The Power of Love
Sermon offered Aug 27th, 2017
©Rev Susan A Moran
Love is powerful when it is made manifest in deed, more than word. Of course there are a lot of words too! One famous definition of love, from the New Testament, is often heard at weddings.
It is an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers in a village in Greece. Paul wrote to the congregation at Corinth:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul’s use of language in the entire passage is brilliant, and very beautiful.
Should love bear all things? It is so important to live with an attitude of hope, but there are some things in this world that should not be borne or endured. For example, should we accept abuse in the form of physical or emotional violence from our loved ones? Should we accept cheating and lying and meanness?
I don’t think so.
For another viewpoint on what it means to love, I give you the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: This is from his book How to Love:
If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform. When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness. Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.”
Upon reading the book, Maria Popova, the creator and author of Brainpickings, a weekly feast for the mind and heart, wrote: Real, truthful love, Thich Nhat Hanh argues, is rooted in four elements — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity —which lends love “the element of holiness.”
Here again is Thich Nhat Hanh: The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.
In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.”
To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen. And listening may be the most difficult skill we can learn, and the most important.” (Brainpickings)
Listening is hard work; and most of us are pretty lousy at it. A friend of mine was taught that most people take 90 seconds to say what they need to say. Those same people are generally interrupted after 20 seconds, at which time they need three times longer to finish saying what they originally needed to say. The inability to be quiet and listen is not a modern problem. In one of the apocryphal books written 2200 years ago, the writer suggests: “Do not answer before you listen, And do not interrupt when another is speaking.” (Sirach 11:8-9)
Recently I read that “a good listener is not someone who has nothing to say. A good listener is a good talker with a sore throat.” (Katharine Whitehorn-via the internet) On a more serious note, the theologian Paul Tillich was quoted as saying:
“The first duty of love is to listen. “
The first duty of love is to listen. To listen requires presence: Author Dani Shapiro contends that
“Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. She continues: Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living” — We must stay still if we are to be present for someone.
Love also requires attention:
Wayne Muller wisely explains:
Attention is the physical manifestation of Love. If I keep pushing my children away when they want me to play with them, they do not feel loved. I may have love in my heart; I may feel joy when I see them, and want only the best for them. But they will feel my love only when I turn around and given them my undivided attention. Through my attention, they experience my love.” (How,Then, Shall We Live, p. 90)
I believe we are all well intentioned. We really want to be present, and pay attention and listen to our friends, our families, our brothers and sisters in this sanctuary, and other important associations. But all over Rockport– I daresay, all over Cape Ann, right now someone is saying, with not a little bit of vehemence, ”Don’t interrupt me, I wasn’t finished! Can I speak please?” I think one of the reasons it is hard to hear other people—to pay attention to them and to love them is because we don’t have enough experience with being still long enough. And we have too much experience with data and stimulation overload. The sheer amount of information that is available and coming at us on any given day is overwhelming.
There are other factors of course. Perhaps we have not felt heard by our loved ones, or our bosses, or even ourselves. It is a sad fact that many of us arrive at this juncture called adulthood without any idea of what we want, who we are, what we’re drawn to, and what sacrifices we are willing to make. Sometimes it’s worse than this: We do know what we want, we do know who we are and we do know what our dreams are—but we ignore them. We don’t pay attention to ourselves. We aren’t listening to our soul’s desire as much as we’re listening to the inner judge, and the inner 3 year old who feels powerless. The 2 stations on the radio dial are “You didn’t do that well enough” and “Why can’t I have that?”
It is not your mother, your sister, your neighbor, or anyone else we stop listening to first. It is ourselves. I am not sure when this happens, but if we can’t listen to ourselves, how can we listen to anyone else?
At the the heart of the Christian and Jewish teachings, the one commandment upon which rests all the others—is “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” We do treat each other as ourselves—a lot of the time. But how we treat ourselves isn’t always very kind, compassionate, or wise.
One of the most common problems in relationships is an inability to be honest. A little misunderstanding here, a sarcastic remark there, and our souls get shy. We do not address something that is bothering us. As important as listening is, equally necessary is the ability to keep talking even when it’s uncomfortable or scary. In a gorgeous memoir called Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell describes her best friend, the late writer, Caroline Knapp, and their relationship:
“When [Caroline] was confronted with any emotional difficulty, however slight or major, her response was to approach rather than to flee. There she would stay until the matter was resolved, and the emotional aftermath was free of any hangover or recrimination. My instincts toward resolution were similar: I knew that silence and distance were far more pernicious than head-on engagement. This compatibility helped ensure that there was no unclaimed baggage between us in the years to come.”
Not every person is capable of the “approach” rather than the “flee” method of communication. Not every friendship can be this intimate, but deep listening can occur between and among people who are intentional about it. I hope that this community might be a place where we covenant to listen and pay attention to one another; where we love each other and accompany one another, as long as we are able. This kind of listening bears amazing fruits. This kind of listening is holy.
One of the fruits of listening is the knowledge of another person’s true self, undiluted and unmasked. Somehow, being exposed to the truth of someone else makes finding our own easier. We can see ourselves reflected in them. As Rachel Remen put it, “in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone.” (KTW p.220) Thus the “interdependent web of all existence” is no longer a phrase on a (UU Principles) list. We experience our connection to one another and to that which is most meaningful.
Love requires action: presence, attention, and careful listening. We can practice these skills every day and with everyone we meet.