O Tell Me the Truth about Love

Guest speaker: The Rev. Dr. C. Wayne Hilliker
(Minister Emeritus, Chalmers United Church, Kingston)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“O Tell Me The Truth About Love”

Resonating Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13

Queries the poet W.H. Auden about love:

Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greening be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

The original inhabitants of Canada’s northern landscapes, our Inuit brothers and sisters, tell us that they have at least 24 words for snow. Each word refines the overall concept of snow in some way.

There will be a term for snow before a storm, another for snow after a storm, another for snow lying in a certain direction, another for snow at a certain season of the year.

The reason for this absolute precision of language about snow is obvious: The Inuit live, eat, sleep, work, play and survive in snow. One of our sons, who is an Officer in the Canadian Military, was posted as the Commanding Officer to the northern community of Alert. It is the most northernly permanent settlement in the world. The motto on the town crest is “The land beyond the Inuit”. ie. even the Inuit know this is too far north!

Well, our focus this morning is not snow, but it is about something that is as much the context of human life as snow is in northern Canada.

Our focus, on this the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, is on that very slippery word ‘love’. Our English language and our culture have put an almost impossible burden on the word ‘love’. We can mean so many things when we use this tiny but immense word.

Read some of the ads in the “Personal” columns of our newspapers and you sense a number of different understandings about love: I quote:

CUDDLING LADY professional, 5’5” vivacious, well-dressed blue-eyed beauty, passionate, worldly, good conversationalist, golfer, tennis, dancing.

Mentally and financially secure. Seeking gentleman with same. Discreet businessman only, 45 +.

MALE 27, committed to God, strong build, attractive, likes kids, sports, romance, seeks spiritually committed woman around 18-25.

We can mean so many things when we use the word ‘love’. We can mean obsession, desire, addiction, lust, affection. The Greeks were wiser; they had several ways of expressing the English word ‘love’.

They spoke of filia, which perhaps translates best into English as ‘friendship’.

They also spoke of eros, that deeper and more demanding force and energy in our nature that is not limited to, but certainly includes sexual desire.

Then the Greeks added a word for which, interestingly, there seems to be no equivalent in English. They spoke of agape. By this they meant a quality of love that continues to give itself when no love is returned. But agape can also mean the kind of love in which you sense that you are loved beyond what you deserve.

Our instinct is to want to do something to earn that love instead of simply opening ourselves in gratitude to such moments of grace. When from time to time we come across it we are humbled and silenced, precisely because we instinctively know its rarity.

Christian tradition speaks of such unconditional love as at the very heart of the holy Mystery we call God.

Long before the common era, Greek philosopher Plato offered this different twist to the meaning of love:

When you are young”, he wrote, “and you see a beautiful face, you think, ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful’ Then you discover a higher kind of beauty, which is love of ideas. And then you discover the love of justice and society, and that leads to a still higher kind of beauty, which is the love of the universe as a cosmos”. (ie. as a unified whole.)

Love — so many different meanings, and such an overworked word. Well, we just listened to our service weaver Maureen, read the familiar passage on love found at 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. These words sound so charming that our culture commonly reduces them to greeting card banality.

In a journal I receive, a parish minister makes reference to this particular passage. She writes:

When(ever) 1 Corinthians 13 crosses my path, I don’t greet it with a great deal of enthusiasm. Beautiful, lyrical, significant though it may be, all I need to hear is– “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels”… and I’m gone. I am usually deep in the midst of my own thoughts by the time the speaker reaches “Love is patient and kind.” This passage is lost in the netherworld of those things we hear too much: for me it is cliched, trifling and lifeless.”

The dull air of familiarity. I think I know what she means. Familiarity sometimes breeds contempt.

Many a time when I have married couples, they have chosen to have read at their service this very passage. This is especially true of those couples who like to feel they are ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ without being committed to a particular faith community or fellowship. This text becomes not only their statement on love, but also the primary representation of the tradition to which they have some lingering connection.

They may be unsettled with regard to the rest of Christian tradition and beliefs, but they are very comfortable with this text. Often they choose it because, ‘it sounds so nice’.

But I wonder. The more I ponder the passage, the more I come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be comfortable with this text at all. I can’t speak for you but Paul’s words on love makes me deeply uneasy, because they tell us that the most important thing about being fully human, or faith-filled, if you will, is the most difficult and the most demanding.

What is certain is that Paul didn’t have a wedding in mind when he penned this letter to the Corinthians! For he was writing this note, with great passion, to a community of people engaged in tearing itself apart with disputes. Who was right? Whose gifts were truly crucial? Which members could they live without if things got too rough?

Many of us live and work in communities, families, congregations, or even work settings, which are facing the same struggles.

Whatever the case may be, I find it striking that of all the various forms of love that scripture makes known to us, the one that Paul centers down on is love among human beings. Notice, Paul is not speaking here of the commandment to love God. He’s not speaking of adoration or attachment, passion or affection.

Paul speaks, instead, of a unifying love which he says will solidify a community, which, in turn, will make a difference in the world. Paul is declaring that our well-being as a community is bound to the well-being of one another.

I owe you. Not because I like you. (I may, but that is not the point.)

I owe you this kind of love not because you have been kind to me. (although that may be so.)

I owe you not because you favoured me in any way. (Even though that may be also). No, I owe you because we are one.

