One of my seminary professors frequently asked this question: “What is a lifetime and why do I live it?” The Presbyterian church where I most recently served on staff reframed his question this way: “Who is God and what is God up to? What is a good life and how do we live it?”
The theologically astute answer is simple: LOVE. Who is God? God is love. What is God up to? Loving all creation. What is a good life? One that exudes love. How do we live it? By loving God and loving others as we love ourselves.
Of course, what love looks like in daily life, what it asks of us, what it offers to us, and what it means in a particular relationship isn’t always easy to discern. And it may change over time. We know, thanks to the pop psychology notion of love languages, that different types of words and actions (things like affection, gift giving, time together or in COVID, time at opposite ends of the house), convey love to different kinds of people.
In the Hebrew Bible the word hesed elegantly depicts divine and human love. Often translated as kindness or lovingkindness, hesed has the quality of unwavering commitment, enduring loyalty, and persistent preference for the wellbeing of others.
Hesed appears in the book of Ruth three times. It is a story about lovingkindess, both God’s and ours. It is frequently read (in part anyway) at weddings and today frames these thoughts on Mother’s Day.
Ruth, who is not a mother, exudes kindness and loyalty toward her mother-in-law Naomi who has suffered unbearable loss. Her husband and grown sons are dead. She is destitute, on the brink of ruin. And Ruth responds to her with hesed.
Lovingkindness, in this story and elsewhere, takes shape in the ordinary and mundane, in the grit and grime of life. It’s rarely glamorous. Ask a mother of a newborn. Lovingkindness is heightened attunement to the needs of a tiny human who has no awareness of you as a separate person. Love transforms your body into a feeding machine. It deprives you of sleep for months and years. This love smells, among other things, like spit-up. You wear it like a badge of honor though you’re not exactly sure where you are wearing it. It feels like Mommy Thumb. That’s a real thing—a form of tendonitis from holding a baby. Mothers over age forty are three times as likely to develop it, which is what the doctor says while injecting your thumb. This is like adding insult to injury. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
When I was a seminary administrator, I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time addressing the mundane. I took calls about leaking roofs, malfunctioning HVAC systems, bed bugs, and even a cat that burned its paws while laying on a malfunctioning dorm-room stove. We paid the vet bill and thanked God for the many lives given to felines.
The point is: lovingkindness happens in ordinary care for bodies and buildings, land and animals.
Which is to say that lovingkindness (hesed) happens in a series of daily choices, most of which we can’t plan for. In the midst of a cascade of loss, Ruth chooses Naomi and clings to her. Ruth says “yes” to love and therefore to Naomi. This is what life partnership is all about: saying “yes” to another human being; intentionally “choosing” life with, not without, this one.
Sometimes the choice to love entails loss. For Ruth, saying “yes” to Naomi means leaving the land, the people, and the religion she knows. For home is not first and foremost a place but an attachment, a clinging, a loving that has its origins in the being of God. Ruth does the most natural, beautiful, God-like thing: she clings to Naomi. In spite of the risks.
Lovingkindness can be quite risky. LOVE and VULNERABILITY are interwoven. By choosing Naomi, Ruth places herself at risk of poverty, exploitation, violence, and even more social marginalization. Nevertheless, Ruth keeps choosing an extraordinary love in and through ordinary activities of life.
Our capacity for vulnerability is related to the tenacity of lovingkindness. We all know the saying about mother bears protecting their cubs. The fierce maternal instinct, wherever and in whomever it is found, witnesses to hesed. I remember my own mother running down the street after Gerald Ford, (not the President!) but one of the boys in my second-grade class. I don’t remember what he did to me but evidently it was bad enough for my mother to chase him down. He was racing his bike; she was on foot. I can still see her catching up to him and admonishing him – all for the sake of my wellbeing.
Lovingkindess is at work whenever we refuse to abandon a lifelong friend plunged into despair, or a child caught in throes of addiction, or an exasperating partner, or a fellow church member who, because of personality, circumstance, or illness, is downright hard to love. People like Naomi. Who is stripped down to nothing, anguished, wretched, and resentful. “Don’t call me Naomi (which means pleasant). Call me Mara (meaning bitter),” she says, because she is.
Ruth clings to her anyway. Just like mothers and all those who engage in mothering. And most importantly, just like God. Who pursues us relentlessly. Who acts with unfailing kindness toward us. Whose extraordinary love is shared among us in ordinary acts like baking bread, washing laundry, serving nutritious meals, in listening to and embracing the heartbroken; and, so much more.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).