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February 13, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I have asked you to consider helping one charity. This week, please reach out to someone you know who is having a difficult time on Valentine’s Day. This may be a person who lives alone, or they may be a single parent. There are many opportunities for random acts of kindness. Thank you.

I could not have been any more smitten when I first saw Clare across the crowded dining hall at Furman University.  It was as if I had been hit in the head with a ball-peen hammer. 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 than it does to anyone else.  Deep within our gray matter, neurotransmitters are activated, creating a feeling of euphoria. That sensation can be called 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.  As one young woman said, “Once I get a box of candy or a vase of flowers, I am ready to move on.”

During my fifty-five years of pastoral ministry, numerous couples have come to me for help with their marriage.  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 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.  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.  On Valentine’s Day expressions so often convey the infatuation known as eros.

I served as a chaplain at four National Scout Jamborees from 1985 through 1997.  One afternoon in 1985, I saw a large gathering of scouts in an enormous circle.  They had surrounded the landing zone for the Golden Knights, the United States Army Skydiving Team.  I joined the group of spectators, all gazing skyward as young army officers jumped from an airplane. As they plummeted toward the ground, they performed feats of acrobatic skill in the wild blue yonder. At just the right moment, they opened their parachutes, guiding them to a perfect landing in the middle of the circle of scouts.  Safely on terra firma, the soldiers gathered their parachutes and engaged in conversation with their admirers. 

The boys had many questions for the young officers. One question brought a silence filled with anticipation. “What is the most dangerous part of your job?” a scout asked. 

With a serious look on his face, one of the soldiers answered, “The most dangerous part of skydiving is that when you leave the airplane and begin a free fall, you have a tremendous feeling of euphoria.  If you get too caught up in that exciting feeling, you might forget to open your parachute.”

I pondered his answer for the rest of the day.  Then it occurred to me.  Falling out of an airplane and falling in love have much in common.  Falling in love is an exhilarating feeling. Caught up in the thrill of the emotions, it is quite possible to suspend sound judgment.  The spine-tingling infatuation of young love can easily displace common sense. 

As one divorce attorney explained, “Too many people get married because they pay more attention to their glands than to their hearts and minds.” Falling in love may be almost as dangerous as falling out of an airplan

Falling in love is, by its very nature, short-lived.  Hardly any human endeavor begins with such high expectations and then fails so frequently as falling in love.  If falling is the only thing that happens, irritations, disappointments, frustrations, and boredom soon take over.  Unfortunately, many people make life-shaping decisions based on falling in love. The experience of falling is exciting, but the landing can be tragic unless you have an open parachute.

The Greek word eros describes the initial feeling of falling in love. The Greek word agape identifies the parachute. It is the love that lasts.

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 essential dimensions of love in a healthy marriage.  One enables us to fall in love; the other enables us to stay in love.

Many of us have heard the story of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. He has opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian agents allegedly poisoned Navalny. He was treated in Germany and returned to Russia, where he was immediately arrested. At his trial last week, he was sentenced to prison. As he was escorted from the courtroom, he turned and looked through the glass in the door. He made eye contact with Yulia, his wife and their two young children. He formed the shape of a heart with his hands. Then with his finger, he drew a heart on the fogged glass.  These were not trite gestures of love. These were the ways of communicating a deeply committed love to the people most dear to him.

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 vital 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 nearly sixty years.  Their love is not a capricious feeling.  It is strong and sturdy, profoundly committed, and unfailing. 

Their love is a love that lasts, and it is beautiful.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at

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