Teach us to care and not to care. How can that even be a prayer? The poet who wrote those words, T.S. Eliot, is usually pretty sensible. But he seems to have given us here a petition that cancels itself out: to care, and not to care. If this were a math equation it would be something like 10 minus 10. Zero. If it were a vote, “All in favor, raise your hand.” “All opposed, same sign.” The poet, it seems, has lit one candle for Saint Michael, another for his dragon. Teach us to care and not to care. This is not a prayer so much as an Escher painting. How could we pray such a thing?
Unless. Unless to pray this prayer were to be a way of saying, “Teach us to care without caring what our caring will cost; or without caring who’s judging us for caring, or without caring whether we think the object of our caring is deserving of our care. This is what I think Paul the apostle is working toward in this thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church at Corinth, what we sometimes call “the hymn to love.” We’ll come back to that.
Have you ever wanted to say something in a situation where saying something was called for; but something else held you back? Ever wanted to sign a petition, or make a particularly extravagant contribution; interrupt an off-color joke, or get between a bully and their victim?
Ask forgiveness. Offer forgiveness. Reach out to someone out of concern. Get involved with a group or a project that sounded interesting, or fulfilling, or important; and something else inside you said “What will people say? What if I mess up? Give the wrong impression? Get in over my head?”
I was visiting with a church member once who remembered an occasion years before when she was seated in the sanctuary before worship and a woman walked in who seemed out of place, unfamiliar with things. The woman took a seat near another woman. A few moments later that woman noticed someone she knew across the room, left her seat to speak to them, and never returned, leaving the newcomer sitting all by herself. The person telling me the story said, “In that moment I knew what I needed to do: go up and sit next to this visitor. But something held me in my seat. I didn’t move. The woman remained alone.”
Have you ever been held in your seat? You feel the impulse to reach out; to care. But some fear quells it. You sense a need to act; self-consciousness suppresses it. You want to step out; but common sense discourages it, and so you leave well enough alone. Maybe this strange prayer of apparent contradictions is not so strange or contradictory after all. Teach us to care and not to care; to love beyond our fear of what others will think, or how it may turn out, or the inconvenience it may involve, or the risk of failing at the endeavor.
In this portion of his letter to a church in Corinth Paul has given us a sense of the character of love in the Christian life. Love is purposeful, persistent, unwavering, undeterrable, extravagantly indifferent to counter-indications. The final sequence in this description of love is entirely unrestrained: Love bears. Believes. Hopes. Endures. In other words, love cares. And doesn’t care.
That last word, “endures,” is literally, abides beneath. I’m picturing the constancy of bedrock.
Shakespeare and Dennis the Menace are instructive here: Sonnet 116: Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds . . . Or bends with the remover to remove.
In one comic frame, Dennis the Menace is explaining to his little friend, Joey, as they enjoy some cookies and milk from the grandmotherly neighbor, Mrs. Wilson, “Mrs. Wilson isn’t nice to us because we’re good. She’s nice to us because she’s good.”
Paul is appealing to the community of Jesus’ followers to grow in this goodness, this love, a love that meets every situation, circumstance, quirk, disposition, point of view, behavior, difference with the very same goodness, the very same love. A love that abides beneath, encompassing all.
Keep in mind the apostle is writing to a congregation of people who have bumped into furniture, stepped on toes, butted heads, locked horns, dissed and maligned ad canceled each other. Think social media on a bad day. That’s the Corinthian church. Community wounds even as it blesses. How does he figure love will find a place here? This is how. The word Paul chooses here for love, agape, typically refers to God’s love. More modestly, he could have appealed to the church to love with philos, familial love.
Instead, he reaches for a much bigger idea: that in the living, loving, saving work of Jesus Christ God’s agape love is imparted to us, but doesn’t stay there. Elsewhere he will write this to the Corinthian Christians: the agape love of Christ sunecho, echoes forth from within us.
How do you control an echo? That healing, forgiving, life-giving, under-abiding love that encompasses us from before our birth reverberates in and then beyond the heart indiscriminately into every relationship—family, church, work, and the world—expressing its careless care generously, freely, indifferently.
A friend in Atlanta has a daughter who several years ago as a young adult became angry with her mother and abruptly cut off all communication with her. The mother tried everything to reach her estranged daughter. No response. No opening. She began to call her daughter on Monday afternoons. Every week. Her daughter would never answer—the call always went to voicemail. Then she would leave more or less the same message. “Hi, this is Mom; just called to say I love you. Bye.”
Every Monday afternoon, week after week, she placed the call. And week after week, the same result: voicemail. And week after week, she left the same message. “Hi, this is Mom; just called to say I love you. Have a good week. Bye.” Weeks turned into months. Months to years. She kept calling; leaving her message She must have had friends advise her to stop wasting her time, and her heart. To forget it. Give up. Deal with it. Let go. Move on. She doesn’t want you in her life. The mother didn’t care. She kept placing her calls. Leaving her simple message. Week after week.
For two and a half years she made these weekly phone calls, got voicemail, left a message. Then one Monday afternoon she dialed the phone, and instead of hearing a message, she heard a voice. “Hello? Mom?”
Love bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; abides beneath all things. Cares and doesn’t care. Meets a hurt with a hope; a fear with some fledgling token of faith. A cancellation with a counterintuitive kindness not our own, agape love echoing outward in dispositions and decisions to love as we have been loved.
Outlandishly, Paul believed the power of God’s love implanted in the human heart could accomplish that very thing in the church at Corinth. Here’s my question: If it can happen there, of all places, then why not here? Why not in you? Why not in me? Laurel Heights, why not in us?