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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Locks of Love

Your hair can make a difference to a young person in need of a wig due to medical or genetic reasons! Friday, May 29 from 3:00-5:00 PM, members of Saint Mark's School's "Cool Kids Care" will be cutting hair in the Community Hall to benefit Locks of Love, an organization that donates wigs to children suffering from long-term medical hair loss. If you can spare at least 10", your hair will be used for making a wig; less than that and Locks of Love will sell it, with the proceeds used to support this wonderful cause. You'll get to enjoy a plate of angel hair pasta, too!

Please come with clean hair. Also, this is not a styled haircut; for a polished look, you'll want to make a trip to the hairdresser afterward.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Commanding Love

Easter 6B; John 15:9-17

When you have a dog, one of the things you learn is about giving commands. Ideally, your dog follows your commands, regardless of distractions or what he might rather be doing. [At this point, my husband brought our black Lab Finn up the center aisle to me] Finn is a generally obedient dog, and he usually complies with our commands.
[To Finn:]
Love! [a command about which he has no clue]

That’s a puzzling command, isn’t it? We know what to expect when someone commands a dog to do something like sit or stay, or for that matter, when we’re commanded to sit or stay! But love? That’s not so clear…

That, however, is exactly what Jesus commands his disciples to do: Love. More specifically, in this instance, to love one another as he has loved us. He seems to be big on this, because elsewhere he commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind…and, once again, our neighbor, this time as much as ourselves. Also, and not incidentally, to love our enemies!

Commanding someone to love sounds contradictory. Isn’t love only meaningful when it’s freely given, when it springs from the depths of one’s heart? Hallmark would certainly have us believe that, and most of us agree. Think about the command parents have been known to give their kids after a fight, to hug one another and make up. As a general rule, that’s a total sham, an attempt at commanding love, feigned affection derived only from fear of further parental intervention!

Understood that way, love can’t be commanded. Most of us have tried at one time or another to manufacture particular feelings, either because we thought the sought after ones would be more palatable to the world or easier to live with ourselves…and it doesn’t work that well, if at all. Feelings are notoriously slippery and uncontrollable things; they pop up at inconvenient times or inspire unfortunate behavior. Didn’t Jesus get that? Sure, sometimes we feel like loving someone, but then we’re simply responding based on our own inclinations, with no reference to Jesus’s command. As he himself points out, it’s easy to love your friends.

There’s an alternative, though, and I think it makes sense of Jesus’s words. If we understand love as an action based on a deliberate decision, rather than as a warm fuzzy feeling, then it can be commanded. We don’t have to feel love; we’re called to act love. In fact, I’m not sure we even have to think love. We’re supposed to act love…because Jesus commands us to, because it’s what he has done for us.

In the Episcopal marriage vows, TV and movies to the contrary, each of the parties doesn’t say, “I do”; they proclaim, “I will.” There’s a world of difference in those two statements, and they reflect the command of this gospel: not just that I’m agreeing to do these loving things now, when it seems wonderful and marvelous, but I commit to continuing to do them—“I will”—even when I’m less than enthralled with my partner. As an act of will, I’ll act love even if I don’t feel it.

Jesus anticipates our arguments, our plaintive cries of “I can’t do that. It’s too hard. That would be deceitful and pretending…” He essentially says, “I’ve loved you the way God has loved me; now you love each other the way I have loved you, with the strength and the courage and the vision you get from my love. You’ve seen me do it; now go forth and do likewise.” He calls us to do love; to make love an act of will that comes, not from having a positive personal relationship with someone or even any relationship at all, not based on what the person has done for us or hasn’t done to us, but from the desire to love the way he loves us. If we feel like it, that’s a bonus, but it’s not a prerequisite or even the point.

And how is it that Jesus loves us? Yikes…here’s the real rub: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And, presumably, one’s enemies. It’s not just about doing nice things for nice people; love, Jesus-style, is about doing hard things, things we really really don’t want to do or don’t think we can do, for anyone. They probably won’t be as big as laying down our life; they’re more likely to be along the lines of picking up socks off the floor again, or pausing to let another car into the lane when we’re in a hurry; buying extra food for people we might not even know at the Food Pantry rather than getting pizza one evening, or biting back the well-deserved retort to someone who’s rude to us. Our natural inclination is to think of love as getting or having something—a person, a feeling, an object—when in fact, Jesus’s love is about giving, giving without strings, without calculation, without self-interest. Simply giving.

The reality is that Finn doesn’t have to be commanded to love; he does it naturally and unconditionally. He’s not thinking about his mood, or whether he likes you, or what else he’d rather be doing; he is totally in the moment. If we’ve caused him any offense or if he’s done anything wrong, it’s already in the past and over with. We’re not so great at that kind of love; having more than a 15 second memory complicates matters! But maybe as we practice Jesus’s command to love others as he loves us, we’ll get better at it, we’ll learn to love his way, with fewer limits and more grace, and our joy will be complete.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Productive or Fruitful?

Easter 5, Yr. B; 5/10/09
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

When I first got my iPod Touch, I was thrilled. In one cool little package that syncs perfectly with my laptop, I could carry my favorite tunes; listen to Car Talk podcasts at convenient times; show off pictures of the kids or the dog or the vacation to anyone who asked and some who didn’t; record every available means of contacting every person I met; check my e-mail and the weather and the news; calculate the price per ounce of store-brand diced tomatoes on sale versus brand-name ones with a coupon; and use the calendar to keep track of Many Important Activities. It was—and continues to be—fabulous. But there was one little problem with it, one flaw in its Apple perfection: I couldn’t take notes. There was no application on the Touch that allowed me to write messages to myself. More specifically, there was no way for me to create lists.

