IS LOVE A 4-LETTER WORD?
by Rev. Jim Eller
All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of Kansas City
February 13, 2000
Love is a force that enables you to give other things. It is the motivating power. It enables you to give strength, freedom and peace. It is not a result; it is a cause. It is not a product, it produces. It is a power, like steam or electricity. It is valueless unless you can give something else by means of it. --Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Love does not put everything at rest; it puts everything in motion. Love does not resolve every conflict; it accepts conflict as the arena in which the work of love is to be done. Love does not separate the good people from the bad, bestowing endless bliss on one, and endless torment on the other. Love seeks the reconciliation of every life so that it may share fully with others. --Daniel Day Williams
There are many different definitions of love. For example, "Love is as love does." "To love is to find pleasure in the happiness of the person loved." "Love isn't love 'til you give it away." "Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of our souls." These are just of few of the expression of the poets and thinkers of our times.
Love is a mystery, and everyone knows what love is. Love is to make happy. Love is to follow one's bliss. Love is a calling and is devotion. Love is a wonderful thing. It is a delight and a challenge. Love is will and action moving toward mutual fulfillment and well being. To be human is to love, and yet, love can be a confusion.
A number of years ago Kurt Vonnegut was the distinguished lecturer for the UU annual meetings, our General Assembly in Indianapolis. He was raised in the Indianapolis UU Church. His parents were members of that church. He agreed to be the speaker in his hometown. He decided to speak about love. The title of his rather humorous talk was "Love is a four letter word." He preferred not to use the word. It means so many different things to so many different people. Horrible things have been done to others in the name of love. It is a mis-used and abused word and its meaning is so convoluted as to have become dangerous at worst or useless.
He preferred words like respect or like, honesty, or even friendship. Their meanings are narrower and therefore a bit more useful. He, as a matter of principle, refused the word "love" in its customary usage.
What he did with his usual cynicism and wit, was to get us to rethink what we mean by love and how we use and abuse the word. It was fun, funny and useful. It made it clear to me that using the word causes plenty of confusion.
Leo Buscaglia has written a good book entitled Love, a warm and wonderful book about the largest experience in life. In it he maintains that love is natural, but that doesn't mean we have a clue how to do it well. It is like listening. Because we can hear, does not mean that we can listen well. One is mechanical the other an acquired skill. He believes that there should be a learnerís manual for love. Teenagers and young adults are given more training in driving car than they are in learning about caring relationships, love or the consequences of sexual involvement.
M. Scott Peck, shares a similar view, which he expresses eloquently and forcefully in his book, The Road Less Traveled. Love is a learned process and a dynamic, which requires discipline and courage. Love is "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."
Churches are often thought of as experts in the area of love. This is sometimes true and at times laughable. We are experts because we do some many weddings. Weddings and union services are a result and an expression of love. Ministers and churches are supposed to know about love.
We are supposed to know about love, because community is an experiment in human development, which can look like love. Most mainline churches and denominations practice their religion by attempting to make love real. Some even say that love is of God and to love is to be of God.
The nature of the Universe and religious speculation does often encounter issues about freedom, creativity, free will, and determinism which can invite conversation and consideration of the divine nature of love. I believe that the freedom we have to choose is part of what makes us human. Giving freedom offers dignity, individuation and self-respect. These are ways a Universe offers human freedom. This looks like a loving and graceful world to me.
Religions also encourage the ethical application of our highest values. As we do unto others. So, would we have others do unto us. True love is one of the highest of human achievements.
Churches are also a place where we witness and observe rites of passage. I have been watching couples make commitments for twenty-five years. I have counseled no small number of relationships, which were in trouble. I have learned as much about what love is not, as I have about what love is. Seeing the shadow of love can tell us much about the bright light which casts it. Love is not about subjugation, sentimentality or keeping score.
When I do a wedding or a union service, I see my job as helping a couple express their love, their vows, their commitment and covenant as clearly as possible. I want them to have the celebration they desire, and to have it reflect the life and personality of those lovers. Authenticity is a big deal for me and for most UUs. I accept a wide range of expression. After about two to three hundred I have found that on two or three occasions I could not accommodate the requests, like the reading from 1Peter 3:1-7, which encourages subjugation of a woman to her husband. I do not believe that subservience is about love.
There was a couple in Marin, California. Their vow was simple "for as long as we shall love", but what happens, when the honeymoon is over? What happens, when the sense of falling in love becomes intermittent? Love does come and go. Love is not constant. Commitment is constant. The discipline of love is the will to seek the best for oneself and one's partner. The sentiment may change, but the actions can be true. What about when love wanes? "No," they exclaimed in horror, that will never happen to us. I believe love is what happens after the sentimental part has settled down. They did not understand but did agree to a bit more conventional vows.
