Ethel was a distinctively unhappy person, gifted in sharing that spirit. That spirit was indeed contagious. As she made people around her unhappy, her loneliness deepened. Even her children paid her little mind. (Note: Ethel is not really the name of this woman I knew a few years ago.)
She lived in a residence for folks who were getting on in years. She had given up her car, which added to isolation and limited her freedom. Folks had volunteered to drive her to church, but she declined. Her arthritis meant that it took too long to get ready to go to church on Sunday mornings. She rarely showed up, so I would visit her.
Her residence was near a university. One semester, students from that school volunteered to teach residents how to get on the internet. Ethel, quite bright, was interested and skilled. Before long, she was meeting people online, including Bud from Oklahoma, hundreds of miles away. (I changed Bud’s name too.) I began to hear a lot about Bud, a widower in his 70’s who had a Harley. Soon I learned that Bud was coming to town for a visit.
I was sitting at my desk one morning and looked out the window. A Harley pulled into the driveway. Two figures dressed in shiny white jumpsuits dismounted. Helmets came off and I was introduced to Bud. Ethel told me they were off for a week long motorcycle tour. As Dave Barry says: I’m not making this up. Love had conquered the debilitating arthritis that had so limited Ethel’s life. I was happy for Ethel. Her neighbors were happy for Ethel. Ethel was happy for Ethel.
Last week, I came across a photo of her in that silvery jumpsuit. It reminded me of how debilitating and self-fulfilling loneliness can be. It affirmed the possibility that people can change, that they can be changed. It made me think that if we are to be changed for the better, it will come from the heart. It will be about love. So to channel my inner Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it?
When Jesus was asked about the path to eternal life (i.e., the path to the experience of God’s life that can begin right now and doesn’t end) he said it’s simple but not easy. It’s one thing that is really two. It’s about love of God and love of neighbor. He modeled that for us. We call it grace. We respond with gratitude and generosity. That kind of love is our goal, our highest purpose, the intention behind our creation. It’s why we’re here. When we tap into that love, it changes us, and the relationships around us. It allows us to do things we never thought we could do. If an arthritic woman in her late 70’s can hop on a Harley, love can find a way. Or as Rob Bell says, love wins.
So what does it mean to grow in love of God? If you’re not sure how that happens, maybe begin with the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: God, I don’t love you. I don’t want to love you. But I want to want to love you. Then practice those things that build love in any other relationship. Spend quality time with that person. Learn about the other person. Give thanks for that person. Imitate what you admire in that person.
If we apply that to a relationship with God, it means we spend time with God, which among other things means prayer, listening as much as talking. It means we learn about the other person, which means among other things that we learn the stories of scripture, stories of mercy. It means we give thanks for that person, never forgetting grace we’ve experienced. Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) is an amazing way to do that. And it means taking on the qualities that we love in that person. As we come to know grace, then we come to show grace.
Then hop on the Harley.
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.
– I Corinthians 13
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