I Corinthians 13, I John 4:11-12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 11, 2018
When I was young, there was a song by Dionne Warwick entitled, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” And certainly, the world in which we live today needs love desperately. In the New Testament, the shortest description of God is the verse, “God is love.” And Jesus said that all of what is important in life is summed up in the words to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbor as we love ourself. Poets and philosophers have always been fascinated by love.
Emily Dickinson once wrote: That love is all there is,
Is all we know of love.
As this time of year, Hallmark and the florists would have us believe that romantic love is the only kind of love. Yet, love is so much broader, and what the world needs now is that broader love that cares far beyond romantic love. Plato once said many, many years ago, that we are born whole, but we need each other to become complete. Wendy Lustbader, in her book Life Gets Better, about aging gracefully, describes a wonderful concept called “reciprocity,” the idea that people need to both give and receive love and care. She describes something I have often felt might be a good idea for our community here:
In a city neighborhood not too far from the White House, a group of elders banded together to organize Capitol Hill Village. The idea was to foster a system of exchange in which needs would be matched with abilities across generations, resulting in a means for elders to remain in their own homes. A retired seamstress in her eighties might be connected to a businessman in his thirties who occasionally needs someone to hem his slacks. He might be happy to mow an older person’s patch of lawn on Saturdays or run errands for a homebound elder.
In the beginning of the project, the founders worried that there would be a shortage of younger volunteers and a surplus of elders hoping to get some help. To their delight, they ended up with more people wanting to give than receive. Their list of services offered just kept on growing. Harriet Rogers, one of the elders who was a charter member, attested to the pleasure of both giving and receiving: “Volunteering has been as rewarding as membership. I’m glad to be plugged in…. I have made new friends for the first time in a long time.”
This impulse toward mutual aid is consistent with our biology, our spirituality, and the truth of our need for each other. Communities cohere around this foundation. The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff termed such cooperative alliances “networks of reciprocity,” with each person aware that what is given today might be received tomorrow. It turns out that individuals of all ages are glad for opportunities to give to one another, increasing their certainty that they will be able to count on kindness during their time of need. Reciprocity is the moral center of both the idea and the practice of community.
When such exchanges are intergenerational and occur within the normal course of living, neither the old nor the young need be ashamed of depending on each other. Help can be accepted without forfeiting dignity. The community itself becomes the commons, and there is confidence that everyone will contribute their share. Elders are valued as younger people are naturally drawn to learn about life from those who have already proven themselves.
Everyone does better as a consequence of generations relying on one another. Recognizing our lifelong interdependence allows us to give help with a sense of the inherent privilege of doing so.
We all need both the opportunity to be loved and the opportunity to love. Certainly, what the world needs now is both: an opportunity for each of us to feel valued and able to make a difference, and opportunities to accept and feel the caring and compassion around us. Sometimes it happens in families. Shelley Mauss-Sprouffske wrote the following:
My Dad’s favorite acronym is FAMILY: Forget About Me, I Love You. He quoted it all the time about how we choose to put others first to make our family successful.
He is now nearing stage VII Alzheimer’s and the disease has progressed rapidly over the past two years. He no longer knows who I am or that I am his daughter.
Three years ago, when my youngest son, Alexander, was born, my son headed to the neonatal intensive care unit, and I was hospitalized for a week with complications. My family instantly stepped up: my brother Mike walked through the hospital door ten minutes after I called him, whisked off our boys Thomas and J.P., and did all my admitting paperwork, since I’d been admitted immediately during my ob/gyn appointment. My sister-in-law kept the older boys for the next few days until my husband, Jonathan, knew that I would be okay. Meanwhile, my mom, who was ill at the time, kept everyone updated.
My dad came to visit me and then went up to Alexander in the NICU early every morning before the stock market opened at six thirty. “You know, sweetheart, I could call you to check on you,” he said, “but I’d really rather see you and my grandson in person. I love you, honey.”
Tonight my dad is sleeping in my home office, so I can give my mom a much-needed respite. Three-year-old Alexander and I tucked him into bed and gave him a kiss good night.
Wow, how times change.
Dad, I could call you to check on you, but my son and I would really rather see you in person. I love you, Daddy.
- Love What Matters
Life often gives us a chance to be a big part of contributing to what the world needs now.
