It Matters Most What We Love

April 24, 2005
Rev. Alice Blair Wesley

In this outward universe, magnificent as it is, in the bright day and the starry night, in the earth and the skies, we can discover nothing so vast as thought, so strong as the unconquerable purpose of duty, so sublime as the spirit of [loving service] and self-sacrifice. A mind which withstands all the powers of the outward universe, all the pains which fire and sword and storm can inflict, rather than swerve from uprightness, is nobler than the universe. Why will we not learn the glory of the soul? . . . It is not what we have, but what we are, which constitutes our glory and felicity. . . . It is through inward health that we enjoy all outward things. . . . when abandoned to evil passions, it can blot out this beauty, and spread over the fairest scenes the gloom of a dungeon. . . . by vice it can turn the cup of social happiness into poison, and the most prosperous condition of life into a curse. [Channing' s Works, pp. 247-8]

We sometimes say that self-determination and independence are our basic values. Well, self-determination and independence are very important. Yet, consider this: Have you ever heard anybody say, "I choose today - or I chose last week or I will choose next Tuesday - to love my children"? Or, "I determined, after studying the facts, to love ice hockey rather than baseball"? Or, "I decided at age 25 to fall in love with the person I married at 26"?

You never heard any such thing. Especially in the realm of romantic love, we celebrate love as something that happens to us. We say ours was "love at first sight." Or, "One date and I was swept off my feet." About a sport, or a favorite author, we might say, "One game - or one page - and I was hooked." Sometimes people even say of our churches, "One service and I knew I was at home," meaning, "One service and I loved these people and this institution."

At its outset, and also in its renewal, there is a crucial element of passivity in all love - whether we' re talking about the love of friends, or love of our work, or sports, or nature, or learning. For love is a response to the charm, the beauty, the worth, or the potential worth of something outside ourselves. To see and feel that charm we have to be open to impressions we can receive only if our attention is "captured." We don' t act in order to love; rather, when we are acted upon, we love in response.

This doesn' t mean at all that all love is born full-blown. A love of mathematics or music or farming - say - or a religious tradition - may take years to blossom. Early on there may have to be a slow, even an unwilling acquaintance with the rudiments and a bit-by-bit reception of basic knowledge, before one is finally grasped by a vision of complex and subtle relationships and meaning.

When Wm. Ellery Channing spoke of the glory of the soul, he was talking about the human capacity to discern what realities - among all the things that appeal to us - are truly worthy of our attention and worthy of our devoted service.

Once we love these things, we are called upon - or love asks us - to be loyally and freely active on behalf of our beloved. We are asked to spend - our labor, our talent, our brain power, our money - whatever we have to spend that seems to us needed. Not for nothing do we say, "Love makes the world go ‘round," or "Love conquers all" or "Love casts out fear" or "Love is stronger than death." All these saying report the truth that when love is strong - for what is worthy of love - nothing can separate us from it - not flaws in or problems with our beloved, not the dangers of service in behalf of what we love, not the rewards of competing attractions, not even the death of those we love.

These things seem really true:

1) Human beings are made to be loved and to love. It' s in our nature, our design. Individual as we everyone of us are, we are also social creatures from birth and all our lives. Infants cannot survive without love. And there' s nothing sadder in all the world than when a person who seems to have all that might be required for a rich life - a healthy body, clean water and food, opportunities all over the place to gain skills and knowledge - but who apparently loves nothing enough to spend life for it, who dies for want of enough love of anything, to spend life for it. It matters enormously that we love - and what we love.

2) This seems really true: Though love is always a requirement of our nature - a first requirement - love is never enough by itself. Perhaps family life is the most obvious example. We may love our family, but do one another terrible damage in our families, out of ignorance. We may love and want to work for international peace, but what good is it if we don' t really know much of anything about other nations and cultures? Loving well and effectively requires the use of our minds. Love may happen to us when we are passively receptive, but wanting the well-being and future good - of any thing or anybody genuinely worthy of our affection - will set us deliberately to thinking, consulting with others, studying and learning what would be best for us to do. It is enormously important that love and intellect be joined in a patient and life-long search for wisdom, for the ability to love and do well.

3) This seems really true: We human beings can love the wrong things, things bad for us, things that won' t sustain us or those we care about, things not worthy of the time and talent and brain power and labor and money we spend on them. The big wrong things are obvious - from a distance. We wonder in amazement what bizarre, twisted wrong love could have led the Rwandans to spend what they did figuring out how to kill millions of their fellow citizens a few years ago, or what weird, warped love could have led certain Russians to spend what they did coming up with and administering Soviet gulags imprisoning and starving millions?

