Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Mystery of Love

the conclusion of st. paul's list of characteristics of love in first corinthians puzzles me.  what does it mean that "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things?"  the new international version has the passage translated,   "it [love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,"  and the phillips translation says, "love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything."  the idea of love bearing all things or enduring all things isn't problematic; love, both that of God and the love that is a part of our being, should help us to face the problems of life with greater success.  if we say that love believes all things, do we mean that love has no doubts or that love accepts all dogmas without question or is unending trust, as in the niv and phillips versions, a better way of understanding the second phrase in the list?  in the same way, if we accept that love hopes all things, do we have an unrealistic outlook that hopes everything we wish for will be ours or is the idea of a hope that never fades as suggested in the phillips translation the best way of looking at the list's third phrase?

does the sum of these four phrases mean that love is optimistic and accepting?  is paul suggesting that the love which flows through all creation and which is a part of our basic nature helps us overcome the transitory difficulties of life with endurance, trust, hope, and perseverance?  i especially like the last phrase in the phillips translation: "[love] can outlast anything,"  the phillips translation ends paul's list of love's characteristics with this complementary sentence:  "[love] is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen."  for me, this is the great summation of all the characteristics of love;  everything else is subsidiary to love.  love is the great constant that transcends suffering, that makes life worthwhile.  it is the beginning and the end, the only reason for living, the very essence of all that is.

may we each be open to love.  may we give and receive love.  may we see that love transcends suffering and evil.  may we become love.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Love Is Forgiving When Wrong Is Done

the phrase which is the complement to "love rejoices when right is done" in my version of paul's characteristics of love in first corinthians 13 is "love is forgiving when wrong is done."  this part of the list must present some translation problems, since there are so many different renderings of it in the various bible translations, but my own interpretation of what it seems to me paul is intending is the most satisfactory to me at this point along the path.

in the new international translation, the phrase which is often translated as love "is not resentful" is instead translated as love "keeps no record of wrongs."  for me, that corresponds well to the idea of forgiving wrongs that are done.  in the lord's prayer, jesus suggests that we pray, "forgive us our debts [the wrongs that we do to others] as we forgive our debtors [those who have wronged us]."  it is too easy to be caught up in a life of blaming others and the circumstances of life for our own situation in life.  we often rationalize our own failures by shifting blame from ourselves to others or to the vagaries of life rather than taking responsibility for our own shortcomings.

when my wife and i were first married, we engaged in arguments where we tried to blame the other for being the cause of our disagreement.  we would recite a litany of petty annoyances to one another, accusing each other of being the cause of our inability to come to an agreement.  over time, we learned how destructive this "keeping a list of wrongs" was and came to understand that we could learn to love each other more deeply by having more forgiving natures, finally realizing that those little quirks that had at first been so annoying were now endearing to us.

in the same way, we are much happier when we accept that we are so alike in our failings and that to forgive the wrongs of others is to forgive ourselves.  even great wrongs become more understandable when our hearts our filled with a spirit of forgiveness, and we see that the suffering caused to others by great and small wrongs done to them is a counterpart to the suffering being felt by the person who commits the wrong.  to forgive a wrong is not to condone it or pretend that it is justified; we must still oppose wrong actions and injustices, but we can forgive them at the same time.

may we rejoice in what is right and forgive wrong actions.  may we see that in forgiving others we also forgive ourselves and move past our own wrong actions towards making amends for the wrongs we have done.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Love Rejoices When Right Is Done

last sunday, our service focused on the parable of the workers in the vineyard from matthew 20.  as the scripture was read and preached, i thought of the phrase which is the title of this post and wondered if right was done by the owner of the vineyard when he paid all the workers the same wage, regardless of the amount of work each had done.  the workers who worked the longest certainly didn't rejoice when they saw that those who worked many hours less received the same pay as those who had worked all day.  in introducing the parable, jesus says that the story illustrates characteristics of the "kingdom of God."  how can God's kingdom embody such injustice?

from our capitalist point-of-view, the vineyard owner is unjust.  he paid a full day's wage to workers who had worked much less than a full day without paying a comparatively higher amount to those who had worked all day.  on the other hand, maybe this wasn't a lesson about fairness, but rather one intended to teach something far more complex.  could it have been a rebuke to the jewish leaders who believed that the long history of "true religion" which they possessed would garner them a huge reward compared to the fate that awaited those who were not faithful jews?  could it have been a lesson about the need to be concerned for those whose families would have gone hungry save for the generosity of the vineyard owner in paying all the workers a full day's wage?

