Summer Reading: Love and Poetry

Message 29, Robert Frost: Love and Fear, August 8, 2010

© Doug Slagle, Pastor, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


In my research for today’s message on love and fear, I ran into a list of strange but real phobias.  Did you know that peladophobia is a fear of bald people?  Or that gymnophobia is a fear of nudity?  Cacophobia is a fear of ugliness.  Phobophobia is a fear of acquiring a phobia and, as many of you may have with regard to me, homilophobia is a fear of sermons!

In truth, it is often said that we all have a fear of something.  For our purposes today, as we consider our August theme of summer reading, love and poetry, one universal fear that many of us have, to some degree at least, is a fear of love and its many consequences.  As we discussed last Sunday when we looked at Emily Dickinson and her poetry on love and loss, our fears in regards to love are often due to the fact that we will each one day face its loss – either through death, relationship break up or the cessation of loving sentiments.  How we grieve, cope with and ultimately heal from such loss was our topic.

And just as we did last week, we’ll attempt today to gain some spiritual insights on the subject from a well-known American poet – Robert Frost.  Like Emily Dickinson, he was a New Englander and the height of his fame may have come when he recited one of his poems at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  Unlike Dickinson, Frost was well known as a poet during most of his lifetime, receiving five different Pulitzer Prizes for his work and, despite never having graduated from college, was given honorary degrees by over forty schools including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge.

Frost is a poet who is often cited as one who bridged the gap between nineteenth century and modern poetry.  He was a romantic in the classic sense, choosing themes of love and sentiment while regularly using nature as a backdrop.   And, like most poets, his personal life is said to have strongly influenced his poetry.  He suffered loss and tragedy in his life – his parents both died when he was still in his youth, his mother, his sister, his wife and a daughter all suffered from mental illness and he, himself, described long periods of personal depression.  The epitaph he chose to be put on his tombstone is a line from one of his poems “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” (from the poem “The Lesson for Today” in his book The Witness Tree)

For Frost, his poems often looked at life’s uncertainties and how humans choose the paths they follow.  Today, I want to examine how we manage those fears that often hold us back from experiencing life and love at their fullest.  What forms of fear like jealousy, indifference, possessiveness, failure to commit and insecurity hinder us?  How might we love freely and exuberantly – those who are significant others, those who are family members or even complete strangers?  With that, let us read Robert Frost’s poem “Love and Question”. You can find the words on the back of your programs.

A stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.

The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;

But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.

Frost leaves us hanging in terms of resolution to his poem.  What happens that resolves the question a nervous groom faces on his wedding night?  Does charity prevail and is a warm bed offered to the stranger or does the anticipation of wedded bliss win out?  Frost often introduces the character of a stranger into his poems not as a sinister force but as a symbol of the uncertainty we all face.  Indeed, on closer examination of the poem, we find that the apparent question of whether to help a stranger is not the central issue.  It is likely one the groom faces – which we all face – fear of the unknown, fear of a long and often weary marriage road ahead with no light at its end to guide one’s path, and fear of the love between he and his lover.  Will it last?  Will he be capable of such devotion?  Will his beloved remain faithful to him?  Why can’t he lock her love away within a golden heart?  Indeed, one can surmise he faces the universal fear of all newly committed lovers – will he be able to perform and consummate his new relationship?

It is likely not the stranger with the green stick – but it is he, the groom, who wields a green stick – if you understand the likely imagery.  This stranger who has come upon the honeymoon cottage in the woods may not even be a flesh and blood stranger at all but instead a lurking form of doubt, fear and uncertainty that we each face as we embark on our own journeys of love.

How does the groom deal with this stranger who might really be his own fears and doubts?  Does he admit the stranger into the house in confidence and security that nothing can mar his marriage road ahead?  Or, instead, does he give in to his own insecurities and admit the stranger who will possibly bring woe and heartache?  As we interpret the poem, it may not matter how the groom resolves the question before him – whether to admit the stranger or send him on his way.  What will matter the most is the motivation behind his answer to the question.

A well-known line from the Bible states that, and I quote from the New International Version, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” And thus we can relate to the poem and question Robert Frost has posed.  Love and fear cannot coexist.  In a perfect world where the bride and groom’s love is secure and certain, it would not matter how the poem’s question is answered.  Whether the stranger is allowed to enter or not, a secure and strong love will prevail.  But a love based in fear and insecurity is certainly not perfect.    As much as the groom might wish to lock away this bride’s love for all time, such is neither possible nor prudent.  Enforced love and captured love is not love at all.  If we are compelled to love someone or something, is it really love?

