Labelling Love

Labelling Love.jpg

Chalice Lighting

As we gather today
Each of us has been shaped by our experiences
Few - if any - have been surrounded by a world that makes us feel fully accepted
That makes us feel safe to be ourselves
That leads us to open our hearts
And yet we long for deep connection
We long for the relationships that heal and nurture
The connections that lead to growth and joy
By the light of this flame let us see the possibility
Let us know the great potential
Of opening ourselves to love

It Happens All The Time In Heaven, Hafiz

It happens all the time in heaven,
And someday it will begin to happen again on earth -
That men and women who are married,
And men and men who are lovers,
And women and women who give each other light,
Often will get down on their knees
And while so tenderly holding their lover's hand,
With tears in their eyes,
Will sincerely speak, saying,
"My dear, how can I be more loving to you;
How can I be more kind?"

Sermon delivered in Montgomery, Alabama, Christmas, 1957
Martin Luther King, Jr. (excerpt)

Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. [...] Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

Valentine’s day is only three days away, so today seemed like a particularly good day to talk about love. First - to those of you who are in the flush of romantic love - that passionate tidal wave that takes over your mind, your, heart and your body - I offer both congratulations and sympathy. Romantic love is ecstasy and it is torment. Being together with your beloved can be the most joyous experience you know. Being apart brings great longing. A sudden end to romance can be immensely painful. If you’re in that ecstasy, I’m sorry to say that it won’t last. If you’re in the torment, don’t worry - it won’t last. Passionate romantic love is short-lived. It is a blaze that burns very hot and burns itself out fast.

As our current theme is labels, we’re going to explore what this label ‘love’ is all about. As usual, labels both simplify and confound. They give us an easy shorthand but obscure the more subtle realities. If I asked you to define what love is - what it feels like, how it is created, how it develops, what makes it happen, or how the different kinds of relationships in which we apply the word love differ - you would come up with a range of different answers. Love is a label that covers many different emotions, types of relationship, states of being, attitudes, physiological changes, and desires.

The first thing we should do as we approach this topic is to eliminate the most misleading and trivial piece of love talk. I love chocolate. I love London. I love my mobile phone. I love wild yeast starter home-baked bread ‘to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach.’ OK. Love of things is not the kind of love we’re talking about. It’s not a love that involves interaction or relationship or understanding. And fortunately, robotics and AI are not yet at a level where we can have that kind of love for non-living objects. At some point in the future, the question will be more complex. Fortunately for today, that hasn’t happened yet.

You may know that other languages have several different words that equate to our word ‘love.’ These words help to divide love into the kinds of love we might feel for children, for friends, for romantic partners, or for self. The ancient Greeks had seven words for a relationship that we translate to the one word - love.

I’m going to offer something a bit more radical. I suggest there are only two essential kinds of love. The first is passionate romantic love. This is the love that burns fast and hot. Stendhal said this love ‘ like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.”

The second kind of love is the one we will be talking about - the enduring kind - the kind that exists separately from sexuality and that is less automatic and more deliberate. This love looks rather different in different circumstances but I suggest that fundamentally it is not so different at all. It is the love that makes us want to protect a child and give them all we can. This is the kind of love that creates friendships so deep that the friend always appears when their friend is in need. It is the love that can develop and unite partners even after the blaze of romantic love has faded to a safe and warming glow. It is the same love that - from a greater distance - we can develop for a stranger or even an enemy. It is the love that unites congregations. It is the love from which justice grows. This love is not magical. I don’t think it’s mysterious at all.

The English novelist Iris Murdoch said that ‘Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.’ Love then means recognizing that another person - like you - has longings and pain and quirks and delights and shames. And knowing this, caring about those realities as we care when they are our own experiences.

Loving is caring deeply for another’s happiness and well-being so much that you are delighted at their happiness and sad yourself at their disappointments and sorrows. To love in this way involves a profound form of acceptance - a willingness to accept a person for who they are at any particular point in time. This means striving for a compassionate understanding of who what they are going through and why they do what they do. It means a readiness to forgive.

