A Kind of Love That Never Ends

This is the sermon I preached on February 14th at Spring Friends Meeting.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a romantic holiday, which celebrates love. A lot of couples will celebrate today by sharing gifts, eating out at a romantic restaurant, or getting away for the whole weekend. I have a hunch that 1 Corinthians 13 will be read or recited a lot today between couples and in churches around the country in honor of today. You may even see it quoted on church signs or posted on social media today. I am fairly certain that I am not the only person preaching on this chapter today.

I am glad that this chapter will be read a lot today. 1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful piece of writing. My favorite part of this chapter is verses 4-8: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

These verses are often recited at weddings. It is really beautiful to reflect on what romantic love could be like. If a couple followed these guidelines for love, it would certainly build a great foundation for an long-lasting, romantic relationship.

Yet, people often take this chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth completely out of context. Paul is not talking about romantic love at all in 1 Corinthians 13, not even close. Paul does not care at all about the romantic lives of the Christians in Corinth. He is talking about a greater kind of love.

In Chapter 12 of his letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is talking about the variety of spiritual gifts that Christians may possess. His overall point for Chapter 13 is about how we can only use our spiritual gifts in the most effective way if it is done with love. The Greek word that Paul uses in this chapter is agape. Paul does not use the Greek word eros, which is translated more as romantic love. Instead, agape translates to mean benevolence and good will. Christians have translated agape to mean God’s unconditional love. For example in the King James Version, agape is translated to English as charity, instead of love, unlike the New Revised Standard Version translation that I just read from.

Even though Paul does not talk about romantic love in this chapter, I still want to talk about this type of love on Valentine’s Day. For me, to only define love in one way, only in the romantic sense, robs us of a deeper love that Paul is talking about. A love that Jesus came to teach us about himself: An unconditional love from God that is given to us just because we exist. No matter who we are or what we have done, God still loves us, each of us.

On Facebook in recent days, I have seen friends my age reminiscing about what Valentine’s Day was like in elementary school. Valentine’s Day back then meant that everyone received a card and some candy. Ideally, back then, no one was singled out to get more cards or candy, nor left out of the exchange at all. For me this example illustrates what I believe God’s love is like. God loves each one of us the same way.

With the knowledge of this love comes responsibilities that we must bear. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is reminding us about these responsibilities that this love entails. We need to treat each other like the children of God we are, reminding ourselves of Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is not an easy task by far. I often fail to love others, especially the people who I disagree with on matters I hold dear.

This is perhaps a great reminder to have right now. Currently, we are struggling among each other in the yearly meeting and also we are in the midst of yet another bitter Presidential election season. In this time of intense disagreement, let’s keep asking ourselves: How do we seek that of God within everyone we encounter?

At the same time, more is required of us than just passively loving each other despite our differences. It is a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly implores His followers to show solidarity with the oppressed. We need to take heed of this call to action, especially with the numerous injustices currently happening within our wider community, like mass incarceration, police brutality, eroding of voting rights, mass deportations of undocumented people of color. I could go on listing the social ills affecting our society. Most of these injustices do not directly affect us, as a congregation largely made up of privileged white people. This is precisely why we need to be working in solidarity with those affected by oppression at the same time challenging the status quo.

The scholar and activist Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We need to be showing up in solidarity with the oppressed to fight for justice, whether that means attending Moral Monday protests, educating others about injustices in our community, or helping people learn their own rights. To take action will look different for each person, but we all need to be doing something.

Whatever we do, we must continue to be mindful that we are affirming the dignity of the oppressed, not using them just to pat ourselves on the back. In the same vein, we need to lovingly challenge people in power, not demonize them. We should not be doing this work if at the end of the day we still feel superior towards the oppressed or smug towards people in power. This work should be done in partnership to achieve liberation for all. The Aboriginal activists group once said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” God is calling us towards a collective liberation. Are we heeding this call?

On this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember to love each other unconditionally just as God love us and further challenge ourselves by asking: How are we seeking that of God within each person we encounter? How are we showing up for justice in our communities? Where is God calling us to challenge the systems of oppression affecting our neighbors?

Because this kind of love never ends!

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A Personal Journey in Acknowledging my Ableism… (and finding love)

In my last blog post “I’m the Man”, I began to unpack how Greg and I strive for a partnership built on equality, looking specifically at how we address sexism and patriarchy in our relationship. I referenced towards the end of the post that part of building an equal partnership is being aware of other systems of oppression impacting our relationships including ableism. Greg was born with a disability that impacted his speech and fine motor skills and he has faced discrimination and oppression as a person with a disability throughout his life. I am (currently) an able bodied person.

