Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection August 16, 2020
And Finally: Love - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
(This sermon from August 9 began with my reading the famous chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians)
I start with a quote from that treasure trove of wisdom, Peanuts: “All you need is love but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” I’m sure I can get an “Amen!” to this perennial truth!
In my life, I’ve preached more on love than any other topic. After all, what other topic is worth the effort? In my later years as a Franciscan, I went around the country giving retreats and parish missions, something akin to revivals in our American Baptist tradition.
Many times I would give week-long retreats to groups of nuns. What was the topic of these parish missions and retreats? “Loving the Source of Love.” Nuns liked me. Perhaps I reminded them of the son they never had!
I’ve read and studied the topic of love for the past 55 years since I began college (in 1965). I even took an honors course on the philosophy of love. So, you may well say: “O, Exalted Guru of Love, enlighten us!” Yea, right!
What have I learned about love? Not much. My understanding of love is still very much a work in progress. But, then again, I am, even at my advanced age, very much a work in progress.
To fully grasp Love’s passion, Love’s power, will require the never-ending expanse of eternity. So, yes, when it comes to love, I don’t fully understand it. No surprise here!
As my favorite philosopher, Jacob Needleman argues: “Do not fear, you really are inadequate!” Everyone you will ever meet really is inadequate. It would be helpful for us to stop pretending we’re fully adequate. We’re not! God protect us from those who think they are!
So with this caveat before us, let’s immerse ourselves in love’s deep (and dangerous) intimacy. In John’s 1st Letter (which can rightly be called the New Testament’s most compelling love letter) this is what we read (4:16): “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (The Greek word translated as “abide” is meno which means “to live” in love; to be “held captive” by love.
True love holds us captive. Have you, have I, ever been held captive by love? My answer is “Yes.” Love has more than once held me captive. I pray your answer is also “Yes.” Jesus Christ was most definitely held captive by love. It is rightly said that Jesus died for love! As the theologian Paul Waddell argues: “To have failed at love is to have failed at life.” Pretty simple, isn’t it?
Let me add something related to the quote from 1st John. If God is love, and since God is a profound mystery, then it follows logically that love must also be a profound mystery.
This past week, as I prepared to preach “And Finally: Love,” a memory surfaced that may well be the origin of my life-long quest for the holy grail of love. I was 5, living in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. I had never taken a trip anywhere. We didn’t have a car. My worldview was decidedly narrow.
At 5 that changed. My mother, my two brothers and I (my father had to stay home to work although he did come with us for the first leg of the journey), we took a train to New York City. Then we sailed on an ocean liner to Ireland.
I recall much of it! Even my bad bout with seasickness. We spent four months in Ireland. The narrow boundaries of my worldview fell away as I experienced a serious taste of our wide and wild world.
In Ireland, I met my maternal grandmother, Molly, the only one of my grandparents I ever met. And, yes, I named my cat, Molly, in her memory. In or near my mother’s small home town in County Tipperary, lived five of my mother’s sisters with their families. I was inundated with aunts!
One aunt, however, stood out, my Aunt Kitty. She was my favorite but let’s keep that just between us! The reason she was my favorite is simple. She would call me “Love” when I saw her. “Love” - certainly a wonderful term of endearment. Forget the fact that she probably called me “Love” because she confused my twin brother and me.
For a 5 year old to be called “Love” was a revelation. There and then I became some sort of “Love Child!” Love was etched deeply into my 5 year old heart.
Now don’t most of us consider ourselves as loving, especially those of us who attend church? But the journey to love is hard and narrow is love’s path. In our country and in our culture, we are desperate romantics. We love love stories. Many of us are addicted to romantic love.
What is romantic love? Let me quote from the psychologist, Dr. Sam Hamburg’s book, Will Our Love Last?: “Romantic love is when I’m attracted to someone and that person is attracted to me.” Pretty straight-forward, isn’t it?
And there’s nothing wrong with romantic love. It’s just not the kind of love Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament talks about. Again, nothing wrong with romantic love, called Eros in the Greek. But Eros can only take us so far; it’s roots are often shallow and it can easily wither.
The love we find in the New Testament is Agape. Let me try to offer a definition of this kind of love. To arrive at a definition, I turn to a book that had a profound influence on me in the late 1970’s, the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s classic, The Road Less Traveled: (In attempting to examine love) “we will be attempting to examine the unimaginable and to know the unknowable. Love is too large, too deep, ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words ... (Yet) I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
Love is primarily about spiritual growth. And spiritual growth is never easy. It’s harder than Eros. As one of my favorite authors, Alan Jones, wisely writes: “God’s love sometimes burns us before it transforms us.” (From Living the Truth.)
