True Love

Around Valentine’s Day, a time where Love is traditionally coated in sugar and hallmark cards, we take time to reflect on the depth and breadth of the diversity of the ‘Loves’ that fill our lives. Guest minister Rev. Dylan Doyle-Burke explored the transformative role that Love can play in our personal, professional, and prophetic lives and ask the question: how can a commitment to Love inform the building of our beloved community?

Reverend Doyle-Burke is a Unitarian Universalist Minister currently serving the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is a born and raised Unitarian Universalist who is especially passionate about Lifespan Faith Development and Social Justice, especially immigrant rights. Dylan is a published poet, essayist, and author and finds incredible power for healing and transformation in stories. His ministry is grounded in asking big questions and helping others connect with the mystery and awe that surrounds them.

It was my wife’s birthday this past Wednesday and I found myself, as I do every year, in the pharmacy greeting card aisle. As a rule, I like to be thorough in selecting greeting cards, so whenever I go to buy one I try to read as many cards as I can stomach and try to purchase the card that best sums up my feelings about the relationship I have at the time with the recipient.

So of course, for my wife’s birthday I ended up getting her a card with a black leather biker jacket complete with zippers pasted to the front with a caption that read “Happy Birthday, Rebel.”

While picking out this card last week I of course was inundated in the greeting card aisle with rows upon rows of Valentines Day cards. Like I said, I take pride in being a conneseiur of greeting cards and so I read them all. Here was the numerical breakdown of the cards. 2% of the Valentine’s Day cards were sincere and sweet expressions of gratitude. 8% of the cards were sport-related puns about love. 40% of the cards focused on some element of sexual innuendo. And the remaining 50% were pictures of pugs, as in the dog, in romantic situations.

I am not sure why a dog that has the distinctive features of a wrinkly, short-muzzled face, and curled tail are this year’s face of love in the greeting card aisle but there you go. Literally half of these cards in this aisle were pictures of pug “couples” in ‘romantic situations’ like ice skating, going to the movies, or watching Netflix together.

The most striking card I came across was a card picturing two pugs sitting across the table from one another at an Italian restaurant with tomato sauce smeared on their snouts and a single piece of spaghetti stretched from the slobbery mouth of one to the forehead of the other, like a slightly more realistic interpretation of the scene from Lady and the Tramp, only with Pugs. The whole card was covered in glitter.

At the base of this card were big letters sprawled out in the ugliest Helvetica font possible spelling out the words: “Is this true love?”

This was perhaps the most egregious Valentine’s Day card I have ever seen. But it raised a legitimate theological question, one that has stuck with me all week: “is this true love? And if not this, then what is?”

I confess I grew up in the era of Disney animated classics on VHS. In my household one of the perennial favorites was Sleeping Beauty, perhaps you know it. The story in short, Princess lives with dwarves, Princess gets poisoned by the apple of a jealous witch, Princess falls asleep, gallant prince serendipendously discovers princess asleep in the forest, kisses her, the magic spell is broken, Princess wakes up and lives happily ever after.

As a kid, this story had everything, danger, adventure, poison, dwarves, everything. But at the time what attracted me to this story more than anything else was the the moral that love prevails over evil. Because as a kid whose parents were undergoing a painful divorce this was a profoundly saving message to me.

As an adult I now see the many ethical issues within this story, the problem of consent, the racial undertones of the evil witch being the only animated non-white character, the gendered message that a helpless princess can only be saved by a gallant prince. But it is still a story and a movie that I hold dear to me because I still believe in its central message: true love can heal, true love can save, true love can drive out evil, true love can be the transformative force that leads to the creation of a beloved community in our world.

In fact, this belief in the transformative power of true love is what makes me a Unitarian Universalist. Our tradition disagrees on quite a few different topics but the one topic that every Unitarian Universalist seems to agree on is the power of love.

One of our most ancient Unitarian covenants reads “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” Similarly, on our Universalist side orators like Hosea Ballou and his contemporaries literally went hoarse preaching to the masses that love is the most powerful force in the universe and that only through true love can humankind reach salvation. In many ways we have staked our entire religious tradition on the power of this true love.

But what do we mean exactly? Because though we talk about Love quite a bit, as a denomination and as a culture, we rarely explain what we mean. So what is love, true love, anyway? What is the kind of love our tradition believes can save us?

It’s tricky to answer because so many of us often take the concept of love for granted. And it’s true, it is so easy, so comfortable, to sink into a rote love, a perfunctory love, a love we act out of because we think we should act out of it instead of a love we act out of because we have given ourselves time to really listen to that love and led it guide us.

To define true love is also a tricky task because to a large degree each of us come to the topic of love from a different place, some of us from a place of pain or disappointment.

But this is why I love Valentines Day. Because it is a holiday, a holy day, which invites us to move beyond a place where we take our love’s meaning for granted and move into a place where we can grapple with the realities of the love that surrounds us. It is an invitation for us to begin the work of untangling what true love means in each of our lives. So lets take the holiday up on its invitation.

