Once I had a dream in which I went into a classroom and wrote up on the blackboard, “What questions does your life ask?” As it happens, I was at that time teaching a class, so the next day, I went into the classroom and wrote up on the blackboard, “What questions does your life ask?” This is something I’ve been pondering ever since. The passage from 1 Corinthians 13 is one way of making this query. But its fame and ubiquity is also probably why I hesitated when I first saw that it was one of the lectionary readings for today. It is one of the foundational biblical passages for me, along with 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” As people of faith, we are told that God is love. But how do we enact this in our lives? Love is our gift and our burden. What questions does your life ask? Do you love? How do you love?
We have all probably read or heard 1 Corinthians 13 many times, perhaps so many times that it has blurred into a feel-good quote. But Paul was an expert rhetoretician, so I want to revisit this passage and reanimate its sharpness. Paul generates an equation between all, part, and nothing: Are you able to foresee the future? Have you given all your belongings away to the poor? Do you speak with heart-melting eloquence? Can your dynamism move mountains? Good. But if you do these things without love, they count for nothing. You, Paul says, are nothing without love. Given the amount of time I spend each day in which love seems basically irrelevant: filling out paperwork, buying groceries—this seems harsh.
But in contrast to this “nothing” is love itself: It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends: it is our completion. Love is all.
Between these poles of nothing and all, there is a middle and partial place. That’s the human place. That is the place of not really knowing, of ambiguity, and probably the place where our love is made incomplete by things like impatience, envy, and fear. Loving in this place is like pulling out into traffic when you haven’t completely scraped the ice off your windshield, your breath is fogging the glass, and you’ve just spilled hot coffee all over your lap. It’s not just that your vision is partial, but your attention is unfocused as well.
Between the all and the nothing, though, is a halfway place. Paul uses this partial, human, fallible place as a hinge toward wholeness and he reminds us that love is the completeness of God. Paul’s careful rhetorical parsing makes clear that our practice of love is not only central to our being and to unity with God, but that love is not an act or a concept: it is an ongoing process. In that way, he is calling us to attention. He is calling us to a practice of attention. Here’s an idea that I want to try out with you: Love in its purest form is a growing depth of attention and empathy. What questions does your life ask? Do you pay attention? What do you pay attention to?
A political philosopher and mystic named Simone Weil was preoccupied with this idea of attention. Weil lived in France during the first part of the 20th century. She was the daughter in a highly educated, middle class, secular Jewish family. An eccentric and sensitive person, Weil was very attentive to the experience of people who lived in what she considered a state of affliction. To understand, for example, what poverty and labor were like, she took a job in a French factory, toiling away until she had a breakdown. When her Jewish family managed to flee France during the German occupation, Weil basically starved herself by refusing to eat no more than the average French person would be able to eat with their ration cards—ignoring the fact that hungry people are resourceful and often had gardens or found ways to barter additional food. Simone Weil wanted to be in solidarity with the vulnerable, sometimes even in misguided ways. Which shows the partial, fallible quality of our loving, even when we are especially devoted and ardent. Still: she was attentive to the experience of others.
At least once a year, I reread her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God.” For a period of time, Weil taught in a girls’ school, and though her students adored her, the school administration thought that she was basically whack. One of the things that Weil emphasized to her students was that attention in even the smallest practices—for instance, studying algebra—was a practice of attention that helped the student to the higher practice of loving God. Weil insisted that this practice of attention was also a way to relieve a person who was suffering and that, by extension, attention itself is a form of love. I think it’s worth reading the passage from this essay again:
Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbour, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail.. belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralysed by the most painful wound: “What are you going through?”
The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a human, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at another human in a certain way.
This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he or she is, in all his truth.
Simone Weil is not arguing that attention always sees the beauty of a person, or that attention can magically remove hunger or cold or illness. Because, really, can our love, no matter how true and committed, heal cancer or neatly resolve our prison reform crisis? We know it can’t. But we can be that redemptive human hinge toward the fullness of God when we turn to another person and ask, “What are you going through?”
One of the best moments of my working life came the day I let a homeless couple take a shower together at the Bridge House when only one person at a time was supposed to take a shower, and the allotted hours for showers had ended.
I didn’t solve the serious predicaments of their lives. But by the grace of God, I actually paid attention to these two people and offered them, to the extent that I was able, what they wanted. Which is to say that our love and attention are sometimes very practical, and sometimes practicality and the rules need to be put aside when we are deeply considering and caring for others.
At some point in my training, I was told that every sermon should offer up a challenge, and loving any person or population is challenge enough for us to be getting on with. But there is also a time for affirmation, and I want to offer CUCC an early valentine. Today I affirm, I celebrate, I give thanks for your attention to what is going on around you in the world. Whether you are recognizing that we live on Arapahoe land, helping to protect a person in sanctuary, or giving me sleeping bags and blankets for people sleeping outside, you are showing loving attention to the particulars of other human beings.
A few days before Christmas, I was working with a man who is suffering from end stage congestive heart failure who also had pneumonia and was sleeping outside. Though social service agencies understood that he was in peril, our efforts to get him into an apartment were stymied by HUD regulations that specified that to be considered chronically homeless (and therefore eligible for a voucher), he would need two more episodes of being housed and losing his housing. In desperation, I contacted the church and asked for helping paying for two separate week-long stays at a hotel so that he would qualify for a voucher and, not incidentally, have time to recover from pneumonia. Within 24 hours, I had more than enough to pay for his hotel and give him money for food.
You saved a man’s life.
And next week, with a little luck, he will move into his new apartment.
How many times have I filled my car with clothing and sleeping bags? To those of you who have passed on the belongings of people you loved and who have died—so that those belongings could nurture the lives of other people: bless you. I know that might not have been easy.
What questions do our lives together, as a community, ask? Are we able to witness to what others are going through? Are we able to respond?
Yes. Of course our witness is partial. Our attention is limited. But when we help our children make sandwiches to distribute hungry people, we are responding. For the couple who moved from homelessness into an apartment completely furnished by a gift from Lynn Andrade or the man who arrived at the Broker Inn on Christmas Eve day, your generosity isn’t “virtuous,” it is deeply personal. It transforms brokenness into fullness. Love is all. We are here in the community of God, where the limits fall away and we—all of us, everywhere—are seen and made whole in the perfection of God’s love. Thank you.