Getting Better at Love

flowers“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”[1]—Pete Seeger’s famous question.  Actually, if I have the story right, he got the flower question, and the questions about the girls picking them, and the men going off to war, from a 19th-century Cossack folk song mentioned in the Russian novelist Mikhail Sholokhov’s four volume epic novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Pete read it in the early 1950s. The lines from the folk song stayed with him. He eventually adapted it into his now iconic American anti-war ballad, adding the lines “long time passing” and “when will they ever learn?”—also a famous question. It’s a rhetorical question. We’re not supposed to answer it. We’re supposed to lament whatever it is in human beings that drives us to make war. On the surface these lyrics are mournful, but at the heart of the song is a confidence that there is a better way, that we can and will learn, that we can and will move beyond our penchant for violence and conflict. That’s the hope and the vision for which Pete Seeger is famous.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Nevertheless, I chose this song for us this morning not only as a way to honor Pete’s life and to mark his death last Monday, but also as a simple statement about humanity’s seemingly endless capacity to not put its highest values into practice. When will we ever learn?

Our ministry theme for February is love and, yes, if you’re wondering, the fact that Valentine’s Day happens in February has something to do with selecting this theme. Valentine’s Day has to do with eros, romantic love, sexual love, relationships, intimacy. If we dig a little deeper, Valentine’s Day lies atop more ancient European pagan fertility and purification festivals that occur at the halfway point between winter and spring; festivals such as the Roman Lupercalia and even the Gaelic Imbolc—which is today, February 2nd. Imbolc translates as “in the belly,” referring to pregnant sheep. It’s about fertility, pending birth, the anticipation of new life in spring. There’s a layer to it which is earthy, sensual, lusty. Eros.

As we explore love this month I don’t want to lose sight of the value of eros in our lives, the value of romance, sexuality and other forms of intimacy through the lifespan. Nor do I want us to lose sight of how difficult it can be to sustain intimate, romantic relationships, how much intentional work and effort are necessary to ensure such relationships last. The truth is they don’t always last. The shine can wear off. The romance can wane. Intimate, romantic relationships can hit snags, fall into ruts, develop bad habits. They can break down. They can end. Sometimes the ending is for the best. Sometimes the ending is very painful for all involved. My point is that in the work of sustaining intimate, romantic relationships we don’t always handle things skillfully. We don’t always know the right thing to do. And even when we know what the right thing to do is, we don’t always do it. We don’t always know how to bring our best selves forward. There are times when we might ask, “When will we ever learn?”

2-1 spats

Of course, there are other kinds of love. When Pete Seeger sang “I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,” he wasn’t singing about eros. He was singing about agape or caritas—that love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of stranger, love of alien—that boundless, all-encompassing love for all humanity, for all creation, that lies in some form, in some articulation at the heart of virtually every religion. That love, also, is difficult to sustain, is hard to remember, hard to keep in the forefront of our hearts and minds, hard to conjure up when we most need it, when it would make the most difference. And we know our collective human inability to practice agape leads us back, time and again, to conflict, polarization, infighting, war. Hence, “Where have all the flowers gone?” “When will we ever learn?”

2-1 Mclaren

There’s a quote going around the internet that says, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”[2] I sense people feel compelled to share it because they recognize how easy it is for any of us not to practice agape. They recognize how distracted we can be by our own concerns; how quick we are to judge, ignore, write off; how needlessly defensive we can be; how much mental and emotional distance we can put between ourselves and another human being without even thinking about it. This quote reminds us to not let this happen, to assume everyone we encounter is worthy of our attention, our compassion, our love—just as we are worthy of theirs. We shouldn’t need an internet quote to remind us of this wisdom, but there it is.

