Sunday, April 12, 2015

"...The Greatest of These is Love"

Last night, it was my pleasure to address the Women's Fellowship Dinner at Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church. Rolling Bay was our beloved church home for many years; it's the place where David, Katie, my mother and I received the sacrament of baptism. I was asked to post the talk on my blog, so (not including off-the-cuff additions), here it is.

"The Greatest of These is Love"
"If I speak with the eloquence of men & of angels, but have no love, I become no more than blaring brass or crashing cymbal. If I have the gift of foretelling the future & hold in my mind not only all human knowledge but the very secrets of God, & if I also have that absolute faith which can move mountains, but have no love, I amount to nothing at all. If I dispose of all that I possess, yes, even if I give my own body to be burned, but have no love, I achieve precisely nothing.
 This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience—it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.
Love has good manners & does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails.
Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen. 
For if there are prophecies they will be fulfilled & done with, if there are “tongues” the need for them will disappear, if there is knowledge it will be swallowed up in truth. For our knowledge is always incomplete & our prophecy is always incomplete, & when the complete comes, that is the end of the incomplete.
When I was a little child I talked & felt & thought like a little child. Now that I am a man my childish speech & feeling & thought have no further significance for me.
At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole & face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me!
In this life we have three great lasting qualities—faith, hope & love. But the greatest of them is love." 1 Corinthians 13, J.B. Phillips New Testament

This Bible passage is quoted so often – read frequently at weddings – that I wonder if people tend to tune out when they hear those first words.

But it has special meaning, for me.

There was a great preacher named Henry Drummond, who lived from 1851-1897, & wrote a little book illuminating this passage called, "The Greatest Thing in the World." This book was given to me by a dear Sunday School teacher when I was 11 years old. I have it with me to this day - carried through a lot of moves & life-changes. It is precious for two reasons: because the giver of the book radiated the love of God in a way which deeply impressed me; & because the book illuminated new ways to see & live God's love. 

My journey of faith, hope & love began when I was four, when my parents enrolled me & my siblings in Sunday School. The church of my youth had a very specific, perfectionist way of teaching faith. I absorbed it, & grew in it, but of course, I never felt that I had mastered anything close to perfection. I had faith in God, hope in good things to come, & love for God & man, much like any other young Christian person.

When I came to Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church around the age of 40, I knew I had found a path to a richer, freer relationship with God. The teachings, sermons & book studies, the various, wonderful ministries of the church - all blessed & helped me to grow in faith in God & His unconditional love - & away from the perfectionism of my childhood faith. Vestiges of it remained, but I became much freer in this community. Serving in LOGOS, as a Deacon & Stephen Minister expanded my faith; Lectionary class enriched it. Women’s Fellowship gave me some of the greatest friendships I had ever known.

I'm one of those people who was always looking for her "gifts." I never felt really talented at anything - you could say, "a jack of all trades, master of none" - except at loving.  I could love - freely, almost effortlessly - & I enjoyed loving the people in my circle of care. But that's not really considered a talent, & it is certainly not a marketable skill in today's economy! 

I had many jobs, & I worked diligently at them, but no job ever felt like it was a "calling," other than motherhood. And I didn't even feel especially talented, or naturally gifted, at that. But I received the gift of a wonderful husband, a son (David) & daughter (Katie), & I love them deeply.

When Katie was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2006, my faith changed. It went from study – learning from wisdom teachers, & trying to live what I learned - to a place where "the rubber meets the road." There was little time to read, no time to study, & no place for theological discussion. Faith in a children’s hospital meant accepting the path that we were on, & trusting that we were not alone on that path. It meant entering the field of ministry with the clothes on our backs – & very little else.

There was no time to go home & try to become a better, more perfect person; it was time, then & there, to do the best we could, because Katie could die at any moment. We were told from the outset that any - every - moment could be her last, & we lived in acute awareness of that fact. In the cancer ward, death was never far from our thoughts.

That changes how you live, how you practice your faith. Faith becomes walking the path as gently as possible, & looking for God in every person, in every situation, no matter how frightening or dark it seems to be. The teachings I had absorbed here at Rolling Bay sustained me during this time.

Hope became a single-pointed thing: HOPE meant hope for a cure, for recovery, for restoration of our daughter's life. HOPE meant going home with a cancer-free Katie. Suddenly, the other things we hoped for in our previous life fell away. 

There were short-term goals to hope for, along the way: that the chemo would shrink the tumor, that Katie would get through each day’s procedures without difficulty or pain, that she would survive until she could have surgery to remove the tumor – and, survive the surgery itself - but all of the lesser hopes pointed to the big one: CURE. That HOPE could also be called our PRAYER, and the prayers of countless others, including this community.

