The Core of Family: Faith, Hope, and Love
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 10, 2020
Readings:1 Corinthians 13; Proverbs 31:26-31
It was on May 8th, 1945, when Canadian troops participated in the liberation of Holland. While it was recognised by our Prime Minister this week, and has been written about extensively, it is the personal touch, it is the family touch that really makes this so important.
I recently re-read a book called First Drafts, which is a series of letters that were written by Canadian soldiers to their families, in different wars. I found a letter from May 8th, 1945, from a young officer called Morgan, who wrote to his mother. He described what he saw that day as they came in on their tanks and liberated a small village in Holland. This what he wrote to his mother:
As I came out of the stat house, a dozen or fifteen young men were standing around my jeep, longing to do something; to sing, to shout, to shake my hand. As I was about to climb in, I saw the cardboard box with the remains of our lunch – sandwiches and pies. If these men were hungry, would it be resented? I asked a man who seemed to be a leader, was this of any use to them? He looked in the box and stared at me incredulously. Any use? He climbed on the bonnet of the jeep and began to break the sandwiches into little bits, to give to each man. They crowded forward then, reaching up, so that he had to remove them from the hood of the vehicle, and then went on doling out the little shares.
They ate slowly, relishing every crumb, licking at their hands to get the last taste. Some got sandwiches, some pie, but all had something, relishing it, smacking their lips and raising a little chorus: Dit is heerlijk, dit is lekker – delicious, lovely.
Morgan wrote in his letter, at that moment I felt I was feeding a large family.
I think one of the reasons why there has been such a great bond between Canada and the Netherlands over these seventy-five years, since that moment, is that there was a sense in which this was a family. They had been in a form of lockdown for five years under Nazi occupation. Many of them were hungry and emaciated. Villages and businesses had been destroyed and when the Canadians came in and set them free, there was this sense in which a whole family was getting together. I remember personally this having an impact on my family – not from the Canadian side, but my grandfather had been in Holland, working in the textile industry, right before the war, and he stayed with the Schiphorst family in Leuvenhorst. During that time, they helped my grandfather get out of Holland and return to the UK safely.
For the next eighty years or so, until his death, the Schiphorst family stayed in touch with my grandfather, giving him a sense of their gratitude for his life and he, for theirs. Mrs. Schiphorst lost her husband to a heart attack the first year of the war. Her son was shot in the spine in Nijmegan and for thirty-five years she had to care for her him. She had two daughters and had to look after her family on her own. Yet every May 6th she phoned my grandfather wherever he was. One year he was even visiting us in Canada, which he thought was deeply moving.
They were family. She was family, my grandfather was family. All the great images of what a family should be, seemed to be encapsulated in these very images. Caring for those who are in need, is part of being a family. Liberating the oppressed, is part of being a family. A mother devoted to her son for thirty-odd years, is part of being a family. Caring for my grandfather, and my grandfather continuing to feel part of her family, after many years, these are the powerful images of a strong family.
Nowhere in the Bible is that notion of family defined more clearly than in today’s passage from 1 Corinthians 13. We might not realise it, but Corinthians was written to a church in response to a letter from a woman called Chloe, to the Apostle Paul, expressing her concern about this new family of faith in Corinth. She was worried about the morality of the people. She was concerned, and he must have been too, about the unity of the people, about the place of the Holy Spirit within the community of faith. But then in that great cosmopolitan city, one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, 1 Corinthians 13. It defines the very essence of a church and what it should be, the very essence of family and what it should be. It is one of faith, hope, and love. The greatest being love.
I remember a professor friend of mine saying, “You do realise that in the early part of 1 Corinthians 13, not just in the last verse, Paul defines what those things mean. He talks about love and faith and hope as having real substance.”
I want to turn to those for a moment today, because I think they help us in our family lives. I think they help us appreciate our mothers. I think they help us understand the nature of Christian community. Paul defines love by saying this: “Love bears all things.” The word that he uses in the Greek in writing to the Corinthians, is the word “stego”, which literally means “to cover.” To bear all things, means to cover and to support.
If you really look at 1 Corinthians carefully, I don’t think you can conceive of this covering, without Paul’s profound understanding of Jesus Christ and the cross of Christ. When he talks about “stego” we see in the cross that bearing, that covering, that love. We see it in the cross as the covering of grace for those who need forgiveness of sins. The covering of Christ taking on our burdens and bearing them, covering us with the yoke of his compassion. We see it as the cross of a strength of defiance against the power of evil, to give us a sense of endurance and strength, because Christ had gone through the cross. We see it like a tabernacle in Old Testament terms, covering us and protecting us as a sign of God’s love. For Paul, the bearing of things, which is the essence of love, is the covering of the cross of Christ. That is what a Christian family emulates. That is what becomes the source of strength for Christian living. And you know, my friends, at the very heart of true Christian family, of true Christian love and community, there is the bearing of things in a loving way.
