SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12.
How does that work? How can you command someone to love? To be sure, you can command me to eat my spinach. But you can’t make me like it. Nothing illustrates the point better than my tortured relationship with the violin, an ill starred union that began in my fifth grade year. My teacher determined that my less than stellar handwriting was the result of a lack in manual dexterity. She suggested I take up an instrument that would require use of my hands and fingers. My parents encouraged me to choose the violin. I am not sure whether that was because we already had a violin that belonged to my brother and they were not keen on buying or renting another musical instrument, or whether they thought the finger action required to play it would best address my dexterity problems. Whatever the case may have been, I had no strong feelings either way. Thus, I readily acceded to my parents’ wishes, and so it was my career as a violinist began.
I entered into my studies with enthusiasm and determination. That lasted about a week. It soon became clear to me that learning to play the violin was going to be a long and tedious process. I had to learn to read music. There were scales to be memorized and tedious exercises to be repeated over and over again. I wanted out, but my parents were not the sort to look kindly upon quitting. So I persevered for the next two years, attending elementary orchestra practice where I occupied the last chair in the string section. When I reached middle school, I had a decision to make. The school required two years of music education. I could sing in the choir and ditch the violin. Or I could join the orchestra and continue playing that cursed instrument. I chose the orchestra. I was too self conscious to sing and so the choir was not an option. Although sitting in the last chair of the violin section was humiliating, it was at least a humiliation to which I had become accustomed. So I played violin in the orchestra (sort of) for the next two years, showing up to class and doing as little in the way of practice as I could get away with.
When I departed middle school for high school, I left the violin behind forever. I haven’t touched the violin again and never dreamed I would regret the parting. It was not until my mid fifties when I found myself married and living in a suburban neighborhood with three children of my own that I began to revisit my experience with the violin. It was Kira who brought back some of the old memories. Kira was a little girl that lived in the adjoining yard in back of ours. She sometimes played with my own children and she took up the violin at about the same point I did. Unlike me, Kira’s dedication stuck. She graduated quickly from irritating scales and simple tunes to more advanced compositions. By the time she reached middle school, she was making delightful music. Separated as our houses were by thick forsythia bushes, I seldom if ever saw Kira, but I used to sit out on our patio and listen to her practice on warm spring evenings when the windows were open and her sweet music drifted across the yard with the breeze. As I listened, I became aware of a sadness, a sense of regret. For the first time in my life, I understood what I had thrown away in my youth.
I doubt that all the practice in the world would have enabled me to play like Kira. But I might have become sufficiently proficient to play in community orchestras, church groups and at family gatherings. There is something magical about good music, something that draws us together and brings out the best in us. I see that now and I wish I had the skill to make myself a part of that magic. More importantly, I covet the sheer joy of making music for no particular reason and for no audience but myself. At the age of thirteen, I could not see beyond the tedium of practice imposed by the violin and how it stood between me and numerous other entertainments so enticing to kids my age. Now I understand the joys that awaited me and that I might have known-if only I had traveled further down the road.
I think that learning to love is a lot like learning to play the violin. It doesn’t come naturally, not even for talented people like Kira. Learning to listen instead of talking all the time takes discipline. Learning to recognize the telltale signs of joy, pain and longing in the tone of a friend’s voice, facial expressions and choice of words requires years of careful attention. Understanding the needs of a faith community requires the hard work of building friendships with its members, participating in its worship, ministry and mission. Learning to love the world instead of hating and fearing it requires regular and disciplined prayer for all its creatures, the environments that sustain them and the human family in all of its divisions and brokenness. Learning to love one’s enemies calls for acquiring the skill of placing oneself in the enemy’s skin and seeing the world through the enemy’s eyes. The love Jesus commands of us is not a feeling, but a habit of the heart shaping the way we encounter all the people in our lives from family to strangers. It is a skill perfected by practice, practice, practice.
As I said, I paid a price for my lack of effort and diligence with the violin. How much greater, though, the price for never learning to love! That price is well articulated by the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his monumental work, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a scene where the sainted Father Zossima, elder of the local monastery, addresses the monks under his leadership for the last time from his death bed:
“Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth, the power of saying, ‘I am and I love.’ Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one, having left the earth, sees Abraham’s bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, ‘Now I have understanding and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly, active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth; there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence.’” Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov (Trans. by Constance Garnett, c. 1950 by Random House, Inc., New York, NY) p. 387.
The greatest tragedy is not death. The greatest tragedy is that people die without ever having lived. The worst thing that can happen is that you will hear the music of love only when it is too late to learn it, play it and dance to it. “Abide in my love,” says Jesus. John 15:9. Love is what life is for and life without it is wasted.
Here is a poem about learning to love-at the beginner’s level.
I Lay Down My Life
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13.
I have never laid down my life.
Not all of it anyway.
Just bits and pieces.
The hospital visit I made
The day I planned to go fishing,
The neighbor’s kid’s
school band concert I attended
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon
When I would rather
Have been doing
Just about anything else,
All the times I said,
“Well, that’s an interesting point”
When I felt like saying
“You’re full of crap,”
All the rude check out people
Bank tellers, receptionists,
At whom I smiled
And wished a good day,
All the Sundays I went to church,
Albeit mostly for the wrong reasons,
And in spite of the fact
I was sorely tempted
To stay home with my coffee,
Bagel and the New York Times,
All the times I’ve contributed
Money to good causes,
Though nothing truly sacrificial
And more to salve my
Than in zeal for justice,
All the birthday, anniversary,
Sympathy cards I’ve sent
To show that I cared,
Though probably less
Than the words expressed-
If you add all that up,
It doesn’t come close to a life.
Still, these fragments
I lay down,
Short of the whole
And of mixed quality,
Daring to hope that someday
They’ll look something