all is well: how loving the world gives us hope


Yesterday morning, I spoke to 800 college students in chapel about 1 Corinthians 13.  It's nicknamed "The Love Chapter" because the whole thing is about love. Love is patient.  Love is kind, it says.  Love keeps no record of wrongs.  Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

The chapter ends with this line: "Now these three remain: Faith, Hope and Love.  But the greatest of these is love."  I've heard that verse at least a thousand times, but it never occurred to me to ask why, out of three really good things, Love is the greatest.

And then I went to Togo and spent some of the hardest days of my life -- working 28 hour shifts, enduring 100+ degree heat, getting really sick from malaria, watching more patients die in one week than I'd witnessed in 10 years of practicing medicine in the U.S. and then, in a final blow, running out of water.

I told God I was done.  I told God I was going to change my plane ticket and come home early.  I told God there was nothing anyone could say to make me stay.

And then.  There was a big rainstorm, and I ended up lying on my bed, listening to a podcast I'd downloaded about the story of Sisyphus.

In the Greek myth, Sisyphus angers the gods, so they condemn him to an eternal punishment.  For the rest of time, he'll have to carry a rock up hill, but just as he reaches the top, the rock will roll downhill, and he'll have to carry it up all over again.

The story gives rise to the adjective Sisyphean, which describes a task that's hopeless. Useless.  Futile.

I fell in love with the story, because that's how the hospital in Togo felt to me.  No matter how many hours I worked, no matter how hard I tried, at the start of every shift, I was starting all over again.  And in spite of our efforts, people died anyway.

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I was captivated by the story, so I ended up reading more about it.  I found that the famous novelist Albert Camus wrote about Sisyphus, and said that he was the victor of the story, not the victim.  That he was the hero of the story.  That we must even think of Sisyphus as happy.  That in the end, Sisyphus concluded that all is well. 

What the heck!? I thought as I read Camus' words.  Was he reading the same story I was?  Was he talking about the same Sisyphus who was condemned to an arduous eternal punishment?

I was intrigued by the story, so I kept reading more about it.  And then I stumbled upon the words of the writer Stephen Mitchell, who wrote that we must think of Sisyphus as happy for one single reason: Because Sisyphus fell in love with the rock.

He fell in love with the rock.

So it was nothing for him to put it on his back and do whatever he could to carry it higher.

As I read Mitchell's words, I realized that Jesus was the ultimate Sisyphus -- who loved the world so much that he came to us, put the world on his back, carried us up Calvary and then laid down and died for us because he loved us that much.  He fell in love with the "rock" we call Earth, and loved us enough to do something about it.

And this, I realized, is why, out of Faith, Hope and Love, Love comes out on top.

Because here's the thing.  In the metaphor of Sisyphus, if he'd only had faith, he would've been waiting for God to reverse the rules of nature so the rock wasn't heavy, and it didn't roll down hill.

If he'd only had hope, he would've been waiting for a moment in the future when he was rescued or he was absolved by the gods.

But it was LOVE.  It was LOVE that caused Sisyphus to keep pressing into the rock.  It was LOVE that made him care enough about the rock to carry it higher.  It was LOVE that made him conclude, even though his task was exceptionally difficult, that all was well.

Instead of praying to leave Togo early, I started praying that God would help me fall in love with the rock of the world. And it was because of LOVE that I stayed in Togo and fulfilled my commitment (and my book about the months I spent there is coming out in November!)
I'm learning that what it ultimately means to follow Jesus is to fall in love with the world.

To love the world enough to do something about it.  To look at every single soul on the planet through the eyes of God -- which means we see every person as a precious, priceless child of the Divine.

Friends, if you're discouraged this morning, if the world around you seems Sisyphean, if you watch the news and get angry or angst-filled, take a second to breathe and remember that you -- and I -- and everyone -- are called to be people of Love.

And it is when we fall in love with the world enough to step in and do something about it -- loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, loving our enemies and praying for them, loving the strangers and immigrants and refugees amongst us -- that we live into the great story of God.

And when we live the love of God, we can say with Sisyphus and Julian of Norwich and other saints who have gone before us that

All shall be well.

And all shall be well.

And all manner of thing shall be well.