Last preached on February 9th, 2012
One of my experiences when I first joined
this liberal faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism
is that Love was often spoken of
in ways I had never imagined before…
and quite frankly had trouble finding credible.
From Unitarian Universalist pulpits,
including when I was preaching in this one last week,
love is extolled as the highest of human virtues.
We read the St. Paul quote from First Corinthians
that three things abide… faith, hope, and love…
and the greatest of these is love.
We quote songs from those amazingly formative years
for our religious tradition, the 1960’s
in order to claim things like “All You Need is Love”
and that we should “all get together
and try to love one another right now”.
Whole Unitarian Universalist books
are written to the transformative power of love.
We walk around wearing bright yellow tee-shirts
with the word “Love” on them,
like a more evangelical Christian church
might wear tee-shirts with the name of Jesus in such bold print.
And, when a minister wants to be bold in this tradition
and actually use the word God,
they will often couch their bets by making
one of the boldest theological claims I have ever heard…
and say “God is Love”.
We Unitarian Universalists put a lot of weight on the word Love.
Now, leaving aside how unclear
the meaning of the word Love actually is,
I have to admit that I’ve always struggled
with the amount of theological heft
that we Unitarian Universalists ask the word Love to carry for us…
Next week I’m going to be preaching about Prophetic Love,
about what Love can call us to do in the world.
But before I can do that with honesty and integrity,
I have to name something that I think is missing
in so many of our Unitarian Universalist
Theological pronouncements about love…
And that is that Love is Tough.
Love is Hard.
Love is not just this high ideal of humanity at our best…
it is also the pain of humanity at our worst.
You can never be hurt worse than when you love.
And yet it is this ideal of love
that calls us to come back to it,
to continue to risk ourselves
knowing that we are going to be hurt,
on the belief that it is worth it…
that the benefits of love, in all of its forms,
are worth the pain and the risk that love always entails.
Love is always, always tough.
You all know I cannot preach a sermon
without telling some stories…
and yet most of the really powerful stories
that we can tell about how love is tough
are not appropriate for me to preach in a sermon.
It would be entirely too personal for me
to tell any of the stories around my own divorce in the late 1990’s,
or around the ways that I’ve been hurt
within this religious tradition that I love so dearly,
or almost any of the other ways
that I could share from my own life that Love is tough.
There are many stories of how love is tough
that congregants have shared with me
over the years of my pastoral ministry,
but none of those are mine to tell from the pulpit either,
for nothing is ever in more confidence with a minister
than the breakage of the human heart,
by friends, by lovers, by our children, by our church,
and most especially by ourselves.
So, let me share instead a story that no one has ever heard,
and that is pretty minor as these things go.
The details have been changed to protect the innocent,
even if the story is almost entirely about myself…
and my finding love to be tough.
It was while I was serving my previous church,
in Midland, Michigan.
I was on my way to Church on Sunday morning,
on the ten minute drive from my apartment to the church.
About two minutes into the drive,
someone in a small, silver car cut me off.
They nearly caused an accident,
even if they had not even stopped
or seemed to notice that anything was wrong.
As I caught back up behind them,
fuming at how someone could be so discourteous,
I noticed something about their car.
Their bumper had a bumpersticker that said
“Standing on the Side of Love”.
Whoever this discourteous jerk was who had just cut me off…
It seemed I was their minister.
There was only one UU Church in Midland, Michigan,
so whoever this was had to be at least a visitor,
and more likely a member.
All at once I was shocked, hurt, and angry…
all in a wrapped up little ball.
A few turns later the car that had cut me off turned left,
and I turned right.
I did not notice who the driver was…
only that I was very angry at them,
and that as their minister I was supposed to love them.
I remember walking around the church that day,
trying to figure out who it was that had cut me off.
I wanted to give them a piece of my mind.
Failing that, I remember thinking through my sermon
to see if there was anyway that I could work in something
about being courteous to people as we drive,
but I just could not find the right place.
A few weeks later, arriving for a meeting
with one of our committees,
I saw someone getting out of the little silver car
with the Standing on the Side of Love bumpersticker,
and it was one of our most loving and caring members.
It was someone who had been in pastoral care with me,
and would be again.
It was a leader of the church who I would see on a regular basis…
And now, there was this thing between us,
that only I knew about.
We would be involved in the Love filled work of our faith,
in particular the work of our caring committee providing meals
and a listening ear to some of the needs
of other members of our congregation,
and that single moment of a car cutting me off
kept getting in my way.
I never said anything to them,
because I was afraid of how petty and baseless it would sound,
but it got in my way of truly loving the person.
Love is tough.
Now, I had a hard time being able
to truly love this wonderful congregant
because of a single turn onto a road without enough clearance.
How much harder is love for us
when it is someone who has truly broken our heart?
Perhaps it is a child that has made decisions in their life
that are not what we had hoped for them
when we held them as that fragile, newborn child.
Perhaps it is someone who did not mean
the same thing we did when they told us they loved us.
Perhaps it is a parent who
has not had the space in their own heart and lives
to be the parent that we needed them to be.
Perhaps it is the fellow member of our church
who did not know that a joke they told
really was hurtful in how it made fun
of something we hold dear in our lives.
