Texts: Romans 12:1-3 (do not judge) * 1 Corinthians 13 (faith, hope, and love)
Do you ever feel annoyed by the way political and business leaders communicate? A lot of their efforts strike me as hollow, misleading, or toxic.
But then, communication is not easy; and as a church, we run into its challenges every week. How can we reach more people? How can we best engage each other’s hearts? How can we articulate ideas about spiritual growth and social justice in a way that leads to meaning and transformation? None of it strikes me as easy.
Some of the answers are technical. Perhaps we should illuminate the sign in front of the building. Perhaps we should livestream our services over the Internet and use a new camera and software to enliven the resulting videos? Perhaps we should circulate the recordings of our Sunday gatherings on the church’s social media feeds. All of these are things we have done of late, of course. But beneath the technical considerations of communication, there are the deeper matters that are the fountainhead of our ministry of faith, hope, and love.
In today’s two readings, St. Paul provides the followers of Jesus with two guideposts for effective communication. The first is not to judge. The second is to center everything we communicate on love.
I love Paul’s phrase that speaking without love makes one’s efforts seem like the noise of a resounding gong or a crashing cymbal. A leader may communicate with effective rhetoric, arguments, and charisma. But if is not for love, Paul says it amounts to nothing.
You can probably bring to mind communications that ring hollow: songs that strike you as sentimental; stories on the page or screen that seem contrived and unrealistic; paintings or sculptures that lack the soul we crave.
Paul recommends that we speak from love. But this raises the question, “what is love?” This is a question to which we turn each week at Mill Woods United; and it is one that will probably never be settled, not at least until “the complete” comes, to use Paul’s phrase. Then, he writes, we will finally stop seeing as through a glass darkly and see God face to face.
This famous passage from Paul is one of the key places in the Bible to which people turn to puzzle over the question “what is love?” Today I focus on one of its ideas – that love is what stands when all else has fallen.
When we die to an old way of life, love is what remains; and I believe another word for this is interconnectedness. Our bodies are made of star stuff — chemical elements formed in the explosions of stars billions of years ago. We are connected to the cosmos. We share a common biological ancestor with all other living beings, one that arose in the earth’s primordial sea 3.5 billion years ago. We are connected to all of life. Our minds are formed by the words, languages, and memes of the human cultures of the last 50,000 years. We are connected to all people.
As anxious individuals, we may lose sight of this interconnectedness. But when, with grace, we move from fear to faith and from despair to hope, this universal love rises in our hearts again. It is a love that connects us to all people, all life, and the entire cosmos.
Most of the communications we encounter fall short of this ideal. Instead of being universal, they are partial, perhaps focused on just one nation or one thread of the entire tapestry of life. But when we stumble into speech that flows from, and reaches for, the universal, our words stop sounding like the noise of a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. Such efforts can resonate so deeply they are hard to ignore.
It is not easy to articulate what we learn on paths of death and resurrection; and the ways in which we try to do so may be crude compared to the work of advertisers or politicians. But no matter how ineffective, if our efforts to communicate flow from universal love, they might strike our hearers as having emerged from Source.
I also value Paul’s words about judgement. Judging others, whether in a “positive” or “negative” manner, masks the truths we might have to share. Judgements are always debatable. What is not open for debate are the sensations, emotions, and values that lie behind our statements.
For this reason, I try to check in with what I am feeling and name those emotions. This can be difficult when our feelings are afflictive – fear, rage, disgust. And given the large amount of communication we experience that takes the form of insults, commendations, or opinions, the task of speaking from our feelings does not come easily to many of us.
I will reflect on this challenge again next week when the focus will be on emotional intelligence in leadership.
For now, I end with Paul’s statement that resonates strongly with many of us — “In this life there are three great lasting qualities — faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”