Delivered by Nancy in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 23 July 2017
I have a love/hate relationship with the English language.
I love the fact that English includes words like mesmerize, and serendipitous, and funk.
I love the fact that the language I have been learning since infancy has become the preferred language for international commerce, because it has made my travels abroad, and interactions with foreign-born people here in the U.S., so much easier.
I love the fact that English has linguistic roots in a variety of ancient cultures (Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek) and it has adopted—more than any other language I’m aware of—many, many commonly used words and phrases directly from other languages. This has resulted in a particularly deep bench of synonyms that can be employed for very specific purposes. From among all those synonyms, scientists and academics can choose exactly the right terms to convey precise information. Poets and songwriters can find a word that not only has the right number of syllables, but also fits the rhyme scheme. Business executives and politicians can deploy a barrage of language that sounds informative but doesn’t actually reveal anything. This is one of the things I hate about English.
Here is another thing I hate about English: It has pairs of opposites like justice and injustice, significant and insignificant; but it also has this pair: flammable and inflammable, which are not opposites, but synonyms.
Then there are words that have been overused and misused for so many centuries and in so many situations that they no longer mean what they’re supposed to mean, or they mean too many things to be meaningful. Take fine, for example. If we were dining together at a restaurant and you were to ask me, “How is the soup?” and I were to answer, “Fine,” you might not know whether I meant that the soup was of superior quality, or just so-so. Or maybe I meant that the flavor of the soup was very delicate, or that its texture was not at all chunky. Communication has drowned in a sea of possibilities.
Love is another one of those words we use so often and in so many situations that all the concepts it can encompass have been blended into a fine soup. Think back over the past twenty-four hours or so, and try to remember the times you used the word love. If I were standing at a whiteboard instead of at a pulpit, I would ask you to call them out and we’d make a list; but since we’re in a setting where tradition demands that I be the only one to speak, I’ll have to supply all the examples. Perhaps you said something like:
I love this song.
I love my new steam mop.
I love your outfit.
I love that comment.
I love the way you sat so quietly during the sacrament.
I love my family.
We love thee, Heavenly Father.
I hope you said “I love you” to someone in a meaningful way.
If I were teaching a class instead of delivering a sermon, I would ask each of you to tell how you would define love; instead, I ask you to simply think about it. What does the word love mean?
The ancient Greeks made definition easier by dividing the concept into four distinct types:
- Agape: the highest form of love; the love of God for man and man for God, which is unconditional. When this term was used by the New Testament writers who used Greek, it was sometimes translated into Latin as caritas, and thus came to us as charity
- Philia: brotherly love and friendship
- Storge: the empathy and loyalty that binds one to family, country, or even an athletic team. The Latin term pietas—from which we get piety—contributes the related ideas of devotion and duty to this type of love
- Eros: romantic, erotic love
Think back to the list of recent occasions when you used the word love. (Since we have no whiteboard, you are stuck with my own examples.) I love that song because the melody is pleasing to my ear, or because it evokes a fond memory. I love my steam mop because it works efficiently and makes my life easier. I love your outfit because the colors and proportions are pleasing to my eyes–or maybe because I wish I had one just like it—not necessarily because it has anything to do with you. I love that comment because it expresses what I have been feeling, or because it gives me a new insight. In each of these cases, what we meant when we used the word love would have been better expressed by a different term: I enjoy that song. I value my steam mop. I admire—or perhaps covet—your outfit. I appreciate that comment. Also notice that in each of these cases, the focus is not really on the object of our love, but on ourselves. We “love” these things because of the way they make us feel.
Let’s consider some other examples from the list. I love the way you sat so quietly during the sacrament. This might also be expressed as: I am proud of the way you sat so quietly during the sacrament—but it actually comes off better expressed in terms of love because that places more emphasis on the receiver of the compliment, and subtly reinforces the idea that we care for them as well as for the way they have behaved. It also avoids bringing the problematic concept of pride into the discussion. (That is a topic for another day.)
Moving on. I love my family. Our love for parents, children, siblings, and other relatives does include the warmth and satisfaction we feel, but the more important element in this type of love involves focusing on how someone else feels. I love my family because I am concerned about their well-being and want them to be happy. How they make me feel in return may be significant, but it’s definitely secondary.
We love thee, Heavenly Father. I have noticed that members of younger generations tend to include this sentiment in their prayers, and I appreciate that. It’s a reminder to consider what it means to love God. Our love for Heavenly Father and for our Savior involves boundless gratitude for all that they have given us, respect for their power and authority, and awe for their wisdom. Loving God also involves demonstrating our commitment to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ by heeding their counsel and honoring the covenants we have made with them.
The Old Testament repeatedly proclaims love of God as the first and foremost of all commandments, stating that we should love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might.[i] Jesus reiterated the primacy of this commandment and then stated that the second “is like unto it”: we are to love others as we love ourselves.[ii] At the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples “a new commandment” that raises the bar: we are to love others as he, the Savior of the world, loves us.[iii]
Clearly, the type of love we think of when we say things like “I love this song” or “I love that comment” does not suffice. Even the type of love we have in mind when we say “I love my family” may not be enough. But because we are imperfect human beings, it gives us a place to start.
