The Grittiness of Love
Love is learned in the messiness of real-life relationships.
Reverend Teri Daily, Priest and Pediatrician
Seeing the Faces People Already Have
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and a writer. In her recent (and wonderful) book, An Altar in the World, she describes her experience of coming to the Christian faith while a student in college. She writes:
'…People I barely knew made a habit of telling me they loved me. They were Christians too, and I guess it was their way of welcoming me into the Christian family. I did not mind, exactly, but since they barely knew me I was not so sure what they were talking about. Did they love the way my right foot turned out, so that I left tracks like a penguin on the beach? Did they love my willingness to make handprinted signs for Bible study? Did they love the way my upper lip disappeared when I laughed? I decided to find out, so the next time one of the Christians said she loved me, I asked her why.
She made a surprised face, like I should already know.
“Because God loves you!” she said, throwing both hands in the air. “I love you because God loves everybody!”
This may sound small, but I decided that was not enough for me. I did not want to be loved in general. I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved. Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.'
The Need to be Loved in Particular
I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, especially 1 Corinthians 13. The passage is woven into a cross-stitch pattern, recited at a wedding, or printed on a religious greeting card so often that it easily becomes completely domesticated and loses any power to change us.
But I think that one of the reasons this passage has been so easily domesticated, why it lends itself to an unrealistic, romantic conception of love rather than a gritty, real life one, is that we usually end up lifting it out of its context. And when we do that, then love becomes an abstract idea separated from any concrete reality—just as Barbara Brown Taylor found it was among the Christians in her college group. But if we look at Paul’s beautiful description of love as an integral part of the entire letter to the Corinthians, we see instead that Paul is calling for a love that is anything but a disembodied noun.
The church in Corinth is suffering from what a PR friend of mine would call poor impression management. News of their conflict and division has reached all the way to Paul. Members are divided among rival factions that declare loyalty to Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, or Christ. Some are engaged in what might be called notorious sins, particularly those of the sexual variety. Some are unconcerned about how their own practices affect members who are new to the faith or members who live in poverty. And still others claim a superior spiritual status based on the spiritual gifts they possess. Paul’s poetic discourse on love may seem to us to be about love in the abstract. But for its intended audience, this passage is meant to speak to love lived in the messiness of real-life relationships.
Which brings us to the second reason I think this chapter from Corinthians has been so easily domesticated… In addition to the fact that we usually take these words out of their original context, the way Paul talks about love here doesn’t ring true to what many of us have experienced in our own relationships. In this passage love seems to be static and unchanging. And I believe God’s love for us is exactly that. Divine love is patient and kind. It is not coercive and it doesn’t hold a grudge. The divine love revealed to us in Jesus’ life bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Always.
But that’s not the kind of love we experience in our relationships with one another. Even with those we truly do love, we’re not always kind, we find ourselves at the end of our rope, resentment can develop over time, and sometimes relationships break. On our best of days, we hope and strive to become more like the lover that God is. But we have to learn to love.
So maybe 1 Corinthians 13 would be truer to human love if it read: love becomes patient, love becomes kind, love becomes less coercive, boastful, irritable and resentful. Love bears more and more things, believes more and more things, hopes and endures more and more things. We have to learn to love. To the extent that we live centered in God’s perfect love, we succeed. To the extent that we live centered in our own ego, we fall short. Either way, though, learning to love is a lifelong project. And it takes a lot of practice.
When I meet with couples who are entering into lifelong committed relationships, I often tell them this relationship will be one of the primary ways they will become the people God dreams for them to be; in other words, it is one of the main ways they will become holy. Somewhere in the midst of jockeying for closet space, experiencing together the disappointments of lost jobs or unfinished dreams, discussions over whether or not it’s OK to use bungee cords to hold the kitchen chairs together, and the changes that inevitably come with age, there will be chances upon chances to learn what it means to be patient, kind, humble and honest, to learn what it is to forgive and to be forgiven, to hope and to endure.
But it’s not just our romantic or family relationships that teach us how to love. Our friendships do, too. As we share our vulnerabilities and our pain we learn that love is trustworthy and steadfast. As we change over time we learn to love with an inherent flexibility. As we laugh together we learn the joy at the heart of love. And our communities help us learn to love with greater humility, seeing past our own needs and opinions to the needs and opinions of others.
We learn how to love from our non-human relationships as well. Our dog Lottie is eighteen years old. She has worsening eyesight and painful joints, and she occasionally becomes disoriented. And now as I watch different members of our family sometimes carry her to the door to go outside, I realize that we are learning the tenderness and compassion that comes with love.
We are also learning even more deeply that a creature is worthy of love not because of what she can do or achieve, but simply by virtue of her very existence. By planting seeds and caring for the soil, a gardener learns that some relationships require consistent care, patience, and above all faith. And our fondness for the places where we grow up teaches us that the things that we love form our identity and make us who we become.
This isn’t to say that we learn how to love equally from these different types of relationships. As a mother with two very young children, practicing medicine and being perpetually on call, I sometimes did a better job triaging patients and medical conditions than I did setting priorities in my personal life. A kind woman at church, a few years ahead of me in life experience, recognized exactly what was going on. And one day she gently said to me: “Teri, remember. Living things first: People, animals, and plants, in that order.” It became my personal triage mantra for several years.
But although we rightly set priorities among our types of relationships, any connection or bond we experience can call forth in us a greater capacity to love—it is an opportunity to participate in God’s great love, to learn how to love, and to grow into the people we were created to be. In fact, that is the only way it happens, and I believe this is incredibly good news. In an age when the myth of self-sufficiency runs roughshod over any acknowledged need for community, it is good news that the greatest spiritual gift according to Paul is one that can’t be attained in isolation but only in relationship.
It is good news that, no matter how much it may seem that we are at our holiest the first hour of the day (before we come into contact with anyone else), the truth is that the occasion for which we have to ask forgiveness is every bit as important on the road to embodying a more perfect love as a moment of tranquility is—every moment throughout the day is sacred in its potential to change us. And as with anything that takes practice, sure, we are bound at times to fail at loving well. But the good news is that life is a web of connections from which we couldn’t escape if we tried, and so a second chance is always right in front of us—in fact, we have the redemptive grace of a million second chances.
See, life is lived and love is learned in the messiness of real-life relationships—whether in a first century church in Corinth fraught with division, or a twenty-first century church somewhere in the world, or the many learning labs that comprise the lives of us all. And for the comfort that knowledge brings, thanks be to God.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (HarperCollins: New York, 2009), page 103.