Monday, May 17, 2010

One Thing

On the first Thursday of January, the secondary staff at our school gathered for our regular devotions. My husband was leading, and he talked about Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. (Yes, my husband is the type of person who discourses on Kierkegaard at 7:20 AM on a school day to a bunch of bleary-eyed teachers. That tells you a lot about him, right there.) After my husband finished talking, another teacher raised his hand and told about his dream the night before; he said he kept seeing the number 1, and I think a voice said something about "one thing." Wow, that's a coincidence, I thought, and then went into my day and didn't think about it much more.

Five days later, our whole world fell apart, and everyone suddenly had a new role. Plans counted for nothing; job descriptions became useless. Staff and students scattered; those who stayed delivered a baby in a classroom, distributed food, interpreted at hospitals. I spoke to my husband on the phone one day from my new home in the United States, and he told me that that day he had worked on arranging an airlift for a patient with a broken neck. Not exactly what he had on his calendar.

One thing? How could anyone will one thing? We were scrambling to catch up, to survive what had happened to us and to the country we loved. We were thinking of many things, mostly things of which we had no experience or knowledge.

I have been thinking a lot about that devotional, and wondering what that one thing is, the Good that we must will, and I know the answer now, even though reading Kierkegaard is not my idea of entertainment. It's not anything original or new, and it is something I already knew was central to the Christian faith. But I know more about it now, after this dark and difficult time.

It's love.

Nothing new. "They'll know we are Christians by our love." "Love one another." "The greatest of these is love." I have known this always - I have, after all, been a Christian for almost forty years. The difference was that this time, I was the one that needed the love.

Of course people have shown me love before; I have many people in my life who love me and do a good job of showing it. I have a wonderful husband and a great family. I have many dear friends. And of course I have had trouble before, and needed help. But I had never been so needy before. I had never been in such desperate need of other people.

And the other people came through for me. They showed me love. My family took my children and me in and fed us and cared for us. Other people called and wrote and listened and cleaned out their closets and sent me packages and took me to lunch. They showed me love not in a dutiful way but so beautifully, caring for me and suffering with me. Everywhere I went, people told me they were praying for me - and they really were. I know they were.

I appreciated it so much, but I also felt bad. I didn't want to be needy. I didn't want to be so desperate to talk to people, and I definitely didn't want to be crying all the time. I wanted to be strong.

When the earthquake happened, I was reading Ezekiel in my devotions. For the first couple of weeks afterwards, I couldn't read the Bible at all. When I started up again, I went back to Ezekiel, and I persisted in that for a while. Finally I realized that all the destruction of cities was too much for me to read about, so I moved to the New Testament. And after a while I came to Philippians.

I have read Philippians many times, but it had never struck me before just how much the book is about human relationships. Paul is talking to people he loves. He isn't just telling them to behave, he is telling them how much he misses them, how much they matter to him. "It is right for me to feel this way about you all," he says, "because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace....For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus." Later when he talks about the Philippians helping him, he says he didn't even need what they sent him, because he can live with very little, but he tells them, "it was kind of you to share my troubles." It isn't the stuff he needs; it's them. He loves them; they are his "joy and crown." He talks about the "encouragement in Christ" that people can share with one another, the "affection and sympathy." Paul needs them. He isn't too tough to need them.

And those people who were still in Haiti, working twenty hour days to help make things better? They weren't doing it in some impassive, dutiful way. They were grieving deeply for the suffering; they were showing love to people who were in desperate need.

The one thing we are here for is to love one another, and receiving love is as important as giving it. We need others; we need them desperately. Now that I have been on the receiving end in such a dramatic way, I think I am better equipped to show love to others. I understand better now how just being there in the middle of the pain is terribly important; you don't have to have answers or be able to fix the problem.

Here's what Kierkegaard says:
Only the Good is one thing in its essence and the same in each of its expressions. Take love as an illustration. The one who truly loves does not love once and for all. Nor does he use a part of his love, and then again another part. For to change it into small coins is not to use it rightly. No, he loves with all of his love. It is wholly present in each expression. He continues to give it away as a whole, and yet he keeps it intact as a whole, in his heart. Wonderful riches! When the miser has gathered all the world’s gold in sordidness -- then he has become poor. When the lover gives away his whole love, he keeps it entire -- in the purity of the heart.

My One Little Word this year is LOVED. I have never felt this as much as I do now. I am loved by God and by others. I want others around me, whether here or in Haiti, to know the same thing. Everything else is secondary to that one thing: love.


Janet said...

The very idea of Kierkegaard makes my head hurt. But I really like what you (and he) are saying here.

"He continues to give it away as a whole, and yet he keeps it intact as a whole, in his heart. Wonderful riches!" Amen.

Ruth said...

Kierkegaard makes my head hurt, too.

Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

Philippians is my favorite book in the Bible. Adam and I quoted the first part of Philippians 2 on our wedding invitations.

Ruth said...

Amy, perfect for a wedding service. I've never heard it used that way before, though.

Jessica Stock said...

ah, this is so right and so so good to read this tonight. sometimes it seems as though we ought to be careful with our love, to not give it out too freely or what if it is not returned? . . . I needed to read this . .. I also just finished A Wrinkle in Time, and thinking about the One thing that could conquer IT was love.