Love is difficult. As Leonard Cohen’s wonderful song, Anthem, argues: “Every heart, every heart, to love will come, but as a refugee.” It was 12 years ago that our beloved church family took me in. I came to Morgan Park American Baptist Church as a refugee, an exile, from my former denomination and my former ministry.
Because I had dared to marry, I was banished from a life to which I had given 46 years of my life (including years of study). I don’t regret those years but that path couldn’t take me where I believed God wished to take me. As the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, phrased it: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”
The hard truth is that I had grown cynical about faith, cynical about hope, cynical about love. Maybe that happens to many of us in long-term ministry or maybe it happens because our arteries harden. I don’t know. But I knew the path I was on needed to be changed.
Pure and simple: I needed to love and to be loved. Nothing else seemed capable of transforming my heart of stone to a heart of flesh which the great prophet Ezekiel assured us is God’s most important task!
We are all refugees. We are exiles east of Eden. I am so happy to have found a home, a sanctuary, at Morgan Park American Baptist Church. Soon I will move on to an apartment in the small town of Waupaca, Wisconsin. I move there because it’s where my beloved Vinal lives. And most probably don’t know that Waupaca, Wisconsin is found west of Eden, Wisconsin. So, while I’m still in exile, at least I’m getting closer to Eden!
What will I do up there? I don’t know. I do know that I want to take a breath; maybe write, maybe enjoy nature more. I’m done with great things! Something I want to do, though, is to listen more. It was the eminent Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, who argued that the first duty of love is to listen.
Let me add: listening is the first and most important act of love between people. Yet when we look at our TV’s, when we look at news interviews, what we often find is people shouting at each other, talking over one another. As a species, we’re not good at listening.
Our thinking reflects how poorly we listen. We settle so easily for superficial thoughts. We take one quick look at something and then move one. We skim the surface, most everywhere. We seldom plumb the depths, seldom explore the deep, of anything or anyone. Our culture, our churches, have failed us. We can’t go deep. We can’t go deep because we haven’t been taught how to really listen.
I’ve grown tired of words. My world has been a world of words for so many, many years. I want to be quiet. I want to talk less and listen more. As some author, whose name escapes me, put it: “Too much communication! Too little communion!”
I seek silence. As the poet and philosopher, Mark Nepo, writes in Drinking from the River of Light: “The grace of deep silence allows us to let go of what we want so we can receive what we have.” Nepo also suggests that we humans would do well to stop being so driven and allow ourselves to be drawn.
Let me add something from Alan Jones’ book, Living the Truth: “We will be judged in the light of how far we have lived as people betrothed to each other.”
We are betrothed to each other: black/white; old/young; believer/non-believer; straight/gay; rich/poor; blue/red; male female - none of these distinctions matter if we’re truly betrothed to each other.
Yes, God is Love but this truth necessitates a bumpy ride! I add some wise words from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark: “Moses knew God as well as anyone ever had, yet God did not tone anything down for him. The mountain (Sinai) shook like it was about to blow apart. The cloud at the top of the mountain was so thick that even Moses could not see inside of it. Anyone else who even tried would die, God said - and Moses went anyway. He took the full dose of divine darkness and lived to tell about it, though God would remain a tremendous mystery to him for the rest of his life.
“After all they had been through - the plagues, the parting of the sea, the pillars of cloud and fire in the wilderness - God prevented Moses from entering the land of promises. ‘You broke faith with me,’ God said at the end. ‘Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it.’
“It is hard to get from a story like that to a bumper sticker that says, ’God is love.’ What would Moses say to people who feel free to ask God for good weekend weather and safe travel to away games? The God of Moses is not the grandfatherly type, a kind old deity who can be counted on to take the kids exciting places without letting them get hurt.
“The God of Moses is holy, offering no seat belts or other safety features to those who wish to climb the mountain and enter the dark cloud of divine presence. Those who go assume all risk and give up all claim to reward. Those who return say the dazzling dark inside the cloud is reward enough.”
Let me end with the final words from my old prayer-poem, Love Is:
Love is what God does, God’s full-time work, God’s eternally joyous job, the name we have given God, the image we are made in, the question God will ask of us, and also the answer. Amen! Amen!