Both Sides Now

Text: 1 Corinthians: 13 (faith, hope and love)

Paul writes that there are three things that last — faith, hope and love. One might question why he only lists three things. But when he goes on to say that love is the greatest of these, I imagine that few of us would disagree.

Love as the most important thing in life seems uncontroversial although this is hardly the end of the story. Our understandings of love are many, and the reasons people value love might be just as numerous.

Sometimes, I view church as a never-ending conversation about love and how it shapes our priorities and behaviour. Today, I offer a few more words on it, based upon three sources – the words of St. Paul, a song of Joni Mitchell’s, and a book by one of my key mentors, Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong’s memoir of her time in a Catholic convent, “Through the Narrow Gate,” and the sequel to it, “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness,” provided the backdrop to my reflections on faith and hope over the last two Sundays.

A more recent book of Armstrong’s called “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” gave me the central idea behind this reflection. In this book, Armstrong argues that love is the royal road to spiritual healing because it helps us to transcend ego. When we love family members, neighbours, and even enemies, we remember that all people and places are Sacred. Our lives have many troubles, but the path of compassionate love reveals that at the depths our troubles dissolve. Love at its best show us that all is well, and that all will be well.

But before I say more about that, I put St. Paul alongside the Canadian singer/ songwriter Joni Mitchell! Fifty years ago, Mitchell wrote a song about both sides of love. Her inspiration for “Both Sides Now” was a line in a novel in which the narrator travels in an airplane for the first time and sees clouds from above. Seeing clouds from both sides becomes a spiritual epiphany for him. Mitchell’s song is about clouds, love, and life viewed from up and down, from give and take, and from win and lose.

Paul’s famous words on faith, hope and love have a similar ring. Like Mitchell, Paul says that faith, hope and love can be looked at from two sides. One is the perspective of a child. The other is that of an adult.

As children we learn the words faith, hope and love, but we can only grasp them in a childlike way.

For children, faith is about trusting their parents and whatever moral authorities their parents support. Child-like faith is a naive trust. It is essential, but not eternal.

As they get older, children become at least partially disillusioned in their parents and in church, school, and civic authority. Then, because we can’t live without trust, we seek other sources of faith, which is a central task of spiritual communities like this one.

For children, hope is about desire. They hope for exciting presents, wonderful adventures, and safe and comfortable surroundings.

As they get older, children often find such desires unfulfilled. We learn about our dependence on community and circumstance; and so we are forced to accept realities that we find unpleasant as well as pleasant. Our approach to hope may shift over time from desire to acceptance.

For children, love is about attachment. They cling to their parents for survival. Later, they become attached to other objects – peer groups, pop singers, sports teams, favourite foods, and so on.

As they get older, children find that not all attachments are healthy. Life’s ups and downs force us to confront the irreducible reality of other people who have needs, perspectives, and experiences different from our own. So, our love may shift to a deeper level where interdependence and unity are revealed.

Childlike faith, hope, and love are essential. We all experience them, and we all stay stuck at childish levels at least in part until our last breath. As Paul says, when we become adults we put away childish things, but only in part.

As we mature, we find faith in social processes that are both reasonable and open to social challenge. We find hope in a sober assessment of what is real and not just in what we may have once desired. And we find love in selfless actions that reveal our deep connection to family, neighbours, and the whole of humanity.

Love is greatest of the things that last because love is the path on which we transform. It is compassionate action helps our childhood fears dissolve into a sturdy faith. It is compassionate action allows our childhood desires to soften and to accept wounds as well as blessings; and it is compassionate action weakens our grasping attachments to people, places and things by revealing our deep unity with others and with the God who is Love.

For a simple illustration, I turn to this weekend’s dismal weather. Weather is one of the things on which we rely, and in Edmonton I have come to trust in almost constant sunshine. So, to go for a week without bright sunshine challenges my childish faith in the weather. A more mature stance, I suppose, would be for me to trust climatologists and meteorologists.

Weather is also an object of hope. We pray that summer will glide into autumn with plenty of continuing heat and sunshine. But his year, my childish hopes for a beautiful September have been dashed. A more mature stance, I suppose, would be to accept that I can cope and thrive no matter what the weather is.

Our weather is also one of the things I love. Since I moved West, I have particularly loved the sunshine and low humidity.

A more mature stance, I suppose, would be for me to love the weather regardless of its current state since it is yet another thing that reveals our connections to the web of life, the earth, and the cosmos.

Armstrong’s thesis that love helps us move from childishness to maturity may strike one as an obvious observation. Nevertheless, I appreciated reading her book on compassion this week.

Humans can’t help but love; and happily, love tends to pull us out of ourselves. A prime example is the love parents have children. But even attachments I would judge to be unhealthy can help us transcend our small selves. Take devotion to a sports team, which I sometimes criticize as idolatry. Fandom involves an ecstatic union with a community and cause bigger than one’s self, which is at least half the battle of spiritual growth.

Armstrong’s book offers suggestions to help the ecstatic trajectory of love. It has chapters on cultivating compassion for oneself; on empathy with the suffering of others; on mindfulness to help us tame more primitive motives and their accompanying thoughts and feelings; and many others. I recommend it.

Armstrong’s book reminds me of our work at Mill Woods United. When we listen to hurting people who drop by the office; when we serve clients at The Bread Run or the clothing bank; when we march in solidarity with First Nations and queer people; when we care for children and offer them nurturing experiences; and when we lift our voices in song and prayer, we often find ourselves swept up in the lasting things that are universal. We remind ourselves that our egos are temporary illusions and that only faith, hope and love are real and eternal.

Sometimes, our attempts to expand beyond our small selves can fail as in Karen Armstrong’s experiences in a convent. But often when we offer loving service to others we find ourselves embraced by a joy and peace that with Grace leaves our fearful and grasping egos behind.

Friends, at this point in our lives we have probably looked at love from both sides now – from a childish place of ego and from a place of compassionate love. The former leaves us stuck while the latter moves us from fear to a trusting faith; from desire to acceptance; and from attachment to transcendence.

This is yet another reason – although perhaps only one of a million – why of the spiritual virtues that last, the greatest of these is love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.