Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sermon: "Love is Concerned" (Delivered 2-12-12)


Love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home.
Love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.
- Alice Walker

Sermon
When I meet with the worship committee, I often throw out a topic that I’m thinking of preaching about, and then sit back and listen while the committee reacts, brainstorms, and wrestles with the topic.  It is like handing the group a chunk of unformed clay and watching them begin to knead and shape it.  At the last worship committee meeting I put a hunk of clay on the table in the form of saying, “On the Sunday closest to Valentine’s Day, I’m going to say something about love.”  The reaction was interesting.  The concern was expressed that whatever we decided to form out of the clay would turn out to be trite or cliché or overly-sentimental.  There was some sincere cynicism expressed.  I wondered what this reaction was all about.

I think what they were saying to me was to be careful, to use caution.  To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “No one should be made to feel like something the cat dragged in.”  For every person here who experiences tender love, there is someone else for whom love is a tender subject.  Some of us here are in a deeply fulfilling relationship with a partner or spouse.  Others have yet to find love, or are trying to pick up the pieces after love has faltered, or have reached a stage in life in which romantic partnership is not a prevailing concern.  And, if we look beyond the love of a partner, things only become more complex.  Some of us come here mindful of the love of children, or grandchildren, or parents, or siblings, and feel profoundly blessed.  Others of us feel challenged, troubled, or hurt.  Some of us are in love with life.  Others of us feel embattled.  Some of us are passionate about justice, seeing this work as the fulfillment of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Others of us, whether by distancing or despair, have a more restrained or constrained experience of love.  And most of us, I would guess, fall somewhere in the mixed-up middle.

***

It has been pointed out that the English language is lacking when it comes to love.  Just as the proverbial Eskimo has many words for snow, it has been suggested that it might be helpful if we used an expanded vocabulary for love.  Speaking of the challenges of a limited vocabulary of love, Rob Bell puts it like this, “We get incredible mileage out of this tired, old, English word ‘love,’ don’t we?...  I mean, I love my wife and I also love tacos.”  If we return to the classical world, we find three or four or more words for love in the Greek language.  In the Greek there is philia, which refers to loving friendship; there is agape, which refers to a devoted, self-sacrificing form of love; and, then there is eros, which refers to romantic love.  C.S. Lewis added a fourth kind of love, storge, which refers to familial affection, perhaps a more tribal form of love.

If you peruse the web you can find many good-hearted Evangelical Christians who have turned to another ancient language, Hebrew, to speak of different forms of love.  They describe raya, which is much like philia or friendship.  There is ahavah, which corresponds to agape, and emphasizes depth and commitment.  And, then there is dode, which refers to steamy carousing.  If you continue to read these evangelical Christian writings on Hebrew words for love, you typically find some conclusion saying that love becomes perfect when the three – raya, ahavah, and dode – come together to become one.  There is something undeniably Trinitarian in such thinking, and it disregards the fact that in the Hebrew language there are at least several other words for love, perhaps none more important than chesed, which means lovingkindness and refers to a kind of moral and ethical love that recognizes the divine necessity of caring for our fellow human beings.

It seems to me that while it is possible to criticize the English language for being vague and imprecise when it comes to love, it is also possible to criticize the ancient world for seemingly promoting forms of dualism (mind and body, body and soul, rational and emotional, spirit and mind, etc.) that have been relied on to support injustice and oppression..  One does not have to go very far to find attempts to justify sexist and racist positions that make reference to such dualisms.  I’m thinking of historians of sexism, racism, and colonialism who have shown that the white, male, European perspective has been equated with reason, rationality, and an intelligence that transcends the body, while women, people of color, and native peoples have been regarded as emotional, spiritual, superstitious, unintelligent, and “enslaved” by the body.  Just consider Rick Santorum’s assertion last week that women should not serve in combat because their emotions would compromise the mission.  The CNN headline writer seemed to have some fun with this comment, giving the story a headline that read, “Female ‘emotions’ worry Santorum.”

I worry about people who suggest that there is a hierarchy of forms of love.  Such thinking often leads to the suggestion that there is a hierarchy of types of people.  I’ve digressed.  I bring up the Greek words and the Hebrew words, and the history of oppressive thinking because I think that love is properly regarded as not just an emotion, not just a feeling, not just a thought, and not just a biological function.  Rather, I think love is best regarded as incredibly messy, complicated, and wild.  It is a combination of mind, body, and brain, of the mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual.

I recently watched a really cool video, a short film called, “The Love Competition.”  The competition features seven contestants who each spend five minutes in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological imaging.  The contestants are given the instruction to “love someone as hard as they can” while the MRI measures activity in the areas of the brain that produce the neurochemical sensation of love.  The winner of the love competition is the person whose brain has the most love activity.  This is fascinating.

