A single, supreme four-letter word

Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2006

And the Greatest of These ..." People who know me know that I am fascinated by words. Words - just words - words in all kinds of categories. Words from A to Z - aardvark to zyzzogeton; words that are weirdly satisfying - abecedarian, eleemosynary, syzygy; words that come right to the point - stingy, skinny, graceful, elegant; words that it pays you to look up every time you use them - apocrypha, apocalypse, exegesis, eisegesis; words that are clearly descriptive - hurdy-gurdy, scooter; and words that are just plain fun - yes, of course, like antidisestablishmentarianistically.

I have favorite words. But after contemplating all the possibilities that are available to me, I find that I do have one very favorite word - one that stands out over all the rest.

Isn't it amazing that in the huge 2,816 page Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, with more than 472,000 words to choose from, there is one simple four-letter word that stands out from all the rest for me? Isn't it amazing that one little four-letter word can say so much to so many people? One word - but everybody seems to instinctively know what it means.

One simple four-letter word, and yet books have been written about it; sermons have been preached about it; wars have been fought over it - one plain four-letter word that used even by itself speaks volumes. One simple word, love.

It is a simple word. It has lots of meaning, but I suspect that there are very few people who feel the necessity of having it defined for them.

When a person says to you, "I love you," are you apt to ask, "What do you mean by that?" Actually, I imagine you will answer, "I love you, too," and both of you will assume that you mean the same thing.

However, if you would really like a good definition of the word, I highly recommend - no, not Webster's Unabridged - the Bible.

The apostle Paul, whose letters form the greater part of the New Testament, after deep reflection, chose this word as the greatest of desirable attributes. Paul was a highly educated, deeply religious man. In his early years he addressed himself to the service of God as he understood God to be, a God of laws, of legal requirements. This all came to a dramatic change during a journey Paul was making to Damascus - when he encountered God as he really was, a God who was willing to forgive and forget, a God who was willing to guide, to lead, to empathize - a God of love.

In a letter to one of his churches, Paul let himself go on the subject. So, go dust off your Bible and look up the thirteenth chapter of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. Read it. Read it out loud to a friend or a member of your family. After Paul thought deeply on all the desirable characteristics, he stated emphatically that there are three great qualities - faith, hope and love. And then taking a deep breath, he added, "and the greatest of these is love."

Note: If your Bible is an early King James version, the whole thing falls apart. The translators used the word "charity" instead of "love." Later editions of the King James Version corrected that.

• Bea Shepard is a lay speaker with the Douglas Community United Methodist Church.

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