I’m going to ask you right now, say the word love with me. On the count of three, lets do it. 1, 2, 3. Love. And now I’m going to invite you to bring to mind one person or one group of people, living or dead, near or far, bring them to mind, maybe come up with their image, close your eyes if it helps. Take a breath. And, as you’re comfortable, say “I love you” to that person or wish that person love however is comfortable to you in this moment. And finally, bring to mind a community, a congregation, a family, a group of people that surround you on a daily basis, come up with an image in your mind, and intentionally wish those people love. 1, 2, 3. I love you.

How did that feel?

Now what if we were that explicit about our love every day. What if we were that vocal about our love every minute. What if every second we made it a spiritual practice to listen to the voice of love moving around us and within us? How might that change our lives?

And what if we weren’t just explicit and vocal about the love we have for our spouses, partners, and immediate family, but tried hard to extend our cloud of love to our friends, and neighbors, and strangers. How might that transform our communities, country, and world?

There are many different types of love in the world. But to me, when I think of true love, the love that our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors thought of as a saving force, I think of the same love that we just created in this space, a love that is active, explicit, and lived out in the world.

And more than anything, to me, what defines True Love, real love, transformative love is what E. E. Cummings said in our reading this morning. True love is that feeling he describes, I carry your heart with me, I carry it in my heart. To me, true love is that universal force present in each of us and yet greater than all of us that reminds us how deeply interconnected each of us are to one another. True love to me is mutuality and interconnectedness fully embodied in our relationships. I carry your heart with me, your heart for all its imperfections, all its bad choices, all its messy humanness. And in return I ask that you carry mine. My heart.

Years ago, when I worked in the hospital as an interfaith chaplain in New York City one of the hospital units that I covered was the cardiac Intensive Care Unit.

One night I was working a graveyard shift and ran into a man in the elevator. I had been paged to visit the family of a patient who was undergoing emergency heart transplant surgery. I was taking the elevator from the ground floor to the seventh floor where the ICU was located. As I was boarding the elevator a man rushed in through the door behind me.

This man was young, clean shaven, and dressed in UPS delivery clothes that had been soaked by the rain outside. He was carrying a metal box about the size of a lunchbox and he was shaking from head to toe. We struck up a conversation and his voice wavered with nervousness.

We were headed to the same unit, it turned out. As the conversation continued it became clear that we were actually both going to the operating room to see the same patient. I glanced nervously at the box gently gripped near this man’s chest as the elevator crept slowly upward. A chill covered me me as I put the pieces together.

To be sure, as the elevator passed through the fifth floor I asked him what was in the box. With a weak voice he said it was the fresh heart for the transplant. He said it was his first delivery, ever.

I asked him what it was like to carry the heart of a transplant for the first time.

Still shaking, he tilted his head towards me, and said, this time almost nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t even considered this question before, he said: “you know, its both the heaviest and lightest object I have ever carried.” The elevator arrived at the 7th floor and before I could say another word the heart delivery man ran off towards the operating room.

I was stunned, I don’t think at the time even he knew the profundity of his words, but they have stuck with me. To carry someone else’s heart, either in metaphor or in reality, the heaviest and lightest object we ever carry. There is a great responsibility in love.

Because for those of us brave enough to wade past the shallow perfunctory love into the depth of true love we must be ready to take the risk to journey with the heart of another in all its weight and all its levity. And we must be willing to trust someone else to hold our own heart in all of its levity and weight as well.

True love. I carry your heart with me, I carry it in my heart. Mutuality, interconnectedness, acknowledgement that as John Donne famously wrote no person is an island, every person is a piece of a continent, any persons death diminishes every other person, any persons birth and renewal lifts the rest of humanity. You are me, I am you. We are in this journey together. True love.

Our Unitarian and Universalist founders envisioned a religious tradition where we lived out our true love of mutuality beyond the walls of our homes and beyond the walls of our congregations. They wrote about a Kingdom of God that could be present on earth if we as a society fully live into our human potential of love. To them, this Kingdom would be a place of peace and hope and joy where no person would go hungry. Today we might call this dream of a Kingdom of God our dream of a Beloved Community.

It’s not a coincidence that Martin Luther King used this term for the world that he envisioned and fought for: a Beloved Community. Beloved. Be loved. Love. This was the force that drove his marches, his movement, his poor peoples campaign, the same campaign that we carry the torch for today. Love.

And I don’t know about you but I’m not feeling a lot of true love coming from our world right now, I’m not feeling a lot of mutuality, right now out in the public square I’m not feeling a lot of the spirit of beloved community that King stood up and died for.

Which is exactly why it’s so important that we are here together this morning celebrating Valentine’s Day. Last week in this pulpit Rev. Preston preached about a tradition of radical welcome, the belief that everyone is welcome at the table. This week I’m adding to his prophetic message. In the spirit of our Unitarian Universalist tradition we are called to a radical welcome and that welcome must be rooted in active, mutual love. We are called to live our true love of mutuality out beyond the walls of our homes and congregations.

And so I ask you this morning, three days out from Valentines Day, how are you going to live your love out into the world? How are you going to listen to the true love in your life? How are you going to speak your love aloud into a world that so desperately needs to hear it?

I carry your heart, I carry it in my heart. You carry my heart, you carry it in your heart. Together, we carry the heart of our world into an uncertain future. I wonder, how might our true love shape it?

I love you,

Happy Valentines Day,