Sometimes we make love too complicated. We make too much of it, our images so high, our ideals so perfect they’re out of reach. Maybe that’s why we’re not very good at marriages, nearly half of them ending in divorce or separation. But I’m not talking about that kind of love, the Hallmark movie kind.
No, I’m talking about the kind of love Saint Paul described, the kind that helps us live in healthy, constructive, life-giving community with one another. Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrased Paul’s description of love. “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, puts up with anything” (from 1 Cor. 13 The Message, sel.).
That chapter from 1 Corinthians is one of the most common readings at weddings, but Paul was not writing about marriage; he was writing about relationships in the church and how relationships in the church might be our witness to the rest of the world that the gospel is true, that the reign of God really has begun. Read any newspaper any day of the week and tell me how well you think we’re doing at that kind of love: at loving our neighbors as ourselves; at doing to others as we would have them do to us; at laying down our lives, our egos, our self-interest, for our friends.
Paul sets the bar high. “Let love be genuine; . . . love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal [in great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of that kind of love], be ardent in spirit [deeply enthusiastic or passionate, burning, aflame, fiercely bright]” (Rom. 12:9-10). Paul sets the bar so high, his encouragement to love can easily become discouragement. It’s hard to love on a scale so big, so maybe it’s easier not to try.
But there are other ways to think of love, love within our reach, love that’s happening right under our noses all the time. Here’s how some four- to eight-year-old children described what it means to love. “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too.” “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” “Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.”
The responses go on. “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and just listen.” “During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.” And one more, from a four-year-old whose next-door neighbor was an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. Seeing the man cry, the little boy climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When the boy’s mother asked what he had said to the man, the boy said, “Nothing. I just helped him cry.”
If the ways Paul described love seem beyond my ability, maybe the ways these children described it are within reach. Mother Teresa said we can do no great things, we can only do small things with great love. Sometimes we may need to listen to children and to Mother Teresa more than to Paul. Or maybe we need to listen to David Miller, in Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Marks of the Christian, who introduced a new perspective: love is not something we feel, and it’s not something we do; love is something we are, a state of being in which we no longer follow the way of Christ, the way of love, but we become the way.
One writer described it this way: “A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance” (Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching). After enough practice, when Stefon Diggs enters the game, he doesn’t think about the pattern he runs down the field; his training takes over and he becomes the pattern. So we love without following instructions, without consciously aiming for any ideal, by simply being the genuine, honest-to-God, gracefully eccentric persons God is creating us to be.
And if we are the person God is creating us to be, no matter how small or insignificant our role in life may seem by other standards, we may have an effect that ripples far beyond our small circle. Like the nameless floor maid Dr. Frank Mayfield, founder of the Mayfield Clinic, collided with while touring Tewksbury Institute. To cover the awkward moment, he started asking questions about the maid’s work and the history of the place. She replied, “I don’t think I can tell you anything, but I could show you something.”
She led him to the basement under the oldest part of the building, to what looked like small prison cells, their iron bars rusted with age, where the maid said they used to keep a young girl. The girl was kept there because she was incorrigible – she’d bite and scream and throw food at people – and the doctors couldn’t even examine her, she was so wild.
The maid, who was a few years younger than the girl, wanted to help but thought, “If the doctors and nurses couldn’t help her, what could someone like me do?” So she did what her heart moved her to do. She baked the young girl some brownies one night after work, laid them on the floor outside the little cell, and quickly backed away. The girl ate the brownies, and her behavior began to change when the maid was around. They started to talk and even laugh together. Gradually the girl calmed enough to allow the doctors to examine her, and they discovered she was almost blind.
Eventually the girl was admitted to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where she got the help she needed and went on to become a teacher of the blind herself. Years later the girl came back to Tewksbury Institute to visit and see what she could do to help out, and she was referred to a man who had written about his daughter. His daughter was absolutely unruly, almost like an animal. She was blind and deaf and described as “deranged.” The man was at his wit’s end but didn’t want to put his daughter in an asylum. So he wrote the Institute to ask if they knew of anyone who would come to his house and work with his daughter.
That’s how the young, almost-blind girl who had been locked in that cell became the teacher of another girl who was very much like her. The teacher’s name was Annie Sullivan, and her new student’s name was Helen Keller. When Keller receive the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked who had the greatest impact on her life, and she said, “Annie Sullivan.” But Sullivan said, “No, Helen. The woman who had the greatest influence on both our lives was a floor maid at the Tewksbury Institute.” Saint Paul wrote, “Let love be genuine. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:9, 11). How do you do that? How can any of us possibly measure up to the standard Paul sets? We do it by simply being who we truly are, like that floor maid at Tewksbury Institute, and by offering what we have, small though it may seem, to the situation that’s right before us.