I’ve read it, heard it, sung it hundreds of times. I even wrote about the passage, line by line, in thoughts for the day for my daughter, thinking about every single phrase that speaks to us of love.
I know the history of it—that it is part of a letter Paul wrote to an important city church that considered itself spiritually mature and full of wisdom. I know that Paul’s words in the rest of the letter have been used for hundreds of years to silence women and justify slavery in churches equally sure of their spirituality and wisdom.
But in spite of knowledge and understanding, in spite of my push and pull relationship with Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament letters, I continue to read it, to admire it, to strive for the kind of love it defines.
First Corinthians 13—the hymn to love—is sung at weddings, read from the pulpit, inscribed on countless scrolls and wall hangings to remind us that love covers a multitude of sins: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Paul directly states his meaning, without the figurative language or parables of the holy texts that sometimes confuse us. But today I understood the obvious—something I’ve never realized in all those hundreds of times I’ve read it—that having love is even greater than having faith.
That it should be part of today’s lectionary was an interesting coincidence (or maybe not a coincidence) for me. This week one of my friends posted a collage of past presidents in military uniform alongside a picture of former President Clinton in a band uniform and President Obama in a turban. I challenged him for posting it, and after a back-and-forth that convinced no one of anything, one of his friends resorted to insults, telling me to stop being holier-than-thou and to go on away in search of that unicorn I’m always chasing.
Though I rarely pay attention to the content of her posts, her reaction to mine made me think, especially when I read that verse this morning. How do I love someone who makes me angry? How do I live my faith without coming across as the church in Corinth did—and as so many churches do today—as certain that I have all the answers about what it means to seek God?
I try to remind myself every day that finding understanding and wisdom is a journey—that, truly, the best I can do is “see through a glass darkly,” as Paul says in this chapter. I know that I must keep looking, every day, for how to be the face and hands and feet of God in a world where it’s easy to get sucked into anger and become self-righteous.
But when my faith wavers and I start to believe that maybe I am hoping for a unicorn, love truly is the greatest of these three. Love—in the faces of the people who love me in spite of my flaws—picks me up and plants my feet on the ground again. Love makes me believe in the world in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
And so it is this morning that I think about the purest kind of human love I know—my love for the child I carried inside me and brought into the world with unadulterated hope and faith and joy. Nothing could separate me from the love I feel for her. Though we may sometimes disappoint each other, we have faith in each other and in the power of our love.
I’ll never feel that kind of love for the person who thinks I’m searching for unicorns. But I can at least let go of my anger and hope that she can do the same—that we can forgive each other when words offend.
It’s a lofty aim, and it doesn’t mean I have to stop engaging people when I believe they’re being unjust. But she’s challenged me to live my faith in humility, to hope for a wiser world—and greatest of all, to keep reminding myself that perfect human love is a unicorn worth chasing.
So tell me the stories that give you faith in human love.