Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Most Excellent Way

There’s a wedding in town this Saturday, so I have at least a fifty per cent chance of hearing someone read 1 Corinthians 13 out loud. You know the passage, right? “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. . . ”

This week I conducted a Twitter, facebook, WalMart, totally-unscientific survey. I’ve been asking, “Do you think it’s possible to live up to the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13?”

No one has been comfortable with a simple “yes” or “no” but everyone has an opinion: “Oh, that’s the ideal, no one could ever do that . . . Well, the Bible says ‘all things are possible’ so I suppose so . . . On our own strength, absolutely no. With God, absolutely yes.”
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
We want to believe these words. They fill us with hope. They remind us of what is best. They point to a life fulfilled. But we have also seen the worst, experienced the disappointment and felt the pain. Do we dare believe? When the scripture reads like poetry we are tempted to dismiss the revelation. When our life experience contradicts the good news, experience can trump the truth. Is it possible that faith, hope, and love really are the things that remain? If they remain, can we attain them? Receive them? Live them?

When I go to the wedding Saturday I will listen to the beauty of the scripture with a few practical thoughts also in mind. Perhaps they could help you answer my survey question as well:

“I will show you the most excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12: 31) It’s easy to miss this verse because it's at the end of chapter twelve, but Paul wanted us to know from the very start that love is a way. It’s a path. With a guide we can learn the way. If we expect love to magically overtake our hearts and change our lives, we are taking to the whitewater of life--out of control. But if love is truly a way, we can learn from others how to navigate the river of life. Consider the people Paul first wrote--the church in Corinth was a confused mess of relationships and envy, debauchery and religion. Yet Paul said, “I will show you the way. You can learn how to love like this.” If the people of Corinth could learn the ways of God’s love, why can’t I?

Tongues, prophecy and knowledge amount to nothing apart from love. How many of us mistake personal spirituality, anointing or intelligence as the things that remain? No. In order to learn a life of love, we must first recognize what will last and what will not. Ministry is for this present age; love is forever. Ask any pastor, social worker or physician--you can minister to anyone without actually loving them. Yet when ministry is infused with love there is eternal effect. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

Love never fails. These three words reveal the way things really are. “To align yourself with love is to align yourself with God,” songwriter Adam Russell observed, “because God is love.” To align yourself with love is to align yourself with victory, because love never fails. Was the Apostle Paul writing a Hallmark card or trying to explain the reality of God’s Kingdom? Are these words true, or just beautiful sentimentality? Do we sit in the wedding ceremony and hear these words as God’s promise to the bride and groom, or do we quietly think, “they will find out what life is really like soon enough”? Does our failure have the authority to nullify the truth? Here’s a meditation: what if it’s really true that love never fails?

Who can show us the way? Hidden within the crazy letter to the Corinthians is a deep truth of the Kingdom of God: there are some who have broken through the spirit of this age, and they can show us how it’s done. There are some who have learned a new way to live. “Be imitators of me,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “just as I also am of Christ.” We can learn God’s ways--including the way of love. Nor is it merely book learning. God’s wisdom may be found in the scripture, but it blossoms into life when we find mentors in the Kingdom. The Lord never intended us to go it alone: “Here’s the Bible. Good luck.” That just isn’t how he does things. Whatever demands the scripture may place on us are met with possibility there is someone who can help us make things real in everyday life. Ask God to show you the trail guide for your life. It’s called discipleship, and it’s the way of the Kingdom.

Perhaps these ideas are the reasons no one ventured a simple yes or no answer to whether we can attain the love in 1 Corinthians 13. We instinctively know it is true, while we instinctively know we cannot do it alone. We were never meant to: love isn’t meant to alone.

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