Closer to home and everyday, the folly of love for the wrong things is often much less obvious, and easier to see in others than in ourselves. Haven' t you known others - even in church - who seem to love the hot thrills of a hurtful argument about truth more than they love truth? Haven' t you known some who love to be the one asked for their approval more than to see others doing things they might warmly approve? Are there not some of us who love new cars and expensive vacations more than the health of a faith community we might generously support, but don' t? Don' t most of us - some of the time - just to love to nit pick and complain and criticize more than to rejoice in any good thing at all? Surely, any of us may love the wrong things more than we ought. It is enormously important that we be ever willing to consider again the worthiness of our own loves, that our love of integrity might lead us to cultivate a tender conscience.

All of which brings me back to self-determination and independence. Emphasis on these is misplaced unless we begin - always, over and over again - with the primacy of love. For ultimately, the only freedom worth having is the freedom to do what our worthiest loves require of us. Authentic freedom is freedom to do what we freely want and believe - with careful thought - we ought to do and should do - out of love.

The worship or spiritual practice of a free congregation is best understood as the deliberate return of a faithful and loyal community of people who come together - again and again - to be receptive to all that is worthy of renewed love. We come to church to be reminded of, stirred up to recall, and brought again to feel the charm of all that we love and cherish most. For me this happens most often when we sing. More readily than at any other time, when we sing a familiar hymn, the poetry of the text and the blend of our voices join to make me freshly aware of blessings, so that I inwardly exclaim, "Thanks be, O God!" That' s not an explanation, but an exclamation. "Yes, I love this reality, and I' m grateful for its existence, and it makes me want to give back, to serve and to work."

People ask me sometimes, as I' m sure they do you, whether Unitarians "believe in" God, as if a yes or no answer would explain everything. I' m not much interested in concepts of God - or in denials of God either. Neither concepts nor denials of God strike me as any sort of explanation of the strange and wonderful ways of love. What I care about is how often love and gratitude bring us to exclaim, "Thanks be!"

For when I am full of love and gratitude, how many picayune concerns, how much pettiness, how much useless worry just slides to the periphery, where it belongs. When my attention is focused on what I love - for which I am grateful - I begin to feel I am more truly myself, the person I was meant to be.

And then I am ready to think about what love asks of me. What does love ask of you today? The entirely rational answer may be, particularly in the hard times of grief, "Wait. Keep faith and wait in stillness. Love is stronger than death. You will see in time that it is."

What does love ask of you today? The entirely rational answer may be, "You don' t yet know enough. Set yourself to study, to learn more. Get about it."

What does love ask of you today? The entirely rational answer may be, "You' ll have to give up wanting what you cannot have, before you can strive for what can do. Let go. Quit holding out for the impossible if you would see what your life might become."

What does love ask of you today? The entirely rational answer may be a challenge: "Will you start again tomorrow morning early to work hard, to give it all you' ve got, because the endeavor love has asked you to take up is very much worth doing - even if you fail?"

What does love ask of you today? The entirely rational answer may be, "You have served long and well. Now these others so much need your supportive presence and encouragement. Will you now just be there for others?"

The great paradox of the glorious human self is this: Precisely when we forget ourselves, and pour ourselves out in the costing labor of love, our true character emerges. Working out of love, for love, in love we become the persons we always had it in us, by nature, to be.

Three vital elements are always present in a strong, healthy, effective free and liberal church: 1) First - always first - is love for what is worthy of love. The members love one another. You can see that in their eyes and hearty greetings and generosity and willing cooperation. At worship the congregation sings gratitude and praise for all that has made worthy realities possible - whether they name the source of blessings God, or not. 2) Second - always a very close second - is hard thinking and careful reasoning and deep reflection on what love requires. Love makes for rigorous and lively, yet humbly courteous engagement with different perspectives and varied experience and alternative arguments. 3) Third - after love and thought - is resolve: resolve to do, out of love, what members cannot but discern to be right and good, individually or as teams.

What follows from a free congregation' s faithful practice of love and these ways of love? The result is a life-enhancing influence on all whose lives the members' lives touch. And there results, too, the free and liberal church' s power of attraction. Such a church draws in other people wanting to live as human beings are designed to live, and in their heart of hearts want to live, with the integrity of genuine and right loves, with thoughtfulness and mind and intelligence, and with resolve.

I appreciate your gracious invitation to be in your pulpit today. I leave you this prayer. May your love be obvious to all who make their way through your doors. May yours be that kind of holy love that enlightens and broadens and corrects and enlivens, so long as the life of this congregations shall last - and then some - in the memory and hopes of all who come after you. Thanks be. Blessed be. Amen.