Magnificent Trilogy of Durability, III: Love
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
—I Corinthians 13:13
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, 1952
So the other day my wife comes home in her sexy tennis duds pumping her fists and raising her arms like she’s just defeated Roger Federer in the Australian Open, saying “Yeah, baby, you should have seen me at the net today! We destroyed ‘em!” It was kind of scary. And then after 36 years of marriage I finally figured out what happened: you should never marry a tennis player, because love means nothing to them.
Well, you know her, so you know I’m kidding, and you’ll forgive my painful pun, but “Never marry a tennis player” is just a simpler way of repeating what Paul was trying to get across in somewhat loftier language: “When there are no sermons left to preach any longer and no preachers left to preach them and no congregations left to hear them; when the ancient, almost timeless Church itself has ceased to be; when even the universe it tried to brighten has been silenced in the Big Freeze or torched in the Big Crunch; at the null point of everything that exists; three things will still abide: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”
Twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has a nice little gloss on Paul’s beautiful words. He explains why faith, hope, and love are so important to human life.
“Life is short and life is small,” says Niebuhr, “smaller than our ambitions and our dreams, but hope is long and amplifies our vision so that we can see down the years past our own demise.”
“Life is a mystery,” as that renowned theologian Madonna once put it, life is a mystery and will always confound the finite intelligence of the human mind, but if in faith we adhere to truths we cannot prove and commit to principles that we’re never sure will serve our own purposes and forge fair laws that might have no meaning beyond the small significance we lend them in our own immediate context, then by faith we can run our excellent race.
“Life is lonely,” says Niebuhr, “lonelier than we can bear; but we will be borne aloft above the storm by at least one person’s towering adoration and by many people’s affectionate forbearance.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a Ph.D. degree from Boston University with a dissertation on twentieth-century American theology, and I’m pretty sure he was thinking of Dr. Niebuhr when he called faith, hope, and love a magnificent trilogy of durability.
And perhaps love has pride of place in that magnificent trilogy of durability because love is our origin and our destiny. When for some inexplicable reason an infinitesimal singularity ignited in a beautiful bang and leapt into being and spread light and color and fire and splendid soaring spheres across trillions and trillions of miles, love was there before.
When darkness covered everything, blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp, God stepped out on space and God said, “I’m lonely; I’ll make me a world.” When God was all there was, God refused to hoard the precious treasure of existence all to Godself and created a whole leaping, flying, diving zoo so that there would be something to love.
When God knelt in Eden’s dust and breathed life into a clot of clay, love was there. When creation’s first king and queen and all their descendants after, generation upon generation, stumbled about cluelessly in forgetfulness of their Maker, love came down from a high place to show us the way and didn’t quit till it climbed a cruel cross and Jesus died with a broken but an ever-loving heart.
When the whole vivid drama of creation plays out its final usefulness and exhausts its last momentum and energy and contracts back down to the tiny speck it was at the beginning, love will still be there.
Love has pride of place in that magnificent trilogy of durability because without it, we die. “Love suffereth long and is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist upon its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love is invincible to all the strong vices that threaten to cripple human existence: envy, pride, discourtesy, stubbornness, irritability, resentment, with which our daily lives are thickly set.
Even death cannot defeat love. Do you remember Mitch Albom’s little book Tuesdays with Morrie? This hard-driving, workaholic sports columnist from Detroit gets immobilized into inactivity by a newspaper strike so he decides to spend every Tuesday flying to Massachusetts to visit with a beloved college professor who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and do you remember the last thing Morrie teaches Mitch? Do you remember the very last and most important thing? “Death ends a life, not a relationship,” says Morrie to Mitch. Death ends a life, not a relationship. Yes? When God takes them home, does our love cease to be? When we see them no more, do we stop loving them?
This is not the kind of love that made you swoon at university when you first spied that fetching freshman with the long legs and sky-blue eyes. This is not the kind of love that made you pine with longing when Ford came out with a new Mustang and you just knew you had to have it even if it meant a second mortgage. This is not the kind of love that enraptured your attention for an hour when you first saw Botticelli’s “Annunciation.” This is not the kind of love that sent you into ecstasies of joy when you heard Renee Fleming sing Thais.
