February 3, Enduring love

Enduring love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

When my oldest son, Rainer, was home from college over Christmas break, he had a few projects going. He doesn’t like to be idle too long, so once he had a chance to make a few adjustments to being home again for more than a day or two, he started to look around for things to do.

One of the things he decided to do, was to get out the Märklin train set that I have stored away in cupboards and on shelves in the basement. The Märklin trains are gauge one scale, so they’re bigger than most model train sets – a train car is probably 4 inches high and at least eight or ten inches long; the pieces of track are each 12 inches long and the rails on the track are probably 2 inches apart. The trains are sturdy too – more metal than plastic.

I have Märklin trains because they are the kind of trains my dad bought for us when my siblings and I were small children living in Germany. The train set we had back in those days was something we always set up at Christmas time, but other times as well. It was truly a toy for us to play with, even as very small children – it wasn’t my Dad’s hobby, it was something we played with together and often by ourselves.

We made up stories, got the little passengers on and off the passenger cars, lifting the detachable roofs to put them in and take them out of the cars. We’d load up boxes and barrels onto the freight cars. Sometimes, when my dad wasn’t around, we’d put two engines on the same track and we’d race them around to see which engine could catch the other. I remember those times with fondness.

After my parents died, my siblings and I divided up the train set from our childhood, but in the meantime, I had started to build my own Märklin collection – something to share with my children. So, I have two small starter sets, various other train cars I’ve bought over the years, extra track, houses and bridges and other accessories.

The set hasn’t been out in years, but Rainer dug around in the back room of the basement and got it all out in preparation for building a layout in the finished part of our basement. He began to set it up, but before doing anything elaborate with the layout, he just made a small oval to test the trains. He got that set up, put one of the engines on the track, plugged in the transformer, turned the dial on the transformer…and nothing happened.

The trains did not run.

We of course assumed it was something with the transformer, so we switched the one transformer (from the one starter set) with the other one. Same result: nothing.

Now what are the chances that both transformers would stop working at exactly the same time? Maybe the problem was something else. So, Rainer tried some other troubleshooting ideas – switching out pieces of track, checking all the connections, looking on internet forums for information about similar problems, and finally trying to contact the company.

In the end, we decided that both transformers were somehow broken. And everything we had learned suggested that they could not be fixed – there’s no information on how to fix them, there are no companies or stores that fix them, there are no parts to fix them.

In the face of all of that, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it. Everything has a life span. Nothing lasts forever. Everything comes to an end.” I thought that way because in that moment, it felt to me a bit like something that’s been sitting in my memory for a long, long time had finally run its course.

And I didn’t think of that as pessimistic feeling – more of just a realistic feeling, because these trains are almost non-existent now. They’re very hard to find here in the US. Even in Germany, most of the train hobbyists have moved to smaller gauge trains which are less costly and easier to use for more elaborate layouts.

So that was my thought: Well, that’s it. Everything has a life span. Nothing lasts forever. Everything comes to an end.

And I would acknowledge as well that the thought that something I had cared about had met its end made me sad. I was sad because of what it symbolized too – a piece of my childhood, a memory of my father.

But my son, who is (as many of you know) an engineering student, a problem solver, and who always draws from a deep and continuing well of curiosity, kept looking for information, kept asking questions, and eventually decided to take the transformers apart (even though they are not made to be taken apart – essentially you have to break them open).

But he took them apart, broke them apart really, and what he discovered is that both transformers had an identical problem – the same wires in each, probably poorly designed, were bent and broken. And he tested the whole mechanism and figured out how it worked and then how to fix it.

But he also hedged his bets a little bit: not knowing before he broke open the transformers if the problem would be “fixable” he had also managed to find somewhere online another transformer – something more up to date that can run different engines, separately controlled, on the same track.

So, that’s an example of a difference between him and me. He’s mechanically minded. He assumes that what is broken can be fixed. He thinks of things continuing, not ending.

While I am more oriented toward the cycle of life, toward flesh and blood and feelings. And I find that based on my life experience, my experience of changes and losses, that I assume that everything has a life span, that nothing lasts forever, and that eventually everything comes to an end.

It’s not that each of us can’t see the other’s point of view, it’s just that mental and emotional orientation and life experience points us in different directions sometimes.

For me, even with problems like the one we were facing there in the basement – even physical or mechanical problems – I still tend to think in terms of lifespans, of beginnings and endings, of how things might come along for a period of time, but how then they always pass on. I tend, instinctively, to think that nothing lasts forever.

Some years ago, when I was writing my book on grief, as I was writing the postscript, I wrote the following:

In the spring of 2011, I took a sabbatical with the theme “Gifts of Grief.” Upon my return to my congregation, I reported to them my discoveries and insights. Many of the things I learned those three months were not new, but suddenly clear – things like, “This day will never come again,” and “We are more resilient than we think,” and “We are not alone; everyone is coping with their own losses,” and “Nobody's grief is quite like anybody else's,” and “People we care about are always leaving us - it's a fact of life.”

From that list, the first one of those reminders and the last one, are the ones that have haunted me the most over the years: “This day will never come again,” and “People we care about are always leaving us.” When I wrote (and now repeat) those things, I don’t mean to be morbid, only realistic: everything does come to an end – every day, every relationship, every living being. And those endings hurt. Sometimes they are heartbreaking.

I know that’s not an encouraging thought! If the train set comes to its end, it’s one thing. If a relationship we’ve counted on comes to an end, or the life of our beloved comes to its end, it’s another thing.

