeless words of Solomon, “Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful.” And the bride should be thinking the response of Solomon’s lover, “Set my love as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm. For love is as strong as death . . . Its flashes are flashes of fire.”
The language of the Song of Solomon is the language of fairy tales, depicting love as passionate, intense, and — there is no other word for it – royal. The Song of Solomon purports to be the fevered whisperings of a king to his lover. Immediately our modern, egalitarian sensibilities are engaged in opposition. We often reject fairy tales as untrue because they frequently treat love as a union of important, beautiful, powerful, prominent people. But we modernists have it wrong, and the fairy tales have it right. I confess that over the course of a forty-year ministry I have officiated at the union of some of the homeliest people God and genetics ever brought into being. But when they stood before God, their friends and loved ones, looking at each other through shining tears, they saw with eyes of love that sliced through the exterior of all things to behold the essence of the other. All they beheld was beauty! My guess is that many of you longtime lovers can remember the day, may even the hour, when you looked at that person who was to become your spouse and knew at that moment that you were looking at your soulmate. It may have been the first time you saw that person. It may have been in the tenth year that you had known them. But suddenly you saw some indefinable beauty in your beloved that captivated your heart and pulled you toward them with a magnetic force — and I hope it always does.
Fairy tales have it right. The Song of Solomon has it right. Love is for beautiful people, people of royalty, people of importance. But it is love that makes us these things. If you do not believe me, I challenge you to try this simple experiment: husband, for the next 48 hours, when you look upon your wife, look upon her as you would look upon a beautiful princess. Speak to her, respect her, as you would a princess. Touch her as you would touch a princess. Do for her as you would do for a princess. And wives, (though this may require some imagination!) look upon your husband and regard him as a high and handsome prince. For once he was such in your eyes. If you will treat each other as royalty, even for 48 hours, if you will touch and treat each other as royalty, you will notice a magic returning to your relationship that has not been for a long time unless you are very wise in the ways of love. The couples who are wisest about love seem to have a secret of always regarding their beloved as the most special person in the world. I will tell you honestly: I have tried this experiment myself and it works. Unfortunately, it is a hard attitude to maintain. I say that to my chagrin and my shame.
Here is another place where fairy tales and Song of Solomon are right about love and the modern world is not. We dismiss “fairy tale romances” as unrealistic because they purport to present the course of love as smooth. Actually, what gives fairy tales their friction is their implicit recognition that love is an arduous and elusive adventure. Even in the Song of Solomon, if you follow the narrative closely, you find hints of quarrels that lead to temporary estrangements. No small number of fairy tales bring young lovers together in the beginning, only to have them quarrel fiercely and make headstrong declarations that alienate them, seemingly forever. When my daughter was young, one of her favorite movies was the animated version of The Swan Princess, where two young lovers are on the verge of marriage when the young princess asks her prince what he sees in her besides her obvious physical beauty. The young man freezes, unable to express the inexpressible truth of his heart. Then he blurts out, “What else is there?” Wrong answer! He spends the rest of the tale trying to convince her by action what he cannot convey verbally, that what he values in her is her courage and creativity and constancy of character, her inner beauty.
The Bible is no less sobering when it comes to conveying the difficulty of love. Who springs to mind as a perfect role model? Adam and Eve? They deceive and blame each other when cornered. Abraham and Sarah? A long marriage, but one pocked by moments of dishonesty. There is a fairy tale quality to the way Jacob works seven years, then seven years more, to marry Rachel, but it is no surprise that he falls prey to Laban’s deception, for he has come from a family that practiced deceit. Recurring destructive family patterns replicate themselves! Even in the oft-told story of Mary and Joseph, there is a moment of tension when the righteous Joseph wants to divorce Mary quietly.
Love in the Scriptures, like love in fairy tales, is always a privileged ordeal. Years ago they held these Promise Keeper meetings that invited guys to pay $70 a ticket to come to a coliseum where somebody would say to them, “Remember that those marriage promises you made are heroic promises.” I always told my folks, “Hey, save yourself $70 by simply reading fairy tales to your children and be reminded that the pursuit and service of one’s lover is a great goal.” Beasts must be fought, mountains must be climbed, rivers must be forded, spells must be broken. The spell that most of us must break is the spell of dullness, the insensate obtuseness with which we approach the privilege of love. How destructive is the business of busy-ness! “Set your love like a seal upon my heart!” begs the poet. “Love is as strong as death! Love’s flashes are the flashes of fire!” Such language is not the language of a dullard. Such language is similar to that spoken by heroes who stand before an altar and promise, “For better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, I will honor you and cherish you until death do us part.”