In that last post, I made it sound as if it were so simple and easy for me to address my ableism when in reality, it has been and continues to be a difficult and ongoing journey. In fact, acknowledging my ableism was a key step in the story of Greg and I coming together.

See Greg and I are were friends 1½ years before we started dating. Greg pursued me within 4 months of us meeting with homemade pumpkin pie and drinks at a bar and a night of cooking. And while I can easily reference our differing opinions about living in an urban vs. rural setting or my commitment issues and fear of being in a serious relationship as the reasons for not dating when first pursued – all of which is part of the truth – I often omit from the tale my own prejudices towards people with disabilities. It took me confronting my ableism before I took Greg seriously as a dating partner.

A photo from SOJUCA the event that brought Greg and I together as friends

Social Justice Camp (SOJUCA) DC in Jan. 2010, the event that brought Greg and I together as friends as we helped in the organizing.

In the fall of 2010 (a year after meeting Greg), I started my Masters of Social Work and took a diversity class with Dr. Michael Sheridan. In this course, we looked at different systems of oppression and examined our status within each system – whether in the privileged/agent group or oppressed/targeted group. Early on, we were encouraged to visit Project Implicit  which has tests for measuring implicit thoughts/attitudes towards groups. When I took the test that measured implicit thoughts/attitudes on disability/ability, I was shocked at the result – a strong implicit preference for abled bodied persons if memory serves. This realization led to a cascade of reading, self-reflection, research and writing that semester to challenge my implicit attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice towards people with disabilities.

I share below a couple (of many) of the attitudes/prejudices/stereotypes I examined.

Disability as an Unbearable Condition / The Devaluing of Persons with Disabilities

It’s common to think or say in reaction to people with disabilities, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, “I am blessed” or “I am lucky”. Within these statements, an implicit value is placed upon the person with the disability as a person less than. These statements say “I’m lucky not to be like that”  with that being an undesirable/unbearable conditionIn writing this blog, I re-read one of my personal learning journals from my diversity class that reveals me realizing my own devaluing of persons with disabilities. (Note this one paragraph could probably spur it’s own series of posts and makes me cringe today but here goes):

“I remember thinking when I was a kid how awful it would be to have a disability, particularly one that impacted cognitive abilities. This thought was often followed by a worry that God/Fate would punish me for these thoughts by giving me a child with disabilities if I ever had kids. When I was a child, I put a lot of meaning into being book smart as doing good in school was a means for affirmation and attention and really came to define who I was. I imagine I found it hard to believe that life could be just as rich and meaningful for persons that have disabilities.”

These attitudes engender at best feelings of pity in the abled bodied person and at worst fear, dislike, and scorn. And for the person with the disability, being confronted with these attitudes can potentially make one feel shame, guilt, and a lack of confidence. 

Greg powerfully said in a sermon“People with disabilities are not here for abled body people to feel blessed or feel lucky. We are not here for others’ self-realizations.”

Persons with Disabilities as Non-Sexual

A common myth about people with disabilities is that they are non-sexual. In the mainstream media, there is little representation of people with disabilities engaging in dating, relationships, or sex. A recent article in the Atlantic titled “Disabled and Fighting for a Sex Life” includes a quote from actor Matt Fraser stating: “When you are disabled the two things people think you can’t do are fight and have sex … so I’ve got a black belt and I’m really good at shagging. The physical pleasures in life are really important to me.”

Take this attitude to another level and you get a perspective that sex with a person with a disability is gross or disgusting. And, an even darker version of this attitude is the idea that people with disabilities shouldn’t engage in sex and procreate which is of course an attitude that fueled eugenics in the 20th century.

Creating fertile ground. These attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices were not fertile ground for attraction or love. I’m not sure I ever consciously thought to myself, “Sure. Greg’s nice but I pity him and am a little weirded out by him because he’s got a speech impediment. And is he really shagg-able with his disability?”. But it wasn’t until I confronted my ableism and the implicit attitudes/beliefs/prejudices/stereotypes that came with it that I took Greg seriously as a suitor. And so one day, after I had also worked through the before mentioned commitment issues, the ground was fertile for me to say yes to Greg, let’s give this relationship a try.

Greg and I the day we started dating

Greg and I the day we started dating

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My partner Greg has several blog posts and sermons relating to his experiences with a disability that are linked to below: