A World Without Love (5/21/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I listen to the oldies station now and then. Over the past few years they started playing less and less fifties music and more and more music from the sixties and seventies, and that’s fine with me. Recently I heard one of my favorite songs, written by Paul McCartney and performed by Peter and Gordon. It goes, “I don’t care what they say, I won’t live in a world without love.”
I suppose that song is talking about romantic love if we want to get technical about things, but I still think a lot of the sentiment: I won’t live in a world without love. It seemed like good sermon material. What would it be like to live in a world without love?
Of course, it is a real stretch for me to think like that. My theology, the foundation on which I anchor my life, says that love is the only reason the universe exists. Seriously. I even incorporate that idea into my wedding ceremonies. I explain to the couple being married that they are embracing the very meaning of human life, for neither the writing of great symphonies, nor the sculpting of beautiful works of art, nor the building of majestic cities, nor the engineering of magnificent ships to explore the universe, are enough to justify our being. Only love. Only the power of love was a power strong enough to call creation into being in the first place, and only the power of love sustains it moment to moment.
Think about that. I honestly believe it. This world is a strange, scary, mystifying place. Good people die of horrible diseases. Earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes kill people by the thousands. Millions, perhaps billions, of people live in poverty that is so horrific those of us in the western world simply ignore it. It is too painful to look at, too disturbing to dwell on for more than a moment.
That is the world we inhabit, and it is not all sunshine and light. Let’s be honest. Most of us think we’re having a bad day if some financial obstacle pops up and keeps us from building that new back patio we’ve been dreaming of, or delays its construction until at least next month.
I know that some of us are wired differently from others. We are obsessed with the “why” questions. Many of us of this persuasion wind up as theologians, or preachers, or poets, or locked away in some institution for people who think too much about questions that have no answers. The great 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich called it ontological shock. It is that place where our reason reaches its limit, we fail to find an ultimate answer, and we are left with the hopeless question, “Why does anything exist? Why not nothingness forever?”
Once you reach that point it is difficult to go back to your everyday routine, changing oil at the Quickie Lube or sacking groceries at the supermarket. In the face of all the horrors this world can throw at us, it is hard to find meaning in our daily routines.
Kierkegaard, long before Paul Tillich coined the phrase ontological shock, recognized the condition, and said we have to make a leap of faith when we reach that situation. In the face of blinding rational odds, we have to somehow believe that there really is a God, and there really is meaning and purpose behind human life. And then, as Kierkegaard says, we take the longest voyage humanly possible. We traverse the longest distance in the universe, the distance from the head to the heart, and we understand the real meaning of love.
I think most of the people who gather in this place week after week have made that journey, to one degree or another. We have concluded that life really does have meaning and purpose, and life’s meaning is intricately tied to love. For some of us, we have concluded the discovery of that love, making that ultimate journey from head to heart, is the whole reason the universe exists in the first place. It is what provides this crazy and hurting world with meaning.
And love must be a very powerful thing. If God chooses to continue holding the world together because of the power of love, it must be an amazingly powerful thing. To overcome or at least offset all the evils? To justify our being in the face of all the horrible illness, natural disasters and famine that cover the earth? Love must be very powerful indeed.
But let’s return to the question. What would it be like to live in a world without love? First of all, marriage would be a sad institution! Perhaps people would see the need to get together to procreate the species, although I’m not sure why. Why bring a child into a world without love? A child who we would not love once it arrived? And perhaps our animal instincts would force us to take care of our offspring for a time, until they were old enough to fend for themselves in a cruel and heartless world. And then like a mother cat who has finished weaning her kittens, they would be on their own, forced to make their own way through life.
But then there is the other type of love that has nothing to do with romance. It is the love we feel for our neighbors, the respect we pay them for being alive and facing this world just as we must. A world without love would be a very selfish world. Think of what we do for our neighbors, not for our own gain, but just to be good people, the simple things we do, dare I say it, out of love. A neighbor goes on vacation and forgets to cancel his newspaper delivery. We don’t allow the newspapers to stack up in his front yard. We know that might attract thieves, who seeing an unoccupied home might decide to rob it some night. We pick up the papers because we care for our neighbors. We do it for them, and for no other reason. We do it because it is the right thing to do. We do it out of love.
