OCTOBER 23, 2011

In the name of Love! Amen!

Love is the only really important part of life- that is what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel reading we have just heard. He says that all the laws and the inspiring teachings of the prophets can be summed up in the twin commandments to love God and our neighbor. This is the heart of Jesus’ message and the heart of the Bible.

When I was a little boy, I was lonely, desperate for more love. I was my father’s fourth son; he really wanted the daughter born two years after me.  He adored her, with good reason. And my next oldest brother was very intelligent, so my parents were fascinated by his development. My parents never went to college themselves and they counted on him to excel, which he did, at first. I felt like the runt of the litter, the fifth wheel. I can feel lonely all over again, just thinking about it.

My parents were both atheists when I was little, but when I heard the phrase, “God is love” I was interested. I went to church with my best friend. He helped me feel less lonely and is still my friend, after almost 70 years. But I still hungered for more and by the time I was 16, gave myself to God in a group of other teenage boys thinking about making the commitment to be priests. It was all about love. I wanted Jesus to be with me wherever I went, so I prayed in that group, “Jesus, I do not know you very well. And I am still just a kid myself, but I want to give myself to you. Please be with me always.” I was trembling with excitement because I really felt that he was there, listening. And it has been so ever since. In good times and bad, I have felt that Jesus is right there, loving me, loving the people I am with, loving people far away, loving the ones we think are our enemies. It has been the greatest blessing.

One reason I have been attracted to the monastic life is that the act of prostrating myself, face down on the stone floor of a church, making the total commitment to God, has a great appeal. It seems deeply fulfilling. To say “I love you, God! With all my heart and soul and mind and strength, I love you! I give myself to you!. For me, there is a great feeling of completion, fulfillment, in that act.

But for me, and for almost all of us, there is the vocation to family and friends, a life excluded by monastic vows. All the richness and complexity of human love is our calling in the simple commandment of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Whole libraries of books have been written about love and it continues to draw us deeper and wider in its fullness. I mention only three of its aspects.

First,  love involves commitment. If you want to know Jesus, or another person, you cannot find out everything first, before making some commitment. You cannot sit, with your arms folded, in the last row, and tell Jesus you want to know more before making any kind of commitment. Instead, you need to make a commitment to God, as much as you know God now. If you can do that and pray to God, however tentatively, then a door opens to a deeper understanding.

The same applies to people, or choosing a parish, or a school, or a job, or a friend or a lover. Unless you are ready to make a commitment, even a small one, you cannot know the other, cannot love the other. And it is a commitment to attend a church service, visit a class, apply for a job, ask for a date. It can be scary if you have done that before and free that you were rebuffed. But the rule does not change: commitment is necessary for love.

Second, love involved vulnerability. We know that we can be hurt by following love. So much advertising claims to be risk free or offer money back guarantees, that we are tempted to think it could happen with love, but it has never been that way. So many of us choose to sit out the dance rather than be rejected or lose our beloved to circumstances, illness or death. Blessed are those who take those risks.

Third, love almost always comes with surprises. If you really make a commitment in love, to God or a person, you may be guided to go places, geographically or existentially, you had not expected to go. It is exciting and at least a little scary. I encourage you to think of love in your own life and identify some of the unexpected turns it has taken.

I offer a couple of examples you may think extreme:

One is a woman, Elsa, in Taconic prison, a few weeks ago. She was finishing a three year term, in her mid-twenties. She was a pale blonde who had been involved in prostitution since she was a teenager. Our meeting had been loving, with tears and laughter; we were about to stop when Elsa raised her hand, “Father Chinlund, may I ask a question?”
“Of course, Elsa.”
“Can you help me find the name and the address of the judge who sentenced me to prison?”
“Gosh, Elsa, no one has ever asked me that before. I don’t know if I can help. May I ask why you want to know?”
“I would like to write him a letter to thank him for sending me to prison. I never had friends I could really trust, really love, until I came here in the Network program. I will be leaving soon and I am going to have a whole new life. It never would have happened if  had not come to prison. In here I am protected from the people who… ran my life.”
Elsa had taken a chance, made a commitment to be in the Network program; taken a chance on opening up to be friends with the other women; taken a chance on being humiliated by returning to school, a place which had been a very bad scene for her as a little girl.  Now her face was shining, “I am happier than I ever would have been if that judge had not sent me here.”

Another example comes from the course I will be teaching again starting this Wednesday called “Happy Surprises in Later Life.” It is about some good parts of being old. Even as old as I am! I have had a good time with it in two previous cycles of seven sessions each.

There have been between ten and twenty in attendance and we talk together about the way we experience life now, sharing our feelings about our bodies, about sex, art of all kinds, money, family, death and religion.

Many of the people have been surprised by the stories of their own lives, seen in the context of the stories of others. They have found that life has become more fulfilling after giving up the Big Job, when they were making more money. In short, many of them were LOVING THEMSELVES in new ways. They were able to banish the Critical Judge who seemed always to perch on one shoulder. That Critical Judge used to look at their art work and say, “No good!.” Or read their attempts at poetry or fiction and say, “No good!” Now, as older people, they found a way to tell that Critical Judge to go bother someone else. They were writing and doing art just for their own satisfaction. And new worlds opened up.

One woman started writing a journal as if she were her grandmother, a brave and very lively woman who had grown up in the wilds of  the Maritimes in Canada. She did not know much more than the outline of her grandmother’s life, but she found that she could hardly write fast enough. Tough parents, a man’s world totally, an unwanted pregnancy, it was all very exciting. It was her own story in a way, but it was also exotic, different. She has now given notice at the excellent job she has enjoyed, so that she can “write all the time” as she says. And she looks flushed with animation as she describes the latest.

I believe that we all have art of some sort, inside us. If we love ourselves enough to give it some time, maybe some classes or a congenial group, it can open a new world for us. One man, 91 years old, is keeping a journal and says, “I cannot believe that it keeps happening. I write something  and right away I think of a person or an event I have not thought about for decades. Amazing!”

So discovering new ways to love ourselves is part of the big picture of love. After all, Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Loving our community is yet another huge part of the big consideration of love. We know something about that at Holy Apostles because of the years of commitment to the Soup Kitchen. Having it as part of our parish life has opened the channels of love.

I have been away since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, eagerly reading about its birth and development. Grumpy people find much to criticize and people participate out of many motives. But I believe that love is playing a big part. I, and others, want to go and be part of it out of love for all the millions of people that are excluded from jobs, health care and good schooling because people of wealth have rigged the system so that they can become even richer at the expense of others. I am very eager to get involved at last.

I conclude with a story about someone who hates love. When my older son was about five, I reached for his hand, as usual to cross the street. He said, “I don’t want to hold your hand to cross the street.”
I said, “You have to.”
He said, “Why?”
I said, “Because cars come very fast around the corner and you might not see them.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You could get hurt or get killed!”
“What’s wrong with that?!”
“I don’t want you to get hit.”
“Why not?”
“I love you!”
“I hate love!”
Over the years, his many girl friends have been interested in that story. He now has a son almost the same age as he was and is living through the same struggle over love.

So the world of love is immense. There are endless parts, ever new challenges. Thanks be to God that we can have some love adventures together right here at Holy Apostles. Thanks be to God for love!