Here on the Christ Church staff we are readers. I suspect that the congregation also indulges in a bit of reading as illustrated by the over 1000 kids’ books we collected in less than a month for Dave Mahone’s Bookshelf. Rector Paul uses his English Lit degree in sermons with William Faulkner, George Eliot, John Donne and Virginia Woolf. Dave Zahl punctuates his sermons with the NY Times, Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly. Willis uses the great theological tomes of Anselm, Irenaeus and the archbishop of Canterbury. Today, I will be quoting from my long-time subscription to one of my favorite publications, Popular Mechanics.
Don’t ask me why I have always loved Popular Mechanics- I was neither popular nor a mechanic, but I love reading about how things work. In fact, the byline on the magazine promises to tell you “How Your World Works.” What’s not to love? This particular issue will give your lawn mower a test drive, help you pick out a hammer as well as show you new spy technology. But the article that caught my eye was, 42 Things You Should Know How to Do: The Field Guide to Life. First of all, I don’t know where the number 42 came from- not 40 but 42. Maybe from Bishop Cranmer’s Forty-Two articles? Maybe Jackie Robinson’s number? Who knows. But among the 42 things you should know how to do are the following:
- Make a paper airplane
- Ride a bike
- Paddle a canoe
- Load a dishwasher
- Throw a curveball
- Jump start a car
- Throw a punch
- Fit a couch through a door
- Change a diaper
- Identify Poison hemlock
- And 32 other things
The article says it’s “an age-by-age manual to a lifetime of competence.” Fishing, for example, is called “the skill of a lifetime” and is the “blueprint to every skill a man ever learns.” It advises that if you “teach your daughter to fish, she may become a biologist, mechanic, deckhand, carpenter or an artist, all in her spare time.” That’s quite a skill. Most of the things give you step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish a task. For instance, to throw a curveball you roll your hand forward and down off the side of the ball as you snap your wrist, according to Corey Kluber from the Cleveland Indians. The manual ends at age 59—so I guess by 59 you know all there is to know, which means I only have a few more years until I am fully competent.
What I was really looking for and not finding, however, was the skill that is at the heart of life, which would make learning all 42 skills worth it, learning how to love. Not one of the 42 skills was ‘loving’. Yet, we all know that a life lived without love is not a life at all. Remember the Romanian babies who died in their cribs for lack of love? Remember the commandments Jesus gave? Love is life. Life is love.
We long for love. We pine for it. We would do anything for it. At the same time we think we are not worthy of love and we don’t devote much time to it. Carson McCullers, my favorite Georgia author, wrote her first book at 22 called, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It is about her life looking for love and belonging in a small southern town. The main character, a young girl named Mick, is irritable, restless and discontent, looking for an unnamed ‘want’ that she can’t identify. The cook, Portia, tells her, ““You haven’t never loved God nor even nair person. You hard and tough as cowhide. But just the same I knows you. This afternoon you going to roam all over the place without never being satisfied. You going to traipse all around like you haves to find something lost. You going to work yourself up with excitement. Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t love and don’t have peace. And then some day you going to bust loose and be ruined.” Like Mick, we know the feeling of dissatisfaction and lostness, of not having love or peace. And we sense that we are going to bust out and be ruined.
Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who detailed his survival in a concentration camp in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, had an astounding revelation in the most abhorrent of circumstances. He lost his entire family to the Nazi camps and was left with nothing except the dehumanizing grind of day and night trudging in work details and watery soup lines. Of his revelation he wrote, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life, I saw the truth—that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart:
The salvation of man is through love and in love…For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’” As Frankl learned in the death camp, love, not hate, is the most powerful force in life. It is the left-handed power that we speak of—the power that doesn’t seem like power, the power that looks like weakness.
But where are the instructions on how to love? If you Google, How to Love, you get rapper Lil’ Wayne and his lyrics, “Yeah, see you had a lot of moments that didn’t last forever, now you’re in this corner tryna put it together, how to love.” Lil Wayne knows that we’re trying to put it all together, but we really don’t know how.
