Happiness 2: Love (8/10/03)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Last week we began a short series on happiness. I want to make a quick overview of that sermon for those who were not here, and for those who like me, have slept since then. And for those who slept during last week’s sermon, as well.
I began by saying most of us would agree that happiness is one of the most important things in life. I then revealed my shock that when I checked my Bible, I discovered that the word “happy,” and all its possible variations—happiness, happier, happiest, and so on—never appear in the New Testament. Jesus never uses the word, and neither do any of the writers of the New Testament books.
I acknowledged that the word “joy” makes 59 appearances, but as we looked at the way that word—joy—is used, we discovered it goes far beyond our normal notions of happiness. I mean, there is a difference between being overwhelmed with joy to the point we feel like we’re walking on air, and that simple form of happiness that carries us through our days with a general feeling of contentment.
We wrestled with whether or not Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the New Testament want us to be happy. We decided they do. But we agreed that happiness is not something for which we aim—it’s not a destination we set for ourselves. Happiness is something that happens to us along the way. And then we looked at some words that make frequent appearances in the New Testament—faith, hope and love. And we made a sort of leap of faith. Since those words—faith, hope and love—appear 531 times; and since we decided the New Testament authors really do want us to be happy; and since the word “”happy” and its derivatives make not a single appearance on the lips of Jesus or the authors of the canon; then, we decided that faith, hope and love must have a lot to do with happiness.
That was the premise, and last week, we considered the importance of faith and hope for a happy life. That leaves us with the subject of love, and it is appropriate for “love” to be the topic of a full sermon. Remember the great words of Paul in 1st Corinthians: Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
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Paul, who wrote those words, like Jesus himself, was never married. And yet both of those men dedicated their lives to love. So this love we are talking about is more than romantic love. I don’t belittle romantic love, which is often called eros, from which the word erotic is derived. But the love Jesus and Paul embodied is agape love, a love not based on an abiding love of a single person, but rather a love—a devotion—a compassion—for others.
We ended last week’s sermon with the great words of Dostoevsky, in which he says to love all of creation with everything within us. That is the type of love that encompasses all other forms of love. And that is the type of love I want to talk about this morning.
There is no shortage of inspired writing on the subject of love. All the great religions speak extensively on the subject, and love has served as the primary inspiration for countless poets through the ages. Rather than try to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, I want to pass on some of the wisdom regarding love that has been handed down to us.
There is probably no figure in history who has been able to capture a significant truth with a short and beautiful phrase quite like Shakespeare. In one of his sonnets, we find these words:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alterations finds.
I can perhaps express his sentiment in plainer, albeit less poetic, English. Love is unchanging and unconditional. Real love is unchanging and unconditional because love, by its very nature, is unrestrained. It does not place limits on itself. And it is not dependent on the object of love.
Okay, I guess that wasn’t such plain English after all! But consider the love people feel for their children. That love is forever. Have you ever seen interviews with the parents of men who have been sentenced to death? These death row inmates are typically some pretty bad folks. They have no redeeming value in the eyes of the world. In fact, they have such little value, society opts to kill them—to blot out their existence from the face of the earth. But have you seen the tears in the eyes of their mothers? Oh, their parents are crushed. They are disappointed, confused, dismayed at what their child has done. But they still love him. They still love him.
Who among us has not disappointed our parents? And what parents among us have not been disappointed in our children? But love does not waver at such times. We don’t look at our son and say, “I would love you much more if you would only start bringing home better grades on your report card. Until you raise those math scores, I’m afraid you’re only going to get 60% of my available love.”
Love, by its nature, is not dependent on anything. Love is a free and unearned gift of the heart. I imagine that is the way it is with that unfathomable love of God. God is probably disappointed, confused and dismayed at the way you and I act, day in and day out. And we can be thankful that God’s love is not dependent upon our virtue, but is instead a free gift. Again, Shakespeare says it much better:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alterations finds.
Love of this magnitude doesn’t make sense. And yet, love is every bit as much a verb as a noun. Love isn’t just something we feel; it is something we do, and in that respect it is an act of our will. We choose whether or not to love. St. Aelred writes:
Feelings are not entirely ours to command. We are attracted towards some against our will, while toward others we can never experience a spontaneous affection. If we are moved solely by our feelings, that is not love. Real love means that we are still masters of our acts, and we use our inclinations and attractions simply as guides in the direction we choose to take. And the same is true when reason tells us what direction love must take. It is not reason which impels us to love, it is we ourselves who choose to love, taking reason as our guide.
Well, while real love is much more than a feeling and has a great deal to do with our will, it has to go far beyond our heads or it is not love. It has to come from someplace so deep within that we hardly recognize that level of beauty can come from inside of us. Oswald Chambers writes,
If human love does not carry a man beyond himself, it is not love. If love is always discreet, always wise, always sensible and calculating, never carried beyond itself, it is not love at all. It may be affection, it may be warmth of feeling, but it has not the true nature of love in it.
You know, there is something about love that is like nothing else in the universe. It is the only thing known to humanity that increases as it is given away. It’s not that way with money, despite what so many television preachers tell us. They love to tell stories about the poor old woman who had only two hundred dollars to her name, and sent the whole thing to Holy Hank’s Television Ministry and On-Line Gift Shop; and who then won the billion dollar lottery a few days later. God takes care of those who send their cash to the right preachers.
