Sometimes simple is best.
Though I may speak with bravest fire, and have the gift to all inspire,
and have not love, my words are vain as sounding brass and hopeless gain.
Though I may give all I possess, and striving so my love profess,
but not be given by love within, the profit soon turns strangely thin.
Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control, our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed; by this we worship, and are freed.
This is such a familiar old tune, and such a familiar old Bible passage, it would be easy to sing it without much attention. Something I am sure I have done countless times.
But it is so rich, and deep, and full – and thanks to its simplicity, easy to access, if you’re willing.
Let’s start with the lyrics – a gorgeous, poetic interpretation of I Corinthians 13, the famous Love passage from Paul’s epistle. I have found myself returning to the passage again and again, certainly once I realized it wasn’t about romantic love but about community. And I’ve preached on it, more than once, most explicitly in a sermon called Sharing the Love. This is a powerful passage, and in this interpretation, it becomes a personal call – “let inward love guide every deed; by this we worship, and are freed.” Wow. Beautifully put. We hear “if I have not love, I am nothing” all the time, but this puts it into a frame we can see.
So that’s the words. Now let’s layer in the music.
This tune – from the British Isles, with an expectedly complex history – is perhaps best known as the folk song “The Water Is Wide.” It starts out as a love song… but it doesn’t end there. It’s about love gone wrong, a break of trust, a test. It expresses the complexity of relationships, of the first blush of love that ‘fades away like morning dew.’ It’s a hard song, a song of sadness, loss, indignance, and still a glimmer of hope.
It may seem odd, but pairing these words and this tune delights me.
Love is hard. Love takes a lot of work. In the passage from Paul, he outlines all the things that love is not, because it’s so easy to mistake those things for love or to let those things obscure love. And if you sink into it, love – even the deep, holy, sacred Love that we express with a capital L because it is bigger than any one Greek term – love can fade away like morning dew.
Love with a capital L takes work. And in this last weekend before the American presidential election, love is sometimes hard to come by, so it’s even more important that we lean into it. Deeply. Whole-heartedly. And if you have questions about how to turn the ‘what love is not’s into ‘what love is, read (or listen to) this from Kendyl Gibbons. Because what Love IS helps us through all the times when we are confronted with what Love isn’t.
I sing the last verse of this hymn often as a private prayer.