(Christian Week, February 2015)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ “Love is better than wine,” is how the writer of the Song of Songs put it. “Love is stronger than death.”
Solomon, said to be the wisest of men ever, is credited with the words that resonate with meaning even now, almost 3,000 years later, even in our time, as insecure and fickle an age as any.
Of course, Solomon had his own changeability, apparently collecting women like chattels, with enough wives and concubines to show a new catch on his arm every day of the year. Even so, the ancient king’s underlying message remains: love, the sort felt in the deepest part of our loins, is a gift to be celebrated.
For some believers, the Song of Songs’ vivid picture of two lovers in unrestrained passion has been interpreted as something else. Over the centuries, especially during times when Christians haven’t wanted to talk much about sex, it’s been seen as an allegory more than anything, purely a representation of God’s agapé love.
I’ve never fully bought this – it seems too convenient an explanation that seems to come from what God must see as the most humorous sin of all: people trying to be more spiritual than he is.
Then again, what if?
What if the Almighty is more like that wild and impassioned poet? What if he carries a certain divine torch, an obsessive love like that bush that burned in front of Moses, a fire that was never consumed? What if Jesus even enjoyed that moment with that sinful woman while she washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair?
Or is that kind of sexy God too hot to handle? Maybe too revolting to even imagine?
Aren’t we more comfortable to see the Divine as less a personality with feelings and more a dry ideal or principal to hold up? Even if we picture the Creator as emotive, isn’t it still easier to feel his love as a cool love, like an engineer’s, calculating and detached?
Maybe then, allegorical or not, the Song of Songs is given to us so we can imagine God, and ourselves and our neighbours, in a different way.
This Valentine’s Day, my neighbour is a Ugandan woman, Dorothy. She’s planned her wedding reception to be on the front lawn of our African home, a place that she knows well because for years she had helped care for our children.
Of course, love in Africa is as uncertain as anywhere. Africans, like any people, can turn love into something else, something of their own image – manipulative, fearful, divisive – and so relational breakdowns are as common in Africa as anywhere else.
But what if love really is more powerful than death? What if love always does overlook the wrongs of others? What if love really is the only debt we owe each other? What if love casts out even your darkest fears? What if true love can’t even be measured?
Then this is not human love. This is the love of God. It’s what God looks like. It’s what we, family and friends, have prayed for and prayed with Dorothy over the years.
Known to her Ugandan friends as “Holy Girl” for her insistence to wait – “Mr. Thom, I’d rather be single” – she prayed for the right man well into middle-age, against various cultural pressures. Finally, one day he arrived.
Now we look on for this marriage to be filled with that sweet wine.
And much more.