We know we are supposed to love people. It is mentioned 538 times in the Bible. The problem is we can’t. We just don’t have the power. Lack of power is our problem. If we had to give instructions on how to judge people, we know how to do that. You don’t have to have any power to do that. First, don’t talk to them, look at them and judge from what you see. Decide what they have that you don’t or what they don’t have that you do. Think negative thoughts about them. Tell someone else. Feel bad about yourself. Repeat.
Or if we had to give instructions on how to hate people, we could do that, although we like to think that we never hate anyone. We judge and hate because we compare ourselves to others and find we come up short, so we make sure no one gets past our defenses by fortifying them internally. The bottom line is we judge and hate ourselves, so we do it to other people. I had a teacher who said, “The problem with loving our neighbor as ourselves, is that we do.”
That is what our text is about today, how to fulfill the command to love. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us, “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Christ we cannot love. Apart from Him we bear no fruit and with Him the fruit we bear is love. We are the incarnational fruit of God’s love.
Since we are in Virginia wine country, it should be easy to picture grapes on a vine. What do grapes do in order to grow? Do they will themselves to be better grapes? Do they compare themselves to other grapes? Do they question the vine’s wisdom and intent? No- they hang there and receive what the vine is providing them. Grapes off the vine are a sad sight, cut off from the source of nurture. They are deflated and dry like we are without God’s love. Jesus is giving us pretty explicit instructions on how to love. He is the source of the love, the vine. We cannot love apart from the love source. The secret seems to be in this idea of abiding—which is what the grapes are doing on the vine, abiding with the vine. Abiding in Jesus is abiding in his love. Abiding is not a word we use much. It means dwelling, hanging out, being with, trusting. Trusting is abiding. Trust that God is the vine of love and you are the grape. Carson McCuller’s Mick said it this way, “Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad, the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”
Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and psychologist, described this mystery of love. “Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” Grapes let themselves be loved. Grapes abide.
So what does this mean for us? That God is the power source of love and we learn about love from abiding, being with God. We can carry this idea into our relationships. Christ teaches us to be with others and leave the judgment and competition behind. Can we just ‘be with’ those we are called to love? What does this ‘being with’ look like? When people show up to help someone move. Getting to know someone new. Sitting with someone while they cry. Allowing your Mother to get her whole thought out without interrupting. Playing with a child their way. Listening to a coworker, spouse or classmate’s current upset without giving advice or judging their circumstances. In fact, the word compassion means, “to walk with.” Ask God to help you walk with others. Abiding is grace.
In Grace in Practice: a Theology of Everyday Life, Paul Zahl tells us that the place where grace is least visible is in our relationship with our siblings. I have to admit that this is the area that I struggle with the most. When I am with my siblings, it’s all judgment, competition and a very tiny pinch of hanging out/listening. I have one brother who I have been estranged from for several years. Knowing that I am not able to fully love this brother, but that God greatly loves him, is a comfort to me. I have tried on my own power to be the good sister, the loving sister, the giving sister and it only results in resentment and martyrdom on my part. But Christ is patiently teaching me that I don’t have to trust my brother, I can trust God. I don’t have to like my brother, but I can love my brother because God first loved me, not because I am good. God lets me think it’s my idea. Slowly I have been able to send birthday cards and Christmas presents, allowing God to direct my actions instead of manipulating the situation in hopes that my Mother sees how much nicer I am being than my brother. I have to see that my way of loving is broken, without power, and that I defend and justify my behavior. I am being taught how to let myself be loved by God so that I can love. It is a love that starts with Christ, flows through me toward my brother and neighbors. I am experiencing the resurrection of my love for my brother, through the undeniable love that I have experienced from God. With God’s help, I hang on the vine, basking in Christ’s love that is beyond description. I have had experiences of being connected to the vine and know that I am a fruit.
1 John text today tells us perfect love casts out fear. The fear I have of being too vulnerable in relationships will be cast out by the love of God. So we can trust as we walk forward into a future of abiding, of being loved and loving because Christ showed the greatest power of love by dying on the cross for us, to end all the mind games that we use as defenses. We love because he first loved us. It won’t be tied up in a neat package as if my brother and I will be best friends, but it will be real and beyond our power. God will be doing for me what I cannot do for myself. All is ask is, Lord have mercy. Amen.