A parishioner once came up to me and said, “I’ve been keeping track. Do you realize that the last word of your last five sermons has been love?” There are, I think, worse concepts to end a sermon with, but it did make me pause and reflect upon whether or not I was becoming a trifle simplistic in my thinking.
We all want simple answers even to the most complex questions. One that never fails to irritate me is from those people who tell you that when you are put off by the term God, you can just substitute the world love in its place, and it will be perfectly satisfactory. “God is love,” they say complacently, and expect you to be satisfied. Well, you can do that, I suppose, if you define the word love so broadly that it loses all real meaning. It has been undoubtedly a useful corrective to the angry, punishing, vindictive god of which we see so much in the Old Testament and even in the present-day theology that damns all unbelievers to everlasting torment. However, even the Universalists, when they rejected belief in such an unforgiving god knew that there was more to it than that. God might love, and at last bring everyone into reconciliation, but that was not the only transcendent characteristic. We seem too often to think that if we say it enough it will be enough. “Love is the answer,” the songs intone; “All you need is love.” It is my conviction that you need a lot of other things besides that, not just, as is obvious, for the body, but also for the soul. To confine our definition of the holy to a single value, and that value one that too often proves its insufficiency, is not just a simple answer but a simplistic one. We need such things as truth, justice, wisdom, courage, faithfulness, fortitude…many gifts of the spirit of which love is only one. However, I must admit that if I finished five sermons in a row with that concept, I must think there’s something to it.
I have in my time of attending worship — and I have far more opportunities to do that than most except other ministers who feel a similar obligation to attend various conferences — walked out of two. I do trust that none of you will consider that an appropriate model; however, it was that or perhaps something worse. One of them was in celebration of the success of women entering the ministry, and it began by insulting and vilifying the very people I told you about earlier who smoothed and straightened my path to the ministry, the “old boys’ network”. The other was what I call a bluebird sermon; the kind that tells you that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. I not only can’t preach those, I can’t stand them. Even on the most celebratory occasions I can never forget that there are some who cannot celebrate, that there are those who are suffering or fearful or stricken by grief. I react the same way to those who say that god is love.
It was fourteen years ago that I became convinced that the easy answer of love as the be-all and end-all of our needs denied the fact that in some situations it is not only inadequate but futile. It has been long enough that I suppose I can see it with some balance, but when I think of it I still get that horrid feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I wince and shudder.
I have always deeply feared motorcycles for the sake of their riders. I recognize the attraction, the excitement, but one of my brothers was nearly killed when he fell trying to avoid a dog that was chasing him. An interesting sidelight to that story is that the dog’s owners visited him in the hospital, not to apologize but to demand that he pay the veterinarian’s bill. Anyway, that was the beginning of my fear, and I didn’t hesitate to tell my children about it, to no avail, as I expected. And certainly I would never have forbidden it, even if I thought that to do so would be listened to. When I went to my eldest’s apartment just before his college graduation I said when he answered the door, “I had to maneuver around a motorcycle on your walk,” and he replied, “I know. Don’t tell my mom.” I was unsurprised. Both my sons rode, and my daughter was more than occasionally a passenger. Then fourteen years ago, my youngest was giving a ride to a friend’s girlfriend who wanted to see what it was like. He was showing off, going a little too flamboyantly around a curve, and there was sand in the road. She was killed. Although neither the authorities nor his friend held him accountable, he himself took full responsibility for the tragedy, knowing that if he hadn’t been playing the cowboy he could have avoided the accident. He will live with that sense of guilt for the rest of his life.
I was shocked at my own callousness. I was too grateful that he was still alive to grieve, more than any of us might do when we hear of such a tragedy, for the girl or her parents or her two children and fiancé. My horror was for him, for his grief and shame. He told me that he had considered suicide and had decided that that would simply make things worse for everyone else, and that although he would in those circumstances no longer have to think about it, it would not, could not, change the reality or atone for it.
I was proud of him. I was also more frustrated than I have ever been and hope never to be again. There was absolutely nothing I could do to ease his pain. It didn’t matter how much I loved him, how much I wanted to, I could take none of his grief and shame on my own shoulders. I would have given anything at all to be able to do that, to relieve him even a little of the agony that I knew that he would feel all his life. I could not. It was his own and would remain his own. The inadequacy, the futility of love to bridge this separation was clear.