The love of which Paul speaks then, is not a personal, private acquisition. This is not love which makes us feel safe and warm. This is love as the action, as the response, as the sacrifice. How does that saying go: “Love is a verb, not a noun”. And because we are not very good at this kind of love, we can never hear this reading too often.

The tendency for most of us, is to privatize the love of which the passage addresses. Clearly, our private relations are precious to us, and well they should be. But Paul is saying, they do not make us a unifying community.

Rather, he is speaking of the love that is our responsibility. Paul tells these folk in Corinth, that they will succeed at being a faithful community when they feel bound to one another with love. Bound by responsibility and commitment, and under-girded with patience and kindness.

It may be that we are part of a congregation or fellowship of many members and adherents, offering good programs for young and old, conducting enriching services, and with measureless gifts counted among its people. But, if we are not bound to one another with the love of which this passage speaks, then Paul would assert that we are simply ‘a clanging gong or a noisy symbol.’

What an extraordinary word this is! For not only does Paul exalt love among all the virtues, he makes love the condition of all the rest.

How easy it becomes to live our lives inattentive to what Paul says is the most important thing of all. This kind of love takes constant work. So we have to make a commitment to it, again and again, if we are to keep at it over the long haul. The truth is that we would be hard-pressed to find in any holy writ, of any religion, a more radical or comprehensive statement of ethical direction.

I am a member of the Christian church, but I would also assert that, at its most faithful, the church is never dogma in search of obedience, but rather, love in search of form.

While pursuing some studies at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, I recall hearing a talk given by a professor of the Hebrew scriptures, in which he made this assertion. He said:

We abuse scripture when we turn to it seeking models for our morality, but read it faithfully when we seek in and through it, mirrors of our identity.

Ie. we shouldn’t turn to the Bible or any holy book, to be told what to do. Rather, we go to it to discover who we are. Ie. to discover what kind of people we are called to be in this time and place. And that will mean different things, for different people, in different settings.

Having said that, it remains true that in all of scripture there is no injunction more fundamental than that contained in the simple yet costly words, “Love one another”.

Today, as we seek to live this kind of loving responsibility, we are recognizing that neat black-and-white distinctions are much less trouble to live with than those vexing gray-area questions that dominate so much of our lives and the news. The difficulty is that people who just know that they are right come off sounding more reliable than those who appear to be hedging. Politicians soon discover that the best moral issues to take into the public arena are those that appear to avoid ambiguity and instead, appeal directly to strong surface emotions.

The result: An arena of absolutes start being applied to all kinds of situations, topics, issues and policies.

History suggests that the damage done to humanity by the so called relativist is far less than the damage done by the moral absolutist. The truth, which our own history demonstrates is that certitude is not the test of certainty. One might even argue that the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is certainty. Members and leaders of religious traditions have been 100% certain of many things that were not so.

I can’t speak for you, but I know I find myself agreeing very much with sociologist Peter Berger’s discovery: He wrote:

I find I can communicate much better with people who disagree with me but who are uncertain about their position, than I can with people who agree with me but who hold their shared views in a posture of certainty.

It is no wonder that people can end up doing evil things so cheerfully, when they do it from a posture of religious certainty. Along side of this is our failure to recognize that ethics come into play when a value comes under threat. Take for example the issue of abortion: We will never bring total ethical closure on abortion because more than one value is under threat. There is the value of the life of the woman, the value of the woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, the value of the fetus.

Sadly, we can find ourselves yielding to the temptation of bringing premature closure on some ethical issues simply because we do not have the courage to live with moral ambiguity. Too often, rigid doctrinal statements contained in holy books of different religious traditions, end up becoming a way to divide, separate, put down, condemn, or even kill others. When this happens, it can turn a particular religion into something that is violent, cruel and ugly.

(Incidentally—a book worth reading that elaborates on this theme is one by two Quakers, Gulley and Mulholland. The book is entitled “If God is love”. Even if G-O-D is no longer a word that you connect with, I still think you would find this book engaging. I commend it to you.

It is the mystical paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin who has reminded us that “the way we treat people is the way we treat God”. He was also the one who predicted:

The world itself will belong tomorrow to those who brought it the greatest hope.

I think Paul would expand that observation by adding that the world tomorrow will, indeed, belong to those who bring it the greatest hope because they show it the greatest love.

Hope that is grounded in that way, arouses in us, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible. For me, that is the genius of Christianity: Namely, to have proclaimed that the pathway to the deepest Mystery is the path of love.

It was the French philosopher Descartes who said, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ ie, I think, therefore I am. Perhaps a deeper truth is‘Amo, ergo sum’ ie. I love, therefore I am.

Love is the name of our journey. It is love that measures our stature. Someone has written, ‘There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a person all wrapped up in himself or herself.’

Sure, we may deny that love, we may stifle it. Still it lives. It lives in each and every one of us, as a tiny spark that will not die, even when the odds are against its continued burning.

Maybe, at the end of the day, this is what a trusting faith really is all about. Namely, recognizing the direction that our lives start heading when, as a result of different kinds of experiences and moments, we come to realize that we are loved beyond what we deserve. That’s why, for me, the best definition of God that I know of, is ‘unconditional Love’.

Such grace can be transformative. No wonder, some call such Love — amazing!