For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. I Cor 13:12, NRSV
What looks to us a huge flaw seems inconsequential to someone else; to someone who loves us, it may even be endearing. And it’s usually the insufficiencies that we see in our reflections, because we look only on the imperfect exterior. It’s a dim view of ourselves we see when we don’t look with loving eyes.
But this short-sightedness is a temporary condition. Some day, we will see ourselves and each other as God sees us: beautiful, unique, beloved. We won’t be able to separate the spirit from the flesh because love holds all things together.
Sometimes, we get a glimpse of a fullness out of the corner of our eyes. It’s just a glimpse of all things in their beloved totality. Perhaps it’s just enough for the love in our hearts to encompass everyone and everything, ourselves, and God. Perhaps, it’ll do for now.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. I Corinthians 13:11b – 12a
I heard the tantrum in the other room, quickly followed by the sight of a mother carrying her daughter out of story time. What started the whole thing remains a mystery, but the result was a little girl and her mother missing out on two more stories and a craft. If the little girl could have looked past whatever it was that upset her, if she could have held out an extra minute or so, she’d have gotten a musical instrument to play, a chance to point to her favorite kite on the page of the book, and had the chance to pick out a book to take home. Unable to take a longer view, she missed out on all of it.
My perspective isn’t as limited as a two year old’s. I don’t throw tantrums, and I can opt for longer lasting satisfaction over immediate gratification. I have patience, control over my emotional outbursts, and can forego something for the benefit of another. But I still grow impatient when I am needlessly (at least from my perspective) delayed; some people rub me the wrong way, and I am annoyed at their presence more than at anything they happened to be doing; I don’t like to admit my own short-sightedness. The mirror in which I view myself and everything else in creation is dark and distorted, and my partial love isn’t strong enough illuminate it sufficiently.
Paul writes that when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Paul may have done so, but I’m not so sure I have.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child..
When Jesus was asked how one might enter the kingdom of God, he drew a child from the crowd and replied, “You haven’t got a prayer of entering unless you can become like one of these.” I doubt he was advocating a rewinding of development – a return to childish ways. Children are born with limited physical and cognitive abilities because these are gained by interaction. To grow, children depend on the people around them to foster their well-being and introduce them to an ever-widening reality. With love and kindness, children grow into the selves that were only potential at birth.
Jesus was talking about something else. Children know there’s always something new to learn, and something more complete to become; children are not ashamed of being works-in-progress, unless someone has made them so. Perhaps it’s this quality, this recognition of our own in-progress state, and a willingness to own it, that can foster a childlike faith without the childish behavior…
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. ICor 13:8-10, NRSV
Once we know something (barring suppression, brain injury or damage), we can’t unknow it – the end of a book, the punchline to the joke, the last note of a song. Resolution cannot be undone; even if we repeat the experience, we can’t go back to our original starting point because we know how it all ends. Our partial experience ends when we reach completion.
But love is something different than these things that come to an end. We are deeply loved by God in our first breath and our last, and in every breath between. Our days will come to an end, and our lives will end in death, but the love we give and receive is something that abides beyond life and death. Instead of abiding in death, we return to the love that gave us life in the first place. Because love isn’t partial – at least not God’s love.
It gives me hope that God will make out of my own partial love something complete.
In my local library, there are rows and rows of books in the nonfiction section – books about the local habitats, biographies of Bob Dylan, World War II political essays, and more cookbooks and knitting patterns than a person could want. Fifteen years back, there were rows of encyclopedias as well – victims of the digital age.
On a regular basis, librarians go through the nonfiction books, section by section, and remove the ones that in poor shape or out of date. The knowledge contained in the nonfiction books becomes obsolete as new insight is gained, and the old knowledge is revealed in all its incompleteness. How we number the planets (Rest In Peace, Pluto), how we understand the foundations of creation (Big Bang and String Theory, anyone?), whether animals see color as we do – our partial knowledge of these things gives way to a more complete understanding, and our old ways of knowing must be left behind.
This old world holds more mystery than I’ll ever know, and even the things I do know will always be subject to growth and change. If this life were a nonfiction section in an eternal library, it will take a lifetime to read the shortest sentence in a single book.
Since God created it all, it’s a matter for wonder and joy rather than discouragement.