Fairy tales always acknowledge the dark reality that the world really does not like love. Twisted sorcerers, wicked stepmothers, jealous queens, tyrannical fathers — these symbolize the reality that the dynamic of this world tends to push lovers away. I think of the fairy-tale-like story in the Bible where King Saul demands that David kill one hundred Philistines before he can win the hand of the king’s daughter Michal in marriage. David accepts the challenge and prevails. Then the fairy tale turns sour: the prince wins the princess only to find that the routine of life has deadened their affection for each other. Love turns to enmity. I ask couples in premarital counseling, “Has anybody ever said to you, ’Don’t get married. Things were great until we got married?’ What do they mean by that?” They mean that while they were dating they worked at their love. They re-arranged their schedules, they focused their finances, they disciplined their attitudes, to make their lover happy. Then, when they married, they stopped making their love a priority. They thought they didn’t have to work at love any more. In the real world, evil ceaselessly assaults love. Routine ceaselessly deadens love. Our love is subject to the subtle acid of taking each other for granted. The evil stepmother or the wicked sorcerer stand as symbols for the powerful wedges of apathy and assumption that drive lovers apart. How often in fairy tales some form of anesthesia overtakes the lovers and deadens them to their blessedness. The spell of sleeping stupor symbolizes the fatuous way we can treat our spouse, without appreciation or focus. We treat God’s great gift as a blessing to be ignored. Next to the assumption that spirituality is easy, assuming that love automatically stays vital is the most tragic misconception we can practice.
Yet in fairy tales there is a refusal by true lovers to take the easy way out. Marlo Thomas (That Girl, to some of you) and Phil Donahue, who have been married for forty years, are about to publish a book on what qualities make for a lasting love. They note that one key characteristic that makes for a lasting love is entering into marriage with no Plan B. You must enter into a relationship with absolute commitment, with no Plan B for escape when you face adversity. Entering into such a commitment is difficult, because such love requires us to be completely vulnerable and opens our soul up to a pain like no other pain on earth. But to open our being to someone else in absolute trust and to have that trust reciprocated, yields a joy and deep satisfaction like none other on earth. That’s why most fairy tales end, “And they lived happily ever after.” Happily ever after? Rubbish! Pure fantasy! No, actually, the Bible says much the same thing. The Bible says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things — and love never ends.” Love never ends! The Bible says that lovers become one flesh. The ideal is that of two vines growing so inextricably together that over time these two lives through the miracle of love no longer are distinguishable as separate entities, but become one strong, inextricable cord.
How are people able to do that? Such love requires the spiritual nourishment provided by Christ. The two vines who seek to grow together as one must be rooted and grounded in the true vine of Christ. That is the real reason why the Song of Solomon is in the Bible. The Song of Solomon is no allegory about Christ’s love for the church. The Song of Solomon makes the point that passionate, romantic, sexual, sensual love is a gift from God. We can try to take this gift for our own purposes and sunder it from the Giver, but love is a form of spirituality, and it can only grow as the Spirit of God is allowed to feed it. Years ago I was running down a road and came upon a woman in distress; she had run out of gas. I offered to run up to a station to get gas for her but she said, “Oh, someone has already done that. But the gas can won’t work. It won’t pour.” I said, “Uh, if you will unplug the air spout, then air can come in the can. Air has to come in before the gas can get out.” She replied, “I never knew that.” I ran on, my metaphorical mind engaged. In the Bible, the word for air is the word for wind, is the word for breath, and is the word for spirit. Plenty of frustrated people complain, ‘Love doesn’t work!’ But that’s because they haven’t opened the air spout of their soul to let the Spirit of God flow through them and nourish them and empower them. Love is a vital gift that won’t properly function unless you let the Spirit of God into your personality to nurture you.
The salamander climbed out. Love is strong as death. Set your love like a seal upon my heart. Its flashes are flashes of fire. And lovers can indeed live happily ever after. The child, the theologian, the teller of fairy tales — sometimes they slice through external circumstances to see the essence of things so clearly. The question is, Do we? Do we?