Colorful tulips  and daffodils on nature background

What the World Needs Now – a Valentine’s Day service on Love

We come here on this,
Love’s Day
To celebrate life
or it is a gift that all of us were given
And for it we are grateful.
We come here on this,
Love’s Day,
To celebrate the nurturing
that we have received
and in our turn,
been able to share with others.

We come here on this,
Love’s Day
To celebrate new beginnings,
Second chances, and unexpected surprises
Promises made, kept and renewed;
The turning of a year,
a page or a new leaf in our lives
Where we begin again in Love.

We come here today to celebrate
Love in all its forms
And among all people
Women, men and children
And all creatures great and small
The wonder of its birth in our hearts
The abiding comfort of its presence in our lives
The mystery of its triumph over death.

Hiding Love – a Story for All Ages – retold

Gather ‘round, children; draw close to the warmth of the fire, elders. You charged with the safety of the tribe, rest from tending your young or hunting and gathering. Set down your spears, your cell phones, your grinding rocks, your iPads, for it is time to listen to a story.

Once upon a time, when the world was much as it is today – rich with possibility, beautiful and dangerous at one and the same time, there lived a very powerful king who had everything he thought he could ever want or need. He had horses and armies, jewels and treasures, lands and ships and everything that his heart desired. True, he was lacking in kindness, wisdom and joy, but he had no way of knowing it. He thought he had everything worth having.

Until one day he heard tell of something greater than his kingdom, more beautiful than any of his treasures, and more powerful even than himself. This something was more creative than the finest artisans of the kingdom, more magical than any sorcerer could conjure, more powerful than any army; indeed, it had the power to defeat even death and to live forever. And that something, he was told, was the Spirit of Love.

One day not long after, the king stumbled across this great Love in the forest. And it was so great and so beautiful and so powerful that the king was overcome with emotion and in his weakness, thought to keep it for himself.

You see, he had never known Love before and he worried that he would use it up and have it no more. He couldn’t bear to give it away to anyone else and didn’t want anyone to find this Great Love lest they take it from him. He gave this great Love the name “God” and to this day, many people (but not all) use this name for that great Love, too.

So he called together his top advisors – the three wisest women of the kingdom and asked them this question: “Where shall I hide God?” The first wise woman thought for a long time. Finally she said “Hide God at the bottom of the ocean. No-one will ever look there – it is too deep and too far.”

But the second wise woman named looked far into the future and said, “You are wrong. It is hard to believe, but someday, people will go to the bottom of the ocean. And then they will find God.”

The second wise woman thought for an even longer time. Finally she spoke. “Hide God in the far reaches of heaven – in outer space,” she said. No-one can go there – it is too far, and too hard to get to.”

But the first wise woman looked into the future and said, “It is hard to get to, but someday people will go there, and then they will find God. You cannot hide God there.”

Finally the third wise woman who had been silent spoke for the first time. “There is only one place to hide this great Love where no-one will ever look” she said. Hide Love (which some, not all, call God) in the hearts of human beings.”

And so he did, and as legend has it, it is there to this very day, always waiting to be found.

A Valentine’s Day Sermon on Love

Good Morning!

It is an honour to be here as part of your minister John Marsh’s “sabbatical bank” and I thank Joe, Deirdre, (accompanist) and the Jazz Choir for their welcome and their wonderful ministry of words and music today. I’m also grateful for those volunteers in
Religious Education who are keeping our girls busy and happy!

It’s also a homecoming for me since not only do I have a mother, sister and lots of cousins in Ottawa, this is where I spent my teenage years and this congregation was the first Unitarian church I walked into at the age of 13. I remember in one of the first services I attended (Vern Nichols was the minister then) the disembodied “voice of God” coming out of the speakers trying to get the congregation to guess who it was! I believe it went something like this: “I am all powerful;” (no answer) “I control every aspect of your daily lives” (still no answer) “and my only begotten son was born on Christmas Day.” Pierre Trudeau came the answer! I wonder what that voice would say now? That the son also rises? At any rate, I have come home and Prime Minister Trudeau is still here to welcome me!

