1 Corinthians 13:1-7
If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
How do I love? How do I trust?
My kiddo (I’m a step-parentish person; it’s complicated; that’s a story for later) started middle school this month. For me, like for a lot of children, middle school was a difficult time. E is a weirdo – and I say that with pride and affection. I’m a big old weirdo too. The school where he’s going is an arts school, and it’s a great school for him. Still, I want to make sure the new friendships he builds are safe and healthy.
As we were talking about new friends, and to whom he was telling his most private feelings and stories, I shared a metaphor I learned in the work I’m doing on my own shame in an effort to embrace whole-hearted living. Perhaps you’ve already recognized from my language that the metaphor I shared is from the work of the smart and insightful Brené Brown. If you don’t know her work, I highly encourage you to check her out.
I told him that trust is like a jar of marbles. When we meet new people, the jar is empty, or maybe it has a marble or two based on shared connections, or the benefit of the doubt. And each time the new person does something trustworthy – say they show up or call when they said they would – they earn another marble. And it’s equally important that each time someone fails to show up, or tells someone else an intimate confidence meant to stay among close friends, or ignores you around the cooler kids, they lose a marble. If it’s a big betrayal, maybe they lose a whole lot of marbles. It’s incredibly important to build mutual trust in order to have healthy and loving friendships and relationships.
He was really excited about this talk (I told you he was a weirdo!), and wanted to actually get jars and marbles so in our home we could gauge our trust for each other. I had to explain it’s more a way to think about things, and we didn’t want it to become a tool of shaming or punishment. We don’t want shouts of “Well, you just lost a marble!!” We just need to have people we trust enough that we share things like the first time we kiss someone or how embarrassed we are that we let out a burp in the middle of a meeting. And it’s important we don’t hand over our bared and vulnerable hearts to people who don’t have the ability to treat them with respect and love.
After he frolicked off to build a fantastical world of witches, magical ponies, and bent gender, I thought about my own jars of marbles. What I realized when I began digging into my own work on trust and intimacy is that for most of my life when I ‘d meet people, organizations, or institutions everyone’s jar of marbles was already full to the brim and spilling over. And I handed that jar over to them to tell me how full it was instead of analyzing it myself. If someone dumped out some marbles, the jar generally magically refilled, over and over. It might sound great, but in reality it’s a very dangerous practice. Many people took that jar and used it against me, leaving some deep scarring.
How does all this talk about trust fit in with the verse above where it says love “always trusts?” Well, it also says love “always protects.” When taken together, my understanding is that love always protects by giving an appropriate amount of trust. One cannot protect one’s self or the ones being loved without giving only as much trust as earned. One cannot trust deeply and well without also protecting one’s self and others from harming others and from harm. For instance, how on earth would it be loving to watch a dear friend kick their cat across the room without intervening? And if the behavior was repeated, how would it be loving to the friend or the cat not to remove the cat from their care as a consequence of that repeated harmful behavior, and to hold the friend accountable for dealing with whatever is happening inside of them that is causing them or letting them be violent toward a pet?
So. I myself was not being loving when I was handing out all these full jars of marbles. There are a lot of factors that led to this way of living for me. I just naturally have a big old heart, and if I see someone hurting I tuck in beside them and ask what I can do to help. I grew up in a small town where families had known each other for years or decades, and where I was surrounded with extended family. And I grew up in the Mennonite Church which I understood to be a trustworthy community built on love, peace, and justice.
It’s also true that I always felt different. Different from my family, different from my classmates, different from the other congregants. It didn’t take much to be different in my small town, and difference wasn’t taken to particularly kindly. I was punished with laughter and mocking. I didn’t connect well to a lot of the other kids. Everything from my hair, to my loud voice and boisterous activities, to not appropriately noticing and following social rules was criticized – and my Mennonite community was no exception. I spent a whole lot of time by myself: reading, riding bike, and building whole stories and worlds.
But it never took away from how much I trusted others; from those brimming over jars of marbles. It turned inward instead. I trusted my community members that I wasn’t moving through the world properly. There was something wrong with me. I wasn’t just doing things wrong – I myself was wrong. And I needed to work hard to fix it so that I would be properly worthy of my community’s respect and love.
There were bumps in the road. There were times when I was deeply hurt by community members’ judgments of me. But my jars stayed mostly intact and full, and I kept taking the criticisms to heart and trying to get myself just right so I would truly belong.
Until the Mennonite Church USA gathering in Columbus, when I was 26. In Columbus, I handed those jars of marbles to my community members. I brought my joyful and loving self and showed up as the fully Pink Menno me. And they took those jars, climbed a ladder above me, and they just dumped them over my head. Marbles rained down bruising and welting my tender skin, sometimes leaving scars that have not yet fully healed.
In my experience in this historic peace church, Mennonite Church USA, we do not, as a denomination, have many deep and rich conversations about trust, accountability, love, and consequences. We don’t talk about the components of love. Compassion and grace are important, yet consequences for harmful behavior and accountability are essential elements of love too. We don’t talk about the damage it does to someone who hurts another person when they receive kindness and forgiveness without accountability and concrete consequences. We don’t talk about trust as something essential to loving healthy relationships, and something only earned through consistent behavior.
This is a deep love failure. It’s a theological failure. And it is causing a painful and debilitating illness in our denomination. We must, if we are to be loving, start protecting and trusting appropriately. Or we are but resounding gongs and clanging cymbals. Love requires accountability and consequences as much as it requires grace and compassion – and our Mennonite community and our faiths require love.
What I have seen instead, again and again, is all of us handing over full jars of marbles to denominational leaders who have done nothing but clang and resound with lovely words, while their behavior and its systemic impacts is harmful and sometimes even spiritually abusive.
For decades now, there have been resolutions and statements, councils and task forces, that address many varieties of violence within the church: racism, sexism, relationship and sexualized violence, queer- and transphobia, among others. And yet we see many leaders who are people of color frequently tokenized and used. We see strange silences from many in the denomination about the national Black Lives Matter movement. We see queer folks’ voices, lives, and bodies silenced, sidelined and ignored – it took the slaughter of 50 people at a queer nightclub to get the attention of our Executive Director turned to the violence of queer- and transphobia. MC USA has a serious problem keeping women on their staff. And the latest – MC USA creating then dismissing the input of a panel of experts on sexualized violence.
The church, in fact, has just announced it will move forward with an investigation that lost the support of our leadership-picked panel of experts on the Sexual Abuse Prevention Panel, and more importantly does not have the support of the key survivor who brought the violence we’re addressing to our collective attention.
Every time something like this happens there are speeches and statements. There are announcements and articles. There are e-mails and reassurances.
And we hand over the full jar of marbles once more, in deference to the clangs of the cymbals and the resounding gongs that we feel such an obligation to trust.
Folks. Trust is built on behavior. Love requires trust and protection. Trust and protection require accountability and consequences.
We simply have to love this church enough to hold accountable the leadership responsible for these untrustworthy and harmful decisions and behaviors. We cannot stand by, not if love is a verb. Not if we love this church, this denomination, these leaders.
It is time to love deeply. It is time for consequences. Or, as the Bible verse says, we are nothing.