earlier in the service, we had spoken a prayer of confession that began, "most merciful God, we confess that our very nature is sinful."  i cringed when i saw what was printed in the bulletin and couldn't read the prayer with the congregation.  if we are created in God's image, how could "our very nature [be] sinful?"  if we are so sinful, how can we love so that we rejoice "when right is done?"  the standard evangelical answer is that we can't love in this way until we are "saved" by faith in jesus and the standard interpretation of the lesson of the workers in the vineyard is that God (the vineyard owner) generously provides for us whether we come to faith early or later in our lives, that all are "saved" regardless of the amount of time each has accepted the grace of God.  if this is so, we arrogantly teach that no one can truly love (or rejoice when right is done) unless we, like the jews of jesus' day, are possessors of the only truth.

did the vineyard owner do what was "right?"  what does "doing right" mean?  in the context of the other characteristics of love that paul lists in 1 corinthians 13, it seems to me that the right about which paul speaks is showing lovingkindness and compassion for oneself and for others.  such actions cause our hearts to rejoice as we do what is right and observe others doing what is right.  generosity of spirit is always right--none of us has cornered the market on truth, and we can always learn from others.  giving of ourselves--time, talents, possessions--so that others don't live in want lightens the heart.

may we rejoice in doing what is right, helping others along the way, listening and learning as we go.  may we not live lives focused on the unfairness of life, but may we instead see that the gift of life that come to us each day is a true cause for joy.  may we say to ourselves each day, "i am fortunate to have awakened."  shalom.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Love Is Not Resentful

we hear the expression, "life is not fair."  we've all been treated unfairly, accused of acts we have not committed, cheated out of what we believe to be ours, taken advantage of, snubbed in one way or another.  we've all had bad things thrown at us that we didn't deserve.  it's easy and natural to be resentful when life's unfairness causes us to suffer.  how we react to being treated unfairly by others or by the circumstances of life is a choice we make--we can accept that life happens and move on or we can become bitter about having bad things happen undeservedly.

choosing bitterness, living a life filled with "why does everything go wrong for me," is a miserable way to live.  those who allow themselves to take this approach to life choose unhappiness and cause unhappiness for others.  "poor pitiful me" makes all of life about me.  everything from the light changing to red as i hurriedly approach to loosing a bundle in the stock market becomes part of a plot against oneself, when such circumstances are nothing more than random acts.

when we accept that bad things, both major and minor, happen to everyone and remember that life isn't about "me," but is rather just the way things are, we can let go of the suffering that circumstances cause.  we choose to accept life as it comes to us and take ourselves out of the center of life's happenstances.  like the other things that love is not--envy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, irritability--resentment is a symptom of self-centeredness, of believing there is a self that life is about.

may each of us not allow ourselves the luxury of resentment.  may we replace bitterness with acceptance and look beyond ourselves at the common suffering of all beings.  may we choose happiness, smiling at the vagaries of life when they are minor and seeking the support of others when those vagaries are significant.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Love Is Not Irritable

it seems that so many of the characteristics of love that paul lists in first corinthians 13 are related.  those who are patient and kind are not irritable.  we all know folks who seem to be spoiling for a fight, who constantly are on the lookout for reasons to be angry:  someone cuts them off in traffic, someone barges in front of them in a queue, someone slights them in some way, the petty events of day-to-day life irritate them beyond measure.  their suffering seems so unnecessary, life is just life and things happen, but for some of us the "unfairness" of life is a cause of great distress.

in addition to the inconvenience of the minor mishaps of life, those who easily irritated suffer twice--first from the inconvenience, then by their exaggerated reaction to that inconvenience.  it is as if they expect that they should be exempt from the problems the rest of us face, and that inability to see that things going wrong are part and parcel of the human scheme of things indicates a lack of love for others, and ties into an arrogance that demands that i-writ-large should not be forced to deal with the messiness of life.

we walk on pins and needles around these people who are irritable, hoping that we can be some place far away when their irritability causes an outburst.  yet, we can't help but feel compassion for them and wish them the peace that comes from being able to accept the annoyances that we all face as we live our lives.  for them to become less irritable, they must first love others and see that all of us face the same challenges; no one is without the suffering that is caused by life's difficulties.

may we remember our sameness as we stumble along the path, and may we only suffer once from the troubles we encounter.  may those whose lack of love causes them to inflict a second suffering on themselves learn to love and accept their commonality with the rest of us.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Love Doesn't Insist on its Own Way

