May 9, 2010
The Fifth Sunday after Easter
Do you recall the day you first learned to write in cursive? If you are anything like me, it is hard enough to remember what you ate for breakfast morning, much less when you learned something in school. You probably don’t remember when you learned to read either. You may remember the process; you might remember life in first grade when you were taught to read, or life in third grade when you were taught to write in cursive. But you don’t remember when reading and writing “happened.”
Not like learning to ride a bike. You’re either pedaling like crazy and keeping your balance, or you’re lying in a twisted heap with your ankles through the spokes. You might remember when you learned to ride a bike. The brain is a funny thing, because we tend to remember things like these instead of what one would think we should actually remember.
However, with cursive writing, the S had the bends in the right places, and the W rose and dropped wonderfully at the command of your tiny fingers clutching that big pencil. Then, beaming brightly, you unveiled the writing to your mother, who happily approved your advancing skills. It was a moment of victory to slant those letters precisely the way the teacher instructed and within the lines, too. Mastering cursive writing was one of those skills that marked a rite of passage; not only was your schoolteacher proud of you, better yet, writing in cursive clearly meant you were becoming grown up. Oh and how our mother’s knew how to make us feel so great about this big step.
But cursive writing and the teaching of cursive is on the way out. Rachel Konrad once wrote in The Denver Post, that cursive writing is gradually being deleted as more and more students rely on keyboards for communication. Text messaging, instant messenger, e-mail: These are the skills that students are relying upon, and with that reliance has come a steady decline in handwriting skills.
So, cursive writing is disappearing. One could say, so what? Isn’t digital communication better, easier and more efficient? Maybe, but easier and more efficient is not always better, especially when it comes to developing character and building relationships. The question is: What happens when you gradually begin to lose skills that were once used to build character and demonstrate that a person was maturing because she was able to master a skill through careful practice? It is not surprising that along with the gradual disappearance of cursive writing has gone the habit of letter writing; a habit often called an art. So the culture loses cursive writing and no one notices, because in its place is faster, easier and efficient. I, for one, have not hand-written a letter since I do not know when. So much easier to sit down at the computer and rada-tat-tat out a letter in that way as opposed to actually “writing” a letter. Can you imagine me hand-writing my sermons? Let’s not go there!
But while this modern god is wooing us night and day, Alan Wolfe, author of the Transformation of American Religion, comments that cursive writing is not the only thing that is gradually disappearing. A host of important religious concepts along with the moral practices that undergird them are also disappearing, and not only in secular culture but among many, if not most, congregations.
For example, over the last two generations, the notion of a Holy God whose love will not tolerate sin and to whom all lives are accountable has nearly disappeared. It has been replaced by a benign Being whose love winks at personal sins. This God is often described in the vaguely religious language of contemporary spirituality and defended by those who decry the punishing, grace-less God foisted upon the people by fearful religious institutions and the preachers who offer a poisonous brew of guilt and shame. And if that is not enough, there is a different perspective of the media pouncing on those few clergymen who have led a less than exemplarily life, thus causing those teetering on the edge as to whether to believe in religion or not, to decide that the Church is the last place to go to find God (or they blame God all-together for allowing the acts the clergy have committed as if God somehow condones them).
Against such a backdrop, who but the most fearful could possibly be against a God whose tolerance is so expansive that anyone can find a place regardless of moral habits? Hypocritical? Probably on both sides of the fence.
Sin itself is a concept that depends upon a biblical moral universe of duties and obligations where people are accountable to one another and answerable to God. The concept has disappeared, rendered hopelessly quaint or even tacky, a sign of poor taste in public conversation, replaced by personal choices whose consequences are measured by their effects on one’s sense of personal well-being, rather than a larger universe of moral obligations that have their foundation in a response to a righteous and just God. Even on this Mother’s Day, mothers are not treated as they once were or as they still should be.
As C.S. Lewis famously reminded readers in Mere Christianity, a fuzzy, tolerant God is a far distance from the God whose mercy and grace are amazingly profound for the simple reason that God despises immorality. Grace is meaningless when there is no sin to be forgiven. In the wake of this steady cultural trend to throw off oppressive moral codes, including those of institutional religion, people have also thrown off the notion of binding moral obligations that are nonnegotiable. We believe that whatever good we do, we do because we want to, not because we have any obligation to do it.
Under these conditions, where everything is optional, how shall Christians respond to the instructions of Jesus to keep his word? In his final conversation with the disciples, he repeatedly tells them that loving him and obeying his commandments belong together. Cutting against the grain, Jesus actually says that by our obedience we show our love for him. The very thing that many associate with feeling and personal choice — love — is what Jesus says his disciples are to do because he commands them to do it.