The philosophy of existentialism is no longer popular. It is not because it didn’t teach much that was true, but that its teachings were and remain so unpalatable. Someone described its basic teaching as being that no one else can take a bath for you. It may be in part a reaction to that unpalatable truth that has fueled the psychology and the politics of victimization. It gives you a possible way out of this sense of ultimate responsibility. However, whatever the background and history which fuels your present, you are still in the final moment responsible. No one can relieve you of responsibility for your actions; no one can take any of your burden of guilt or grief. You must continue to bear the reality of your own existence. And you must do it alone. That sense of being ultimately alone comes to us all when we have reached those depths from which none of us can entirely escape. One of the more theistic of my colleagues once was describing his feelings when he was undergoing his multiple bypass operation. He said that he had never felt so alone. He could touch no one. He could not even touch God. It is terrifying to be as alone as that. It is just as terrifying, it seems to me, to wish more than anything else to take the burden of another’s loneliness on oneself and realize the impossibility of fulfilling that desire. We can care intensely, but our caring will not abate one iota of the other’s responsibility or the other’s pain.
There is, however, the paradox and the wonder that although our ultimate loneliness cannot be bridged even by love, it can be redeemed by it. It is redeemed by the love that we feel and the love that is given us by others. The love that can do this is not just the warm fuzzies of easy sympathy. It can be as hard and hurtful as any loneliness. The love that he felt for his friends increased my son’s pain but it also enabled his understanding that endurance of his burden was required of him because of those who love him. His friend’s love for him and refusal to blame him cut deeply, even as they offered the beginning of healing.
We use the word love very easily for any number of different things, and that’s fine. There are many different kinds of love and many different occasions. We speak of loving one another, loving humankind, loving a good steak, loving anything that we feel good about. We also talk about the interdependent web and transcendent connection. All those things make us feel good. When we speak of the pain of love, it is usually the lack of it we mean, or the lack of return for the love we feel, and we think if we could just have more of it, we’d be fine and the world would be too. “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” And I don’t really disagree with that. I am not a cynic — I even like romance — and any kind of love is not only better than none, but I am highly in favor of not only its increase but its expression. I don’t count Valentine’s Day as a time for the expression of romantic love among the Hallmark holidays that I so strongly deprecate, perhaps because of its history, though goodness knows they’re doing their best to turn it into a commercial bonanza. But Chaucer mentioned it, and Sam Weller in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers bought a valentine for the object of his affection. All those loves are lovely. They are also not enough.
It is when we are forced to confront our ultimate loneliness, however that we discover both the true pain of love and its redemptive power in recognition of its futility. This isn’t the sweet love of the song or the “I love you, you love me,” of Barney. It is the searing love of our separateness which redeems our helplessness.
I do not argue this. There is no argument of reason or logic that explains a paradox. There is only poetry, which can try to resolve it. I have no poetry either. All I have is this very common story which this time is my own story. All I have is the experience that my love for my son could only increase my understanding of his and my own ultimate loneliness, yet somehow gave it meaning, and that the love and concern of others were equally powerless to bridge the gaps between our individual lives while at the same time giving meaning and joy within the separateness and pain.
In a sense my parishioner was right, I was really getting in a rut. Five sermons in a row ending with the word love is probably too many, and probably too simplistic. And I’ve tried to mend my ways. In usual terms love is by no means enough. When people say that God is love, a simple equation, they not only do not really describe the transcendent dimension which includes such things as responsibility, justice, endurance — matters that go beyond a warm concern for general wellbeing or even committed action to bring that wellbeing about. But there is a love which is utterly futile to change things, to help another person, even to bridge loneliness, which may even increase rather than decrease suffering, and yet with its cold edge sears meaning into our loneliness though the love we give rather than that which we are given. Surely this is not enough to describe what may be meant by the word god, but perhaps it is the holy connection which transcends our separateness and redeems it without in any way reducing it. It is the paradox that makes us one in our separateness, necessary in our uselessness, powerful in our helplessness. We are alone, but in that loneliness remains always the power of love.