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basis, librarians go through the nonfiction books, section by section, and remove the ones that in poor shape or out of date.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.