By Steve Rice
I will never forget one afternoon at Northside Junior High School. Waiting on one of my parents to pick me up, I sat on the top of one of the picnic tables near the parking lot. This is where we would congregate before the opening bell, have lunch when it was pretty out, and where we would wait for our rides in the afternoon. Because of their work, my parents could never pick me up on time and so I would often sit on those picnic tables and read all the interesting graffiti, messages, and phone numbers that were carved or written on it.
Every now and then you would discover a nugget of real wisdom. And that particular afternoon, I stumbled upon my first bit of teaching on the subject of love:
“Never kiss behind the garden gate. Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t.”
Now I think there is some real practical wisdom there; especially for junior high schoolers. It was a warning that just when you think no one is watching, someone is. But it also contained a cliché that is frequently uttered but never explained.
What do we mean when we say love is blind? What do we mean about any of the clichés about love?
Love is experienced as an emotion, a feeling, and therefore it is very difficult to explain or define. Ask a person what is love and they may say it’s what they feel for a particular person. They may even give examples as to what that feeling would move them to do — they would sacrifice material goods for someone, they may even say they would sacrifice their own life, the love they have is so intense and strong — but what is it?
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is presenting spiritual practices and a rule of life into something he is calling “The Way of Love,” capitalizing on the extraordinary reception of his sermon at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, where he grabbed the attention of the world by saying “there’s power in love.”
No doubt! But what exactly is it? We talk about it, we plead for it, we pray for it, but do we know what it even is?
St Thomas Aquinas said to love is to will the good of the other. We want the good for someone else. Think about how that challenges how we usually define love. We tend to use the word love for the things that give us pleasure. We love the things and persons that give us some benefit. And if the benefit is no longer there, we no longer love them.
The Christian concept of love takes our pleasures and rewards completely out of the equation. If I love you, I will the good for you, and not what is good or beneficial for me. If I love you, then I will the good for you, even if it doesn’t benefit me.
Now we can’t will the good for God, because God is goodness itself, but we can love God for the sake of God and love what he loves. And what does God love? Our neighbor.
The whole act of creation is fundamentally an act of love. God created us, not for his own ego, pleasure, or utility, but so that we may love him — which is the greatest and highest good.
Love — wanting, desiring the good of the other — involves a stripping away of our own narcissism and demands. To love is to remove oneself.
Love does not seek a reward. If it does, it is not love. But once love exists, it is rewarded.
Look at how this moves this very familiar 13th chapter Corinthians from a list of empty clichés to something life-giving. In writing to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul is dealing with a community bent on seeking the best for themselves. There are divisions and factions and jealousies. Paul has to address them. He talks about spiritual gifts and how each person contributes to the body of Christ and no one person is greater than another.
And he ends chapter 12 by saying, “and I will show you a still more excellent way.” And then it begins,
“If I have skills and gifts and faith — but do not have love — I am nothing.
“Love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant. It is not rude and does not insist on its own way. It is not resentful or irritable. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”
If we will the good of the other, we strip away our selfishness. That’s why love is patient and kind and not envious or irritable or rude and does not rejoice in wrongdoing.
Now view the life of Jesus Christ through this lens. Everything he did was for the good of the other, culminating in giving his life so we may forever know the love of God.
And see how Jesus was treated throughout the Gospels. Everyone was seeking their own interests; their own reward. Even in today’s Gospel, where our Lord goes back home to preach.
I’ve preached in my home church, and it’s not easy. You may know me as Fr. Steve, but they knew me when my voice cracked and I had pimples all over. And if I preached a hard sermon, I can imagine the reaction. I taught you in Sunday school. I wiped your nose. Who do you think you are?
When Jesus preached, the congregation was offended. And to be offended is to take something personally, and to take something personally, by definition, is to make it about us. And they made it so much about themselves that they were ready to throw him off the cliff.
When we talk about the way of love, we aren’t talking about an emotion. And we aren’t even talking about just doing good for other people; we are talking about something harder, more radical, and more life-giving than you can ever imagine — desiring the good for every person.
If I could go back to Northside Junior High School and find that picnic table, I might scribble this:
“Love is not a rhyme carved in wood; to love is to will their good.”
The Rev. Steve Rice is rector of St. Timothy’s, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.