I can’t imagine how we would drive in a world without love. There is something about automobiles that brings out the worst in people. We become more selfish creatures behind the wheel of a car. One of my pet peeves is when a busy highway has a construction zone, and the flashing signs clearly state that the left two lanes will be closed in 1 mile. Most people dutifully merge to the right well ahead of time. But there are always those folks who zoom past on the left, ignoring all the suckers who are trying to play by the rules. They save themselves five or ten minutes, but at what cost. What does it do to a person to be so self-centered? It can’t be healthy for their soul.
But in a world without love everybody would be racing to the front of the line. You know how when two lanes become one there is a sort of zipper effect, with a car from each line entering the single lane every other space. There is always the guy who won’t play by the rules, who hugs the bumper of the car in front of him so he saves himself, what, five seconds? There would be a lot of wrecks in a world without love.
Part of the problem our world faces is when countries, entire communities of people, unite in unloving ways. Let’s be serious. You can’t drop bombs on people you love. This notion really hit home with me last November, when my daughter Lisa married a wonderful man named Mehdi Riazi. He is the type of son-in-law fathers dream about for their daughters. Extremely intelligent, responsible, loving, and with a great sense of humor. Mehdi was born in Iran, and came to the United States with his family when he was a pre-schooler.
Of course, our families have gotten to know each other very well. His dad teaches mathematics at Fort Hays State University, his mother is a homemaker and a fabulous cook, and his two sisters are both brilliant and beautiful. Many of the people who were invited to the wedding live in Iran, and most of them could not get a visa to enter the United States. Iran, after all, is a part of the axis of evil according to our administration.
Some aunts and uncles from Iran were able to make it however, and it was an enlightening experience for me. I have never met a more fun-loving, caring, friendly group of people in my life. That whole experience really personalized this tension we now have between the United States and Iran. It occurred to me that people can love each other, but nations can’t love. And it is a very small handful of people who shape the policies of a nation.
Ever since that time, I cringe when I hear the phrase “axis of evil.” It seems that people are very much the same, everywhere in the world. They live their lives, try to be productive citizens of the earth, try to do good things and avoid harming others, and they love. They love their families, their friends and their neighbors. And the good news is they teach their children to do the same. But somehow, when governments get involved, love becomes an afterthought. And when the bombs finally start dropping, it is loving people who pay the price with their lives.
Another great song I sometimes hear on the oldies station is by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and it is called Teach Your Children Well. We need to teach our children well. We need to teach them that our governments can make mistakes, and we should not blindly follow when we know we are being pushed in a direction that is contrary to what is right. We need to teach our children that it is better to care than to be apathetic. We need to teach our children that creating peace is hard work, but it is worth the effort. It is easier to draw a line in the sand and pick up the sword than it is to negotiate a peace, but it is worth the effort.
Of course, we teach our children by our actions even more than by our words. If we want to see what happens when love is removed from the equation with regard to people of other nations, all we need to is look to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What are the children in those lands being taught? They are being taught that power belongs to those who are willing to fight to the death. They are being taught that the “other,” the people on the other side of man made boundaries, are evil, unworthy of redemption. They are to be shunned.
And might makes right. One side levels a village with Caterpillars and F-16’s, and the other side sneaks bombs onto buses filled with innocent civilians. For the children, the world becomes black and white, us and them, good and evil. There is no room for love, no room for forgiveness. “He hit me last. So I have to hit him back, and harder.” It is a never ending cycle of violence and it is a real reflection of what it would be like to live in a world without love.
Who brings love into such a world? Who can look such evil in the eye and refuse to fight? We can. You and I. And I am not being simplistic and naïve here. Love does not come into this world a nation at a time. Peace does not cover the earth in a blinding flash; it fills the earth one heart at a time. There is evil in this world, and there is goodness in this world, and the fact is we have to choose sides at some point. The problem is that it seems to make more sense to fight evil with evil. If you hit me, I will hit you back, and harder. It will teach you not to do so again.
But that doesn’t work. Ask the people in Israel and Palestine. If evil fights against evil, then only evil can win. It is only when somebody is willing to bring love into the equation that goodness even has a chance.
The wisdom of Jesus—do not return evil for evil—it is easier to pay it lip service than to really buy into it. Nowhere is the upside down wisdom of Jesus more evident than in the Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes form the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll read the Beatitudes now, and next week we will examine them in depth.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
That is almost a mini-course in how to love. And if I am right, and love is the only reason we exist, we need to expand our love beyond our families, beyond our friends, beyond our immediate neighbors. Perhaps Dostoyevsky said it best. I leave you with his amazing words:
Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all embracing love.