We all yearn for connection and relationship and for others who will accept us as we are. We can understand that others feel this way too and that we can create happiness and ease suffering with our love. We know - as Martin Luther King described - that we must learn to love our enemies if we are to survive. We must remember the truth that, in his words, ‘hate can never drive out hate - only love can do that.’

Now, I wish I could leave it there and say - ‘now you know what love is and how important it is - go and do it.’ And we know perfectly well that creating and maintaining such love is not at all easy. The first blush of romantic love can be easy and automatic but the kind of enduring love that is so deeply concerned with the well-being of another is anything but. Even the people we know we should love in that way can drive us to distraction! We are expected to love our kids and our partners and uncles and aunts and parents and - sometimes we wish they’d all disappear. It’s a struggle.

And loving your enemies? Uh… how can we begin to go there? Why is all of this so hard? What gets in the way? It can be helpful to think about those instances when this kind of enduring and deliberate love comes easily. Two instances come immediately to mind: babies and pets. I hope you have never watched me when I thought I was alone with my dog, Rumi. I become absolutely sappy. I talk with him nonstop - often in a sweet silly voice. I make up songs and sing them to him - all about how wonderful he is. I have no hesitation to be my most unguarded self with him.

We act in a similar way with babies. Our grown-up, serious masks slip and the childish, sweet, warm, silly, loving selves are revealed. My Rumi’s namesake - the 13th-century Sufi mystic - had something important to add to this conversation: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” It is not that love is so hard to find; the opportunities to build love are everywhere. The challenge is within, in the barriers we create to keep others at a safe distance.

Pets and babies give us an important clue about those barriers. We let those barriers fall away with pets and babies but they tend to remain tightly in place when we interact with adults. We can love easily when we know we will not be judged - when we know that our love will not be thrown back in our face - when we know that we can make a difference for another being - when we feel safe.

Loving makes us vulnerable. Love only happens when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Even if we don’t talk in silly voices, really loving means revealing ourselves - revealing who we really are. The author C. S. Lewis described the connection between risk and love, writing: “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

The vulnerability necessary to give and receive love terrifies us. Like our storage cupboards, few, if any of us, are entirely comfortable with exposing the contents of our hearts. Yes, there may be a few treasures we are happy to take out, polish up, and show off, but what about the things stuck back in a corner where no one will look. Back in the dark recesses of our hearts are hidden the bits of shame that we could never quite be rid of. There are the disappointments – the ways in which we know we have not lived up to our own expectations. And so, at the first sign of danger, up go the barriers. On goes the mask of tidy flawlessness. Hidden is any sign of vulnerability. And with that hiding away of our true selves, the potential for love vanishes. There is no love without honesty, understanding, and without revealing our true selves.

The most important thing I can tell you now is that the contents of your cupboard are no worse than any others. I know that many of you are thinking “oh, if he only knew – if they only knew how awful and guilty I am, no one would love me. They would throw me right out of here.” Nearly every one of us feels we have something we must hide in order to be loveable. Nearly every one of us feels not quite good enough. Love challenges us because we cannot truly accept love while we hide part of ourselves away. The longing for love calls upon us to be ourselves, truly and completely. Love is not love unless it loves us as we truly are – otherwise it is admiration of a false face.

Yes, sometimes you will venture forth from your safe shelter and the skies will open up and you will be drenched with pain and disappointment. But there is no hope of feeling the warmth of love upon your skin if you do not take that chance. You – even you – are loveable. You are worthy of love and capable of loving. Let others in. Risk everything for love.

Closing Words

Our world can be a lonely place
And our isolation is secured by our own fear
Protecting ourselves from hurt robs us of what we need most:
The deep love that ensures life’s richness
That leads us toward growth
That creates hope of peace
That nurtures the possibility of justice
Open your tender heart
Love awaits you