The couple who taught me the most about "not love" was Linda and Lloyd. They insisted that in their life and in their marriage everything was going to be fifty-fifty. After about a year they came to see me about counseling. Fifty-fifty meant that who ever got up made only their half of the bed. Who ever did the dishes did only their half. They paid only their half. I mentioned this some years later to an older couple who laughed. Their experience said that it takes both partners giving one hundred and fifty percent, and not counting very often. If you're keeping score, you've missed the mark.
Love is about giving. The receiving comes from the giving. Love like the ring, which is often is used to symbolize commitments of love is circular as is the nature of love. The more you give the more love there is the more you reap love's reward. Love is more than a zero sum game. The more you love the more love there is to share.
Love is about the ability to say "No," as well as the ability to say "Yes." In our culture of instant gratification, too many of our young parents are not teaching their children how to wait for what they want. There is little earning, work or achievement involved for some children. If they want it, they get it. This is true, whether the want is candy, a toy, or more television. Say "No" or even punishing children can be the act of greatest love. I agree with Scott Peck that love is a disciplining of the will for mutual growth and well being. At times the most growthful things we can do for our children is to say "No," lovingly.
No one likes to hurt their children, but sometimes this hurt is mutual and the greatest testimony to true love. A church member said to me about his oldest son, "He is not making it very well with his work. My son has been living at home, even though he is in his thirties. He keeps asking for money. I think I need to ask him to move out." Tom gave his son six months to move out. In thirty days he had a job and in sixty he had his own apartment. Tom sweat bullets for weeks before and after his decision. What looked like rejection was a great act of love. Love is a discipline, whereby we use our attachment and our sentiments to help us act for a greater good.
Love is a risk. When we love and are "known," we risk vulnerability. None of us longs to be rejected in love. We want to be accepted and cherished. As a result, many who of us resist intimacy. Yet, to create our own growth we must risk who we are for who we will become. That is true personally and individually. It is also true for our love relationships. There are times when a relationship is stretched by the growth or the needs of one of the members of a caring relationship.
I have learned much about what it means to love from my parents. They have been successfully married nearly sixty years. They are a happy couple and are very much in love, but I have known some of their more challenging times. In my young adult years my mother gained significant professional standing. She was busier and also feeling more successful. During that time, my parents agreed to shift roles. My father had been the disciplinarian. Now, with only my sister remaining at home, mother took on that role. The changed the way they managed money and how they made decisions. Theirs became a relationship where power was shared. The first months were not easy as I recall, but the later years were ones of real joy, for the work they did by giving up what they had in order to create who they would become. Love is a stretch, a challenge and a reaching forward for new life and greater wholeness.
The greater our ability to love the greater is our humanness. To love is to love what is human, to love ourselves and all who are human. To love to is increase our humanity. Love is hope, serving and self-serving, in the best sense of what it means to be self-evolving and self-actualizing.
And yes, communities at their best are vortexes for human growth and potential. There are arenas for personal exploration and building skills around goodwill, helping one another, seeking in the spirit of love.
I heard someone ask about how much should a person give to our church. I would answer now, "As much as love would allow." Love asks us to stretch and to evolve, to become and move toward our best selves. Sometimes that means setting limits with our church, and ourselves so that we do not give more than is good for us or for our church. It can also mean taking on things we never would have dreamed, because the stretch will serve our movement, our community and ourselves. I have already heard stories about numbers of people who learned a great deal about leadership from their volunteer work in our church. This work has allowed them to find much greater success, because they had a chance to try out their wings here.
Debra was a very capable physician and a UU church member. She was asked to be the director of church school. She was very reluctant. She was already on the church Board and not doing a very good job at that. She agreed, but resigned about three months into the job. She finished her term on the Church Board, but managed to seriously insult a number of people in the process. She pulled back from leadership at the church, but continued to attend. After a couple of years, she asked if she could be the director of the church school. She did a stellar job. She told me about half way through the first year that she was very much afraid that she would fail again. It was hard to believe, because she was so very talented. Her lack of confidence surprised me. She really worked to do a good job. She was intentional about the care and education of the children. She was in the end a great religious educator. She was even asked to join the Board again after she finished her two-year term as Church School director.
A year later she told me she was leaving to become one of the top program administrators for the National Institutes of Health. She said that is was the church which had given her the confidence to reach for a new challenge. She felt confident that she could, because of the leadership experience that UU church community had given her.
Love is a win win. As we give so shall we reap. Does this mean that we will not suffer or sacrifice in the face of love? Love is about willing self-sacrifice. Love is a choice, and we win when we choose love. Love sets limits and affirms. Love risks evolution and becoming. To love is to be more fully human. Let us choose love.
. . . . . . Used by permission of Rev. Eller