24 years ago, I took my “first early retirement” from the hospital and university, in order to help start MSI, Medical Services International, a multi-national medical mission, in South West China. As a slogan for our medical mission, we chose the theme, “Love Never Ceases.” This is a 2,000(!) year old theme and headline that we felt summarized very well what we wanted to do.
In fact, the theme “love never ceases,” or “love never fails” is so famous worldwide, that it is can be used for weddings or funerals! You might think that these are 2 very different occasions, but when you read the entire text of this great expression, you can see why it’s so famous, and suitable for many kinds of situations. Let me spell out most of it:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (NIV)
The text is actually taken from a letter written by the famous Jewish scholar Paul, to friends and contacts in Corinth, a Greek city I once briefly and deliberately visited purely because of this great history. Paul is so famous that you can see huge numbers of people and buildings named after him; and undoubtedly, he is the rare author with a multi-billion, multi-language readership! Perfect for our multi-cultural mission, we thought.
You might quickly note that the love which is described in this letter is quite idealistic, and could be taken, at first blush, as simply something poetic that one should aspire to. You might think that it would be too difficult to be as loving as what is described in this text. So why did we choose this “slogan” if it is only something idealistic, and maybe not achievable? In a strange way, however, we actually felt that it was achievable, and certainly it would be something inspirational, and very valuable as a marker of the ethos and goal of our mission.
In point of fact, we used the text quoted above as a song, mostly in Chinese, but also in English, that the medical mission groups, from 11 countries and regions, going into China, could sing before local hospital staff, and even school students when we were invited to teach in the county schools. It became quite popular, and many times our local host would even sing with us. When we had big banquets, which are common everywhere in China, we were often asked to do something creative, so this became our contribution, being both creative and consistent with what we were doing!
Actually, we were sometimes singing this song while some of the local officials were drinking quite heavily, and even getting quite drunk. As they drank more heavily, they got more excited, and the event could become quite loud. Sometimes we also experienced the local custom, where a man would sing a love song which he had personally composed, often right during the banquet, directed to a named lady at the dinner. She would have to get up and instantly compose a new song as response. Quite dramatic to us foreigners, and something we likely could not do! But even the sing-song-sing-song style fit the theme of “love never fails,” so we felt quite at home!
One of the hospital directors liked our song and theme very much, so we had it written up by a local calligrapher, framed it, and gave it to him. Good Chinese calligraphy is treasured as art, and so this was culturally well accepted. He was very pleased to receive it and displayed it prominently in his office. We thought that was really significant, since it was inspirational, and would be good encouragement for everyone. At the time, we knew that many patients felt dissatisfied with their hospital experience, and felt very little love. As we like to say, “a little love goes a long way,” so we hoped we could do our little bit in encouraging all the staff workers. At other times, we would even print up many copies of the text, and give them away to hospital staff, as an extra touch and reminder.
One of the teachers from the local high school stopped by the hospital, to casually chat and visit, which was common, since life was rather informal in the town. He began reading the entire text of the framed slogan “Love never ceases,” in the hospital director’s office. He remarked to me, “aren’t those verses from the very famous book?” When I confirmed it to him, he said that he had read these verses before, and had been very touched by them. Since we had just started working in the town, it was good to know there was someone there who had actuallyknown about these famous verses before, and could identify with them!
In fact, the reality of why we actually love the slogan so much, was that we ourselves had read about, and personally seen many people who had gone sacrificially to many far-off places in the world, to help serve others, and we had been touched by that kind of love ourselves. One of my Islamic friends, a doctor, actually asked my wife one day, why I was doing all of this mission work: he asked her if I was doing this, so that I could “get into heaven.”
In fact, the great Teacher Jesus had an encounter with a man who tried to do just that, to justify his getting into heaven: he tried to do all sorts of good work, to “earn his way into heaven,” but Jesus surprisingly told him, that’s not the way to get into heaven! Even today, this is a surprise to most people with different backgrounds Doing good works doesn’t earn you points for heaven! At least according to the great Teacher.
That might be counterintuitive to many people, but in the simple faith that we have, we really should not try to “bargain our way into heaven,” by trying to do more and more good works. It only really works if the good works are straight out of one’s heart, touched by “the love that never ceases,” so that it isn’t a bargaining chip for heaven. Also, in coming out of one’s heart, that love will really not cease, as others take that love to inspire themselves and others, so the love goes on and on.
Over a period of the first 10 years of our mission, we were amazed to see 5,000 visits of doctors, nurses and other professionals in MSI serving for several weeks each in Southwest China, from 11 countries and territories; plus 100 or so long- term workers serving for years. A love that goes on and on, never ceasing. These dedicated friends came in the true spirit of God’s love, truly the only “love that never ceases.” A kind of love that is truth in action, where actions speak louder than words.
In the beginning years, since the local officials did not really know us well, there would be an officer “minding” me, as the leader of the teams. At times, I got to be very good friends with the official minder, since he would be with me all the time. Indeed, the minder would see at close up, clearly all the things that we were actually doing all day long. Somehow it reminds me of Paul again, who got in trouble with the Roman authorities, so he was given “government room and board,” plus lots of minders. The story is that he became great friends with the minders, and some (you guessed it!) even joined him in his efforts to share the good news!
One such minder very frankly told me, that he was indeed very touched by what we did, but because he was given the job of minding us, that we should be very careful to “follow the rules,” so that we would not get him into trouble. Indeed, we were careful to follow all the rules. But, when we were leaving his town to go home, he was all choked up, and did not dare look me in the eye: I could see that he was actually, very touchingly, crying. I will never forget that unusual scene of a crying minder.
The greatest story that has touched our own hearts is that Heaven, or shangtian in Chinese, came into this world to love us, which is a strange and unique message. A message of shangtian who loves us so much, that, instead of the great conquering power of Heaven, he offered himself for us, as a great love sacrifice from Heaven. This Tian-Ai, the essential love of Heaven, through teaching and healing, showed us the truly unselfish love that never ceases. 2 billion people, one third of the world, have been touched directly or indirectly, by this love, and with encouragement, can share this special love to many others, on and on.
Footnote: This “love that never ceases” is the kind of love that doesn’t ask for return, and isn’t an exchange of gifts. There is a word for this kind of love, called “agape”(a-ga-pe) love, which is undeserved love, unearned love, love that never ceases. There are many organizations with the word AGAPE in their title, and that is what it means. It never ceases because God never ceases, so his love remains. Forever.
Do you think that is too difficult, too idealistic? Give it a try and see? It works best if you first receive the love from above, from shangdi, tian, since that kind of love is best instilled deeply from the Originator of love Himself……A love that never ceases…..