Even before Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there was that wonderful line that we saw in the passage that I read from Proverbs, a series of wise sayings that come from seventh century BC. It refers to mothers speaking wisely to children, children being happy about the love of the mother caring for them, and that love is more powerful than beauty, or anything else, which fades. It is love that is the defining, the essence of what motherhood and family is. Surely, my friends, that is exactly what we should be celebrating today. It is that sense of the love, of the covering, of compassion in a Christ-like way, that is at the heart of what true family should be.
I know this is being tested right now in many family lives. Those living in isolation have felt many of the strains and stresses of being in close family association. But also having the pain of being separated from people who are the source of our love. Either way, we feel the tension of that family relationship. But let us remind ourselves of what Paul says: “Love bears all things.” It covers us, it nurtures us.
I was reading a profoundly moving article about a woman called K’ang Cheng, who lived in the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century in China. She was taken in as an orphan by Gertrude, a Methodist, and devout missionary. Gertrude gave her an education, and she joined a group of other young people who eventually went to Michigan University in the United States, and twenty-five years later, qualified as medical doctors, the group, including K’ang Cheng, returned to China, set up hospitals, schools, and places where children and families could be taken care of. One act of thoughtful adoption led to a whole group of doctors coming back to China to care for them.
That, it seems to me, is the essence of the bearing of all things. That is the power of the love of Christ touching people’s lives and making a difference. An adopted person being given that opportunity to give back to her community, all because of the love of one Christian person. It seems to me that this love of bearing things, is a powerful love. That “this love believes all things”, says Paul. He doesn’t mean you believe everything that you hear. He is not saying, be gullible about fake news or anything like that. In fact, the word that he uses for belief is more the word that we would describe as trust. “All things” refers to everything else that’s in that passage. It is about trusting in God, believing in God.
There was a wonderful line I read in The Economist some years ago, “Trust is the glue that holds a society together.” If we do not have a level of trust in one another, then everything falls apart. As we’re entering this very unusual, possibly dangerous, and challenging period of opening businesses up, we’re going to have to trust each other like never before. What Paul is talking about is trusting in God and relying on God, and that is the important thing. He also says, “it hopes all things.” By hope, he refers to the future that we have in God, that we hope in God. This is the wonderful thing.
If ever there were a group of people in whom we place our notion of hope, it is in mothers. What do mothers really do? Mothers hope for the future. Motherhood is future-based. From the moment they give birth they're hoping in the future. Hope is a powerful thing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to beatify mothers, I don’t want to pretend that all mothers are perfect. We know that they're not. We know that they have flaws and they have weaknesses. I love a little card that I once saw of a boy dishevelled, carrying his dirty clothes, and in it is a note to his mother saying, “Mother, I want to thank you for all the times that you pray for me, and especially your favourite prayer, God help you if you ever do that again.”
Not all mothers are perfect, but they are important and they are a source of hope. They point the way forward. A lot of mothers endure very difficult circumstances. Think for a moment of the mothers in refugee camps, especially in the time of COVID-19, caring for their children, cheek to jowl in tents, in terrible circumstances. Think of single mothers, having to bring up children on their own, without any support, and often with no network, and how difficult that is.
I think of our family friend, Mrs Schiphorse, in Holland, losing her husband at the beginning of the war and having a son permanently injured. The commitment to hope is so strong, and so powerful. Hope endures. Real hope is rooted on the fact that no matter what we’re going through, God is with us. Mothers need to have that assurance in their lives.
These stories about Holland in World War II, make me think that while we have gone through eight weeks of difficulty – and there will be many more months of difficulty – those people in Holland lived under the rule of a dangerous regime for five years. Endurance. Yet they kept their faith, bore their love. There was still hope, because hope comes from God.
Finally, one of the most beautiful things that I ever read on mothers – not only mothers, but Christian family – is by a well-known American writer John Killinger, now in his late eighties, living, I believe, in Virginia. He wrote something that was like a poem, and if the psalms are poems, if 1 Corinthians 13 is like a poem, then this is like a psalm, but it is also a creed as well. I leave it with you as a source of inspiration, and may we emulate this in our homes and our families, with our mothers and with our society.
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, who was born of the promise to a virgin named Mary. I believe in the love Mary gave her Son, that caused her to follow Him in His ministry and stand by His cross as He died. I believe in the love of all mothers, and its importance in the lives of the children they bear.
It is stronger than steel, softer than down, and more resilient than the green sapling on the hillside. It closes wounds, melts disappointments, and enables the weakest child to stand tall and straight in the fields of adversity.
I believe that this love, even at its best, is only a shadow of the love of God, a dark reflection of all that we can expect of Him, both in this life and the next. And I believe that one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a mother who lets this greater love flow through her to her child, blessing the world with the tenderness of her touch and the tears of her joy.
Faith, hope, love, the essence of family. Amen.