Just as we briefly discussed last Sunday when we examined love and loss, we undertake risk when we choose to love.  It is neither certain to last, to be returned or to not suffer a tragic end.  And so on this most exciting of all nights two people can face, the beginning of a loving relationship, the groom is called to face his fears.  What will he do?  Such is his question and such is ours – and not just at the beginning of our loving relationships but a question that should be asked over and over again.  Fear or love.  Which one do we choose?

As most of you know, I do not believe in the literal divinity of Jesus.  To call him Christ is to call him the messiah or the divine one chosen by god to save sinners from the depths of hell.  Instead, I follow the historic Jesus – the man who likely did live, die and teach many profound truths about humanity and our world – like concern for the outcast, for the poor, for women, for the humble, and for those who truly seek greater understanding of the Divine.

In that regard, there are many aspects of the Bible’s Jesus story which are likely true.  The man Jesus probably was executed by the Romans.  His many followers were then left in a state of shock, disbelief and fear because of his death.  And it is at this point of the story that facts likely shine through the myth of some parts of the Bible.  Many of Jesus’ male disciples, those who would become the first leaders of Christianity, denied even knowing Jesus after his arrest.  They fled and went into hiding as they mourned the death of their teacher and pondered their own uncertain futures.  A man whom they had said they loved and whom they proclaimed their undying devotion, was arrested, put on trial and condemned to execution.   Peter, the first leader of Christianity, refused to acknowledge Jesus under questioning by the Romans.  He and many of the other followers reacted not with love for Jesus but with fear.  Why would the Bible recount such a tale of cowardice by the early leaders if it were not based in fact?

Juxtaposed against the fear of the disciples are the actions of Jesus’ female followers who did not flee, but remained by his side throughout the trial and execution.  Whether the account of fearful male followers and courageous female followers is true or not, the lesson of the story is instructive.  Who reacted in fear and who reacted in love?  Whose love might we call perfect and true?

As I speak to you of imperfect love, I remember my own fears to love.  As a father to two daughters whom I cherish more than my own life, I know I have failed in showing them perfect love.  In some ways I have acted in the past like many dads who are insecure in showing real affection, who hesitate to hug, hesitate to express emotion and who rarely say “I love you.”  When I spoke several weeks ago on Father’s Day about the importance of play in our lives and how men often are too serious and do not play enough, especially with their children, I confessed to my own failure to play enough with my daughters when they were young.  And I confess the same now in terms of how I expressed love to them when they were younger.  Our culture too often tells men to be tough, to not show emotion or sensitivity and to show love only through being a good provider.  Indeed, it is often a male fear of being too close or too feminine or too “touchy – feely” that we neglect to show perfect love.  But that can leave children emotionally empty and insecure in their own feelings of self-worth and identity.  About ten years ago I knew I had to change.  What was I doing to my girls and to myself?  As I came to love and accept myself, I gained the added security to better love them – to hug, to touch, to stifle as much as possible my petty nagging and to regularly affirm them, at the end of each phone call and at the end of every visit, with a simple “I love you.”  How many times have we feared to say those words to those close to us, and how many times have those close to us yearned to hear such words?  What is it that we are afraid of?

I believe this choice between love and fear is a choice we must consciously make.  I don’t claim that it is an easy choice to make nor are our fears so simple that they can be immediately overcome.  So often our fears are based on what we have learned in our past.  What wounds, insecurities and troubles do we carry with us that prevent our choice to love?

Experts tell us that in moving beyond our fears, we must first identify and name our fear.  What was it that the groom, in Frost’s poem, really feared?  If I had to guess, it might be fears of his own inadequacy and insecurity at holding onto the love of his bride.  Why did I once fear to simply tell and show my daughters that I loved them?  I think it was fear of myself and fear of truly loving – fear that I would be too sensitive or not in control.  Indeed, instead of a macho man strutting around, outwardly oblivious to the needs of others, real men are nurturing, caring and able to express love.

