(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills
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I believe the Bible is a compilation of writings by many different authors mostly dating from 500 years before Jesus to 150 years after. It is mostly theological, and not literal history. Written entirely by men, the books of the Bible each have a religious agenda and were intended to support, encourage, criticize or inspire targeted groups of people. I also believe the majority of the Bible is allegorical. Its stories were intended as lessons and not as descriptions of actual events – although small portions of the Bible do include historical fact. Anyone familiar with Greek mythology, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Aesop’s fables can understand how and why Biblical literature was composed. No Biblical author intended to deceive. Rather, they used myth-like stories to instruct and persuade people about religion, life and doing good.
Should the Bible, because it’s mostly not factual, be relegated to the fiction book section and read only in that light? I don’t think so. There are useful insights in it that are relevant to us today – no matter our spiritual beliefs or no beliefs. The Jewish and Christian Bible is thus a piece of useful wisdom literature as are other Scriptures like the Koran or the Hindu Upanishads.
I say all of this to preface my message today which will look at perhaps the most well-known of Bible verses – ones recited at countless weddings, ones that have inspired many poems and songs including the Unitarian Universalist hymn, “Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire,” and ones I hope will prompt our reflections on February’s Valentines Day and the topic of love. The love verses in Paul’s first letter to the early Christian church, in the ancient Greek city of Corinth, are ones I consider today because I believe, as do many people, they are perhaps the most poetic and timeless definitions of love as have ever been composed.
If I speak many languages, even that of angels, but do not have love, I am only a loud gong or clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and, for pride’s sake, sacrifice myself for others, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Just like all other books in the Bible, Paul wrote his first Corinthians letter to instruct. In doing so, he wrote verses that will forever be considered the ultimate description of love’s truth . For any of us who seek to better love partners, spouses, parents, children, friends, or strangers – we might meditate on them.
Paul’s letter rebukes and teaches the Corinth congregation. This early church had become toxic – one that was deeply divided, arrogant, competitive, abusive, and insensitive. Many people in that church, like many residents of the city, were highly educated and very wealthy. That created in them arrogance and haughtiness. They believed themselves to be intellectually, spiritually, and culturally superior to members who were not urbane, “with it” or rich. Terrible divisions resulted with the elites shunning others by asserting only they should be leaders. They arrogantly held lavish meals and social events to which the less wealthy could not afford to participate – and that did not trouble the church’s leaders. Worst of all, the elites felt only they had knowledge of what is true and they adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude – think as we do or get out. Sadly, Paul’s letter shows that church communities, from their very beginning, can become cliquish, unloving and exclusive. The hypocrisy of a community that claimed to believe in the ethics of Jesus was too much for Paul. His letter holds no punches in its criticism of them. But his love verses were a way to gently show them the light. Don’t puff yourselves up so much that you forget the greatest of all sentiments, he wrote. Be kind, be humble, don’t judge, forgive, be empathetic and compassionate to all – and most importantly practice these to people you dislike, disagree with, or who live on the margins.
For Paul, love is not merely a warm feeling. It is the bedrock ideal on which all other ideals are founded. As he wrote, one can seemingly be the smartest, most capable, most justice seeking person ever, but if he or she does not speak, act and think with love, they are nothing. It’s in this way that Paul understood what it means to be a Christian or, for that matter, any intuitive and aware person. All of life and all of human accomplishment rises or falls on whether or not we love. And so Paul, with his words, described for the Corinthian church just exactly what genuine love looks like. It is unconditional and selfless affection toward another – no matter what.
Since all of us are a child of someone, the parent of someone, or the owner of a pet, we each have most likely felt or shown unconditional love. For me, and I am not in any way an expert on love, I can mostly understand it’s “no strings attached” expression by what I feel for my daughters. Love for them is somehow hardwired into me. No matter what good or bad things Amy and Sara could ever do or not do, I will love them. I knew from the instant they came into this world, so tiny, fragile and dependent on their mom and me, that I deeply loved them. I’ve felt it every time they were hurt – with a scraped knee, with a cold or flu, with a boyfriend who forsook them, or with the disappointments of school and work. Their hurt was and is my hurt. Their vulnerability is my vulnerability. Their fears and doubts are mine too – and all I can feel is a desire to protect them and make them feel better.
