Some will know that my favorite movie is Bart Freundlich’s 1997 Indie film The Myth of Fingerprints. In the film, Daphne and Warren are in broken relationship due to a horrible incident that happened four years prior. Daphne and Warren have been apart for that length of time, but in a scene halfway through the movie they meet in the middle of a frozen lake. In that snowy expanse, they drop to their knees facing one another as if in prayer. At one point, they lean in forehead-to-forehead. They engage the past, and after soul-searching, Daphne finally says to Warren, “There came a point like a year ago, I guess. I was lying on my bed, and I thought of you, and I realized I didn’t think about that night. I just thought about you, and how you loved me. How you always told me, and I always believed you.”
The Myth of Fingerprints is one of those movies in which the cinematography tells its own story and practically every line of dialogue is a sermon. The scene between Daphne and Warren is arresting. Try to picture it in your imagination. In the middle of the frozen lakebed, the two of them could be alone in all creation. There is nothing at all around them, nothing to separate them from the presence of one another. Each word one says to the other lands in the fullness of attention. And when Daphne recollects the character of Warren’s love, it is an epiphany to her and to him.
In John’s Gospel today, Jesus gives to the faithful the most challenging and cryptic of all his teaching. One might say he ceases to be the rabbi and becomes the mystic. Alluding first to his own coming Passion, Jesus then says to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Often, we imagine that Jesus means his followers must be willing to lose their lives in service to others, and in conviction of the Gospel. This is undoubtedly true, but read in the sweeping context of John’s Gospel, Jesus surely means more than that. He means something even deeper and more profound than being “all in” with regard to the things we must faithfully do in the world. Jesus is talking here, as he has earlier spoken in John’s Gospel to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and countless others, of how we must be. Even more to the point, he speaks of how we must be in relation to God.
Before we can begin to understand that, we must, with open-eyed honesty, look at the way our relationships—virtually any and all relationships—function in the world. This is not easy, but it is necessary. More than anything else, we live in a world that is transactional. Ayn Rand, loathed or loved depending upon one’s perspective, said, “The principle of trade is the…principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.”[i] We may not like that sentiment, but we must acknowledge its accuracy.
It is obvious that our casual interactions are transactional. We engage in friendly banter with a store clerk, but the basis of the relationship, as both know, is ultimately the exchange of money for goods. The same is true with every service provider in our lives: banker, attorney, physician. We would not remain in these relationships if they did not meet our needs in a beneficial way. They are transactional.
This holds equally true in those relational webs in which the transactional nature is more creatively masked. I am in a breakfast club, for example, and though (in a non-pandemic world) we enjoy conversation over bacon and eggs, there is a deeper, underlying purpose of professional networking in our meetings. (Even I scope the room to see if any newcomer might be looking for a church home!) Similarly, in an earlier phase of my life I was an active member of the Kiwanis Club. That organization purports service-to-others as its reason for being—and we did much good for the local community—but trust me when I say that each member both expected and received a very real if intangible professional return for being a Kiwanian.
But surely, we may protest, our familial and friend relationships are different. Surely they are not transactional. Not so fast. As you may have already discerned, “transactional” is merely another word for “conditional,” and therapists’ calendars are kept booked to the margins by those who wake up and realize the myriad ways in which our closest relationships have all been predicated on conditions. A parent’s love is withheld unless a child (sometimes an adult child) meets certain expectations that often have to do more with the parents own emotional insecurities and needs. Marriages end when one spouse is left unfulfilled by the other. Friends betray or fade away when the friendship takes more than it gives. In all these cases and innumerable others, love is conditional. It is transactional. And when the transaction no longer works in our favor, we are left severely disappointed if not emotionally damaged.
Ayn Rand claims that this dynamic is operative in our spiritual lives as well, and she is correct, for surely this is also how we approach God. We seek God in our need, and when life fails us, we reproach God for failing us, too. We subconsciously imagine God as the cosmic parent, or the supernatural fix-it man. Our relationship with God is transactional. We may claim that our hearts desire unconditional love, but we consistently levy God with conditions.
All that is to say, Ayn Rand correctly diagnoses us. But her prescription—to embrace and double-down on transactional love—is all wrong. Obviously, in our secular, economic lives, our very real needs and the reality of supply and demand mean that conditional relationships are unavoidable. And, it is important for me to say, by their nature there is nothing wrong with them. But in our relationships of family and friends, and especially in our relationship with God, nothing is more insidiously damaging than conditional love. This manner of relationship, in which we transfer the dynamics of our economic lives into our intimacy of our closest relationships, is, in fact, what Jesus tells us today must die. Nothing less than the radical shedding of this way of being in the world can save us. In fact, in John’s Gospel “eternal life,” rather than referring to some future heaven, is the way of being in which love is received and given unconditionally and for its own sake. And in order to gain that life, we must lose the old one.
How? How can we be jolted out of our old existence and opened to something so radically new? Perhaps by hearing again the voice of God through the prophet Jeremiah, but this time in light of what Jesus has told us. Today, God says of God’s people, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Lest it be opaque, God here is throwing out all transactions in our relationship with God. There are no external laws, no quid pro quo, no conditions. Can we even begin to fathom what such a relationship with God would be like? Can we imagine a life in which we do not need to plead with God in our weakness, or bargain with God in our anxiety, because God’s love for us is already present and boundless? Can we imagine a life in which all of this is written on our hearts and thus known to us as intimately as our own names? What a blessed relief it would be. It staggers the imagination and boggles the mind.
God’s greatest desire is that we, like Daphne and Warren kneeling toward one another on the frozen lake, alone together in all the world, will emerge from our troubled and vexed past lives. We will enter a new, eternal life in which we are fully present to God as God is always fully present to us, in which we come to understand that there is nothing we can do or fail to do that will diminish God’s healing, comforting, empowering, and enduring love for us. God’s greatest desire is that we will say, like Daphne, “There came a time when I thought of you, and I realized I didn’t think about the old life. I just thought about you, and how you loved me. How you always told me, and I always believed you.”
When we embrace eternal life and a love without conditions, we lean toward God, like those two figures knelt in the snow, until our lives and the very life of God make contact. When that happens, the love of God permeates us, and no matter what the stresses and struggles in our world, we find that in the love of God we are whole.
At the very end of his autobiography, the great Howard Thurman says this best. He describes the eternal life that is found now in God’s unconditional love when he says, “Failure may remain failure in the context of all our strivings, hatred may continue to be hatred in the social and political arena of the common life, tragedy may continue to yield its anguish and pain, spreading havoc in the tight circle of our private lives, the dead weight of guilt may not shift its position to make life even for a brief moment more comfortable and endurable, for any of us–all this may be true. Nevertheless, in all these things there is a secret door which leads into the central place, where the Creator of life and the God of the human heart are one and the same…It is here that the meaning of the hunger of the heart is unified. The Head and the Heart at last inseparable; they are lost in wonder in the One.”[ii]
[ii] Thurman, Howard. With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, pg. 269.