Love Lessons



Sermon Text

“Love is a many-splendored thing.”  So, so true.  It is a many splendored thing – and also sometimes it’s a mess.  Ideally, even the messes can get us, did get us, to a better place, to a capacity for our loving to be wiser, more grounded, stronger – maybe also less magical – but more lasting.

But it’s not a clear or clean unfolding, no matter how powerful, no matter whether the love that teaches us lasts or ends.  So it requires our reflection, to learn from our own loves and each others’, and love deserves that reflection.  Because not only will it be one of the most shaping experiences of our own lives, but also because it is one of the most potent ways we will affect those we know and care about.

One of you shared this reflection on the fallibility and power of love:

“When I was a girl, an older boy seemingly out of nowhere told me I “would grow up to be heartbreaker.” He ended up being right in some ways, as I spent many years falling hard and fast in love with different people. In those relationships, I equated love with how fervently someone wanted me. I felt powerful. But, also fragile. I later found a man who loved me in ways that were equally powerful and empowering, but also stable and trusting. I’m going to marry him next year in a ceremony at First U!”

Another of you wrote “What I learned from my first love is that [it] is a very special occurrence in one’s life.  I don’t believe anyone ever forgets their first love.  I also learned the almost unbearable pain of goodbye and the ensuing grief.  I still muse at times about what my life would have been if we had stayed together.  But it was impossible.  It was the late 60’s and drugs were prominent in young lifestyles. He, an honor student, had become a mainlining crystal meth addict, and I, a cheerleader and prom queen, had not.  He let me go out of love.  I guess I also learned how devastating substance abuse can be for a person and their loved ones.”

It doesn’t matter how young, or how long ago.  The love we give, the love we take, the love that is generous, the love that is grasping, it all shapes us, nurtures us, hurts us, heals us.  And whether we’re conscious of it or not, those impacts stay with us.  As do our memories of the intensity, the miracle, the sudden awakening that makes early love so remarkable.  How much we may resonate to the exclamation of American novelist Lorna Landvik: “Gadzooks!  What a big chunk of God is to be found by looking into the face of someone you love.”

But also, how much may we identify with the delicious sarcasm that was so much of the American 20th century writer Dorothy Parker’s wisecracking, heartbroken take on love:

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”

Oh Dorothy.  Like you, it took me a long time to get to the point where I finally stopped trying too hard, reaching too far as I strove to bridge the gaps between myself and the boys – and later men – I loved.  It took me a long time to learn to hold out for some of what I needed or deserved, to draw my own lines around what was necessary for myself, my spirit, my rejoicing, my yearnings, to be strong for myself as well as my partner.  And again as Parker wrote: “And if my heart be scarred and burned; the safer, I, for all I learned.” Whereupon my work became to let that scarred tissue of my heart stay strong and tough – as scar tissue always is, right? – but not so tough, so insulating, so safeguarding, that my heart would become unable to beat for – eventually with – another.

Some of you have had a similar struggle.  As one of you wrote to me:

“In general, my experiences with love taught me I don’t do well in adversity. Some experiences I had in relationships brought out my worst characteristics. Because of this I am extremely cautious now. I find my lack of courage, strong desire for comfort and peace, and dedication to just taking good care of myself, have all left me spiritually limited.  I also learned from my relationships how difficult it is to actually influence either the people I love or experiences and circumstances surrounding my beloved and me. The point you made in your sermon of February 7 that love alone is not the bridge resonated with me.”

Rainer Maria Rilke again: “Love is a high inducement for individuals to ripen, to strive to mature in the inner self, to manifest maturity in the outer world, to become that manifestation for the sake of another. This is a great, demanding task; it calls one to expand one’s horizon greatly.”

Another member of this church wrote:

“The wrong relationship: When I was afraid to turn my head, that was not love.  I was married previously and it quickly devolved into a controlling and emotionally abusive situation.  At the time I didn’t understand what was going on because of the continued apologies and wooing statements of intent to change.  However the cycles became more frequent and the control more intense.  The moment I really understood what was going on was when I was afraid to turn my head and look out of the car window for fear of being accused of fantasizing about the person in the car next to us.  I knew he would never believe what I said, so I told myself not to turn my head.  Since he couldn’t get into my head, he would not believe my words.  However, I finally heard the absurdity of my inner voice (supported by my friends who had started pointing problems out to me).  Moments later I took off my wedding ring and started the ugly process of leaving.  It is because of that leaving almost 2 decades ago that I landed in RI, finalized my divorce and started my life over.

While not an attractive love lesson, it was a profound lesson for me to identify what love is not, despite his apologies or my guilt at “failing” to succeed in the relationship I had chosen.

I am thankful I found my way to now, and am deeply appreciative of the insight I learned, and the decisions I was able to make to love and uplift myself.  When I lean into a moment of silence I question my definition of love and choose to broaden the scope. Yes, there is that wonderful first love of 8 years which shaped so much of my young adult self. Yet, I can also reflect on the enduring love from my parents and brother, or the decades of love from my childhood friends.  I could also notice the change in my herd community, those people I love to spend time with and inform so much of who I am – from college friends then to my spouse and children now. Love lessons. I have shown myself that I have been blessed with some very positive and cherished relationships in my life. The one critical time mid-life when I found myself in true danger, it was the love from all these other people that helped me see the danger and make decisions to find healthier ground.”

She concludes: “Enduring Love: When I shared my imperfections and fears and was given a hug in response, I felt safe. I felt loved.”

