When I was 11 years old in the mid-1960s, I remember fidgeting in the pew of our neighbourhood Catholic church in Flin Flon, Man., with a friend. The two of us waited, bored to tears, when suddenly the nave was flooded with the most extraordinary music. The choir loft was empty. The priest and altar boys hadn’t arrived. But the unearthly blend of voices and instruments went on.
“Where’s the music coming from?” I asked aloud. The congregation ignored me. My friend looked confused. “That beautiful music!” I started to weep. Her astonishment changed to mortification after I collapsed onto the kneeler. The chorus swirled and danced through the nave before finally drifting away. My 11-year-old self suddenly realized that the universe was an infinite place filled with glorious mysteries.
That experience was the start of a deep longing for connection with God. But with the passing of time, I realized that I still had a long way to go as a Christian.
Last spring, I was reading through the lectionary in preparation for an in-person service at Northminster United Church in Flin Flon. We employ a half-time minister, and the bar isn’t high for the rest of us. If you don’t prefer death to public speaking, the gig is yours. My passage? 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. You know, the one telling us that love never fails.
Portions of it had been read at my wedding in 1975. I’d also heard it in previous services, and thought it lovely in a sentimental way. But it was only during my preparations that I realized the scripture was meant to be lived.
When my husband died in 2018, we both believed he’d step across death’s threshold into the arms of God and family. But faith is only one part of the Christian life. It’s love that has been the challenge.
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There’s the pandemic, the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, the ongoing trials that Indigenous people face every day and the general divisiveness in modern society. Earlier this year, I ran into an acquaintance in town who, with the fervour of a televangelist, lectured me about the so-called COVID hoax. I felt like a small child as I stood there, shivering, haunted by the sparsely attended funerals of friends. Later, I noticed that a friend on Facebook had been blaming Ukraine for the war with Russia.
It’s all made loving others feel impossible sometimes. The world might have seen worse in the past, but knowing it doesn’t make me any better at keeping up with the Corinthians.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, 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.…Now faith, love and hope abide, but the greatest of these is love.
My ears burned as I read through the passage that spring day, knowing I’d broken all the love rules. When my husband was alive, I kept a mental list of his wrongdoings, much of which I shared with him. Yet I loved him deeply. How could I preach without feeling like a hypocrite? Speed skating at the Olympics would have been easier. So I did what I always do when I’m troubled. I prayed. This revelation followed.
I can’t do it. I can’t love like that. I’m impatient and sometimes tactless. I admire St. Francis of Assisi’s famous words: “Make me a channel of your peace.” But that kind of grace isn’t in my wheelhouse. I prayed again. Another revelation followed: only God can bring the kind of love we need in the world.
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Jesus was born to show us the way. He raised people up by paying attention to their lives and their pain. He risked his life to heal, to protect and to teach others how to love as God loves. With his death, he said, “This is how far you go when you love someone.” As a member of the body of Christ, I’m supposed to be his ears, eyes, voice or legs — some part that helps keep Jesus’ work alive.
You’d think having heard heaven’s anthem would make it easier. No. I have faith and hope, but in hard times I struggle to love others. I try to surrender to God when things get tough, and allow the small inner voice of the Holy Spirit to help me rise above the limitations of my heart.
I don’t always succeed. But the season of Advent is a joyous reminder to be open to Spirit.
Openness invites moments of grace. With a mighty exhalation, I let go of the belief that I’ll never come close to loving like Paul asked. I inhale Jesus’ words, “Anything is possible with God,” and acknowledge a startling truth. My own pain has helped me see past all the angry rhetoric and into the brokenness of other people’s hearts and lives.
Heaven is a place for all, with family, friends and beautiful music. But God’s love is already here on Earth in Spirit form. She’s here for all God’s children, just a breath and a prayer away.
Judith Pettersen is a blogger and novelist from Flin Flon, Man., who writes about her life in the North.
This piece first appeared in Broadview’s December 2022 issue with the title “Keeping up with the Corinthians.”
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