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Monday, April 30, 2018

SongStories 51: God Is Love (GIA, 2013 "Gathered for God," 2017 "To You Who Bow")

You can only sit through so many weddings before you start listening again to the scriptures. Once you start understanding that St. Paul is writing a letter to a church that has a real problem, writing to people whom he loves with a great passion for them and for the gospel, that he wants them to stop arguing about who is the best, or the holiest, or who’s in charge, who ought to be leading, and wants them to start seeing that it’s quite possible to see signs of God’s action in their church in the way they love each other, it’s not just a “pretty reading” any more, not just words. It’s a way out of hell.

Same with St. John and his vocabulary that we hear both from the letters (1 John) and the gospel during the Easter season. Neither St. John nor St. Paul set out to write texts for weddings, and yet, because love is one, their words resonate with lovers of all kinds. I like to hold those two thoughts, in a sense, in tension and complementarity: married love in all its incarnations, is a pathway and an initiation into agape, to which most of us only aspire most of the time; at the same time, our attraction to the kind of generous love St. Paul speaks of in 1st Corinthians, and to which we are drawn at wedding time, ought to be the way Christians, celibate, married, and everything in between, live in relationship with the whole world, in fact, the whole universe. It's the Golden Rule spelled out for dummies: I want to be loved that way, I want to be loved by God and people patiently, kind, without jealousy, without grudges. Therefore, my path to that love is to surrender in faith to God's love, and practice it on everyone else. For this reason, maybe, we occasionally hear 1 Corinthians 13 at funerals, because the deceased lived in a way that made them an icon of divine love, the kind of love to which we are called by the gospel.

G. K. Chesterton wrote a little book about a hundred years ago called The Four Loves, in which he tries to reintroduce the nuances of the various kinds of love that the Greeks described with different words: eros, storge, philia, and agape. You could include mania too: mania is desire gone askew, so that craving becomes a kind of disease, but he’s mostly interested in healthier kinds of love. Separating these four loves is a little risky, because there are times when some of them are used interchangeably, even in scripture. But for our purposes, eros pertains to different kinds of physical love, storge pertains to affection. The two most often used in the New Testament are philia, which is friendship, particularly close friendship, even within a family, and agape, which is most often used to mean the kind of love God has for us, that is, self-emptying (kenotic) love, love that asks nothing in return, always freely given, no strings attached. When John says, “God is love,” he uses agape. When St. Paul talks about “love is patient, love is kind,” and so on in 1 Cor. 13, he uses agape. You can begin to see that, where Christian love is concerned, whether it’s God’s love for us, ours for God, or ours for each other, it’s agape that is meant. The other loves are pathways to agape. All love flows from the source, God's indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit, who abides in every person because of creation, and more consciously because of membership in Christ.

In the SongStories post about “Heart of a Shepherd”, a song based on John 21: 15-19 as well as Gelineau's setting of Psalm 23, I talk about the way the fourth gospel uses agape and philia in what seems to be a particularly meaningful way. It’s too long to tell here, but the short version would be that in that passage, when Jesus is asking Peter “Do you love me?” and Peter answers him, “You know I love you,” Jesus is asking Peter “Do you agape me?” and Peter answers “I philia you.” That happens twice. Third time, Jesus asks, “Do you philia me?”, making Peter's answer a little easier. Think about that. Since the English translation uses “love” every time, it’s possible that some of the nuance is lost. (You can read the whole story at the link.)

When I sat down to write “God Is Love,” what I wanted to do was pull all of that together so that we’d begin to celebrate that the love that Paul is talking about in the first letter to the Corinthians and the love that John is talking about it 1 John and the gospel are the same. God’s love is patient, kind, doesn’t put on airs, never wishes the other harm, doesn’t brood over injury. Paul says that we can do all kinds of good deeds, but without love, that is, the desire to give ourselves for the other, the desire for the good of the other before our own, it means nothing. And Paul understands that God already loves like that. So the chorus of my song uses the words of St. John, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God in them.” There is only one love, and it is the very life of God, shared with utter generosity, poured out on the whole world. The verses sing the words of St. Paul. In the third verse, it comes together as the choir sings “God is love,” and the cantor sings, “Love is ever patient,” and the word “Love” overlaps, so that we begin to hear “God/Love is ever patient,” “God/Love is always kind,” and so on.

To You Who Bow is, in many ways, a record of my wrestling with these ideas over the last couple of decades. The title song, along with "O Agape", "Gathered and Sent," "Turn Around," and "God Is Love," all struggle to imagine someone like me learning to do, for the other 167 hours of the week, what I sing about for an hour on Sunday. My world would sure be different if I could manage that. What if twelve Christians could? Or seventy-two? Or a billion?

God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God in them.
God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God in them.

All our works are nothing—tongues of earth and angels
Only clashing cymbals without love.
All our words are nothing—prophecy and science,
Faith to face the lions
Without love is nothing at all. (refrain)

If I give the needy all of my possessions?
Just a loud distraction without love. 
If I give my body boldly as a witness,
Call myself a Christian,
Without love I’m nothing at all.  (refrain)

(God is love.) Love is every patient,
(God is love.) Love is always kind.
(God is love.) Love is never jealous,
(God is love.) Love never fails.
(God is love.) Love is not rude.
(God is love.) Love endures all things.
(God is love.) Love is ever hopeful.
(God is love.) Love, love will never fail. 

God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God in them.
God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God in them.
God is love. God is love.

Copyright © 2013 GIA Publications. All rights reserved. 

Available on the recording To You Who Bow, from GIA Publications.