But Happy Valentine’s Day! Today is Love’s Day, we are told. (I must confess I feel a bit about Valentine’s Day the way I do about Mother’s Day. If you only tell your mother you love her one day a year, something is seriously wrong! Every day should be “Love’s Day! And Earth Day and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day!)

But right now, the stores are decked out in pink and red, chocolates and flowers have their biggest sales days second only to Mother’s Day and everywhere you look are cards for your sweetheart, your mother, your wife or partner, your pet, your boss or the 25 other children in your daughter’s class. Woe betide the one who forgets this Hallmark holiday and disappoints your beloved’s expectations!

I can only offer in response that it would appear that the Valentine of the original Valentine’s Day had nothing at all to do with sweethearts and as far as we know, refers to a couple of ancient monks who were likely unmarried and distinguished themselves either by anonymous acts of kindness or by being martyred in the early church, depending on who you believe.

So if martyrdom is not to your liking you can still celebrate Valentine’s Day by walking past Hallmark and Laura Secord and surprising someone with acts of kindness and goodness and telling no-one. Goodness knows, there are thousands if not millions of people as well as animals and frankly, ecosystems that are in dire need of acts of kindness and goodness!

The ancient Greeks had different names for each kind of love, and wrote a lot about the distinctions between love of God, love of family, love between friends, and the love between couples and partners, be they male or female. Love of God has been defined by the Greeks and by many others as the ultimate form of Love, but that’s probably a whole other sermon for another day!

Agape was the kind of love that is more like the goodness, kindness or altruism attributed to St. Valentine – selfless love between neighbors, or the urge to help those you do not know. Eros was the name of the God of creation, procreation and
attraction and the ruler of the love that draws us inexorably together as partners and mates. Here is a brief story of Eros from the Greek creation myth:

“Verily, first of all Chaos came into being, but then Gaia, wide-bosomed, secure foundation of all forever, and then Eros, the most beautiful of all the immortal
gods, who loosens the limbs and overcomes judgment and wise counsel in the hearts of gods and all humans.”

It’s interesting that Chaos precedes the birth of Eros; in my experience it often follows it as well! Perhaps some of you have known a time when Eros has overcome judgment and wise counsel – to say nothing of your limbs or, as the saying goes – when we let our heart rule our head and our feelings carry us away and Chaos ensues.

This is love as the “divine madness” to which philosophers refer. It certainly is a heady experience (or perhaps we should say a “heart-y” experience); no matter what the culture or country, all over the world, people report the same “symptoms” – heart
pounding, can’t sleep, can’t eat, butterflies in the stomach and feeling “over the moon” about the beloved – and the same “diagnosis” – shot through with Cupid’s arrow, which he is aiming as we speak on this, his favourite day! So be careful out there today!

I know whereof I speak (as my family can attest) as you are looking at a woman who was proposed to on the first date and in fact, was married by your former Minister David Pohl almost 18 years ago. It doesn’t put me in a very defensible position when I
tell my daughters to take things slowly, look before you leap and be sure before you give your heart!

But the Greeks made no real attempt to unite their different concepts of love, and I wonder how accurate that is in defining our human existence. Defining Eros (creative or generative love) as love only between mates or partners denies the intense physical bond that we have both with our children and our parents and sometimes even our friends. Making friendship some sort of lesser passion than partnered love denies the
incredible intimacy and depth that is possible in these sometimes lifelong relationships.

And every form of love, whether with a life partner, family member, friend, or animal companion has some element of “Agape” in it – selfless love – for we do not give only
to receive in the same measure. We give to others and receive back in our turn, but not always from the same people in the same way.

We cycle in and out of dependence and independence, our energies of all kinds ebb and flow, and we are now connected in one way and then in another throughout our lives. So perhaps the Greeks’ neat categories of love cannot define something as wonderful and as complex as the workings of the human heart.

