So apparently I was kidding when I said I don’t like to post my sermons online, because I’m posting another one! In all seriousness, we are very close to having our podcasting up and running, but until that time, I’ve agreed to post my messages when people ask. Our theme this month at First Parish Church in Taunton is Love, and we talked this past Sunday about the strength it takes to love.
Strength to Love
Our reading this morning was from a book a sermons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that he wrote largely in response from his role in the non-violent protests and marches that he lead during the 1960’s in the Southern part of the United States. The title of the book is where the title from this message came from, which is Strength to Love. It is a wonderful book, filled with his sermons and messages on how tempting it is for African Americans in the 1960’s, and indeed for all of us, to move to hate, and about how it takes in fact more strength to love than to hate.
It’s funny, if you think about it, because in our culture, “Hate” is something that is thought of as an emotion of the strong. People who hate are warriors – they kill and they dominate – when you hate, you often have the control in the situation. You are the one who is the angriest, you are the one that can do the most damage. You are the Terminator, you are the lone gunman, you, above all, are the one who is reeking with power. “Love” is something that we think about affiliated with flowers and bunnies, warm chocolate and Valentine’s Day. Random question Valentine’s Day is coming up: are there any of you here today who think of Valentine’s Day as a particularly strength-filled holiday? Not so much, right? Valentine’s Day is all about the flowers and the candy and the soft lighting. It is not a holiday about strength or power. And yet Dr. King argued, with a high degree of success, that love is more powerful than hate, more powerful than injustice, and even more powerful than fear.
Last year, I was at a retreat for ministers, where were supposed to work on facing our emotions. We did some exercises around emotions, and why we felt the way we did about things, and what those emotions meant to us. And then we broke up into small groups and did some rapid-fire questions about emotions – you know, the type that you see on a game show. “What was your happiest day? When was the first time you were afraid?” What makes you angry?” And the point of the exercise was supposed to be to go with you gut, not to say what you thought about or what you think sounds the best, but what is your first instinct. And when the question came to me, the one I was asked in a rapid fire way was “When was a time that you faced a fear?” And what popped out of my mouth was “The day I decided marry my husband.” And the reaction from the group was funny, I have to tell you, because half of them started to laugh, and the other half stared at me, horror-struck, thinking that I was somehow forced into an arranged marriage.
Let me put your minds at rest here. I was not forced into an arranged marriage, and the decision to marry my husband Eric was one that was entirely mine and one that I made with great joy. And it is one that I live with with great joy. But it was not easy. Some of you have heard me mention that when I was younger, getting married was not part of my plan. I had seen some terribly hard things happen in marriages and I was determined that I would not subject myself to the challenges and pain that marriage seemed capable of brining. But when I met my husband, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to live the rest of my life with him. I knew that, and that knowledge terrified me. Because I also knew that if I accepted that in my life, I was accepting the tremendous risk of pain and fear and loss. It was so hard. I had to look at these two options, squarely in the face, and decide which one would be the best option for me, for my life – would I let this man walk away and I would go forward by myself, as had always been my plan and would keep me safe from potential pain – or would I take his hand and walk with him, knowing that each day as I loved him more, I was accepting a richer life, but on that held much more potential pain. Loving is hard.
I’m glad to say that I took the stronger path. I knew I had to, because of the life I wanted to live, but I will be honest in telling all of you here that it was something that took a lot of strength for me to face my fears and accept that in order to live fully, I could not hide behind the fear of loss or change or difference. Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and theologian who lived in the 20th century. He was a prolific writer, and was particularly interested in studying the relationship between human emotions and the purpose of our being here on earth. In one of his articles, he stated that “Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
Years ago, I was given an example from a teacher of mine that I’d like to share with you today. He taught me that the proportion that we open ourselves to experiencing pain and fear is directly proportional to the love and joy we can experience. Take a book. Look at the binding, which has a middle and two edges. We can live in the middle, feeling just small pieces of joy, or we can move our lives to the edges, feeling love with passion and vim, and feeling pain in such a way that it can seem overwhelming. What my teacher taught us is that if you want to live with love fully – all the way over to the edge of the binding – you will also open yourself up to pain – living on the other edge of the binding. Many of us, myself included, are tempted to live in the middle. The middle is where it is safe, for us, for our hopes, and for our fears. But what Nouwen is correctly pointing out to us is that if we live in the middle, we are losing the best parts of life. The parts of life that in the last days, we look back on with joy and know that yes, we have lived. We have not let ourselves be ruled by fear and by the ideas of what-if, but we have followed our hearts and our dreams and taken the strength to love.
There are two kinds of love that we are talking about here, and it’s important for us to be clear about both of them and how they are related. There is the personal and there is the societal. Sometimes, we like to think that they are separate, because that way we don’t have to engage beyond ourselves. But the truth of the matter is that the love that Dr. King talked about – the love that the Black community must have for the White community even as they face off on terrible lines of injustice and hate – is the same kind of love that Nouwen is talking about in our own lives, with the people we know, with our children and our spouses and our co-workers and our friends. Hear King’s words again – “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love and do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.”
When I first moved to Boston, I worked at a homeless shelter for men. I worked under a hard-bitten Bostonian, who had been arrested dozens of times for his social justice actions on the behalf of the homeless, and whose brusque ways and sharp tongue frightened my Midwestern, Minnesota-nice sensibilities. The men in our shelter were struggling in one way or another, and there was very little about their lives that was easy. My boss showed me and my co-workers the ropes, in a very brusque way, and then then said as he was finishing up his talk, said “You can think what you want about these guys, and the lives they have lead and where they are now. You don’t have to agree with all of their choices. But if you can’t love them, you can get out now.” A man who was training with me, a young college student, raised his hand and asked our boss, “Is that really true? You think that we need to love them to wash the dishes and set out dinner and make sure the Pats game is on the the TV? I think we need to respect them, but who we love is our own business.” And our boss – the guy who broke up fights and swore constantly, got right up in this kid’s face and said “No, you are wrong. You don’t love them like you love your mother – I get that. But loving these guys means that you know that who they are matters every bit as much as who you are, and that you are willing to be changed by them. And if you can’t do that, you can’t be here. Because none of us are going anywhere if you can’t love.” The kid backed down, and he stayed working at the shelter with me for the whole year. And we talked later about what it meant to love men who were making choices that we didn’t always agree with, and that we wished were different. But at the end of the year, that kid was different. He was changed by the guys we worked with, and in June, he went to our boss and thanked him.
Loving isn’t always about chocolates and roses. It’s not even all about partnership and families. It’s about facing fears and living. It’s about knowing that there is so much that is outside of our control and that our lives will be hard, but that with loving, the joy will matter so much more than the pain. It’s about knowing that we all have the ability to love so far beyond ourselves, and that that ability can change everything. It can change fear and segregation and injustice. It can change the course of your life. It can change the course of the life of the child that you have taken into your heart and loved so much that her world is a more beautiful place because you love her. Loving is about facing the fears and living to the edges of the page.
So this week, I want to ask all of you to take on a new challenge, and it is a challenge I will take on with you for your homework. This week, I want you to find something or someone new to love. Not someone that is already in your life and that is easy – your kids or your best friend or your spouse – but something that you have not tried loving before. Perhaps it will be that person at work who you have not always gotten along with, but that you can open your heart to. Maybe it will be the new organization that is bringing forth hopes and dreams for the city you love. Maybe you will find a way to open your heart to love a person you know is alone, and who needs love. I want to be clear – this is not a call to, as my old boss said, love these people like your mother. But it is a call to be willing to be changed by them, and to open yourself to the joy and the pain of loving. To have the strength to love. May it be so.