Franz Wright

Franz Wright

I read earlier a single line from Franz Wright’s poem, “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 2003. “How is it that I didn’t spend my whole life being happy, loving other human beings’ faces.”[3] This is one of the poems he wrote after coming through a long struggle with addiction which apparently included a number of hospitalizations and suicidality. From what I’ve read, he gained strength and a renewed sense of his own capacity to love by reconnecting with the Catholic Church and, even more importantly I think, reconnecting with God. Even so, his question reminds us of this human tendency to fall short of our highest aspirations, especially when it comes to love. Looking back on his earlier life he’s still somewhat mystified. What got in the way? How was love not my first inclination towards people? Why did I not know this then. How did I not learn this sooner?

Rev. Kate Braestrup wrestles with similar questions in her book, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. She names her experience of falling short in this brief story:

“‘How do you do it all?’ a woman who doesn’t know me asked when she heard that in addition to being a law enforcement chaplain and a writer, I am [also] a mother of six children (including steps).

‘I do quite a lot of it badly,’ I said.”[4]

Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup

I don’t think she’s just being modest when she says this, nor is it just for effect. She knows she does a lot of it badly. She doesn’t think she’s a bad person or somehow defective when it comes to love. She clearly loves deeply—her husband, her children, the officers she serves as chaplain, Unitarian Universalists, God, the world. But her experience tells her that being loving in all the ways we can be loving is hard, sometimes mystifying work which we often fail to do well. I appreciate her willingness to name this, if for no other reason than that it gives me permission to name the same truth about myself. Ministers are supposed to know something about being loving. You could argue it’s our job to be loving. Those of you who heard my wife Stephany speak here at my ten-year anniversary party in November got a glimpse into our home life and learned that whatever high-minded principles I may spout off on Sunday morning, the preaching and the practicing don’t always sync up when I’m out of the public eye. And I’m pretty sure they don’t always sync up when I’m in the public eye.

I’ve recently begun dreading the day when my kids finally realize not only that ministers—of all people—probably shouldn’t yell at their children as much as their father yells at them, but that they have stories they could tell to all of you about my parental shortcomings and mistakes that will wipe away the rest of whatever dim shine remains on my reputation as a loving parent. It’s not that I don’t love them deeply or that I’m bad parent or husband. It’s that I get ticked off and I lose it from time to time. And even though I always resolve never to let that happen again, it happens again. Acting in a loving manner, bringing love to bear in every encounter—loving other human beings’ faces—isn’t impossible. But it requires enormous energy, discipline, focus, resolve and courage. It’s hard work.

Knowing this, I love Rev. Braestrup instinct, which is, essentially, “keep trying.” What else can we do? Keep trying. She writes: “All loves have much in common, and any one will offer a useful, if not painless, education in the limitations and possibilities of being human. If you can give your committed love to a person, an idea, or a cause, even should that person, idea, or cause be taken from you, or proven false, you will be a better lover—of anyone, of anything—for the experience…. The point of being human is to get better (and better)…at love.”[5]

How? How do we get better at love? I want to take you briefly through some preliminary answers to this question. They aren’t the only answers, but they’re the ones that call to me this morning. First, patience. When the Apostle Paul starts naming love’s qualities in that famous passage from First Corinthians, the first thing he says is “love is patient.”[6] Love grows and deepens slowly. It cannot be rushed. It doesn’t roll with the 24-hour news cycle. It isn’t a Facebook status. You can’t tweet it to your followers. There’s nothing 2-1  snow on branchesvirtual about it. It takes time and presence. It takes a long view of life. This is the message of Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox’s meditation, “Valentine.” Dare we “hurry such a thing as friendship?” she asks. “Let us write our vows slowly, knowing some of the words like snowflakes will fall away, that from time to time a misunderstanding will come like a gust of wind or a bird’s foot to a snow covered branch, disrupting the careful gifts of love. Let us work on our manuscript, mirroring nature’s patience, until the love is whole and the drift of our days is done.” [7] Our culture feels sped up these days, and we at times feel the need to do everything we can to speed up ourselves. But the faster life moves the less opportunity we have to really know each other—to hear each other, to learn each other, to tell each other our stories. Love demands that we slow down and be present to each other. Love, in this sense, is today, radically counter-cultural.