I’ve equally felt that love when they’ve disappointed me: when they, as children, openly defied me, or when, as teenagers, they cursed me for setting curfews, or now when they get busy with their lives and forget to call. I’ve felt the ache of love at those times not because I’m wounded, but because I perceive more clearly how deep my affection is for them. Only a parent can fathom such unconditional love when a belligerent child or rebellious teenager proclaims their disdain for those who brought them into the world. It’s childhood angst and not real dislike, most parents know. My girls are now two of my best friends who conclude every call and every visit with me by saying, “I love you.” In my eyes, they are still the innocent little girls who used to call me daddy, held my hand wherever we walked, and wanted my approval more than anything in the world.
As a son, I’ve also felt unconditional love for, and from, my mom. She was my constant cheerleader when I grew up – always finding ways to boost the self-esteem of her introspective and quiet son. When I came out as a gay man thirteen years ago, my mom was initially confused – but she quickly rallied to my defense. She would look at my dad with dagger eyes whenever he made homophobic statements – sensing how they hurt me. Most of all, she assured me of her acceptance at a time when I felt very alone.
And I feel the same toward her. Suffering from dementia, she is now the child and I’m the parent. She repeats questions over and over. She delights in eating desserts and sweet things. She loves stuffed animals. She cries at any physical pain, but cherishes hugs and having her hand held. I can’t help feeling upset when I see her now – alone, afraid, and delusional – in a place surrounded by strangers. It’s terrible of me to think this, but I regularly pray she finds her final peace by quietly slipping into eternity sometime soon. I love her no matter what – but I ache at her suffering.
For anyone who has owned and loved a pet, this kind of love is much the same. An innocent creature depends on its owner for everything – food, shelter, acceptance, kindness and affection. Pets, in turn, love their owners far beyond what they receive. Pets see the reality of our true selves – the little frustrations, flashes of anger, or occasional indifference we can show. And yet, in their eyes, we are like the sun. We’re the center, the sustenance, the security of their existence. Their love and devotion is so total it’s usually unmatched by any human lover. If we want to experience pure, unconditional love, we should have a dog or cat.
The love of child, parent or pet, as I’ve said, is as close to true love as many of us experience. We love our partners, spouses and friends, but so often that love is conditional. We love based on the love we get in return. And yet Paul clearly implies in his love verses that true love is not dependent on how another treats us. This is the love force that I believe IS god. Pure, true and holy love does not judge another because he or she is different. It lets go of, and forgives, another for the hurts they’ve inflicted. It does not keep score of good deeds offered and good deeds received. It sees no bad, hears no bad, and speaks no bad. Instead, as Paul says, true love notices, celebrates, and remembers only the positive in another. This is the love Jesus taught when he implored his followers to selflessly serve the poor, sick and sinful. It’s the perfect love that prompted him to teach about love for one’s enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to honestly forgive past wrongs. Love does not return anger for anger, hate for hate, violence for violence. Its seeming weakness is, indeed, its very strength.
When my dad was in his last hour of life, his three children and his grandchildren circled around him. His breathing was heavy and labored. He had been a man’s man – someone who rarely showed emotion, almost never said, “I love you,” and blustered his way through life with a macho bravado. I was and am very different, and I rarely felt close to him. But on his deathbed, I forgot all of that and loved him intensely. It was not emotion for a dying parent. Instead, I felt a love born of finally understanding him for who he was – a man who lived on his own terms, who served and gave to others, and who was as messed up as me or anyone else. He came to his end not with memories and celebrations of career achievement, money and things acquired, good deeds performed, or fun times had. Instead, it was just love that surrounded him, held him, and cried over him. And in some odd way, he returned that love to those of us near him. The sum of his life, his children and grandchildren and all that they give to the world because he first gave to them, was boiled down to its essence. We loved him and he loved us.
That is the kind of unconditional love of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., prophets who taught their followers that the only path to equality and reconciliation is paved with love. As King once said, “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.”
For me, on a Sunday when this congregation, for the first time ever, publicly declares, “Black Lives Matter,” King’s words speak as true and eternal as ever. Also, we add our commitment and love to member Leslie Edwards in remembrance of 15 years ago when this congregation, along with our sister Cincinnati UU congregations, apologized to him and his family for Unitarian racism against his grandfather, the Rev. WHG Carter over a century ago. That apology represents both the eventual triumph of love over hate, but also our determination to continually act with love by working against hate wherever it appears.
Love is the most difficult of emotions to define or understand. And yet we know it when we receive it and when we give it. Ultimately, as Paul so eloquently wrote two thousand years ago, pure, true and perfect love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I wish you all much peace and joy.