Joan Chittister talks about how love is an integral part of true friendship. She says that friendship “requires the meeting of equals.” She goes on to describe true friendships:
A friend is not an interruption in life. A friend is the glue of my life, the centerpoint that holds all the rest of it together and assesses it for substance. Friendship is a game of high standards and wild excess where everything is possible, but only the best in both of us meets the test of the acceptable. Friends do not frown; they question. Friends do not block; they enable. Friends do not control; they stand by. Friends do not dominate; they foster the best in me until no dross remains. Friends do not smother me; they free me. Friends do not love me for their sake; they love me for my sake. They love me the way I want to be loved, not the way they want to love me. A friend is the other side of my soul.
- For Everything There Is A Season
How lucky we are when we experience true friendship. Rabbi Harold Kushner once commented that “To love someone is to make yourself vulnerable. It means taking off the armor you habitually wear to protect yourself against the forces in the world that would hurt you.”
“To love someone is to say to that person, ‘Being close to you is so important to me that I will give you the power to hurt me because I trust you not to use that power.’ The real choice is between inviting both pleasure and pain into our lives or else opting for a life of numbness, a life without feeling, so that life will never hurt us.” (The Lord Is My Shepherd)
Vulnerability can be scary at first, until we begin to realize that, when someone loves us, we can trust them to be compassionate, even as they come to know those parts of us that we have worked hard to keep hidden. The more that we open ourselves, the more we can make a difference in a world that needs love. Mark Nepo calls it “meeting life head-on and heart-on.” He writes: “Every single being has an amazing, unfathomable gift that only meeting life head-on and heart-on will reveal. And we can’t fully know our gift alone. We need each other to discover the gift, to believe in the gift. And then, to learn how to use it. The challenge for each of us is not to discount our gift because of the indifference of others, and not to abdicate our gift because of the various weights we’re forced to carry.” (The Endless Practice)
Sometimes, it takes quite a long time before we see parts of our lives as resources, rather than weaknesses and limitations. My own experience as a preemie, left alone in an incubator for the first two months of my life, ended up giving me strength in a different way. I used to love to go into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the hospitals where I was a chaplain, holding tiny infants and encouraging their parents that “we preemies are a tough group.” Perhaps, in my own way, I was able to help some of those babies, and to help their parents to take the chance to hold them and love them. In the book, Love What Matters, young mother Kelly Dirkes describes how important it is for each of us to find love and compassion, and what love can accomplish against all the odds:
Dear Woman in Target:
I’ve heard it before, you know.
That I “spoil that baby.”
You were convinced that she’d never learn to be “independent.”
I smiled at you, kissed her head, and continued my shopping.
If only you knew what I know.
If only you knew how she spent the first ten months of her life utterly alone inside a sterile metal crib, with nothing to comfort her other than sucking her fingers.
If only you knew what her face looked like the moment her orphanage caregiver handed her to me to cradle for the very first time: fleeting moments of serenity commingled with sheer terror. No one had ever held her that way before, and she had no idea what she was supposed to do.
If only you knew that she would lie in her crib after waking and never cry- because up until now, no one would respond.
If only you knew that anxiety was a standard part of her day, along with banging her head on her crib rails and rocking herself for sensory input and comfort.
If only you knew that the baby in the carrier is heartbreakingly “independent”- and how we will spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years trying to override the part of her brain that screams “Trauma” and “Not safe.”
If only you knew what I know.
If only you knew that this baby now whimpers when she’s put down instead of when she is picked up.
If only you knew that this baby “sings” at the top of her lungs in the mornings and after her nap, because she knows that her chatter will bring someone to lift her out of her crib and change her diaper.
If only you knew that this baby rocks to sleep in her mama’s or her papa’s arms instead of rocking herself.
If only you knew that this baby made everyone cry the day she reached out for comfort, totally unprompted.
If only you knew what I know.
“Spoiling that baby” is the most important job I will ever have, and it is a privilege.
I will carry her for a little while longer – or as long as she’ll let me – because she is learning that she is safe. That she belongs. That she is loved.
If only you knew.
We may never know the full impact that our love will have on those we come in contact with, those who allow us the opportunity to care. What the world needs now is love, sweet love.
When we meet life head-on and heart-on, we may make a difference in the lives of family and friends and strangers, a difference that enables them to live their lives and to reach out in love and concern for those around them.
And then, we become the heart and hands and feet and voices of God, the God who is best described in the words: “God is love!”