Sometimes it is even the minister who has hurt us…
and then preaches to us about this high ideal of love.
I had that experience once,
when a minister who had wondered aloud
how military members could really be Unitarian Universalists
had then extolled the virtues of acceptance,
welcoming, and love in a sermon the following week.
It took me months to find the courage
to come back to church after that.
You see, I think that the place
we risk being hurt the worst is in church.
It has taken a long time for me to accept that,
and when I did it made me rethink whether or not
I really wanted to be a minister.
While I certainly have seen in others
and felt myself the kinds of pain and hurt
that can happen in our romantic relationships,
and the kinds of pain and hurt that can happen
in the relationships of our families,
there is something about the religious communities that we build
where the love we are invited to share here is more risky.
Part of my preparation for this sermon
was reading seemingly hundreds of poems on love,
and on love lost, from Shakespeare’s sonnets
to the poems of Mary Oliver,
hoping to find a poem that captured
why I think it is that we open ourselves up
to so much pain in order to love.
I read lots of poems on how much love hurt,
including the iconic song “I am a Rock” by Paul Simon
that has meant so much to me over the years.
I read Ralph Waldo Emerson talking about love,
and I engaged with the writings of several psychologists on love,
including Tomas Moore,
who I respect and love dearly,
having met him several years ago…
And yet, the closest I came to truth was none of these,
but a quote from a person who has made a career of
collecting quotations of others and sharing them on the web,
named Terri Guillemets.
So, if there is anything I have learned as a UU Minister,
it is that I will take wisdom wherever I can find it.
Terri said this:
“Love is when you can be your true self with someone,
and you only want to be your true self because of them.”
This is why I think that Love is Tough…
why I think that love hurts so much it is sometimes unbearable.
It is because love invites us
to do something we almost never do,
and that is reveal our true self…
to bring who we are underneath all the masks,
all the armor, all of the scars…
and share that fragile self with someone else.
There is a reason we have all that armor…
all of those protective masks and layers over our deepest self… and that is because within each of us
rests a center that is so easily damaged and wounded.
At our core we are all fragile, beautiful, and precious.
One of the most dangerous things any of us can do
is to bare that core of self with another person…
like placing the fragile baby bird of our souls
in another person’s hands…
never fully knowing if that other person knows
how fragile and precious it is.
Love asks us to share that fragile,
precious little bird of ourselves.
We are called to this because without such sharing,
we are alone and isolated…
as Terri Guillemets so wonderfully put it
we want to be that true self in part
so we can share it with someone else,
so that we can be known for who we really are.
Our family lives form us and can hurt us so deeply
because in the invitations to love of our early childhood,
we do not yet have all of the scars,
all of the armor and protective layers
covering the little, baby bird of a soul within us.
Those protective layers that we need
grow only with painful time and experience,
and yet family systems theorists say
that many of our basic life patterns
are set in the first four years of our lives.
Our Romantic lives form us
and can hurt us so deeply because in the feelings of Eros,
and even in the feelings of Phillia,
or in romantic love and ideal love,
we are brought to the trust
of allowing someone else into the layers of protection,
and share that baby bird of our soul with them.
Often just one person at a time,
we invite people through our defenses…
be it the romantic love of a single person,
or the ideal love we may have for a teacher,
a parent, or a mentor.
And when they hurt us…
when they hurt that fragile baby bird of our truest self,
it is more threatening to who we are
than anything anyone else outside of our defenses could ever be.
And yet, it is in the Agape,
or communal love of church life
that I think we are invited to take the greatest risk
with those little baby birds of souls
that each of us is holding in metaphorical hands within us.
In our early family life we do not yet have
the means to protect that soul within…
in fact, it is in the pains and joys of family life
that we form those needed protections.
In the romantic and ideal loves of our lives,
we are inviting one person,
one carefully chosen person at a time
through those defenses to see the part of ourselves
that is most fragile and precious.
And yet, in church life, we are asked to invite
not one carefully chosen person,
but literally hundreds of people,
many of whom we barely know at all,
at least part of the way through our protective layers.
We are asked to share not all,
but a little bit of the song of that precious
and fragile little bird of a soul within this,
our religious community.
This is perhaps even more true
in a Unitarian Universalist church
than in many other religious traditions,
for we place such an emphasis
on the sacred being found in and among us,
and not necessarily in a Deity
that is separate from human existence.
In truth, I believe that traditions that invite someone
to invest their deepest self in developing
a personal relationship with God, or with Jesus
are actually safer for that fragile little bird of a soul
within each of us, because the ideal of that divine being
is far less likely to do something
to actively cause hurt to our inner selves
than the relationships we invite you to build
with one another in our religious community.
Love hurts. Love is tough. Love is always tough…
Because love is the invitation to share
our truest self with others.
It is the invitation to allow another person
through some of those protections
we need to maintain around our fragile, precious souls.
And so may we always remember,
when we are in an intentional relationship of love…
be it in a family, or in a romantic or friendly relationship,
or even and perhaps especially in our church…
we are each responsible for each other’s souls.
That is the true practice of the love we share.
Amen, and blessed be.