This is not simply a possible option among many options that we can keep when it’s convenient for our schedule. It’s a binding moral obligation for the followers of Jesus. Period. We humans attempt to create wiggle room where there is none to have.
But, there’s more: Jesus promises that the consequences of a life of obedience to love are peace, intimacy with God, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. In other words, according to Jesus, the path to human fulfillment — peace, meaning, and integrity — lies in a life of obedience to him made visible by our loving others, day in and day out.
This kind of life requires hard work and practice. You could call it Cursive Obedience. And it’s not something you remember learning to do. It doesn’t “happen.” It’s a learned process. It’s a life. It’s a lifestyle.
Remember how hard you had to work to learn to write in cursive? The purpose of all that practice was not just cruel punishment, but the ability to communicate well in writing. Without the practice, there is no fulfillment.
Likewise, to practice the commandment of Jesus in a cursory way, choosing if and when to obey him based upon our own inclinations, will never lead us to a deeper relationship with God where we know we will find that peace that is promised. We don’t like to link obedience to fulfillment; it seems graceless and stern. But in fact, those who live a life of obedience often testify to joy and peace. Love is neither easy, fast, nor efficient.
Annalena Tonelli was a humanitarian who spent her life working for human dignity and setting up tuberculosis centers in Kenya and Somalia. She was assassinated in October 2003 in Somalia, by rebels who objected to her work among the poor. She was once asked what gave her the motivation to devote her life to some of the poorest and sickest people on earth, especially over so long a time when most people give up in despair or exhaustion. What was it that enabled her to be so positive and even filled with gratitude? She rarely ever talked about her religious foundation, thinking that people would dismiss her, but on this occasion she spoke of the key to her sense of peace and fulfillment and named the reasons that others often fall away. She said:
“The reason that more people don’t feel this way (peaceful, joyful, and grateful) is that they don’t try hard enough. You have to give time, you have to be patient; and then year after year, you’ll see that what matters is only love. But if you are impatient because people are not grateful or you were full of limits, you will not be happy. You need time.”
You need time. But then, you’ll see that what matters is only love. And that is what Jesus said to his disciples, too. Keep my commandment, love through thick and thin, day by day, year after year, and you will know the peace of God. Love as our mothers loved us - unconditionally.
How do we obey Jesus’ commandment to love over a lifetime without becoming grim or simply falling away? After all, love is only easy on Hallmark cards; in actual life it can be quite demanding. On the one hand it is akin to the practice of learning to write in cursive or learning any other skill. You simply do it in faith.
It seems hard for most of us to have the integrity to keep our own word and promises faithfully. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus takes this one step further. “Whoever loves me will keep my word…”. Last Sunday, Jesus admonished us to love not on our own terms, but as he loves. This week he commands us to keep his word. If we have difficulty keeping our own word (and realistically we do), how in the world can we be successful in keeping Jesus’ word? To top this off, Jesus’ word was much more than what he said; it was also how he lived. Jesus’ words and life teach us the example to follow; a life of self-giving that leads to salvation. To keep his word, is to keep his love. Two commandments which are really one.
To keep his word, would seem to be a daunting task, and quite discouraging at times. However we are not left powerless. We are given the help of God’s own presence, known as the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises us a divine indwelling through which we are re-created as persons able to live and love as Jesus did. To be created new, means to share in the life of the risen Christ in a very real way. By doing this; by keeping his word, means we open our hearts and souls to his presence. And thus allow him to change us, and allow us to re-learn a cursive way of life. Just as our mother’s did not give up on us, neither does Jesus give up on us.
Jesus’ word is a promise of a new relationship with him and the heavenly Father, where God comes and dwells within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Christian being is love that rests in the self-giving we are willing to offer. Keeping Jesus’ word ultimately means that we make the entire Gospel our own. This is no small task, but the reward, God’s indwelling that brings us new life, is not small either. By the gift of the Holy Spirit sent to us all from Jesus, we should know that we never have to feel like the whole task of living the Gospel falls on our shoulders alone.
What a wonderfully hopeful way to imagine discipleship over the long haul: with obedient delight offering our hearts to God day by day. This obedient delight, says Jesus will bring you the peace that this world can never give. God is always present, dwelling within us, to give us the strength we need to be faithful to Jesus’ commands. Just like using cursive writing all over again for the first time.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.