(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Last month two men, who were referred to me by a friend, asked if I would perform their marriage ceremony on Inauguration day. They contacted me just a few days before and so I was hesitant to do it. I do not perform off the shelf, cookie cutter weddings. I like to meet with a couple weeks beforehand and plan a ceremony that is special just for them.
But this couple explained that they had been so traumatized by the recent election that they wanted to do something positive on Inauguration day. Having been partners for years, they had often talked about getting married.
Their hurry up ceremony, they told me, would not only be a statement of commitment to one another, it would be a statement of hope on a day when division and intolerance were seemingly honored. I agreed to officiate their wedding on that basis.
January 20th began cold and overcast but by the four o’clock wedding hour the sun had come out. We stood at a river-view overlook for the ceremony. White, billowing clouds scudded across a blue sky. The river sparkled beneath us. The heavens seemed to smile. A few of their friends gathered to watch. Included with them were the son and ex-wife of one of the men. As I pronounced them husband and husband, the boy and his mom burst into tears. I was concerned that seeing their dad and former husband get married to another man was too much for them.
Instead, the newly married couple, the ex-wife and the young son quickly came together in a long and tearful hug. The woman later assured me that she and her son were not sad. They had cried tears of joy at the beauty of the moment and the fulfillment of truth for a man they still deeply loved.
I thought afterwards that such love is what life is all about. On a day that many mourned as one defined by the victory of hate over compassion, I was blessed by being with this couple, and their families, who said “yes” to forgiveness, kindness and truth. In so many ways, I identified with their feelings. I know the pain and heartache that happens with coming out, with divorce, and with a decision that disrupts so many lives. I also know the love I received when my own daughters, and my ex-wife assured me of their continued support. Love, it seems, is far more than an emotional feeling. It’s a gift of self and a statement of goodness when hate or anger could easily predominate.
At that wedding I recited a reading that is offered at many weddings. The reading has become so common that I sometimes think it trite and I usually prefer not to use it. But it has stood the test of time. It still resonates and speaks wisdom. And so, on this occasion, I thought it appropriate.
In a letter that the Biblical Paul wrote to a Christian church in ancient Corinth, a church that was known for its wealthy and arrogant members who looked down on and mistreated marginalized persons, Paul expressed these beautiful words:
If I speak in the tongues of angels, but do not have love, I am only a loud gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and sacrifice myself and my body, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Paul tells us that love is, indeed, a gift. It is a way of telling or showing any person that against all the prompts of selfish instinct, I will be patient with you. I will be gentle and caring to you. I will feel joy for what you have and what you do. Toward you, I will be humble and sublimate my needs to yours. I will honor you by listening and serving. I’ll forgive and forget the hurts you have inflicted. Your feelings will be first, mine second. I’ll believe only what is noble and true about you. I’ll protect you from being hurt. I’ll trust and believe in your goodness. I will do all these things as long as I live.
As I said last Sunday, whatever it is we believe God to be – or not to be – she is a force of love. Love is quite simply what defines the universe. It embodies all that is good, beautiful, positive and true. Its opposite – hate – embodies all that is negative, cruel and false.
Leo Tolstoy, in his famous novel War and Peace, wrote, “Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.” He tells us in these words what I believe is true about love in general. Whether we serve the homeless, volunteer to teach our children, repair our church building, kiss and embrace our partners, sit quietly by a friend, or advocate against racism – we must do so motivated by a desire to be concerned, passionate and honest. As Paul and Tolstoy wrote, such prompts, if they be sincere, spring from love.
And if that be so, then love is what conceived us. It is a creative power that brings all new life, thar stirs distant galaxies, that defines the stuff of reason and truth. Love is art, music, science, poetry, medicine, teaching and so much more. When we do any loving act for another, we must do it with honesty and pure intent. We must want to give away a piece of ourselves.
In that regard, Tolstoy also wrote,
There is no love apart of that love which gives away its soul for a friend. Love is only love when it is self-sacrifice. Only when a person gives away to another not only their time, but when he or she spends their body and gives away their life…
I elaborated last Sunday on the relatively simple concept of understanding the love language of those who are special to you. If you were not here, you can listen to or read that message on our website. By learning which of the five so-called love languages that our partners, children, friends or colleagues most prefer, we extend to them a gift. We consciously choose to love them in way they both prefer and completely feel. In essence, we sacrifice what we prefer for their sake – for their sense of well-being and comfort. We fulfill, with our deeds, our purpose for living – to let go of the self and love others.
Walt Whitman, in his well-known anthology of poems, Leaves of Grass, wrote this,
Love the earth and sun and animals,
Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
Stand up for the stupid and crazy,
Hate tyrants, devote your income and labor to others…
Re-examine all you have been told at school or church,
And your very flesh shall be a great poem.
Love, for Whitman, is to sacrifice our lives, our needs, our prejudices, and our bodies for the sake of another. In doing so, we love them at least as much as we too want to be loved.
Writing perhaps the quintessential love story, Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet shares that sentiment. Love comes by chance and is often fickle. It can burn with a fiery passion that both wounds and inspires. But above all, love is noble. It defines itself through the goodness it creates. When we see love, when we feel it, when it we give it away, our inner angels prompt us to do and speak even greater good. Anger subsides. Greed and intolerance stop. Our hearts are open. Shakespeare writes at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet the ultimate purpose of the tragic, all consuming love he described in his play:
Two households, both alike in dignity
in fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
from ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life,
whose misadventured piteous overthrows,
do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The love of Romeo and Juliet, passionate, sacrificial and suicidal, nevertheless inspires reconciliation and an end to the hate between their families. It is similar to what the two men I married wanted their ceremony to represent. Our nation, riven by anger and intolerance, might be inspired in one little corner of it by the marriage of two people. If so, love will serve its purpose.
To any of us as lovers past, present or future, Carl Sandberg also wrote a well known and oft recited poem. He wrote this,
I love you for what you are, but I love you
yet more for what you are going to be.
I love you not so much for your realities
as for your ideals.
I pray for your desires, that they may be great,
rather than for your satisfactions,
which may be so hazardously little.
A satisfied flower is one whose petals are about to fall.
But the most beautiful rose is one, hardly more than a bud,
where in the pangs and ecstasies of desire are working
for larger and finer growth.
Not always shall you be what you are now.
You are going forward toward something great.
I am on the way with you
and therefore I love you.
Once again, a writer has captured the spiritual truth of love. We often define love as the preference we have in a romantic partner, or the favor we have for our children and members of our families. It might even be defined as the delight we feel in friends who support, care for and enrich us.
But Paul, Leo Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Sandberg and other great writers all say something very different. Love is not lust. Love is not favor or preference. Love is not a warm feeling. Love is giving your all to me. It is me doing the same for you. It’s a parent working and struggling to feed and educate their child. It’s a lover pouring himself or herself into the happiness of their mate. It is our collective nation giving its resources for the well-being of the least of our inhabitants – the undocumented, the poor, the oppressed, the weak. It is each of us forgetting and letting go any prejudices or fears of Muslims, African Americans, the other abled and political opponents.
Erich Fromm, author of the book The Art of Loving, says it best…
Infantile love believes We love because we are loved…
Mature love understands We are loved……because we love.
With those words, I wish you peace, joy and very a happy Valentine’s Day this Tuesday.