But the kind of love Paul is talking about is not the kind of love that seeks beauty or yearns for beauty or discovers beauty; this is the kind of love that creates beauty, even when there is no inherent beauty there. That’s the kind of love Paul’s talking about. That’s the kind of love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, the kind of love that never ends.
The beauty is not necessarily in the beloved but in the lover, and it does not desist when beauty departs. It does not owe its existence to the attractiveness of the beloved; it is strong and endless and relentless just because it does not depend on external circumstances. In this it is almost like God’s grace itself, which is free, unmerited, extravagant, and inexplicable. As Luther puts it, “God does not love us because we are beautiful; we are beautiful because God loves us.” That kind of love is invincible and thus eternal.
Do you know the name Thomas Lynch? Thomas Lynch is the most famous undertaker in America. He’s also a poet and essayist, but he became famous running a family funeral home in Milford, Michigan. Thomas Lynch is the model and inspiration for that HBO show Six Feet Under.
In 2007, PBS aired a special about his work with the dead and with those they leave behind. There, he tells this story:
Anthony John Verrino was born with a genetic disorder called CFC Syndrome which left him with multiple birth defects of the heart and the brain. He was blind; his eyes stared off blankly into space. When he died at the age of 26 months, he’d never smiled, he’d never cried like a normal baby or made any sounds, except when he was having seizures. His young, beautiful, 20-something parents were up with him around the clock from the day of his birth till the day of his death, and though they loved him deeply, he could never really love them back in any meaningful way.
At his funeral, his mother Nevada somehow managed to get this eulogy out flawlessly:
There is a story that we liked to tell baby Anthony. I’d like to say that we told it at bedtime, but we didn’t, because he had no bedtime. We were just up all the time, so, it wasn’t the factual story of his birth. The factual story was written for us in his hospital charts and test results. We liked to tell him what we called the real story, our heart story, so that he would know how much we loved him, just the way he was.
It goes like this: Before you were born, Anthony, the world was just waiting for you. Your mommy and daddy were evidently very good, and so for a special reward they were allowed to go pick out their baby from the garden of babies, where millions of babies were resting, and waiting to be born.
It was a beautiful place, with so many tiny, growing babies. We walked the neat rows of babies, turned a corner, and saw you. We could see that you would have health problems. We could see that we would have times of frustration, and sadness, and pain. But mostly we could see you, and right away we knew that you were ours.
In a language that parents and babies know, our souls and hearts can speak, and your heart spoke such sweetness and love to ours. Even though there were hard times, Anthony, we would pick you over and over, and every time. In your heart you already know, we love you, baby.
Could you say that? After all the hard times? “We would pick you, Anthony, over and over again, and every time.” This kind of love does not find beauty or seek beauty or yearn for beauty; this kind of love creates beauty.
Even if that mother told that story to Anthony every single day of his life, he never understood her; he never understood anything, because he could only see in a mirror dimly, even more dimly than you and I. But NOW he knows. NOW he sees face to face. THEN he knew only in part. NOW he knows fully, even as he is fully known. NOW he knows how much he was loved.
And that is why love has pride of place in that magnificent trilogy of durability. That is why, always, always, and forever, three things remain: faith and hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.
I stole this from Adam Robertson, in Reader’s Digest, February, 2007, p. 167.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Meaning of Hope,” a sermon in Atlanta, quoted by Richard Lischer in “The Word That Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.”, Theology Today, vol. 46, #2, July, 1989, 173.
James Weldon Johnson, the beginning of his sermon “The Creation.”
Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (Doubleday Publishing, 1997), p. 174.
This distinction between eros, a value-recognizing love, and agape, a value-creating love, is the idea of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren, “Agape and Eros,” in Eros, Agape, and Philia: Readings in the Philosophy of Love, ed. Alan Soble (New York: Paragon House, 1989).
Martin Luther, Heidelberg Dispute, #28.
PBS Frontline “The Undertaking.” pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/undertaking/stories/.