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By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.
An obscure French philosopher named Robert Wallet once said, “The human heart feels things the eyes cannot see and knows things the mind cannot know.”
It is a venture into the human heart and the emotion of love that I want to take us over the next three Sundays, in this month of February that is so uniquely identified with love. The ancient Greeks identified three forms of love – each of which I want to explore with you. Today, let us ponder the realms of Divine love, or agape as the Greeks termed it. And next Sunday, on Valentine’s Day, we will set our hearts aflutter and our pulses racing by discussing eros or romantic love. And finally, two weeks from now, we’ll look at phileo love or the affection that exists between friends.
Living true to the opening quote which I read to you, I hope we will consider these love topics not just with our minds, but that we – and most importantly me – allow ourselves to ponder with our hearts and emotions this most powerful of human feelings. Its range and depth and diversity of expression cannot begin to be understood with reason and intellect. Love is wild and mysterious and provocative. We struggle to define it but we each know it when we feel it. I hope, in the next three Sundays, that we will feel a bit of Divine love, a thought of erotic and romantic love as well as deep joy in the love of a dear friend. So, let us feel, and not just think, as we embark on our journey with this good ship, the USS Gathering Love Boat…
As many of you may have noticed in my messages, I default towards the factual and have frequently offered an overload of information. And, as a result, I sometimes forget to into our feelings. For today, though, we must enter into that world of emotion as we seek to experience and understand some sense of Divine love.
Agape, or Divine love, is intellectually understood to be sacrificial love. It is a love that is unconditional, totally generous and most like what might be described as perfect love. We can find elements of it in eros. And, it is also expressed in phileo friendship love as well. But, as a love unto itself, it is distinguished by its giving nature, by its mysterious force, and by the fact that it is offered without expectation of return in any form. While some call this the kind of love that God gives, I believe it is simply Divine love because of its special beauty and sacrificial nature.
Marianne Williamson, a new age Christian writer, says that, “We must hold to the conviction that the heart, and not the mind, is the light of the world.” I believe it is in the human heart that we experience Divine love and that we also act to give it away. As humankind moves away from religion and into a more personal spirituality, we seek to understand our inner selves and our inner souls. We have found that reason and intellect cannot explain all things and that the answer for much of what we need and want in life is to be found in mystery and transcendence. We find that in the busy activities of life and our acquisition of purely material objects, these things offer no fulfillment. I have often asked my two girls and others, at the end of our lives, when we are lying on our death beds about to breathe our last, will we look back and remember all of the tasks we have accomplished and the many things we bought and acquired? Or, will the most important things in our lives, our most cherished memories, be instead the relationships formed, the people we have loved and the other lives we have touched? How beautiful and meaningful is a life led in love and service for others. That, for me, is the essence of agape.
If this is so, then I believe we as humans have begun to realize that our quest in this life is to find and experience transcendent moments as a way to understand Divine love. Anthropologists have noted that in our evolution as a human species, the origins of religion began at the same time as did human art and artistry. And this is not coincidence. Humans seek to be moved and transformed in art much as we also seek to be moved and transformed by the spiritual. From humankind’s earliest days, we have been moved by prayer, by a quiet time spent in meditation and by thoughtful reflection on the existence of a supernatural or Divine force. We yearn for meaning and significance and, often, that is found not just in how we think but in how we feel, pray, meditate and love.
Rumi, the Islamic mystic, said that our purpose is to experience Divine love for ourselves so that we are empowered to then give it away to others by using our skills and talents. And that answers for us, in my belief, the very questions we have about the existence of God. God is everywhere and in everyone. This is not the theistic God, in my belief, who sits on high and commands our actions and our fates. This is the law of love, the moral force at work in human history. That is God. God is us. We are loved by others so we can, in turn, spread such love even more. Our love is spread by our actions and by our conscious efforts to extend compassion, to work for justice, to improve other lives, to be little gods in the flesh. Jesus said himself that we are all gods – we are all persons who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, champion the outcast and work to build heaven on earth. And all those efforts create agape – what I call Divine love, which is unconditional, sacrificial and wildly extravagant.
Marianne Williamson and Rumi both echo the same thoughts. To experience Divine love – that which taps into our very souls, we must extricate ourselves from the earthly ties the bind us – as many of the material goods and resources that seem to control us. We are often slaves to our possessions – caring for them, paying for them, and protecting them. Why not, these spiritualists ask, shouldn’t we step off this symbolic treadmill and embrace that which really matters – love of ourselves and of other people?