Love is something we have all experienced, some would say is the most powerful force in the universe and yet it stubbornly resists definition. So I want to begin by saying that there is no one way of thinking or speaking about love. When I talk about marriage or partnership, men or women, children born, adopted or simply nurtured, loving friends or altruistic love, puppy love (whether of the Paul Anka or real puppy kind), love shared with all earth’s creatures or given in service to this planet – I want to be very clear that whatever examples I use, I am including all of love’s glorious forms and manifestations and drawing a very wide circle around what it means to love.

Everyone’s life path is different, we all make different choices and find ourselves in a number of different places throughout our lives; partnered or on our own – with a family or surrounded by friends, wishing for or welcoming children, sending them off to school or reveling in our child-free state, some of us share our homes with a pet, a partner, a parent or a child, and some of us have more solitude than company – but what is certain is that each one of us, in ways that are as varied as we are, needs to love
and be loved in our lives.

What is also certain is that by the time our days are through, all of us will have spent some time in our lives searching for love, some time losing love and some wonderful times in the middle experiencing its power and mystery.

And this “love” is such a mysterious substance that the length of time we spend in any one of those stages is not how our love is known. No, love is not measured on any scale we can imagine; it does not respond to an earthly way of quantifying it. We do not
love our two year old half as much as our four year old because we have known them half as long! We can love briefly and remember long, mourn the death of love decades after the beloved has gone, and feel the intensity of new love to be as strong as anything we have known.

“What is love, what is its nature, where does it come from?” is a universal question, known in all cultures, and reaching back through all recorded history. Yet Love remains indescribable; we have all felt it and known it – but even the greatest poets give us only a glimpse of its beauty, power and mystery. What is the colour of love; how much space and time does it occupy? As the Little Prince says “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Just this week we learned that Einstein was right – the boundaries of time and space that seem so immutable here on earth are in fact fluid; they bend and alter in response to the movements of great celestial bodies. This is no great surprise to lovers of life and each other who know that time expands and contracts in exact correlation to the movement of that greatest of celestial bodies – the human heart.

Hours pass unnoticed as you realize the restaurant is closing around you. Can we really have stayed up all night? When those we love are far away, time moves imperceptibly and then their long-awaited visit is over in a flash! A baby appears who a year ago had no claim on your heart, yet in a minute you would give your life for her. Then that baby grows up and is gone in the blink of an eye. It seems like only yesterday you lost someone so dear you couldn’t imagine life without them. But that was 20 years ago.

Working in the garden, fishing a trout stream, reading a beloved book, communing with nature – who has not been “lost in time” immersed in doing something we love, only to discover that hours have passed and you haven’t noticed? Time seems to stand still because we are engaged in the very act of creation. We are in Love with life.

Perhaps to understand this mystery called Love, we must go back to the beginning. The well-known Buddhist Loving Kindness meditation begins with these words:

May I be peaceful.
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe.
May I be free from suffering.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a meditation designed to ultimately extend our love to all the world begins with the self and goes outward in concentric circles from there.

“That Love is all there is” said Emily Dickinson “is all we know of Love.”

What we do know is that Love is the minimum condition for a human being to grow and thrive. More than any other living creature, we are born helpless and in need of care, nurture and the safety of loving arms. We know that its lack in our lives or psyches can do us harm; yet we also know that miracles of love can sometimes find us to help overcome this harm.

A minister I went to school with made the decision to become a Minister of Religious Education, which was not a common choice for male ministers at that time. I asked him why he primarily chose to minister to children and youth and he said “Because it’s
too late for the adults.” I don’t quite share his pessimism; I have seen incredible healing, growth and change in people of all ages – but I understood what he was saying about the crucial importance of Love in our early lives.

May I be happy, healthy, peaceful, well and safe.

The ability to love others and to make a difference in this old world begins with the belief that your love is worth having, worth giving and worth sharing. If you were not given this sure knowledge as a baby or a child, you may have to forge it yourself or with the chosen family of friends you gather around you. It can be even more precious when it is hard won.

