The growing edge of love
I’m part of a monthly discussion group that meets at church, and last Sunday we talked about love — not the sappy, romantic kind of love, the self-emptying, Mother Teresa kind of love.
The discussion was tougher than I imagined. As our conversation progressed and we explored the painful growing edges of our own compassion, I noticed that long silences of reflection seeped into our conversation.
It is hard to talk about real, compassionate love, and it is even harder to talk about where we fail to embody real, compassionate love.
One of the participants shared that he found it easy to love the suffering earth, the species threatened and dying in the face of global warming, but he found it exceedingly difficult to love his own neighbors in West Oakland.
“It’s a hard life,” he said, resigned. “How do you keep from becoming cynical?”
I shared the story of my visit to an Oakland elementary school in a rough neighborhood, where I was warned about one kid in particular.
“He may seem like the sweetest kid you ever met,” a staff member told me, “but he’s been suspended 3 times for slashing tires of substitute teachers visiting the school.” He was in fourth grade.
I heard stories of gang violence in the streets outside the school, of kids stealing and fighting, of property being destroyed. The day was filled with fist-fights and cussing and teachers yelling at kids. It was a challenging environment.
My tires survived the day, but my heart had a tougher time. I wondered how to balance the need for discipline and consequence with the need for love and forgiveness?
I could relate to my friend who shared his difficulty in loving his West Oakland neighbors. How do you keep your heart open in places like this, where the response to offered love may be violence or hatred or indifference?
Bearing all things
At the close of our Sunday discussion, someone read from 1 Corinthians 13:
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. (vv 4-7)
And that last part struck me deeply: love bears all things.
Love bears slashed tires and thrown fists, angry language and cold disinterest, petty crime and dirty neighborhoods. Love bears these things without resent — without allowing itself to be drained or wounded — just faithfully, with belief and hope. Love does not allow abuse, but it does allow mistakes and suffering.
It is easy to say that love will not work in Oakland’s schools and streets, that they are too hardened already for love to be useful. But I think the love that is needed in these bleak places is a stronger, more profound kind of love.
The kind of love that waits, and continues to offer patient hope. The kind of love that can bear these things and endure.