LOVE became the means, the WAY, of living. Love expressed by others became the daily evidence of God's presence with us – like manna from heaven - and we saw it in countless acts of generosity & tenderness (many of them from this community). LOVE became the way we could serve Katie (and each other), the way to hold our family together, the way to endure the many hardships of life in the hospital (and living as a foursome in one room at Ronald McDonald House). Love not only fulfilled the law, it smoothed the way, softened the edges, gave us eyes to see with humor & gentleness - countless times, day after day.

LOVE did bear all things, endure all things, & it never failed. We may have fallen short in any given moment, but through it all, LOVE carried us.

You know that our prayers for Katie to be cured were not answered in the way we had hoped; she recovered from her surgery, only to relapse, & die, after 10 months of suffering. 

What does this do to our FAITH, HOPE & LOVE?

Well, in my case, HOPE transitioned to hope to survive her death; to be able to carry on, spiritually, emotionally & physically; to live without bitterness, & be a good wife to Gregg & mother to David. I also hoped to find peace with God after this devastating turn of events.

My FAITH went through the refiner's fire.

I wrestled with God. If innocent children die, in spite of our best efforts to save them, how do we relate to this God? How can we go on saying “God is LOVE?” What can that mean, NOW? 

I came to see that the God of my childhood faith was not quite the way He had been portrayed to me. He was not a magician. He was not a mathematical being; our prayers were not "if...then" equations, with perfect sums as a result. Life is messy; it does not “add up.” It is mysterious, & heartbreaking; but this is the life we are given, & in spite of its messiness, it is still a beautiful gift.

As a result of Katie's illness & death, my faith expanded to include mystery, disappointment, & the Good Friday of my daughter's death. It includes faith in the Resurrection, as well, but before I get to enjoy that gift, it is necessary to live through her time on the cross, her time in the tomb - & my life without her, here on earth.
I began to see Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a great mentor & example.

And I learned that the way of the cross is not simply an icon to gaze upon; it is the WAY that we will all have to walk, in some form, at some time in our lives. We may walk it in Mary's footsteps – accompanying one we love - or in those of Jesus, as the sufferer - but the cross is the way of all flesh. I now have faith that God understands, cares, weeps & walks with us, every step of the way, whether we can see Him & feel His presence in our distress, or whether we can't. He gave us this cruciform pattern, & walked through it with His own Son, so we can know ahead of time what is to come – & that we are not alone when it happens to us!
With all of these changes in my hope & faith, I hope you can see that “the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen” is LOVE: our love for Katie, and the Love of God enfolding us – you, and me, and all of His creation. God’s love brings healing to our hearts. LOVE transforms our pain into compassion, into blankets for others who are suffering, into better cancer treatments which are NOW saving lives, into patience, service, generosity & understanding.
Our prayers are being answered; not necessarily according to our HOPES – yet they are still being answered. LOVE carries on, eternally working for the good of all of God’s children.

Your QUILTS are a wonderful illustration of that love, put into action. Generosity - Artistry - a Desire to Bless – Creativity – Craftsmanship – Patience – Warmth – Comfort: springing from God’s creative LOVE, these qualities are stitched into each quilt, and they bless – and enfold – each recipient. That is LOVE in action. Your FAITH & HOPE light the way, but LOVE is what translates your faith & hope into living service. With help from the Fearless Quilters of Rolling Bay, we have donated over 2,000 quilts and blankets to Seattle Children's Hospital's patients through Katie's Comforters Guild!

Henry Drummond wrote:
“There is a great deal in the world that is delightful & beautiful; there is a great deal in it that is great & engrossing; but it will not last…Nothing that it contains is worth the life & consecration of an immortal soul. The immortal soul must give itself to something that is immortal…You will give yourselves to many things; give yourself first to LOVE…he that dwelleth in love dwelleth already in God. For God is Love…You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments that stand out, the moments when you have really lived, are the moments when you have done things in a spirit of Love.”

So I agree with the Apostle Paul, and Henry Drummond, that “The Greatest of These is LOVE.”                                       


Karen said...

Beautiful, Karen! Couldn't agree more. Love is the key to life. Love you!

Robin said...

So lovely, Karen.

christine said...

Just very touching dear, dear friend. I love you.

Lynda said...

This is so absolutely beautiful and inspiring! Thank you for sharing.

Kim Andersen said...

it's as if you've got a precious map - the sort of map I used to use while backpacking - without it you're toast. We used to always know right where that map was - and it was always in a zip lock bag - as precious as the matches and water tablets were. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Feeling a little toasted lately .....

Daisy said...

Thank you, Karen. Needed to read this.