Our search for the Divine is found in the love of others but it is also found inside our selves. It is a look into the very nature of our souls. What truly motivates us? What truly gives us meaning and significance? Whom do we love and from whom do we receive it? Where and how do we create change for the good in ourselves, our families, our communities and our world? Let us not list what we do or the tasks we complete but the very lives we touch with agape love – wild, passionate, totally giving and without condition.
In this consideration of agape love, I am reminded first and foremost of our creative love which we all experience in one form or another. I speak of the agape love parents have for children or, vice versa, children have for their parents – those who have cared for, loved and raised us. I think of my own love for my daughters. It is a love that defies description. Innate within me is my love for them – it is totally unconditional. They can do nothing to earn it or to lose it. I will always love them no matter what they do. And, in a twist from what often occurs when a parent lovingly accepts and reaches out to a gay son or daughter, I recall my daughter Amy immediately reaching out to me when I told her five years ago that I am gay. Nervous and aware that I could well be changing her opinion of me, I blurted out the words and the response from her was an immediate extension of agape. She reached over, put her hand on my arm, and told me, “It’s OK Dad. Don’t worry. Everything will be alright. I still love you.” And with that, I became the child and she the loving parent. More importantly, she extended to me the love of ages – the love of the Divine – the love that says no matter what, “I love you.”
I also think of the love which social activists and caregivers extend to strangers. During my first trip to Haiti, our mission group toured many schools, clinics and orphanages serving this abjectly poor nation. In one visit to a hospital for terminally ill children, our group was moved beyond words. Lying two to three children per crib were little ones fighting to breathe due to the ravages of tuberculosis. In one crib, all by herself, was a girl who we learned was six years old but who looked like an infant. Staring blankly and listlessly, the little girl lay dying from AIDS – emaciated and lying on a soiled mattress. We later learned she died two days after our visit. All around these dying kids were full-time volunteers from around the world, feeding, comforting, bathing and holding children who would never know any joy in life. This was and still is a miracle of love. People who dedicate their lives – who are richer in meaning and significance than I ever will have – were and are working to sacrifice their comfort for the comfort of those who have none. That, for me, still resonates with agape – holy, Divine love. There are thousands of people around the world who do this daily. There are people in this very room who perform such acts. We are, right now, in the presence of God.
And finally, in an effort to define with my heart what agape love is like, I think of the story found in the New Testament book of Luke – one of Jesus’ parables commonly entitled the Parable of the Prodigal or Lost Son. Jesus used parables as a means to teach his listeners about the true nature of the Divine Mother and Father – about God. Parables were the novels of his time, the symbolic TV shows intended both to entertain and enlighten listeners. Because the stories were so vibrant, with identifiable characters, they were easily remembered and verbally passed from one person to another. One did not need to personally hear Jesus to know that he had originated and taught the stories. Parables are considered by modern Bible scholars to be the most authentic quotes or teachings from Jesus in the four Gospels. These stories were easily told and retold thousands of times over as, hundreds of years after Jesus, they eventually found themselves written into the Gospel accounts of his life.
And the parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps THE classic Jesus story. In it, a wealthy father is described as having two sons. It is the younger son who one day, out of youthful greed and self-indulgence, comes to his father and asks that his portion of the estate – what he will be inherit at his dad’s death, be given to him now. The thoughtless and impudent behavior of the youngest son is amazing but the father nevertheless gives half his estate to the boy who promptly departs with new wealth.
Acting like most youth do who find themselves rich not at their own making, the boy moves to the big city and spends extravagantly and wastefully. The story essentially says that wine, women and song are bought with abandon until the money is exhausted. We can imagine the debauchery of the young man and the toll on his body that his actions must take. Alcoholic, swindled by prostitutes and rendered penniless by gambling and waste, the boy finds himself needing to scrounge with pigs in order to eat. In a Jewish culture where swine are considered literally and religiously unclean, this image was intended by Jesus to drive home the point. The boy had fallen as low as possible. You could not get any lower in life, in that culture, then to have to fight with pigs for scraps of food.
