Valentine’s Day. Cupid’s arrow. Hearts. Cards. Balloons. Flowers. Chocolate. And maybe some bling. It’s a day we specifically set aside to show our love in tangible ways. A special dinner or concert, maybe a romantic getaway, or an evening out to see the latest romantic comedy at the theater. February 14th is a day to celebrate and express some of the deepest feelings of the heart.

It’s a beautiful day painted with reds, pinks, whites, and even purples in every possible combination. And isn’t it easy to love when love is easy? When it feels good, when it warms the soul, when it brings uncontainable joy?

But what happens when love isn’t pretty?

I must confess I’m a hopeless romantic at heart. I love romantic novels (real love stories, not the sleazy ones), romantic movies (Somewhere in Time, The Notebook, Sleepless in Seattle) and romantic music (no one does it better than Rachmaninoff and Barry White). But I’ve been reflecting these last few weeks about love. Real love. Enduring love. Love that goes the distance. It’s a very different thing from what we see portrayed on TV commercials and in magazines.

My maternal grandparents were a powerful example of real love. Oh my, how Memaw and PaPa loved each other! My grandmother could walk into the room and PaPa’s face would light up like Christmas morning. Memaw always spoke my grandfather’s name, Charles, with uncontested pride and respect. She genuinely adored being his wife. My PaPa was a preacher for 57 years and Memaw was a faithful preacher’s wife, pianist, Sunday School teacher, mother to five, and elementary school teacher right along beside him. Any time my grandfather expressed his concern about not being a seminary graduate, my grandmother would pat his arm sand say, “Now Charles, you’re a good preacher. And you love your people. Don’t you let anyone make you feel badly about not having a piece of paper on the wall at your office.”  Memaw and PaPa loved their children, their extended family, their neighbors, and their church. But they loved no one the way they loved each other. PaPa kept his good looks all throughout his life and Memaw was careful to keep hers, looking mighty fine for him as well. She still has the prettiest legs of any woman I’ve ever known – and she’s 96!

When my PaPa’s cancer returned aggressively in early 1991, he endured extensive radiation treatments that can only be described as horrific. My grandmother never left his side. When it was time to make arrangements for hospice, she found a nurse to come live with them. But Memaw made it very clear she was his caretaker; the nurse was there only to help her manage his pain. After he passed, through deep sobbing cries she said, “I miss him so much. But I wouldn’t bring him back for anything. He’s whole now and I wouldn’t want to take that away from him.”

That, my friends, is real love.

My paternal grandparents were a beautiful example of love that goes the distance. My Grammie and PawPaw were kind, gracious, respectful of each other and those around them, and hospitable. They loved their family and especially their grandchildren. PawPaw always planted an amazing garden in their enormous backyard and Grammie would surely have hosted a cooking show if The Food Network had been around in her day.  I don’t remember them being openly affectionate with each other but their love and commitment was undeniable. And I do remember upon my first trip home from college, PawPaw actually returned my hug when I threw my arms around his neck.

When doctors confirmed my Grammie’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, we knew it would be difficult. We had no idea how agonizing it would be. My beautiful grandmother, an elegant, strong Southern lady who never had a hair out of place, who taught me to peel peaches and cook fried chicken, who gave me my love for rocking chairs, lost herself in a place too far away for us to reach. I’ll never forget the first time I went to their house and she didn’t recognize me. It was crushing. My PawPaw gently, lovingly, stubbornly cared for her in their home 24/7/365 until it nearly killed him. By the time he finally relented and moved her to a nursing facility, he had not slept more than an hour or two at a time for months.

PawPaw spent every day with her, holding her hand, talking to her, bringing her things that might touch some place deep in the recesses of her mind. When she yelled at him and called him names, he loved her. When she tried to run away in her nightgown, he loved her. When she accused him of holding her hostage and keeping her from her parents (long since passed), he loved her. And when she could no longer communicate at all, he loved her still. He grieved the loss of his beloved Anna Mae for years before death finally released her.

That, my friends, is love that goes the distance.

When I received my cancer diagnosis in 2001, I was shocked to learn that many of our ‘friends’ told my husband that our marriage would never survive such a traumatic event. “Hang in there as long as you can, Richard,” they told him. “And when it’s finally over, just know you did your best.” That’s not enduring love. Enduring love doesn’t bail when love gets hard. Enduring love digs its heels in and finds a way to stay. And stay he did. Richard was by my side through every surgery, every doctor’s visit, every chemo treatment, every perinatal checkup, every lab appointment, every radiation treatment, every day, every week, every month.

Richard took care of the kids, managed my care, maintained the schedule of meals and house cleanings, and stayed on top of Alex’s homework. He knew when to let me do a little and he knew when to make me stop. He was my bodyguard when people wanted to hug me too soon after a surgery, my protector when strangers turned away from my bald-headed, pregnant, one-breasted self, and my personal comedian when we needed to add a little salt to our very full plate. There were many things we were afraid to confess to each other during that time; things maybe the other one of us hadn’t thought about yet. But leaving was never one of them. Richard is loyal to the core. And he would take on the devil himself for his family.

That, my friends, is enduring love.

All these examples point me to a greater love – undoubtedly the best example ever provided to humanity. His wasn’t pretty either. Subjected to cruel mocking and bitter hatred, an inhumane beating and a torturous crucifixion, Jesus showed us what love looks like when it isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. His was a real love which valued obedience to his Father over his own comfort and convenience; an enduring love that bore the shameful, humiliating penalty of our sin on his own sinless body. Love that felt no bitterness, hatred, or judgment towards the one who betrayed him, only deep sorrow. Love willing to go the distance, even unto death on a cross, willing to do whatever it took to defeat Love’s enemy which he triumphantly accomplished on that glorious third day.

For your sake. For my sake. For eternity’s sake.

As we exchange cards, flowers, gifts, and our affection on Valentine’s Day, let us remember the greatest love of all, expressed in John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world [real love] that He gave His only son [enduring love], that whosoever believes in him should have everlasting life [love that goes the distance].”

Love that loves when it isn’t pretty.

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