These words by Marianne Williamson were used by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech as South Africa’s first black President:

“You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world…We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This kind of self love to me is not a selfish act; it is simply acknowledging that you, too are a good gift, one that holds a Divine spark deep within you and is called to use that spark to shine a little more light into this world because you are here. Your heart, too is a place where that great Love (that some, not all, call God) is hidden. As the third wise woman said; no-one, maybe not even you, would think to look there, but there it is nevertheless.

If life has led you to doubt that Divine spark, the inherent worth within you, take courage from our Universalist forbears who taught that we are born with an inherently good nature, not a sinful one; that evil is born of the extreme privation of good and
that you are already forgiven long before you make that mistake!

The next level of learning to love is what the Greeks called Storge or the love of family, love between parent and child or siblings, love of one’s kinship or tribe. It is love of other but in a familial context. This kind of love represents the next outward ripple in the Buddhist Loving-Kindness Meditation:

May those I know and love be peaceful.
May they be happy and well,
safe and free from suffering

For some, this form of love is the easiest for when we are loved, we learn how to love and in turn, become capable of loving those who come after. Research shows that a child needs only one person who loves and esteems them to grow into their full
potential. It might be a loving parent, but it could also be a sister or brother, a teacher or, as it is all over the world, a grandparent. Just one person who makes sure you are taken care of, who ties your shoes and teaches you to get up when you fall, who makes
sure your plate is full before they take any, a person who made loving you part of their life’s work. Who is that person or persons for you? Take a moment on this, Love’s Day, to remember, to cherish that memory and give thanks that you were loved and in your turn, able to love.

Although it’s Valentine’s Day, we are still in the midst of Chinese New Year, which in our little family, with two daughters adopted from China, is a big celebration, that often dovetails with Valentine’s Day. Did you know that the traditional Chinese character for love contains three elements, essentially representing a person, a heart and the verb to carry or to embrace? The simplified character that mainland China has been using for several decades omits the heart and what a loss! For each of us when we love carries the hearts of those we love with us.

We carry it before the beloved arrives in our universal yearning for love; we carry it as we live countless acts of thoughtfulness and kindness in the lives of those we love (the simple a cup of tea or crust of bread, toasted just the way you like it); we carry it after our beloved is gone and our memories remain to light our way through the dark nights of loss and despair.

Although they were ten years coming, along a very long road with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there is no question that we carried our two girls in our hearts every step of the way. I wrote these words in the year 2003, two years before
our eldest was born and five years before she came home:

“No, not yet here
Or even conceived
Yet you are on the way
As surely as someone
Who has set out on a long journey
The day will come when
Your weary feet will find your way to my door
You will curl up the comfort of my arms
Look up and know that you are home.”

Lily Rose was 2 ½ when we adopted her, already very verbal in Mandarin but she learned English seemingly overnight. One day not long after she came home, I was reading her a story I had written her about our journey to get her and I said “Mama and Baba were looking for you for a long time.” Without missing a beat, she said “I looking for you, too Mama.” Her sister Gemma, who hails from Sichuan province and inherited its spicy nature, put it this way when it was her turn “Why you take so long?”

In the words of ee cummings, a poem that has greeted me in joy and comforted me in sorrow:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Anyone who has ever loved knows the truth hidden in the poem and the Chinese character, for we do not love as long as someone lives; sometimes we love even before they are born and long after someone has died; for we love with all our hearts as long as
we live. This is the eternal nature of love and the ever-expandable human heart, made of the oddest material in the world; fragile and yet indestructible; bruiseable, breakable,
yes, but with infinite capacity to regenerate as long as we live, love and breathe.

As we grow through our lives, the veil of self between us and others begins to lift and we see both the intrinsic connection between ourselves and others and the absolute capriciousness of a fate that has some of us born to “sweet delight” in the words of
William Blake and others to “endless night.”