Patience also creates a gateway for love to enter into our most difficult situations—situations where anger and rage, frustration and 2-1 breathedisappointment, fear and anxiety come quickly to the surface, come pouring out of us before we even have a chance to think. In difficult situations—an argument with a spouse, frustration with a child, a conflict at church, anger at someone else’s driving, tension at work, some kind of injustice—whatever it may be—anger, rage, frustration, disappointment, fear or anxiety may be very understandable, may be justifiable, may even be necessary. But the quickness with which they rise in us often prevents us from bringing love to bear as well. On my better days, when I feel anger or frustration rising in the heat of a moment, I remind myself simply to breathe, to wait, to not speak, to listen more closely not only to the other, but to what love asks of me in the situation. Patience makes all the difference. Our impatience limits the sound and quality of love’s voice. But patience—breathing, pausing, waiting, not speaking, listening—patience creates a gateway for love to rise in us.

A final thought on patience: I’m mindful that so many people enter into social justice struggles out of a genuine and abiding love for humanity. Agape. So many people enter into social justice struggles with the conviction that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”[8] But love rarely drives out hate in an instant. Love rarely drives out hate in a day or even a decade. Love drives out hate because it takes the long view, because it persists and endures. Love drives out hate because it keeps coming, keeps trying, keeps organizing, singing, speaking, marching, demonstrating, taking arrest, taking all the punishments hate dishes out. “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love is patient. As the Abolitionist movement was launching in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s, very few of those who were there at the beginning thought they would see the end of slavery in their lifetimes. But that didn’t deter them. Genuine, abiding love for humanity does not cower or fade at the thought of a lifetime or even multiple lifetimes of struggle. Such love is patient beyond measure—not inactive, not complacent, not resigned—but patient.

And one final answer to the question of how we get better at love. Trust. By this I don’t mean trusting the person or people we love. I mean trusting love itself; trusting that love has power greater than any other power we can bring to bear; trusting that when we act out of love, regardless of how it is received, we can move any situation over time towards healing, peace, justice, and reconciliation. I mean trusting that love matters, that in the end love wins.

2-1 trust love 1

I used to say all the time that love lives at the heart of creation. I suppose anyone who professes belief in a loving God is saying something like this. Franz Wright puts it in very simple terms in a poem called “Walden.” He writes, “There is a power that wants me to love.”[9] I am drawn to such statements. I want them to be true. But I’ve been making claims like this less and less in recent years, mainly because I feel less able to name what I actually mean when I make them. Love at the heart of creation? Where does this love actually live? What does it look like? What evidence do I have? I think it may be more accurate to conclude that the universe is, ultimately, cold and impersonal, unconscious and unfeeling, that there is no love at the heart of everything. And if so, so be it. I wouldn’t be the first to draw this conclusion.

But I still trust love. I still trust in its power to bring healing, peace, reconciliation, justice. Even though love in all its forms seems so difficult to sustain; even though love can feel like such a naïve answer to the world’s problems, I still trust it. I trust that if we keep trying to let love rise in us, to let love speak through us, to bring love to bear—if we keep trying—we will learn. We will love other human beings’ faces. The flowers will come back, if we keep trying.  Humanity will learn, if we keep trying. May we keep trying.

2-1 trust love 2

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Pete Seeger’s story about the writing of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is at http://performingsongwriter.com/pete-seeger-flowers-gone/.

 

[2] The original version of this quote is usually attributed to the 19th century Scottish author and theologian Ian Maclaren.

[3] Wright, Franz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 72.

[4] Braestrup, Kate, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010) p.81.

[5] Braestrup, Kate, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010) pp. 8-9.

[6] First Corinthians 13.

[7] Tarbox, Elizabeth, Valentine, Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p. 45.

[8] King, Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?(Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 63.

[9] Wright, Franz, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 70.