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.]
(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?
It does not insist on its own way. I Corinthians 13:5, NRSV
[For the full text, click I Corinthians 13 above.]
The coffee pot was moved back to the corner, and thus began the battle…
The church kitchen had been a disorganized mess for years, so the youth group took it on as a way to contribute to the life of the community. Cupboards that hadn’t been opened in years, much less emptied, were given a thorough scrubbing; what was broken or dangerous was removed; what was left was cleaned, organized, and labeled. The walls were degreased and repainted. It took hours, but the transformation was spectacular.
One of the best things: the coffee station had been relocated to a space near the service window. Everything was within easy reach, and it made coffee hour so much easier for hosts and guest alike. The youth group did the honors that first Sunday after the reorganization, hosting the coffee hour and revealing the new kitchen.
The grumbling started within hours. How could the teens change the kitchen without asking (they had permission from the church leaders)? How could they toss things out without permission (only broken and expired things were thrown away)? What right did they have to change anything?
The next Sunday, the coffee pots and machine had been moved back to the corner by persons unknown, recreating the old set-up. The youth, assuming someone didn’t know about the new place, moved it again. The next Sunday, it happened again. And again. And again. Finally, the youth gave up. Their hard work and best intentions had run into a communal unwillingness to change. The coffee making status quo was restored, but the damage was significant: the youth no longer believed that their efforts or their presence were welcome.
I doubt the adults who moved the coffee pots were intentionally causing damage to the teens of the church. I’m almost positive that there wasn’t a conspiracy intent on rejecting and dismantling the gift of time and effort given by the youth. This was just a typical knee-jerk reaction, a reclaiming of turf, an exercise of power. I wish the adults had asked themselves this question:
What is more important: keeping things the way I want them or honoring the gift offered by others?
The true and most disturbing question: what would have been their answer?
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I Corinthians 4, NRSV
The pained smile. The back-handed compliment.
The constant reminders of feats accomplished. Superiority flaunted to make others feel their inferiority.
Bad behavior tolerated or excused because of exceptional accomplishment, no matter how it hurts others.
Whether on the giving or receiving end, harm is done and people are left broken. Faith communities and the people in them aren’t immune. They can be torn apart by such things because it diminishes the lives of everyone involved.
Like everything else, I suspect it boils down to a lack of love for one of the big three: God, Self, Other. If we had eyes to see our own value, would we waste any time on worrying how we compared to others? If we had eyes to see the worth of others, wouldn’t we honor that in word and deed?
If we trusted that we were created and loved by God, would any other recognition be necessary?
Sometimes, what we do not do is as powerful as anything we do.
God,give me eyes to see and a heart to love. Amen.