I like lists. I like making them—just that act is proof that I’m doing something!—and I like the clarity of seeing what needs to be done or bought or thought, and most of all I like crossing things off them, because that shows me that I’ve been a productive person. Being a productive person makes me feel good. In fact, sometimes being a productive person makes me feel good…like a good person. When I do things, I can see my success, at least in some small arena.

At first glance, today’s gospel sounds like Jesus might cheer on my lists. With the to-do’s neatly laid out and checked off, I can measure my fruitfulness, right? I can tell just what I’ve multiplied or divided, what’s grown and who’s been measured. I might even be able to do a little pruning, those moments when one realizes—upon looking at a list critically—that a few of the items are unnecessary or point me in the wrong direction.

Then I read something yesterday that got me thinking about the difference between productive and fruitful, and now—although I doubt Jesus would have a problem with my lists per se—I’m not so sure he’d give me extra credit points for them. Being productive suggests doing something, having projects or tasks and being the one who accomplishes them…check, check, check. Farmers are productive when they till and plant and harvest. Parents are productive when they do laundry and give baths. Homeowners are productive when they mow the lawn. Students are productive when they finish projects and pass tests. Workers are productive when they create or build or call or sell or fix. Productivity is an activity, or a set of them, that one initiates and completes. There’s nothing wrong with that; goodness knows, the world would fall apart without productive people and our finishing the tasks before us, so it’s fine to keep making those lists and crossing off items!

I’m concluding, however, that productivity and fruitfulness are quite different and we need to be clear about the distinction. Fruitfulness is what happens when a plant is fed and watered and fertilized and then something grows in abundance. Fruitfulness is what happens when a gift is nurtured, given time and encouragement to grow, until a talent emerges. Fruitfulness is what happens when a soul that’s been neglected or abused begins to thrive by being treated with love and dignity. Productivity is the result when one works to create value; fruitfulness is what occurs when value already exists and is allowed to flourish. Lists may lead to productivity, but I’m not so sure they encourage fruitfulness.

One assumes that a productive person is doing lots of work, is taking on a task, laboring at it, and finishing it successfully and on schedule. But a fruitful person…I don’t think the effort, the work, and the timing are necessarily coming from that person. I don’t make myself be fruitful. In fact, Jesus is pretty clear about the relationship between fruitfulness and being connected to him. It’s his roots and presence and love that create our fruitfulness. Our effort doesn’t form something of value; we are of inestimable value to begin with, and God nurtures within us the fruits of our unique and precious nature.

Did you notice a lot of “abiding” going on in these lessons? That’s part of the key here. Jesus didn’t say, “Those who find me and hang on at the proper moment, and who are lucky enough to get the right amount of sun and rain, and who do everything just right to become and stay grafted to me—those who cross off everything on the gardener’s checklist—bear much fruit.” He said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Abiding isn’t an action item to be checked off, a measurable goal, or an activity to be put on a calendar; it’s a way of being, a life that unfolds. And if abiding is the way to fruitfulness, then fruitfulness must take a lot more being than doing.

If you aren’t sure what abiding looks like, check out Jesus. He certainly accomplished a lot, but not by being a slave to his iPod. He knew how to abide. He shared meals and shared stories, prayed and got away from the fray, talked and listened, offered hope and healing to those who were hurting…even when they didn’t know they needed him. Those aren’t the sorts of things that fit neatly onto a to-do list, but they’re perfect examples of abiding, of being fully present and open to God, to the moment, and to others. And when we abide in Jesus, they’re the fruits that we produce as well, of love and kindness, justice and gentleness, mercy and forgiveness.

My first iPod met an untimely end, and I had to replace it. Version 2.0 included a notepad, so once again I can make my lists…and I am indeed happy when I come to the end of a day and see many, if not all, items crossed off. I like being productive. I’m realizing, though, that God calls me to be fruitful as well as productive; that abiding is a way of living and being, not a downloadable app; and that only as I sync up with Jesus, do I receive the strength and the life and the love to bear God’s fruit for God’s people.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stump the Students...and You?

Each year in school chapel we play "Stump the Students"; I ask each class a question or set of questions about a topic that has come up in chapel during the year and see if they recall the answers. Rarely do I stump a class! Here are some of the questions from the last round; how would you do?

  • What word do we not say during Lent? What language is this? What's another form of the same word and in what language?
  • What is the symbol for Saint Mark?
  • What are at least 4 of the seasons of the church year, and what color goes with each?
  • The hymn "I sing a song of the saints of God" (Hymnal 1982 #293) includes mention of a doctor, a queen, and a soldier. Who are these saints, and where are they in our stained glass windows?
  • Why do we cover the crosses during Lent?
  • In "Bel and the Dragon," a book in the Apocrypha, Daniel proves that the statue of Bel is not a real God. How does he do it?
  • What is one of Mark's favorite words in his gospel?
  • What book of poetry is in our pew racks? How many poems are in it?
If you're stumped by any of these, ask a Saint Mark's student to help you out!

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