If I speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love,
I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal
The Apostle Paul
Several years ago, I was officially categorized as a missionary. When I replanted a church in Nebraska it was considered mission work, even though I was only driving less than an hour away. I admire missionaries and the work they do. It is kind of like being a teacher or a nurse. They never get paid commensurate with the job they do. And they are often underappreciated or even forgotten. I’m sure a good missionary would know how to approach the people in the Tea Shop but my instincts are sometimes not as good. Whether I am in an unfamiliar town in the United States or in a foreign country like Taiwan, I sometimes don’t approach things as well as I could. I often stress the wrong things. I often have the wrong attitude. I often say the wrong things. I think to myself, “If I could just find the right method—If I could make my speech more eloquent—If I could find the right argument, then I would be able to convince them or help then or whatever I’m trying to do.
A few days ago, I found my next profession that should hopefully take me all the way up to retirement in ten or twelve years. I’m going to be a car salesman. I know, I know I didn’t ever imagine I would do that either. I categorized car salesman with lawyers—just another one of the crooks that were out to get my money. In my mind, they were just a level above politicians. But, of course, generalizations usually are not based on truth or data, but just perceptions. It’s kind of like the assumptions people make about pastors. As I began to imagine what my life would be like as a car salesman, I imagined solving people’s problems. I started to examine in my mind all the conversations I would have and what I would say when people didn’t want what I was selling. But, just like missionaries or pastors, maybe always having the right thing to say is not the most important thing.
The Apostle Paul didn’t seem to thing so. In his letter to the Corinthians, he stressed that even if my speech is angelic, it is only going to sound like noisy gongs and clanging symbols without love. I had to let that soak in for a while when I read it again this morning. What is the most important thing I can say in any situation? How should I say it so it will be most effective? What did they do that worked in the past? Whether I am a car salesman or a missionary or a pastor, what I say or do matters much less than whether or not I have love. Other-centered, self-giving love may be the secret weapon to life that we have avoided.
If I am going to be a Christian and profess that I am a follower of Christ, it would be hard to argue that anything matters more than love. As someone once said, people don’t care what we know until they know that we care. Love is a fruit of the spirit. It is the heart of the great commandments that Jesus talked about. All the eloquent approaches that we hope will manipulate people will only cause them to cover their ears unless the primary action is love.
In the Tea Shop, love looked like a man with no name sharing his tofu with me. Love was exhibited in his interesting smile and his energy for us and the time that he took to make us feel special. Love is a universal expression that I find running wild in the Taiwanese people. They generally and genuinely exhibit a loving presence toward others. Unfortunately, sometimes I do not see this in people that profess the name of Christ. Could it be that we are too concerned with angelic speech and flawless, proven methods and we forgot that what matters more than anything is other-centered, self-giving love. And, not just thinking loving thoughts, but doing loving things. Paul goes on to describe what this looks like.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
When we shop at Wal Mart, we always take our own bags. We figure it is one of the small things we can do to help save the planet. We probably own 50 of these bags, because we keep forgetting them at home and have to buy more. We might be defeating our own purpose. Sometimes, us using these bags causes a little distress at the checkout counter because they take a little longer to load and often the next person in line sighs a little because it takes slightly longer to get through the line. We haven’t been yelled at yet, but sometimes we catch an ugly stare. It says something about us that one or two extra minutes might just ruin our entire day. The people in the Tea Shop weren’t in a hurry, because real love is patient. They literally spent over an hour showing us genuine love. They gave us their time and attention and even displayed in their attitude what I would call Christ-like love.
Sometimes the words we use can be confusing. For example, sometimes where I come from we can be very nice, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily being kind. We call it “Midwest Nice.” It’s slightly different from the “bless your heart” South, but has about the same effect. It doesn’t really fool anyone, but it satisfies our desire to conform to our manners and social norms. It makes us feel better, but it is not really love. According to Paul, love is kind. Kindness is other-centered and self-giving. It’s not just a proper word, it’s the proper attitude. It not just what’s accepted, it’s what is necessary. My friends from the Tea Shop were genuinely kind – we could see it their eyes of grace, you could feel it in their healing actions and we left feeling loved instead of feeling used.
In my last book, I was examining the fact that my pastor thought I was pretty evil at seven years old. He told me that I was so bad that God had turned his back on me. He didn’t say this directly, just in the general invitation to the congregation. But, by process of elimination, I discovered that my main sin at the time was probably covetousness or envy. Why is envy wrong? Envy is wrong because it isn’t thankful for what it has and it isn’t happy for what others have. It wants to rearrange everything to my advantage. It’s something we learn early in life when we claim as “mine” something that doesn’t belong to us. Love means genuinely learning to be happy for others without having to take what they have or be unsettled about it.
I admit that I have a little bit of an inferiority complex. I have a need to perform and find approval from others. It often leads to somewhat of a boastful or prideful behavior. I don’t feel superior to others—I feel inferior and that is what leads me to drone on about what I am doing or what I have accomplished. If the people in the Tea Shop would have been able to speak my language, I might have introduced myself by boasting about what I do or what I have or what I have accomplished. But, because I couldn’t speak their language, I had to focus on more basic, more loving and less boastful communication. They also had the same dilemma and the result was a much more loving interactions.
I could go on and on with the discussion of how my night in the Tea Shop represented the love described in Paul’s dissertation in 1 Corinthians 13 of the New Testament. But you get the idea. In modernity, we tend to consider the base things as the lesser things. But in the case of the love, the basic thing is the most important thing. Paul says, without it we are “nothing.” It is not only an important element, it is the key ingredient to living a productive, healthy fruitful life. We can’t say we are followers of Christ and not love our neighbors and our enemies. It’s incongruent and doesn’t even make sense.
My aspiration as a car salesman is to be like the man with no name in the Tea Shop. They won’t let me have food in the showroom and most people don’t like tofu anyway, but I hope that I can exhibit the kind of love I experienced half way around the world. I hope I can take my time and be patient with others. I hope I can listen to people’s sacred stories without having to drone on about mine. I hope they experience me more like the Tea Shop owners and less like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Since I do like to eat, I hope I sell some cars; but I remember the Tea Shop owners didn’t have a problem with selling me what I wanted because they loved me first.
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 1 Corinthians 13:1
 1 Corinthians 13:4