Clanging gongs and SpongeBob
From a letter written by Paul to some Jesus-followers in Corinth (I Corinthians 13):
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
She was a successful young sorority sister and student government leader, the kind of undergraduate who arrived with a high GPA, scholarships, and glowing letters of reference. He was a skinny and quiet young man, looking more than a little lost and adrift in his thrift store clothes.
In an old church basement in Cleveland, these two young adults sat on metal folding chairs, making concerted efforts not to touch or look at one another, as they tried to explain themselves. 
This isn’t your typical Valentine’s Day story. But it is a story of love.
That Saturday morning, the young woman unacquainted with failure explained to a small circle of neighbors that she was trying to leave a party but did not want to leave the bottle of top-shelf vodka she’d also brought along. So it was an open bottle the police saw her toss into her boyfriend’s car when he arrived to spirit her away from the party. The young man described how he had fallen down a flight of cement stairs in the middle of the day. Wasted at the time, he actually could not remember the fall, but the scrapes and the bruises and the witnesses filled in the blanks. He admitted, a little under this breath, that he had a drinking problem.
Through a Restorative Justice Program these two admitted to their neighbors that they’d broken the law. They traded a misdemeanor penalty and criminal record for an experience of real vulnerability. Each offender shared what happened: the bad choices made, the personal demons who’d bested them. Then each community member spoke about how they are hurt and affected – like when they have to explain to their 8-year-old why there are all those bottles, or (worse) a whole college student passed out, on the lawn. Each had to speak and to listen. Each had to give and to take. Each had to honor and to respect. Then together, the small circle of very human beings in that church basement worked out a plan to restore relationship. It was personal. It was vulnerable. It was awkward and tender and entirely appropriate all at the same time. It was Love. Not the serendipitous love story of two young people falling head over heels. Not that kind of love story. But it was love sparking across the space between people who were willing to risk knowing one another even at their worst and being embraced.
In February, love is everywhere. But it appears more often in its Ambience billboard variety than the church basement variety. If I’m going to write of love, why use this example of underage drinkers making their confession in a church basement? To quote one of the great philosophers of our time, Dave Barry: “If your boyfriend is a nice guy, but he’s mean to the waitress, he isn’t a nice guy.” In other words, love is love. Whether it’s the genuine love of a neighbor or the passionate love of the bedroom or the otherworldly love of God in prayer, Love – true Love – takes the same spiritual muscles. It is only a difference of the degree to which we know the other and are known. Love of neighbor – the love in action in that church basement – is not so far removed from our romantic love lives as we might think.
Love is… love is patient. Love is kind… We hear those words from I Corinthians at every other wedding it seems. More than once I’ve wondered aloud if that kind of love is even humanly possible. This world – and sometimes it seems our own hearts – are inhospitable to the love of I Corinthians, antagonistic, even. More than anything else, we seem to struggle to treat one another as whole people, to respect a lover or friend or even just a waitress as a cherished human just for being. Decades ago, the philosopher theologian Martin Buber thought and wrote a lot about relationships, about intimacy, really. I think it’d be fair to sum up his complicated German plays on words by saying: Our problem is, we turn people into “its.” “Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter into thinghood again and again,” Buber wrote.
The Jesus followers who first heard Paul’s words did not have sexy lingerie and heart-shaped chocolates on their minds. It’s more likely they were suffering the consequences of treating one another as “its”. That’s why Paul writes to them of love. He’s been so affected by the dignity he has seen God give human beings in Jesus, he feels like he has been saved by love. He believes the quarrelsome Corinthians can be, too. What he describes in those words that are almost cliché at weddings is not human love, but divine love. God is, with us: patient, kind, not envious or boastful or rude… bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things… including the possibility that we human beings might live in love.
What I saw years ago in that church basement was a love that is patient and kind, not boastful, not delighting in falsehood, but rejoicing in the truth. What I saw was holy love. When romantic lovers or friends or neighbors or my own self and spouse fail miserably at loving, I pray for just a small measure of the holy love in action in that church basement. What love we would know if we could form little circles of two or three or four people who speak and listen, who confess and forgive, who encourage and respond, who respect and honor, who give and receive. “Relation is reciprocity,” Buber wrote.
When we, as lovers, practice that same kind of tender love: confessing (both our hurts and our offenses) and forgiving, speaking and listening, comforting and challenging, we see in the dim mirrors of our human relationships a reflection of the amazing love of God – a love that is stronger than death, a love that won’t yield, even to the grave.
InCarne: Buy a package of the kind of Valentines kids exchange in school. (We especially like the ones with temporary tattoos.) Pick one. On the “To:” line, write the name of a person or place in your neighborhood or world in need of holy love. Find a way to get reciprocal with that person/place. Stick the tattoo on your arm to remind yourself to do it.
Some of the details of this community conference have been changed to protect confidentiality
Martin Buber, I and Thou
, p. 69.