Acts 17:22-31 • Psalm 66:8-20 • 1 Peter 3:13-22 • John 14:15-21
Today's readings provide much food for thought, with a flavor of high school material – if/then clauses, of all things. The psalmist declares that if he had cherished iniquity, then the Lord would not have heard him (v. 18). Paul tells the Athenians that since we are God's children, we ought not to think of idols made of metals as gods (v. 29). The writer of 1 Peter adds that even if one suffers for doing right, then so much the better (v. 14). The clear winner, though, is John 14:15: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
If/then clauses come to us courtesy of two disciplines: math and grammar. You may remember if x then y: that is, x guarantees y. You may also remember the subjunctive mood, perhaps from a foreign language class. Already wincing? Groaning? I'll keep this short. In the reading, the subjunctive seems like a warning – encoded in the grammar – not to put the cart before the horse. If you love me, you will keep my commandments tells us not only what to do but also the order of things: begin with love. Then following the directions of Jesus is a natural thing, it will just happen! Love for a teacher leads one to following his teachings. On the other hand, following teachings without love for the teacher is difficult.
Love itself is a bit of a grammar nightmare. It means so many things in so many situations, it almost means nothing. To me, love means a kind and genuine regard for another, delighting in another person or thing for himself, herself, or itself – for their own beauty and not necessarily for how they make you feel. When a person has such a regard for another, their influence can lead you to go in a different direction than you might have gone on your own. My own story comes from the day I learned to bake bread.
I was in graduate school at the time, and a dear friend had once again made a wonderful supper for a group of us. On the menu was his homemade bread. When I asked him for the recipe, he offered instead to come over and show me how. Later we spent a wonderful Saturday, where I learned how to get the yeast to rise, how to keep the dough warm but not too hot, variations of kneading, and finally, baking the bread. It was an absolutely glorious companionable day that I still recall with details like what bowl I used for the starter. For many years, I made various breads for and with our family including a Christmas brunch tradition of cinnamon bread still carried on by our children.
Could I have learned this from a set of directions in a recipe? I doubt it, although I suppose, if I had tried enough times, I could have figured it out. Would I have incorporated bread-making in my life for the next forty years? I very much doubt it. What mattered first was my friend's wisdom, in knowing that my naïve request for a recipe by itself simply would not do. Then it was the time together, and the simple fun we experienced that day. I loved, I delighted in it all: the smell, the careful attention to detail, the kneading, the way the ingredients came together, and the loaves themselves.
As we baked bread together that day, I took careful notes of each step, following them for years until I knew the directions by heart. To love anyone or anything involves an ardent devotion to the subject itself – a student of the game, so to speak, whether the game is baseball or breadmaking or the beloved. Being attracted to something can create a curiosity, drawing both one's intellectual reason and one's emotions into a focused attention. If one is fascinated, then one is ready to follow where a person or subject or idea leads. Being true to one's own interests – delighting in them, finding the truth in them – comes first. What follows is an increased capacity to remain loyal to what is true.
Morning: What do I delight in? When and how can I explore what matters to me today?
Evening: Where today, did I find beauty and truth to delight in?
Psalm 66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.