Years ago, visiting the slums of Ghaziabad, India in a project supported by your own Bonnie and Fred Cappucino, I looked into the eyes of the women I met there and saw the same hope for their children I feel, the same intelligence and beauty and spirit I
see in so many women I meet from all over the world. There is no difference in the Love we can have, even for those we have never met. We teach our children that everyone on this planet is your “brother from another mother” and “sister from another mister” as the saying goes and this is the basis for all our actions.

The Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditation concludes:

“May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.”

This understanding is at the heart of our loving, free faith – the Universalist part that says we are all worthy and the Unitarian part that says we are all one.

As Mother Teresa put it:
“Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning.
Love has to be put into action and that action is service.
Whatever form we are, able or disabled, rich or poor,
it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the
doing; a lifelong sharing of love with others.”

I know that our own “saint” Lotta Hitschmanova who started The Unitarian Service Committee as aid to those in war-torn Countries would be very proud of the work this congregation has always done and is doing now for their sisters and brothers around the world, putting love into action and bringing her work full circle in supporting refugees families from Syria. As Billie Holiday said:

“You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.” Very true, Billie!

So what does Love look like to someone driven from or fleeing their home in desperation? A coast guard ship or a thermal blanket for your baby; a sponsoring congregation or a kindergarten full of new friends? Or is it leaders who care more for their people than their power – or working to make a more equitable world so young men have something to live for and turn their minds and hearts to acts of creation instead of destruction? What does love for our planet look like as temperatures rise and sea ice melts?

And what does it look like for someone whose sister, daughter or mother’s name is written on a litany of shame in our country, the list of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls? It might look like promises kept, an inquiry honoured and a commitment to change and justice in all levels of Canadian society. Our leaders have called it “a sacred task” and I believe it is, because unless we fix this great wrong at the heart of our country, we will never be whole. And we need to take a long view on all of these sacred tasks, because you know the best time to care for a child’s welfare is 100 years before she is born. Our Love in action is all of these and more. It’s everything from a simple cup of tea to a sea change in our humanity.

One of Pablo Neruda’s most beautiful love poems ends with these words:

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don’t know any other way of loving
but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.

This is written as a poem between lovers but it really describes the relationship we all have with each other. It is your child lying face down on the beach, it is my heart that is
breaking. It is your arms carrying him. At the end of your arm is a sign I am holding that says welcome to Canada. I look out in wonder from 5 year old eyes who have never seen safety and it is my daughter who is pushing your swing in the first playground you have known. There is no I or you; when you fall asleep it is my eyes that close.

We come full circle when we choose to bless the world with our love in ways small or great; we help create the conditions that will allow love to flourish far beyond our little lives. Love truly does make the world go around. If you have been blessed to know love, give thanks and make yourself an instrument of its sharing. It will come back to you a thousand times over, although maybe not always in the ways or from the places you expected. The lines between us are illusions; our Love for each other is One.

I don’t know what form your Love will take, I only know that every heart is needed to help each other through this old world. We swing from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the mundane, often in dizzying order, and you know what I mean, those of you whose joys and concerns were named and unnamed a few minutes ago.
We live and reason between a world of order and chaos, a world that’s messy and frayed and torn around the edges, and you never know what is around the corner. You lose your job, you lose your way, you lose your mind, you lose your country… you find a friend, you find hope, you find a lump…you try your hardest and fail, and are dealt the unthinkable diagnosis, the irreparable tear, the seemingly endless defeat.

But somehow, somehow, some radical Love finds you in your own heart, in your family of friends, in your spiritual home, in the world community and calls to you, and miracle of miracles, you find you again believe in Love. Which is a good thing, for when it comes down to it, the only things we take with us are the ones we pack in our heart and the one thing we all hold there is Love.

And so on this Valentine’s Day I wish for you a reminder that love doesn’t always come in the shape you expect or the way you had planned. Love is poured out to take on the shape of the vessel you happen to be carrying. Love is carrying the hearts of those you may not even know. Love is hidden in the human heart and has been so since it was found by that foolish king so very long ago. May we be blessed by the Spirit of Love, and in our loving, be a blessing unto others. So may it be. Amen