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February 13, 2015

I could not have been any more smitten when I first saw Clare across the crowded cafeteria at Furman University. We were both sophomores in the middle of first semester exams. A study break in the cafeteria offered coffee, hot chocolate, and doughnuts. I went for the food. I found Clare.

I suppose you could say it was love at first sight.

Some believe that love at first sight is a myth. Research by scientists has shown that a small area of the brain responds differently to that one special person. Deep within our gray matter, neurotransmitters are activated, creating a feeling of euphoria. That sensation is love at first sight.

In the English language, the word love is one of the most confusing and one of the most important, especially on Valentine’s Day. Valentine cards, heart-shaped boxes of candy, and flower arrangements all convey the message of love. Sadly, the love of Valentine’s Day is often fleeting.

During my forty-nine years of pastoral ministry, numerous couples have come to me for counseling. The conversation often begins with, “I just don’t love him anymore” or “I don’t feel in love the way I did when I first met her.”

Can we find a love that lasts?

Our conversations are seasoned with the word that is intended to convey the deepest and dearest human emotion. The words “I love chocolate” hardly express the same sentiment as “I love my child” or “I love my spouse.”

The Greek language of the first century makes a clear distinction between feeling in love and being in love.

Eros is the word used for the spine-tingling feeling of love. Eros was also the name of one of the lesser Greek gods whose Latin counterpart was Cupid. According to Roman mythology, Cupid fired his arrows indiscriminately. Once struck by one of his invisible arrows, the afflicted person was supposed to fall in love with the very next person he or she met. Love at first sight, according to the Romans, was the work of Cupid. Our Valentine expressions so often convey the love known as eros.

Agape is the Greek word used in the Bible to describe faithful, committed love. The Apostle Paul defines agape as the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” He adds, “Love never fails.” Agape is not a feeling; it is a decision, an act of the will.

I was driving on a back road several years ago when I saw a fragrant autumn clematis in full bloom. It grew at a forty-five degree angle and gave the impression that it was supporting a power pole. Of course, hidden by the gorgeous flowering vine was a strong steel cable. The relationship between eros and agape is like that of the flowering vine and the steel cable. Agape, the strong, sturdy trellis of committed love, endures in the hottest drought of summer and holds steady through the icy cold of winter. It bears all things and never fails. If the trellis of agape is in place, the fragrant flower of eros has something on which to cling. It can grow more beautiful year after year, even in the autumn of life. Both eros and agape represent important dimensions of love in a healthy marriage. One enables us to fall in love; the other enables us to stay in love.

A young couple stands at the altar to repeat their marriage vows: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.” These young people have almost no idea what they are pledging to each other. Those who witness their vows know they will not always feel love toward each other. The important question is this: are they committed to love each other whether they feel love or not? If that commitment is strong, the exhilaration they experience on their wedding day will be a part of their relationship for many years to come. Valentine’s Day can be memorable for them year after year.

An elderly couple sits in a hospital room, hand in hand, one at the bedside of the other. They gaze into each other’s eyes, both knowing that before long one will leave the other in the separation of death. “I love you,” he whispers. “I love you, too,” she responds. They exchange this simple reassurance they have shared many times for over sixty years. Their love is not a capricious feeling. It is strong and sturdy, deeply committed and unfailing. Their love is a love that lasts, and it is beautiful.

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