The Radical Impermanence of the World and the Permanence of Christian Love


9-11-twin-towers

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. The Friday after 9/11, I wrote this devotional for my church. Providentially, in this devotional, I was working my way through 1 Corinthians 13 that week, Scripture’s “love chapter.” I’m reposting that devotional today because, fifteen years later, it still expresses my heart and mind in the light of that horrific event.


OPENING PRAYER

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

O God, grant us a vision of this city, fair as it might be: a city of justice, where none shall prey upon the other; a city of plenty, where vice and poverty shall cease to fester; a city of brotherhood, where success is founded on service, and honor is given to nobleness alone; a city of peace, where order shall not rest on force, but on the love of all for each and all. (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918)

SCRIPTURE READING

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13, NIV 1984)

DEVOTIONAL MEDITATION

The events of this week remind us of the radical impermanence of the world.

Who would have thought – on Tuesday, September 11, before 8:45 a.m. – that the day would end with the deaths of nearly 5,000 victims and the total destruction of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon? Who would have thought that a peaceful nation would, within minutes, be transformed into a nation gearing up for war? Who would have thought that the terror visited upon other, distant nations would be visited upon us?

Life, strength, peace – gone in minutes. Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul articulates the permanence of Christian love in contrast to the impermanence of everything else. The Corinthian Christians needed to hear this message because they had elevated impermanent things – the gift of tongues – onto a pedestal that one day would topple over. Life passes. Strength passes. Peace passes. The gift of tongues passes, as do the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. But love remains.

We are like children, Paul writes, who grow up. Activities appropriate to youth are inappropriate for grown men and women. Privileges reserved for adults are unavailable to children. Our very speech reflects the change; the halting lisp of childhood gives way to confident talk of serious adults. Our thinking matures. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. Life passes. But love remains.

Faith itself passes away, as does hope. They are necessary only as long as God delays the final establishment of his kingdom and we enter into his rest. We believe in and we hope for only until our faith becomes sight and our dream a reality. When that happens, we no longer know partially, we know fully, and are fully known. Faith and hope pass. But love remains.

Why? Love remains because God is the only permanent reality, and God is love. Classical theology defines God as the unmoved mover, the being who shakes the heavens and the earth without being shaken. More recently, Clark Pinnock has called God “the most moved mover,” in recognition that his heart of love beats for suffering humanity. God remains, and so love remains.

At this moment in our nation’s history, love is – at the very same time – both close to and far from our minds. When we consider the victims of these terrorists’ attacks, our hearts go out to them and to their families. Throughout the nation, citizens have generously donated their prayers, their time, and even their blood to help those who are suffering. This is good. This is human life as God intended it to be lived.

And yet, I have also heard voices raised in anger. Calls for merciless and indiscriminate war against the citizens of Muslim nations, regardless of whether they perpetuated or supported the men who terrorized us all on Tuesday. This is bad. This is human life as Satan intends it to be lived. Love for our enemies, which Christ commanded, is far from our minds.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for justice, and if justice must come through the prosecution of war, then so be it. But after war, then what? In his second Inaugural Address, at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed thoughts that we must keep in mind when we are done with our war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Charity for all. A just and lasting peace with all nations. That is what God is calling us to help establish once the coming war is justly prosecuted. The battle passes away, but love remains.

Sic transit gloria mundi. But not the glory of God.

CLOSING PRAYER

O heavenly Father, at whose hand the weak shall take no wrong nor the might escape from judgment; pour your grace upon your servants our judges and magistrates, that by their true, fruitful and diligent execution of justice to all equally, you may be glorified, the commonwealth daily promoted, and we all live in peace and quietness, godliness and virtue; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Thomas Cranmer, 1489-1556)

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