What does this have to do with love? With the theme of 1 Corinthians 13? Well, everything. Because it is the love we have, that makes every ending so painful. It is the love we have, that makes us so vulnerable to the experience of loss or separation. And yet, in a text like 1 Corinthians 13 we have this promise, this scripture-promise, that love – real love – never ends. So, then we are caught in this pinch: If we have love – real love – and the things we love or the people we love, do come to their end, but the love we have for them doesn’t end, then where does that leave us?

I mean it’s fine to say that love endures, that love never ends, but does that mean that the attachments we have, the love we feel, will cause for us a never-ending pain when what we have loved passes away?

Maybe that is true, that all things we love come to an end, but love doesn’t end, and yet we give ourselves to love. We give ourselves to it, because to be connected, even if it costs us dearly, is far better than being alone.

In a recent issue of the Christian Century magazine, author and theologian Nicholas Walterstorff, in an excerpt from his memoir, writes about grief and love.

“Love comes in different forms (he writes). There is the love that consists of seeking to promote or sustain the good of some person or living thing: call it love as beneficence. (Beneficence is like charity or kindness.) There is the love that consists of being drawn to someone or something because of their excellence: call it love as attraction. It is love as attraction that one expresses when one says, for example, “I love Beethoven’s late string quartets” or “I loved last night’s display of the northern lights.” There is love (he writes) that consists of finding enjoyment in some activity, for example, loving to play the piano, loving gardening, loving woodworking, and so on: call such love activity-love. And there is the love that consists of being attached to someone or something: to one’s children, one’s spouse, one’s pet, one’s house: call this love as attachment…”

He continues: “Love as attachment is mysterious. I may acknowledge that your cat is finer than ours, but ours is the one I found huddled on our doorstep one cold winter morning, meowing piteously. I took it in and became attached – bonded. Of course, (he concludes) when we become attached to someone or something, we begin to discover good and excellent things we had previously overlooked. Attachment opens our eyes to what is praiseworthy.” (“Grief Speaks the Truth,” p. 26, The Christian Century, 1/16/19)

I think this ‘love as attachment’ may be the kind of love the apostle Paul is talking about in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, because attachment crosses the boundaries of life and death. If you are attached, you love in a way that does not end. In that way, even though everything can come to its end, everything can live its span of life, there is still something – one thing – that can cross the boundaries of life and death. Is that boundary crosser what we know as love?

The longer I live, the more I find that I am reluctant to say the word always, to say things like:  I will always root for this team. I will always vote for this party. I will always choose this item from the menu. I will always dress this way, or think this way, or like this person, or prefer this music. I will always live in this house, or work in this job, or drive this kind of car.

It’s not that I don’t intend to keep my patterns or stay in my place. It’s just that a commitment or an intention to always seems too often to slip from my grasp any more. Maybe it because I’ve known too many things I thought of as permanent come to an end. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

The exception to that, if there is one, may be love. If I am going to commit to something on an “always” basis, if I am going to bet on something to have staying power beyond my imagining or my expectations, I think it has to be love.

If I am going to commit to any “always” at all, I think it has to be this: I will always let love hold on to me and I will hold on to it. I will always love those who have been given to me by God – those placed into my hands and into my heart. I will do that not because I am the guarantor of love, but because love is more enduring than you or me or anything else.

It lasts longer than my intentions. It last longer than my mistakes. It lasts longer than any of our misunderstandings or yearnings or wishes. It lasts longer than the length of our lives on this earth.

Think about that. Think about your own experience with love. I expect that there is something, there is at someone, that you believe and you know that you will love, no matter what and no matter how long, across every disappointment, across every painful moment, across every separation. Love – real love – is that enduring, that unending.

In reference to the scripture, this idea of love as attachment --- across time and space, even across life and death – is I think the place where this week’s scripture verses connect to last week’s verses. In last week’s verses, Paul talks about the connectedness of the body – the way in which we belong to each other – but then in this week’s verses, he goes on to say how we belong to each other, in what spirit we belong to each other, and the endurance of this belonging to each other.

Not only are we parts of the same body, connected by tissue and joint and muscle, but we are for each other. We are attached not only by necessity, but by deep and lasting affection and affinity.

Listen to Nicholas Walterstorff again: Love as attachment is mysterious. I may acknowledge that your cat is finer than ours, but ours is the one I found huddled on our doorstep one cold winter morning, meowing piteously. I took it in and became attached – bonded. Of course, when we become attached to someone or something, we begin to discover good and excellent things we had previously overlooked. Attachment opens our eyes to what is praiseworthy.

There are plenty of times when you are going to hear people talk about love and how wonderful it is. Today I want you to hear that love isn’t some good and nice thing that we layer over our relationships. Rather it’s the divine spirit of our relationships. And it’s what reaches across life and death. It’s what keeps you going when everything else falls away. It’s what lasts.

Without love, the body might as well be a robot – mechanical, functional, and no more than that. With love, the body is warm, alive, and generous. It feels pain, the pain of separation, the pain of disappointment, but it also feels hope: the hope of acceptance, the hope of connection.

You’ve seen all the movement of scripture across these last three Sundays, right? We have gifts to share for the common good. We are connected to each other and belong to each other. And our lives are animated and directed by a deep and lasting love. This is how we are Christ’s body. This is how we live in God’s spirit.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

February 3, 2019