This gift of love, acceptance, and care, at once so immediate and personal, yet so universal and timeless.    The 19th c. British write Dinah Maria Mulock set it down in her novel A Life for a Life:  “Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

First U member Craig Wood shared this:

“… [L]essons I’ve distilled from a life of joy and deep sorrow. I have been married twice, once for 22 years and then a second time for 27. The first 20 years were the easy ones! It was after the second divorce that I finally found my way to First U.

I like to think I now more fully understand what Thoreau meant when he wrote something like, “Build your castles in the sky, and leave them there. Then spend your energy on putting foundations under them.”

When the infatuation of early love fades, what is needed then is to make a conscious decision to love, and then to commit to doing whatever it takes to be true to it. A person must always keep the soul nurtured to find the power to tame the ego. To love deeply is to possess great courage.

It’s said that it’s far more important to be the right person than to find the right one, but we also must be aware enough to recognize when someone has this quality. I think that’s what attracted me the most to Ruthie. We weren’t together very long, but I never felt so loved…”.

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.                – Shaker hymn

There must be more songs about love than anything else.  Songs that lift up its bliss and its rightness.  Songs that lift up its heartbreak and persistent loss.  One of you simply sent in the lyrics to this song: You Don’t Know What Love Is.  Written around the time of WWII, its wrenching lyrics have made it timeless.

“You don’t know what love is
Until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues
Until you’ve loved a love you’ve had to lose
You don’t know what love is

You don’t know how lips hurt
Until you’ve kissed and had to pay the cost
Until you’ve flipped your heart and you have lost
You don’t know what love is

Do you know how lost heart feels
At the thought of reminiscing?
And how lips that taste of tears
Lose their taste for kissing

You don’t know how hearts burn
For love that cannot live yet never dies
Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes
You don’t know what love is.”

A love that cannot live yet never dies is its own lesson about the power of love and the sometimes absolute reality of heartbreak.

Others of you shared an experience of love as a journey, the path winds, the terrain changes, as do our own capacities to follow the path and manage the terrain along the way.  The renowned 20th c. American author Madeleine L’Engle saw the unfolding her 40 marriage in exactly those terms.

“Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”

Unitarian Universalist minister Barbara Rohde suggests 5 stages to a lasting relationship:

  1. Darling, you are perfect.
  2. Good grief! You seem to have a few foibles.
  3. Let me help you get rid of your foibles so that you will indeed be perfect.
  4. Okay, I love you in spite of your foibles.
  5. I can’t believe this has happened. I sometimes love you because of your foibles.”

Her words are lighthearted but their applications are deep.  One of you offered a powerful illustration:

“In the past I have looked for a man who expresses his emotions.  Slowly I’ve realized that “expressing” doesn’t have to be as verbal as I like it to be. I would like to make the following funny, but that’s not happening, so here it is:

My partner’s name is Larry.  He doesn’t like to talk about emotional topics, but I’ve learned to interpret his kind actions as expressions of love.  For example, he made a desk for me at his place in less than 15 minutes, so I would be more comfortable working there.  I just started a Heart Healthy diet, and he eats a similar way, partly for his health and partly to keep me from being tempted to eat something I shouldn’t.  He gets ready to go somewhere very quickly, and I take more time, so he waits for me, if somewhat impatiently.  He makes me laugh about that and many other things during the course of a day.  He even brings me flowers.  I have learned not to expect him to talk very often about uncomfortable things, but to see the love he expresses in his own way.  Then I can manage to reduce the number of uncomfortable subjects I bring up.

We make each other happy, but I have also learned to take responsibility for my own happiness.  Apologies to love song writers.”

This leans into an understanding framed by Unitarian Universalist minister Jackie Clement:

“Mature love, the love that grows in a committed relationship, does not come from romantic dinners and champagne. It is forged in fire, through the trials, the boredom, the shared tears and laughter, the decisions and doubts and debts of life together. It takes work and the willingness to extend yourself beyond your own skin, taking into account that you are not one, no matter how romantic that may sound. You are two, with different thoughts and desires, customs, dislikes, and expectations. And if you can still meet each other with all those differences, you will know true love. If, instead of giving yourself up to the other, you extend yourself to meet the other, you will have a basis for life together.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh famously found the tidal rhythm of the sea a reflection of the ebb and flow that inevitably asserts itself in lasting love, as she laid it out in her beautifully written volume A Gift from the Sea.

Bill Moyers, the renowned American journalist and Baptist minister, sees the patterns of lasting love as cycles of faith and blessing.  He wrote: “… Every day you love, and every day you forgive.  It is an ongoing sacrament – love and forgiveness.”

So what are our love lessons this morning?  Early love has taught us we can never reach far enough if our beloved isn’t reaching back, that impoverishment of love can yield impoverishment of spirit, that love can be both powerful and secure, that love alone cannot triumph over everything and still it can be generous, that love is never threats and fear.

Lasting love has taught us that love takes courage and strength of self, that love may be found at any time in our lives, that it can also break our hearts at any time in our lives, that love is a journey and that we ourselves are changed when we give ourselves to it, that demonstrations of love are essential;  that love exists – indeed must exist – amidst mundanities and differences, that love can be enduring but not static; that love may – and perhaps must – manifest not only as the blessing of itself but also as the blessing of forgiveness, all the time.

The great Stoic philosopher from ancient Rhodes, Hecaton offered his own fragment to the eternal conversation we have joined this morning:

“I will reveal to you a love potion,

without medicine,

without herbs,

without any witch’s magic.

If you want to be loved,

then love.”

Oh love.  So simple, essential, everywhere, elusive, intoxicating, anguishing, impossible, imperative.  We want to be loved.  For the sake of all that is holy, let us love.  Amen.