Every day I drive past the Agape Bible Church on Stark Street. For a couple of months now the sign in front of the church has read:
Love Never Fails
My response to the sign varies depending on the day. Usually I am thinking of something else: the bills I need to pay with the check I’m about to deposit, the groceries I need to buy, the workout I’m about to do. Sometimes the sign makes me cry. Sometimes I say to myself, with scorn: bullshit.
It’s become so much a part of my routine that I just accept that some days I will cry all the way from Stark and 53rd to Hawthorne and 12th, or to Division and 8th. But because of spring, because of Good Friday, because today Balthazar would turn four years old, I suppose it calls out more insistently for exegesis. It’s the season of big things happening, the sky dark as midnight at four in the afternoon, the curtain in the temple rent in two.
The words came to the forefront of my thoughts on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a friend’s mother. She posted on Facebook that though she had spent every day of the last twenty-five years missing her mom, she felt grateful to have had her for the time that she did. And I thought of the sign and I wanted to say to her: love never fails. But I thought it qualified as the kind of pablum people offer that you have to accept graciously while inwardly thinking that they know fuck all about it. And I wondered what I could say, to her and to myself, that wouldn’t be facile bullshit.
One obvious problem is that the Agape Bible Church has their Bible wrong. John 3:16 is the verse about God so loving the world that He gave His only Son. The verse about love never failing is actually from 1 Corinthians:
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.
Or, as any yoga teacher who has studied the sutras would tell me, all we have we must return to the earth.
What happened on this day four years ago? I woke up a concerned expectant mother and by noon was a bereaved one. By ten o’clock at night I held the empty carapace of a baby in my arms. It sure feels like a failure of something.
So then, having established that a tremendous and inexplicable failure has occurred, it seems necessary to attach it somewhere. Was it love, or God, or just me? It makes me think of a poem from a stillbirth book that’s made the rounds:
So breathe Mama, keep breathing
Believe Mama, keep believing
Keep fighting for
This truth to uproot
the lies in your
heart you didn’t
fail not even a
I hate this kind of stuff. Hate being called Mama, find the whole thing hokey and cloying. At the same time, the words are necessary because when failure is assigned, that’s where it goes first. It’s next to impossible not to feel a personal failure so immense it swamps your heart.
So, if not me, then what? Should the advice nurse have given me different advice? Which biomechanical processes went awry, what faulty messages were sent?
Life fails. Bodies and organs and cells. Life fails, and love is the thing that’s left.
It’s not enough. It feels as if the sheer blazing force of it, the consuming fire of it should be able to defeat death. And we throw ourselves against that rock wall and find it impregnable.
Jeff Tweedy sings to me, over and over:
Our love is all we have
Our love is all of God’s money
Every one is a burning sun
If God is, this is where s/he is, in this love. If God’s put everything on us, that’s equal parts scary (it’s all we have) and uplifting (these aren’t just little match flames we’re talking about, these are burning suns, every one of them). Maybe it’s a desperate bet, but that love s/he’s staked it all on is powerful stuff. Powerful enough to manifest in breathtaking ways in the here and now. And if it’s not enough, it’s also not nothing.
In my personal theology, our eternal life consists of the love we have given to others. It lives inside of them and is passed to the people they touch and the people they touch in turn, like a game of Telephone, like a daisy chain, like a rope of fire.
That verse of 1 Corinthians doesn’t end with loss:
For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.
From Paul, that consummate writer, that true believer, that misogynist jackass, a promise. I’m not a true believer. But I believe that love never fails.