A family is a network of people who share relationships that are inherently loving—at least, loving as defined by the Greek concept of storge: people with a bond of empathy and, hopefully, affection based on their shared biology, environment, and experience. Family life provides myriad opportunities to build upon that foundation and develop other forms of love—devotion, tenderness, caring, compassion—and it is within families that agape or charity (unconditional love) is most likely to grow. Love flourishes among family members when we serve one another, work together, and appreciate the unique qualities of each individual.
Sometimes those unique individual qualities, or failure to adequately participate in shared service and work, may render some family members less lovable than others. Our oldest son went through a period during his youth when he was such a bully to his younger siblings and so unpleasant to be around that we could hardly stand him. Indeed, my sister told me later that she feared he was destined to become a sadistic psychopath. It was storge—innate parental love—and the agape we were struggling to develop, that pulled all of us through that particular rough patch. Michael and I did our best to follow the Savior’s example of persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.[iv] As a result, our son was able to perceive that we were willing to look beyond his bad behavior, that we recognized his potential not just as our son, but as a child of God, and that no matter what, we would always love him. Eventually, the better side of his nature prevailed, and I’m happy to report that he has become a gentle, long-suffering father himself. And my sister now considers Soren to be one of her favorite people.
The value of developing, maintaining, or perhaps restoring loving relationships with family members is obvious, but how to we react to unpleasant people with whom our bonds of storge (empathy and loyalty to family and tribe) are more tenuous?
When my father broke his hip at age 96 and was confined to the skilled-nursing unit of the Southern California retirement community he lived in, my sisters and I took turns going to stay with him for weeks at a time. Although Dad’s mind was still sharp he was nearly deaf. Most of Dad’s caregivers were immigrants whose first language was not English, so he often misunderstood what they were saying. My sisters and I decided that one of us should be with him whenever possible to facilitate good communication.
During my visits, I would wheel Dad over to the dining room and sit with him while he ate. Sometimes the attendant would seat us at a table for two, but sometimes he or she would escort us to a larger table where other elderly residents were already waiting to be served. Because most of these people—my father among them—had trouble successfully transferring food from plate to mouth, getting through a three-course meal could take up to an hour and a half. And because many were afflicted not only with severe physical limitations but also with mental ones, keeping a pleasant conversation going for that length of time was truly taxing.
I remember one man who posed a special challenge. His face seemed to be perpetually screwed into a scowl. He was prone to loud outbursts, and often upset his dishes. He abused the wait staff if they made a mistake with his order. If he was dissatisfied with the food, he yelled obscenities toward the kitchen. For obvious reasons, the dining room attendant usually seated him in a corner by himself, but his hostile attitude seemed to put the wait staff and the other diners on edge.
One night, after the room had been rearranged to accommodate a Christmas tree, the attendant realized that the small table in the corner had been removed and no private space was available, so she escorted this man to sit with us. Dad looked at me and raised one eyebrow warily. But then he turned toward our new companion and said, “Hi. My name is Doug. This is my daughter, Nancy. We’re glad that you could join us tonight. I think I’m going to start with the potato soup. Which appetizer looks good to you?”
Wayne (whose name we learned from the tag on his shirt) didn’t reply, but he did look up. His scowl had started to unscrew, so I followed Dad’s lead and carried on. “I’m visiting from Cincinnati, but I grew up here in Fullerton. Are you originally from this area?”
During the next hour, Dad and I continued trying to engage Wayne in conversation. Although we didn’t get many responses, we did get a few, and there was a noticeable improvement in his attitude. The dining room staff must have noticed, because they seated Wayne at our table several more times during my stay in California. On each occasion, Wayne’s countenance softened a bit more. As we continued to ask questions and show a real interest in him, he eventually responded by telling us a little about his career and his service in the military. It was especially gratifying to see other diners begin to interact with Wayne in positive ways.
While it’s always helpful to honor another’s dignity by treating with kindness and charity, we may not always see immediate results. We may never see the results of our efforts to be charitable. During the past few days, Michael and I have been reading the about the final war between the Nephites and the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, when both nations had sunk into utter depravity and the Nephites were on the brink of annihilation. Mormon’s descriptions of the torture and mayhem carried on by both sides are horrifying, which makes his continued devotion to them all the more poignant. He says:
“My soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people, and I cried: O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.”[v]
It takes a lot to make me cry, but this witness of true Christlike love always brings me to tears.
I was equally moved by a comment posted earlier this week in a Facebook discussion I was following among members of Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Although this is a nonpartisan group, few of its members are Donald Trump supporters, and this particular thread had elicited some fairly strong condemnations of our current president. Toward the end of a long stream of comments, I read this:
“[This discussion] is a good reminder for me to look inward. I sat in my kitchen the other day and wept big tears over how much Heavenly Father loves Donald Trump. He loves him. He sees great potential in this son. And so I wrestle with my anger and disappointment and ask my Heavenly Parents to give me a softer heart.”[vi]
It is humbling to be reminded that even those who seem the least lovable to us are beloved of God. Only he can truly know what is in another’s heart; so no matter how hard someone’s heart may be, no matter how evil their intensions, no matter how much they may have hurt us or others, that person is our sister or brother and thus deserves our love. I’m still a long way from developing the agape, charity, unconditional love for everyone that Christ has for us, but I do know how to speak kindly. I can start there. I pray that all of you will do the same.
[vi] B.R., posted 18 July 2017 in a discussion on the Mormon Women for Ethical Government Facebook secret group page. (The author has been identified only by initials to protect her privacy.)