Second, experts tell us that after we identify our fear, we must find its cause.  If we do not love another perfectly and are instead jealous or angry or indifferent, what caused us to be that way?  Was it a failed past love – someone who betrayed us?  Was it our upbringing and lack of love received or was it some other event in our lives like our failure in a past relationship?

Once we identify the cause, we can ask ourselves what we learned from that past experience.  If it was a love that betrayed us, perhaps we can learn to look for persons in whom we place greater trust or who have different personalities.  If we were once denied love by someone, we can learn to act in the opposite manner – to love fully and freely.  If we failed in a past relationship, we can learn why we failed.  Did we communicate poorly with the other, did we take the other for granted or were we not expressive in our sentiments?

Finally, if we know what our fears are and what caused them, we are better able to face them.  If we failed with past love because of our own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, we know how we must act differently.  One reason for my failure to perfectly love my daughters when they were younger was because I could not perfectly love myself.  As I learned to see the good in me, I could also confront my flaws.  I could then consciously choose to face my real fears and act in a way that denied them.  I would express my love more freely.  I would hug and touch and say “I love you”.  As I said earlier, many therapists say that our ability to overcome fear and instead to more perfectly love – without jealousy, anger, or insecurity – this involves a cognitive and conscious decision to confront the fear we have identified and then to change.

Some of you may recall that I spoke about a close friend of mine in a message back in March.  It was about finding joy and adventure in life no matter our age and I used this friend as an example.  He is 89 years old and a frequent work-out partner of mine.  I came to know him during my work in Pastoral Care at my previous church as his wife had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and he was in need of support and friendship.  My friend often talked to me about his over sixty year marriage and the many years he spent as a globe travelling businessman who faithfully worked hard to support his family.  His one regret was his years of relative indifference to the sacrifices of his wife and how aloof he had often been in expressing love to her.  With her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, however, he chose to become a new man.  He became a devoted husband, holding her, cherishing her, attending to her every need and acting as her caregiver long after she should have moved to a nursing home.  Once she did, he was still with her all of the time – doing most of the work of the nurses, feeding, clothing and bathing her.  He has ruefully admitted to me that the seven years of her slow decline due to that horrible disease were his way of finally and fully expressing his love for her.  He had been too afraid and too caught up in the American male ideal of stoic and strong provider to ever truly care for his wife.  As he told his story to me, about how at the end as he held her in his arms and she silently passed away, he repeated to her over and over again how much he loved her.  He said that so often during the years of her Alzheimer’s, he would say “I love you”, knowing that she likely was not hearing or understanding him.  And then he would ask himself why he had not shared his feelings more when she was healthy?  It is a question we often must ask of ourselves.  Whenever we choose to either say “I love you” or choose, instead, to not utter those words, will that be our last opportunity?  A follow-up to the silly bumper sticker I mentioned last week, “Love like you will never be hurt”, might be “Love like there is no tomorrow.”

Fear, for each of us, is simply a desire to avoid pain.  When we react in fear and flee from it, we are working to avoid pain.  In our relationships, when we fear to love – when we fear to show it, we are avoiding potential pain.  We act to avoid the pain of rejection, or being identified as inadequate or being betrayed.  It is certainly not irrational to avoid pain, however, and an important understanding for us is that we must learn to identify irrational fear from that which is prudent and wise.

As we must certainly admit, however, most of our fears to better love others are based on past hurts, irrational thinking and unresolved issues within us.  And yet, as we also know, perfect love is the antidote to those feelings.  When we show love and when we are not afraid to express it, in words and in deeds, we live within the divine heart.  Love is god.  Love is the spiritual force that creates joy, freedom, creativity, security and peace.  If our efforts here each Sunday are to understand more about ourselves and our world, what better answer for humanity and for all creation is there than acting in love?  This love must include kindness, charity, loving speech, generous actions, forgiveness, understanding of differences, celebrating diversity, holding others gently accountable and working to alleviate social injustice.  We cannot say we are perfectly loving if we speak unkindly to another, if we ignore the pain of other people and other creatures or if we are simply indifferent.  Nobody is perfect and we will all fail at one time or another at the game of love.  We will all give in to our fears.  But we must face them.  We must seek to conquer them.  For the sake of our well-being and for the sake of those we love – and this starts with me – we must acknowledge our fears and then work to banish them.

As Robert Frost implicitly asks in his poem, “Love and a Question”, do we choose fear or do we choose love?  I ask you, I ask myself, what is our answer?