Casey Kasem's American Top 40 blared from the radio. Hugging my pillow tight, I swayed across the kitchen floor, eyes closed, singing:
I said I love you and that's forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are.
Billy Joel's lyrics took me beyond the embarrassment of my parents laughing at my flat-footed steps and off-key notes. The melody lifted me out of the loneliness of the dance itself: A pillow couldn't substitute for all the boys who'd never asked me for a dance at any of our high school dances or house parties. I wanted someone to sing those words to me. More, I wanted to sing those words to someone. Anyone.
More than 1,000 Sunday morning worship services later, I realize I have been singing Billy Joel's words to someone. They've been the subtext to hymns I've sung week after week—I Love You, Lord, Better Is One Day, Immortal Invisible. I wonder though if I really love the triune God—the great I Am Who I Am—just the way he is. I know I love who I'd like to think he is: the tender high-school boyfriend, emotive father, and dragon-slaying prince I've never had.
I Am Who I Am challenged Moses to exodus with nothing more than the bald sufficiency of who he is and always will be (Exodus 3:14).
I Am Who I Am declared to Isaiah, "Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9).
He cut through Job's anguished grasping: "Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine" (Job 41:11).
On one level, I Am Who I Am exists outside of the tears and fears that make up my life; a life that, most days, I'd like him to fix—to my specifications of course.
I AM is 100 percent "other."
Dare I then love I AM just the way he is? Does he want me to?
Yes, because I AM went further than the miracle of a burning bush to proclaim deliverance. He became one of us, sat beside a well to ask a Samaritan woman for water, and declared that very deliverance (John 4:25-26).
Can I love I AM just the way he is?
Yes, because I AM cried out his heart for justice and mercy, his compassion for the world, through the caked lips of a dying man on a cross.
In Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a windy silence wraps the figures of John and Jesus' mother, Mary. Jesus has just breathed his last. Suddenly, a raindrop falls. It touches earth and the temple quakes while the curtain barring the Holy of Holies rips from bottom to top. Say what you will about Gibson's movie; that raindrop—a teardrop no less—bears witness to the fact that God the Father drank the same cup his son chose, finally, to drink.
That teardrop reminds me that I can live—abundantly—not having to have his final answer for all that cuts me up inside: the 2.5 million persons, mainly women and children, trafficked around the world; the 11 million people classified as refugees by the United Nations (49 percent are women and children); the silenced victims of domestic abuse. The great I AM tasted suffering, and that fact is becoming enough for me.
Do I love I AM just the way he is?
Yes, because I AM asks me never to be afraid of him: "Don't be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever!" (Revelation 1:17-18). What an invitation I AM offers me: to look beyond the burning bush; to turn my face to the scandal of the triune God-made-flesh and the outrage of a cross—and not look away; to look inside an empty tomb, then up—into his eyes.
"Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm," he whispers, "for my love for you is stronger than death." It's an invitation to trust—with all I've got, holding nothing back.
And so I stand in that space where the wind of the Spirit blows, singing Sunday's hymns, and I begin to understand that, in Christ, I Am Who I Am speaks—no, sings—his hard-won passion over me.