But it doesn’t usually work that way, at least not with money. And it doesn’t work that way with anything else in the material world. If I have a pie, and I cut it into eight pieces, I can only give away eight pieces. Eight people can have a piece of pie. If I give one person two pieces, that means there are only six left to give away.
That’s the way it is with everything but love. But love, love is different. I can give one person every bit of love I have—I can give him the entire pie; and I still have the whole pie left to give somebody else. And the more I give the pie away, the bigger the pie gets.
Love springs forth from an eternal source deep within us, and we can’t extinguish it. Rainer Maria Rilke puts it this way:
This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess of that precious, nourishing love from which flowers and children have their strength and which could help all human beings if they would take it without doubting.
I like the way Rilke sees love in everything, nourishing and giving strength to flowers and children alike. What makes the flower push up through the ground and reach for the sunlight? What makes it blossom with colors that fill our eyes with beauty and wonder? Rilke tells us it is love. That is a beautiful way of looking at the world.
Evelyn Underhill talks about how important it is for us to see love in the world around us—to see God in the world. “God cannot lodge in a narrow heart,” she writes. She recognizes that so many people think they can love God, and turn away from the world, at the same time. Underhill claims that we cannot give ourselves to God unless we give ourselves to the world, and then, and then, the miracle begins. She writes,
One of the holy miracles of love is that once it is really started on its path, it cannot stop; it spreads and spreads in ever-widening circles till it embraces the whole world in God. We begin by loving those nearest to us, end by loving those who seem farthest. And as our love expands, so our whole personality will grow, slowly but truly. Every fresh soul we touch in love is going to teach us something fresh about God.
What a wonderful image that last phrase creates! Every fresh soul we touch in love is going to teach us something fresh about God. We don’t learn about God by reading dense books on theology, or hearing lectures by brilliant theologians. We learn about God by loving others, because when we honestly attempt to love others, God reaches out to us from every direction.
The best place to conclude this reflection on love is with the Bible. Last week we spent some time with the great love passage—1st Corinthians 13. Today we turn to 1st John. Listen again to these amazing words we heard read from the lectern this morning:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
I’m not sure what I can add to that. God is love. God is love. Now wait a second. Does that make any kind of sense? I thought God was the Creator. I thought God was the Sustainer. I thought God was the Redeemer. Practically every religion applies those traits to God, although not all of them apply it with the Trinitarian formulas favored by many Christians. But when we think about God, we typically think of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe. Oh, and according to many, He’s pretty upset. In fact, the God of our imaginations often tends to be less defined by love than by righteous anger.
God is love? The Creator is love? Could it be that the universe is created by love? Could it be that the only force powerful enough to call this magnificent mess into being in the first place was a love so powerful, so unconditional, that it simply had to give of itself, had to have something, somebody upon which to pour its love? Could “love” be the word that best describes the creative force behind the universe?
God is love? The Sustainer is love? Could it be that the same love that called creation into being in the first place sustains the universe, moment to moment, with a self-giving love that literally holds all of creation together and moves all of creation forward?
God is love? The Redeemer is love? Could it be that the same love that created and sustains the universe is so powerful, so perfect, that before a single being was created, that same redemptive love was fully in place, able to call back to itself all the creatures who would every live, no matter how far from God they strayed?
God is love. Everyone gets to decide for himself or herself what that means, but for me, it means what it says and says what it means. God is and love is God. Remember our passage from 1st John: Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Taken to its logical conclusion, 1st John tells us that the reason we exist is love. The power that allows us to exist is love. And we will return to the perfect love from which we came and which holds us in being. I believe that. I can’t say that everything about God is perfectly defined with the phrase God is love. But I do believe that is the closest human beings can come to defining God.
Well, I need to bring to a close this first phase of this little series on happiness. I honestly believe human happiness is dependent on those three cornerstones of the Christianity: faith, hope and love. I don’t believe people can be happy unless all three of those things are a part of them.
Next Sunday I will be in Oklahoma City, filling in as guest preacher for Robin Meyers, at Mayflower Congregational Church. Mayflower, of course, is the church I attended when I started seminary, and in which I was ordained. Each summer, Mayflower has a distinguished pulpit series, and this year I was chosen to preach one of the sermons. I’ll be gone for that one day only, and when I return to Wichita, I will remain on the subject of happiness. I have been wrestling with this idea of happiness over the past several months, and I have come up with some ideas about why happiness eludes many of us much of the time.
There are four figures from the Bible who I believe can point us in the right direction: Paul, John, James, and Peter. My idea is that each of these four biblical characters represents a part of us. Each and every one of us has each of those people inside of us. Paul, whose life was spent creating intellectual arguments for the faith, represents our minds. John, whose spirituality is unparalleled elsewhere in the Bible, represents our spiritual and mystical side. James, who told us that faith without works is dead, represents our work in the world, from the way we earn a living to the way we treat others. And Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said the church would be built, represents the way we worship—the way we actually practice our religion.
Our minds, our spirits, our works, and our practice of religion—Paul, John, James and Peter. My thinking is that if all four of these guys are marching along together, in step and side by side, we are happy. If one of them—representing a part of us—goes off in his own direction, that’s when we start having problems. It’s a simple idea, but as I’ve wrestled with it over the past months it’s made more and more sense.
So I look forward to seeing you in two weeks. In the meantime, keep your faith, never give up hope, and may we all open ourselves to God’s limitless love with each breath we are given.