In a Mirror, Dimly

I started writing for this blog five years ago, during a trip to Alaska. I had decided not to bring my camera, wanting, instead, to just experience the trip, not chronicle. The thing about Alaska, though, is that it kind of rearranges you on a cellular level, and I desperately needed a way to process that. So I started writing. To be sure, I've been a writer since I knew what it was. My early report cards all reported that I was good at "creative writing." I don't really know what that means, but I guess I could tell a story. I was born to write stuff down for other people to read. I don't know how not to do it anymore. I read somewhere once that when the writer Henry James was dying, his late brother's widow noted that his hand was moving across the bedsheet, as if he were still writing. That's a good way to die, I think. And also, Henry James said this: "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind," and that's a pretty good way to live.

A lot has changed since I wrote and posted that first story from Girdwood, Alaska. I wrote that piece about how you can tell a lot about a person by the contents of their Dopp Kit. I think at the time I had several weird and disparate things in my little bag: several toothbrushes (because it's good to have an extra for cleaning a bike chain), a Swiss Army knife, a pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen. Mostly the point was that there wasn't much in my toiletry kit devoted to grooming. It was more geared for dealing with accidents than prepping for a night on the town. Last year I gave the knife to my son, Sam. I bought that knife at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley, New York when I was 20 years old and it went everywhere with me for 30 years. I never lost it, which is, if you know me and my relationship to small things: keys, glasses, wallets, a true miracle. I gave the knife to Sam when he turned 20, and made him promise to give it to the right person, one day, on the occasion of their 20th birthday. 


When I woke up this morning I decided I would write about love. Because for the past few days I have been thinking a lot about love. About how I have been writing stories for this blog for five years now and I have never written about love, about being in love. For certain, I have written about lots of different kinds of love. Every imaginable flavor of love, actually: the love I hold for my children, my parents and siblings. The ways I love my friends and the folks in my church. In recent times, the God Love thing. I have written about loving everything in this life, but I have never written about being in love with someone.

I've written from the depths of honesty about drinking, about what it feels like to be with a person at the moment of their death. I have written about the hardest things a person can feel, the deepest darknesses of life. In the past five years I've written abou turning 50, adopting a blind dog, becoming a preacher, being afraid of the ocean, hating kale and hating yoga, holding my new nephew, listening to my kids breathe, being mad at my sister because she lives so far away, sitting with strangers in the hospital, flying in a small plane into the Arctic Circle, leading worship in my ski boots, watching my daughter turn into a budding girl and my sons turn into men. Everything! Why have I avoided writing about being in love?

You can't turn in any direction in this world without tripping over something having to do with love. It seems like every single song ever written has, in one way or another, to do with love. Movies, self-help books, romantic novels, People magazine, and this time of year, gigantic boxes of chocolate and cheeseball greeting cards fill our heads with ideas about romantic love. I would be willing to bet that therapists spend at least half of their counseling hours listening to people talk about love. It's the driving force in our lives: to fall in love, to be in love, to hold onto love, to walk through this world with someone we love. We gain it, we lose it, we suffer in it, and yet, we never stop wanting it, wishing for it, seeking it. 

I have to preach this Sunday on 1 Corinthians 13. You might not know it by name, but you know it. It's probably the most well-known Biblical passage: "Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant...blah blah blah." Right? Who hasn't been to a wedding where 1 Corinthians was read? And, of course, all week I've been thinking...preach about love? Me? I've been walking around this goddamned world for 50 years now and I still don't have a clue what love is. I mean, I know it when I see it, when I see other people wearing it, but I'm still deeply confused about what it is, how to make it work, how to give it ample space and just enough water and light, but not too much. Sometimes it feels like I'm just not hardwired that way, that I so deeply value my independence and am so strongly wedded to my desire to be able to roam this land freely that I can't love. Not well, anyway.  Or I haven't. Not yet; well. I mean, look at me! I set out to write about love and I end up talking about my Swiss Army knife!


My favorite part of 1 Corinthians isn't the bits about what love is or isn't. Love is and isn't seven billion different things to the seven billion humans breathing here today. The part I like best is this: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. For now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." Because I think that if I'm ever going to understand anything at all about love, if I'm ever going to get it right, the answer is in those lines.

Paul is writing this letter to the folks in Corinth, and he's writing it because they were bickering and becoming dysfunctional. They were being petty and prideful and ridiculous. They had lost sight of who they were, and so Paul wrote this thing to remind them, and he chose to remind them of who they are by talking about love, but not the kind of love that's sentimental or sweet. The love he is describing is tough and unwilling to yield. He's talking about standing naked before God, and being loved by this God, even as we are. 

And he is writing about love as the starting point. This love is not about feelings, it's about truth. The love comes first, the knowing comes second. Think about that. That means that there is no need to make ourselves into something we're not. Throw away the make-up, the half-truths, the first-date veneer, the love is already there, unconditional, bottomless, always fully present and accessible. Always. God isn't keeping track of anything; God's love doesn't manifest if we do something right or well or nice. God's love isn't given if God is in the right mood or if we have been particularly entertaining or attentive or if we brought God soup even when God didn't ask for soup. That's the beautiful thing about God's brand of love: it's always right there; never withheld, never in short supply. It doesn't even matter if we washed our hair that day. It simply is. 

Can you imagine if that were the starting place for us as humans: I already love you, and now I'm looking forward to knowing who you are as you reveal yourself to me and to this world. And even if it's scary and even if I don't understand it and even if you make mistakes or forget what I told you yesterday, and even if you do something that hurts me...I'm going to keep loving you

That's something, that brand of love.

"You have thirty good summers left in you," a kind friend of mine told me recently. And with his generous prophesy, he gave me a new Swiss Army knife, too, to replace the one I was sorely missing. So now I have no choice. This knife and I have to make it through another thirty years of adventure. And that God Love thing, that's what it has to be. This heart of mine has been broken open wide enough times by now, by babies and brothers and divorce and death and early mornings and dirt roads and blueberry pie and music and endings and memories and old people and Lauren knitting me a scarf and my mother making my tea in the morning and everything that is on the other side of fear, and the way that sometimes life is both incredibly hilarious and deeply sorrowful at the very same time, so that I know, I understand: there's enough room for all of it. The image in the mirror might be dim, hard to make out, but the truth is clear:  "And now faith, hope and love abide; and the greatest of these is love."