In the film, the contestants introduce themselves and describe who they plan to love.  The contestants include Kent and Marilyn, both age seventy-five, and married to each other for fifty years.  There’s also Milo, age ten, who explains that “love is like a feeling that you have for someone you have feelings about” and explains he’ll be thinking about his newborn cousin.  Tiffany, age 23, tells us that she plans to think of, quote, “puppies, and other cute things… oh, and my boyfriend,” while, Morgan, age 24, is unsure if she has ever been in love and decides to do a form of Buddhist meditation focused on love for all sentient beings.

Watching this short film I was deeply moved by two things.  First, there was the sheer amazement of watching people’s brains light up as their brains become flooded with dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin.  Second, it is amazing to note that as the contestants exited the MRI machine they all claimed that the experience of “trying to love someone as hard as they could” for five minutes had been profound and moving.  The contestants, male and female, adult and child, partnered and single, reported feeling flushed, glowing, and pleasantly light headed.  One contestant described it as a feeling of sweetness.  They all had huge smiles.  [For Valentine’s Day this film was made available for free on Wired.com.  I saw it when I received the newest issue of Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films.  I’ve subscribed to Wholphin from the beginning and have enjoyed all 15 volumes.]

Do not get me wrong.  I’m not saying that love is as simple as brain chemistry and I’m not saying that brain chemistry is simple.  Rather, I think love is best regarded as incredibly messy, complex, and wild.  It is a combination of mind, body, and brain, mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual.  I happen also to like Alice Walker’s description of love as, “warm, frisky, moist-mouthed, eager, and [able to] swim away if forced to do so.”

So, amidst all of this trying to avoid saying something trite, cliché, or cynical, amidst the typologies of love observed in ancient Greece and ancient Israel, amidst love contests and surges of neurochemicals, I thought to myself, “What is the truest, most authentic thing I could say about love?”  Nothing like putting a little bit of pressure on myself.

As it would happen, while I was thinking about what I know to be true about love, I conjured in my mind Alice Walker’s short poem from our hymnal, which, in its entirety, reads,
Love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home.
Love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.
It is a fascinating poem.  I think its meaning is something like this:  Love is not concerned with being “right.”  Love is not concerned with doing things the right way, praying in the right way (whatever that is), saying the right words (whatever those are), or keeping the proper company, (whoever that is.)  Love is not about an exact formula.  And, love is certainly not about your own perfection, or innocence, or blamelessness, or lack of shame.  No, actually it is the opposite.  Love is about accepting those parts of yourself and someone else that are tender and vulnerable and challenging and imperfect.

I recently read an interview with a director from Canada named Nadia Litz.  She had directed an amazing and beautiful and bizarre independent film, also from Wholphin volume 15, called “How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You!”  In the interview she had these amazing lines.  She said, “The need to force-purge people of their more complicated parts is not love.  Rather, sharing in your partner’s imperfections is a sign of love.  [The most romantic thing I’ve ever done is] being vulnerable despite being fearful.”

Alice Walker says something very similar in her poem “Listen.”  “Listen, I never dreamed I would learn to love you so.  You are as flawed as my vision, as short tempered as my breath.”  What if our capacity to love was one and the same with our capacity to tolerate our loved one’s shortcomings and imperfections, and to freely, openly, and vulnerably admit our own shortcomings and imperfections?  What if love is really not concerned with our failings or the places of our own shame and hurt?  What if the most romantic thing a person could do is simply to be vulnerable despite being fearful?  What if the love contest is not won with skill, or good looks, or intelligence, or sophistication?  What if the only way to win was to dare and decide to play, and to go into it not as if armed for battle but rather with our defenses totally down and heart totally open?  And, what if this was true not only for romantic love but also for friendship, for the love of family, for community, and for acts of love and justice on behalf of your fellow human beings?

If you’ve been coming to this church for a while you’ve probably heard a refrain that I’ve spoken many times but that I probably cannot speak often enough.  The church is both the house of the holy and the home of the human.  These two realities are not in conflict.  The human allows for the presence of the holy and the holy allows for the presence of the human.  Which is to say that churches are made up of real people with our own peculiarities, our warts and blemishes, our hurts and fears.  Community is that place where we make ourselves vulnerable.

Love is not concerned with how you pray, or who you pray with, or who you pray to.  Love is not concerned with getting it right.  Love is not concerned with your past, even if that past is filled with trauma, filled with mistakes, filled with regrets, filled with embarrassment. 

But love is concerned.  Love is concerned with your future.  Love is concerned with the enlargement of your heart to greater love, greater justice, greater healing.  “Love is concerned that the beating of your heart should kill no one.”  Love is concerned that your life points in the direction of wholeness, lovingkindness, and peace.