Today begins Thirty Days of Love – a month of reflection and action centered around the idea that love is the ultimate guiding force. Across the denomination, people are meeting, learning, reflecting, and doing, guided by our Standing on the Side of Love campaign.
Some of us are also writing.
About a month ago, the UU Bloggers Workshop was created as space for support, learning, and collaboration. We thought, we shouldn’t just help each other become better and farther reaching bloggers – we should have public conversations and coordinated explorations. Thirty Days of Love seemed a perfect first such collaboration. Over the next thirty days, bloggers will write and reflect about love and our way forward to create the beloved community – with posts collected here for easy browsing. Together, we’ll take on this big, incredibly expansive compulsion to do good in the world – that crazy little thing called love.
I get to go first.
In reality, Unitarian Universalists are talking about love all the time; many of our congregations use an affirmation each week that begins “Love is the doctrine of this church.” Easily half our readings and hymns contain the word love. More contain “compassion,” which seems to be the preferred word these days. But I like the word “love.” It’s both simple and complex; it’s particular and all encompassing. Love is central to all of the world’s religions. It is a guiding force for our exemplars and pioneers. Love is everywhere – in our practices, prayers, and in our sacred texts.
In fact, one of the most famous passages in sacred texts is about love is found in the New Testament: I Corinthians 13.
We hear this passage all too often, most often at weddings. It’s poetic, yet as CS Lewis says, it has become so commonplace that it has lost its potency. But a closer look shows that this, perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament, tells us how we are with each other and how we act in the world.
This passage is a digression of sorts: In this first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing a number of divisive issues that are coming up in the church, including the question of “spiritual gifts” as a measure of one’s worth. Paul addresses them this way:
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. 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. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
For the Corinthians, and indeed most of the early Christians, the spiritual gifts were signs that God was working in their lives. These gifts are not unlike our own – where they embraced prophesy, healing, and speaking in tongues, we embrace prophetic witness, reason, and generosity.
Now these gifts themselves are fine – in fact, just as Paul preached on them to his flock, we preach on our gifts. They are important ways in which we move through our days, putting our faith into action. Some of us are great at hospitality, others at caring for one another, others still at speaking with a prophetic voice, or using intellect to understand the world. But the problem in Corinth – and the danger among us – is when the gifts become a sign, a shibboleth if you will, that divides the believers from the non-believers, the good UUs from the bad. The gifts are not the thing. They are useful to encourage and develop, but they are not THE thing.
The thing… is love. Without love, Paul says, “I gain nothing”… and frankly, neither does anyone else. Love is what allows our gifts to function.
And what a thing it is:
Love is patient. Love is kind.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul may not be able to tell us exactly what love is, but he sure knows it when he sees it.
How many times have we gotten irritated when our justice endeavors run into road blocks? Maybe the volunteers don’t show up. Maybe we don’t get the donations we expected. Maybe the people we’re helping don’t seem to appreciate it. There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we limited ourselves? Expected the worst, so we didn’t go the full distance? There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we been so angry at the injustice in the world that we’ve become paralyzed? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we been so proud of our own actions that we look down upon those who don’t – or can’t – do as much justice work? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we simply gotten burned out? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
I told you it’s not easy.
But love is permanent. It is eternal – and as the song says, there is more love somewhere. Paul emphasizes this point in the next three verses, which I have tweaked a little for our own time:
Love never ends. But as for our prophetic witness, it will come to an end; as for speaking truth to power, that will cease; as for intellect, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we reason only in part, but when justice and inclusion is complete, the parts will come to an end.
He then continues with two somewhat puzzling thoughts; first is this:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things.
My first thought always is “really? I can’t be a kid anymore?” But Paul is saying that we should put aside the petulant, smug, judgmental, and boastful side of promoting our gifts. We don’t want to be that way… and most of the time I don’t think we are… but it’s a danger, and one we should remember. When we act as adults, we put love first.
The second puzzlement comes in the next verse:
For now we see in a glass darkly, 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.
Mysterious, and yet: glass in the first century wasn’t clear – they hadn’t quite perfected that yet – so “seeing through a glass darkly” is seeing something obscured by grainy, opaque glass. In other words, we can’t see everything, or know everything. Our knowledge is NOT the be-all, end-all. Because, remember, if I have not love, I am nothing at all.
Put it another way: we can’t know every effect of everything we do. We can only act in love, with our best and highest intentions. Maybe you don’t know the effect your actions will have, but if you do it as an act of love, that is enough. And when you show love? People are not just helped and healed themselves. The also know you in ways you can’t anticipate. They see your generous heart, your kind spirit. They see your passion and compassion, your earnestness and forthrightness.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.
No matter what else is going on, it’s all about love. Love is where we begin – whether it is with each other, with the Divine (however we define it), with our families, our communities, or our world. Without love, anything we do is half a loaf. It’s ineffective. It’s uninspiring. It can cause bitterness.
I think about how large corporations are forced to pay for things like cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after an oil spill… when philanthropists give large amounts of money just for the tax breaks – and those acts always feel empty to me. Yes, the money is important to solve the issues, but if they walked through the world in love, they maybe wouldn’t have caused the problems in the first place. What if we shared love from the start – not just when things get bad, but pre-emptively? Maybe that’s what Paul is getting at. and what all of our songs and activities and organizations for social justice are about too: starting from a place of love so that the world is better nurtured from the start. In her book Blessing the World, Rebecca Parker implores us to “Choose to bless the world.” She writes,
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude to search for the sources of power and grace; native wisdom, healing and liberation. More, the choice will draw you into community, the endeavor shared, the heritage passed on, the companionship of struggle, the importance of keeping faith, the life of ritual and praise, the comfort of human friendship, the company of earth, its chorus of life welcoming you. None of us alone can save the world. Together—that is another possibility, waiting.
Together, we must share love, because it IS the greatest gift of all. Ultimately, it is all we have. It burns in us – it is our pilot light, which we can keep low and hidden under a bushel… or we can turn up so it is a beacon bright and clear – a beacon stoked by hope and faith. Everything else may fade away, but first and always, we must love.
[…] Kimberley Debus reads a classic passage from the Christian scriptures with an eye for connections between love and the work of justice. […]