“[HE] was thinking about all the popular definitions of love, that it was a pair of bare hands clasping an ember to keep it alive; that it was a pearl that shines forever; even in the belly of an eel that eats the oyster; that love was a bear that feeds you honey from its claws.” – from Adam Johnson, in The Orphan Master’s Son
We live in an era where the word “love” gets thrown around like its nothing. Almost as soon as Christmas festivities have flown, stores like Target, Wal-Mart and the like begin stocking their shelves with red and pink candy, flowers, cards, etc., many of which feature the word “love” plastered all over their packaging. (Sidenote: In a recent sketch, Saturday Night Live skewered these “crappy” love gifts in this hilarious sketch) If you ever happen to pop into a place like “ColdStone Creamery” for a frozen treat (which may not sound super delicious during this coldest-of-cold winters, if you live in the east), you can choose from sizes that are aptly titled, “Like it” and “Love it.” As one fellow blogger pointed out in a recent conversation, where we were preparing to present at the aptly titled, “All You Need is Love” conference, we also talk a lot about offering each other “love” via social media: we can give some good ol’ Twitter and Facebook loving by liking and commenting on and retweeting other people’s content.
Perhaps we’ve become so inundated by “love” that the concept itself has actually begun to feel a bit stale or cliché.
Case in point: I’ve been to a lot of weddings in the last 5-7 years. Although this trend is diversifying, it still feels like the post-college years often include a sort of summer-long wedding gauntlet full of showers, dresses, gifts, etc. It also included listening to a wide variety of wedding meditations and scripture passages about love. And here’s my confession: every time I showed up at a Christian wedding and read through the order of service, only to note that 1 Corinthians 13 had been chosen as the scripture reading of choice, I’d sort of groan. This felt like the Christian-version of a Valentine’s day card: overused, over the top and a little too schmaltzy for my particular tastes.
But when we actually dig into the text of 1 Corinthians 13, it actually turns out that there’s a lot of good meat there. Bear with me as I repeat these words once again:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I know that there are times when human love simply cannot bear those things that are asked of it. Times when maybe it shouldn’t. If there’s no justice, there can’t be reconciliation. If there’s no mutual commitment, there’s sometimes no healthy way to stay.
But what feels so striking about this passage to me today – from where I sit – is two things.
First, the reminder that God’s love does bear all things, and believer all things and hope all things for us. As I’ve been reading about faith formation and child development (toddler on the brain over here), one of the things that has been most striking to me is the assertion that the first and primary thing that a small child needs to know about God is that God loves them, no matter what. When we share Bible stories, when we pray, when talk about who and how God is, this is the primary thing they should know: that no matter what they do, who they are, how they speak, what they wear, etc., God will always love them. And that that love will be characterized as patient, kind, not boastful and flexible, among many other traits.
This is easy for me to hold in front of me with my own daughter. Of course I believe that God loves her. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to give that sweet, stubborn girl a big bear hug, no matter what. And it’s easy for me to love people who are like me or who agree with me and validate that who I am is good, and right and the best.
But there are others who it is not so easy for me to love. There are those who I disagree with. Who I cringe at sharing any label with. Whose theology feels threatening to me or whose actions confound me. Love does not just pour forth in interactions like these. More like a strong desire to run away or disassociate or check out. You get the picture.
But I have to wonder: what would our interactions with each other look like if we could always hold this awareness in front of us, in every day to day interaction? This awareness that not only are we a beloved child of God (because yes, we are, we need to claim that – every day), but so is everyone else that we are encountering. This doesn’t mean we don’t disagree. This doesn’t mean we don’t have difficult conversations. That doesn’t mean we don’t wrestle with and debate theology and try to make sense of the ways that God works in the world. But it does mean that we understand – first and foremost – that the people we encounter everyday – are worthy of love.
Secondly, this passage reminds us that none of us have the full picture or any particular corner on the truth. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
I don’t want to get into an eschatological debate here – that would be something entirely different. But these verses do feel like an exhortation to hold our truths lightly. To understand that the Spirit is moving and truth will keep unfolding and being revealed. And to understand that we need each other in order to have the best chance of moving forward. That conversing together stretches and challenges us and gives us a more robust picture of how the world is and how God works within it.
I just finished reading Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ. It’s an excellent read, and I’m planning to write a full review on Monday. But in this book, she said several things that challenged me. In one particular chapter, she talks about our “self-serving bias,” which implies that we often tend to protect our own self-esteem by rating ourselves- and those who we consider part of our “ingroup” – better than average at most things. This is not always true. Obviously many of us probably struggle with confidence at different times and different places. But Cleveland notes that it is – by and large – human tendency to overestimate our abilities and our contributions and our own correctness.
Cleveland writes, “…we often claim most of the credit for successful efforts. We tend to shift the blame for societal ills to other groups. We tend to care more about our fellow church group members than members of other Christian groups….We often ridicule, undermine and put down other groups. We are often stingy when it comes to praising other groups, especially those that are fundamentally different than us.” Cleveland suggests that we need to begin to think through the ways our primary identity as Christians is held together in Christ. She makes it clear that this does NOT mean erasing or ignoring cultural, theological, and other differences, but it does mean remembering that we are somehow on a journey together, and we’re better because of our diversity.
So, on this Valentine’s Day, of all days, maybe you will get some chocolate or a card or flowers. But hopefully you’ll also remember – along with me – to take the time to greet others that you encounter in a spirit of love. To ask what might need to change within ourselves so that love can unfold. And to remember, as cliché as it may sound, that, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way…”