It was never meant to be a badge of honor, or a gift that separated the true believers from the suspected doubters: speaking in tongues was a way to be open to the Spirit’s movement, and a word to the entire congregation because someone else would be gifted with its interpretation. But gifts meant to increase love and harmony are often the ones that can be twisted to decrease both.
Speaking in tongues will cease because the person with the gift will cease, and the gift was given to a particular place at a particular time. At the end of all things, all gifts end – including tongues. Used and valued rightly or wrongly, they end.
But that doesn’t mean the speaking was without value, or the gift a useless one. They are like the sandals Moses removed when he turned aside to approach the burning bush. He didn’t remove them because they were useless: he removed them because they got him where he was meant to go. They had done their job, given their service, fulfilled their purpose.
When we are in the presence of the Holy One, we leave the gifts on the threshold, thankful for their service and more than ready to let them go.
[For Paul’s complete love letter, click I Corinthians 13 above.]
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end… I Cor. 13:8b
[For full text, click I Corinthians 13 above.]
Biblical prophecies weren’t magical predictions of events that no one could foresee – that’s a more cinematic understanding, like Johnny Smith getting visions of the future from a single touch (The Dead Zone). Biblical prophecies were a long look down the road to hell that current actions were paving. Dealing in bad faith with others will eventually lead to ruin, even if it brings momentary gain; armed conflict as a way of solving international disputes will bring violence home in some form; impoverishing the vast majority for the luxury of the few isn’t sustainable forever. Prophets pointed out the consequences of current practices in the hope that people would change course, would choose a different road.
Whether the prophecy caused a change of heart or not, it found its end in its fulfillment or its avoidance. Once the present became the future, the prophecy ended.
The same is true today. No matter how insightful the prediction, prophecy ends in its fulfillment or avoidance. Once its task is done – giving people the chance to change course – the prophecy ends.
But not love, according to Paul. Because love isn’t limited to a specific time line or course of action. Love is the reason for prophecy in the first place, the hope for a better, holier life. Love is seeing the value of every single life, even and especially when human blindness to that value requires prophets.
Life ends, but love doesn’t. It’s all around me, this truth. The woman whose husband died years ago; the expression on the face of a son remembering his mother. Grief may remove the joy from love for a time, maybe even a long time, but the love we have for those who have died continues on.
But what about those who are still alive, whose love for another is gone? Bitter divorce, denouncing or renouncing family ties, cruel actions that break the ties that bind people together: there is no love to be found in these. Forgiveness may be sought and given, but love is another thing altogether.
Paul wasn’t writing about our emotions and our individual limited loves. He wrote about the love that found him. With all that he did wrong in his life, he was never for one second unloved by God. There is no end to love because it came before us and continues on well past our lives. No matter what we have done, we are loved from our first breath and well beyond our last.
Love never ends because God is the never ending source of it. And us? We are vital parts of this never-ending love story that is creation.
(Love) It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:7, NRSV
Love may bear all things, but I can’t. I don’t always react with compassion to every person in every situation; I don’t give the benefit of the doubt universally; I make snap judgements and am reluctant to recognize, much less honor, the holiness of every life God has created. I don’t have eyes to see the transfiguring light or ears to hear the voice of God – sometimes because I can’t, sometimes because I won’t.
I’m not love personified. Neither was Paul. But in his imperfection, he knew and lived into a profound truth: when I cannot love, love will bear me, holding me and whomever I cannot love in an infinite, all-encompassing embrace.
Love did the same for Paul. Love does the same for you.
Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. I Cor13:6, NRSV
Gifts, like a knife, can be used for good or harm. The people in the church at Corinth had a nasty habit of valuing certain gifts over others – speaking in tongues over hospitality, preaching and prophecy over acts of care and compassion. This valuing of some gifts over others led to a valuing of the people with those gifts over those with the more subtle ones. What was intended to increase love and appreciation among the congregation was used to tear it apart – a wrongdoing that caused internal damage to the community, diminishing love for one another, self, and for God. How could anyone rejoice over such behavior?
The truth that was overlooked in this wrongdoing: every single person brings something unique and valuable to this world – even when it isn’t obvious. Loving self, each other, and God gives us the ability to value the gifts of others and our own gifts without jealousy or judgement. If we can’t rejoice in such an amazing truth, can we rejoice in anything at all?