(my apologies for being a few hours late with this post.  we've been traveling and only now have i found time to write what's been on my mind.)

a recent visit to the home of a relative who lives about five hours away reminded me of this characteristic from paul's list in first corinthians 13.  we were dividing our time between two related families who live on opposite sides of a large city.  in order to move conveniently from one home to another, we needed to leave the first home we visited on a friday morning.  to lengthen our visit at this first location would have meant adding an extra hour to our travel time and fighting rush hour traffic at its worst, adding even more to our time to reach our second destination.

the relative whom we first visited had it in her head that we had to stay the entire friday at her home before leaving.  she hadn't thought through the inconvenience it would cause us, and at breakfast we explained to her why we needed to leave on friday morning.  (we had already extended our visit by one extra night at her insistence.)  she was preoccupied with other matters and didn't pay attention to our explanation.  when the time came for us to leave, she became quite angry and agitated, stormed off to another part of the house, and, when one of us followed her to try and reason with her, she became even more angry and said some very unkind things.

we always dread visiting her home, because inevitably there is an explosion like this no matter how careful we are to avoid upsetting her.  this relative is very talented--a wonderful musician, keeps an immaculate house, can do anything from laying flooring to plumbing to gardening.  she is economically well-fixed, has a brilliant daughter and two equally gifted grandchildren--in short, everything she needs to live a happy, contented life.  but she is an eternal victim, and her past constantly haunts her.  her father was an abusive controlling man who terrified his wife and children, her first husband was equally controlling, her daughter was alienated from her for several years because she lived with and eventually married a man that the daughter resented after her divorce from her first husband, and even now, her daughter and grandchildren keep their distance much of the time.  her second husband is several years older than she and in poor health, and she resents having to care for him.

when we talk with her, the conversation is a litany of all her problems past and present, and, when we visit, she must determine the schedule and control all the activities that take place.  she is the epitome of a sort of self-love that insists on its own way to compensate for all the unhappiness in her life, an unhappiness that she blames on others but which really stems from her own insistence that everyone else must submit to her wishes to compensate her for her past and present misfortunes.

all of us fall into the trap of insisting on our own way from time to time, but we do no one a favor when we become a doormat for others who insist on their own way.  relationships with others are about compromise--i'll go your way some of the time if you'll go my way at other times.  my wife exhibited a perfect example on this trip when she went with me to an event that she didn't give a fig about because she knew how much i wanted to go, despite my telling her that it would be alright if i missed out on this event so that she could have more time with relatives she wanted to visit after we left the first relative's home.  as she told me later, "i knew how important this was to you, and i was determined for you to have this experience no matter what."  this is true love, a giving of yourself to make room for another's happiness.

may we all have such a love, one that allows others to have their own way when it matters most.  may we let go of the selfish belief that the world owes us our own way because we somehow deserve it.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Love Is Not Rude

it seems to me that rudeness often goes hand-in-hand with arrogance.  we see this in the way people who believe that their station is above that of another speak to  those they consider "beneath them."  for instance, a waitress may be treated rudely by a patron who seemingly has no respect for the waitress, regarding her as an object rather than a person worthy of consideration.  an employer may belittle an employee because of some perceived failing, knowing that the employee likely has no recourse because of the employee's dependence on the income from his job.

those who consistently treat others rudely are betraying a lack of empathy for others, considering these others as conveniences whose humanity is of little consequence.  i remember a friend telling of a woman with whom the friend played bridge from time to time.  this woman spoke curtly, often cruelly, to the wait-staff at the establishment where they played bridge, and once when a person who was dressed shabbily happened to come into the room where they played bridge, this woman rose from her table and addressed the poorly-dressed intruder with utter contempt, ordering him from their presence.  my friend said that this was the last time she played bridge with this woman.

we've all witnessed this sort of behavior.  most of us don't have the courage to speak up when this happens, and, in so doing, we participate in the rudeness.  we are all guilty of being rude from time to time, forgetting that, despite outward appearances or station, we are all the same.  perhaps, we are so absorbed in our own problems and circumstances, or are angry at some other event in our lives, that we forget ourselves and are rude to another.  but there is never an excuse for rudeness or for tolerating the rudeness of another.  we cannot love ourselves or others and be rude at the same time.

may we remember that love and rudeness are mutually exclusive.  may we treat others as we want to be treated, respecting each person and regarding each person as being worthy of our consideration and respect.  shalom.