Once again, the boy assumes an attitude of entitlement and decides that he will return to his father and beg for help. In one sign of contrition, the boy says he will seek to live as a slave or servant to his dad. As Jesus tells the story, the boy begins the journey back home. And, one can just imagine the scene – the boy who is filthy, dressed in rags, with long uncut hair and beard, staggering down the road towards the family house. But Jesus says the father happens to look down the road and sees his lost son coming towards him. Immediately, he asks his servants to bring him his best cloak, to kill the specially reserved fatted calf and to begin preparations for a massive celebration party. The father then runs down the road towards his son and scoops him up into his arms in a joyful embrace of love – smothering him with kisses and tears. His son has returned. The wayward, prodigal boy is back. Let’s take away his rags, says the father, clothe him in the best robes, prepare for him a huge feast and welcome him back as a full son.
The oldest son reacts as many of us would. He is resentful and confronts his father with the unfairness of the situation. Here I am, he says, who has remained loyal to you and continued to work on the family farm without spending away your money. Yet you welcome my brother home again. This is not right. This is not just.
But the father, in a classic response resonating with agape, says to his oldest son – boy, you have always been with me and I love you deeply. All that I have is yours. But, it is right that I welcome home your brother and that we should celebrate. He was dead to us but has now returned alive. He was lost but now is found.
What parent, what child, what person cannot identify with this father? The ache of losing a wayward child, of seeing someone you love destroy their lives – is all of a sudden reversed and turned into pure joy. This father loved his son no matter what he had done. Despite all of the prostitutes, drugs, booze and wasted living, his boy was home. This is unconditional love – lavish, extravagant, and overly generous. It gives without expectation and loves in spite of disrespect. Such was and is agape love.
For us, though, the parable of the Prodigal Son has its limits. As with all verses in the Bible, we cannot take the message of the story literally. Love for another often means we practice what is commonly called tough love. We must establish boundaries so that we are not extending negative love – that is the kind of love which enables destructive or negative behavior. Agape love is unconditional in nature but it is not based on irrational sentimentality. We must assume that the Prodigal boy had changed and come home having learned humility and how to also extend love. If he were to return without any change, the actions of the father would be wasted and would only perpetuate the destructive behaviors of the boy. Nevertheless, my warning against the kind of love that hurts instead of helps and that is often co-dependent in nature does not mean we shrink away from unconditional love. Nowhere and in no person is that love better seen than in the life and words of Mother Teresa.
She has come as close as any twentieth century person I can think of to living out the ethic of Divine love. Mother Teresa once said that as she looked into the faces of the poor, she saw Jesus. And, she had many memorable thoughts on the nature of Divine love. Here are just a few of her quotes on love…
- Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.
- Peace begins with a smile; let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.
- In this life, we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.
- It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love be put in the giving.
- We are little pencils in the hands of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.
- To the world, you might be just one person. But to one person, you might be the world.
- The most terrible poverty is the feeling of being unloved.
- Good works are links that form a chain of love.
- If we really want to love, we must first learn how to forgive.
- If you judge people, then you have no time to love them.
- I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love.
- People are often illogical, unreasonable and self-centered; forgive them anyway.
- If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish and ulterior motives; be kind anyway.
- If you are honest, people may cheat you; be honest anyway.
- If you find security and happiness, people may be jealous; be happy anyway.
- The good you do today, people will forget it tomorrow; do good anyway.
- Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
- Because, you see, in the final analysis, it was never between you and them, it was between you and the Divine…
Beloved, let us bask in the realm of holy mystery and beauty. In our timeless universe, we are simple and small pieces in a large mosaic of creation. We come into this world as a result of love – the love of a mother who gave us birth. We grow and live with love all around us – even though we sometimes practice hate and discord. Understanding that we have a common destiny and a common need to cooperate, we often fail at love. But love’s clear call to us causes us to listen and to heed its appeal. Let us feel the mysterious flow of love all around us. Let us feel the love of others as we share the peace and greet one another. Let us be a source of love to each other. We can do nothing that has any impact or has any meaning if we do not practice love. As people who claim to be spiritual, who follow the beliefs of Progressive Christianity, may we be known for our love. May others see it in how we treat one another, how we welcome visitors to our door and how we love the stranger, the outcast and the ones who seem to annoy us. May we truly open our hearts and see the beauty in ourselves and in other people. I love this congregation very much. It is beautiful in its flaws and imperfections. This is home. We are a family. We are all gods to one another and to our world. I love each and every one of you, and you and you…