Remarks from last night’s Lenten Prayer Service:
From Chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”
My hair is naturally curly. But its not “Oh don’t you have charming hair!” curly, rather “Yikes, look at her hair” curly. I get a piece that sticks out in the front, and the back all bushes up, and I sleep with one hand on the side of my head and wake up looking like a cartoon monster. So most days I tame my hair, hoping to get myself a little more ready for the world: presentable, manageable, under control.
Years ago when I was taking Italian I remember being asked in class what parts of our bodies were most representative of our personalities. I don’t remember the context – we must have been learning the terms for body parts – but after others explained that they were flexible like their wrists or strong like their legs or perceptive like their eyes, I had to own to the face that I am wild, like my hair.
By all accounts I sprang from the womb with an enormous personality. Mouthy and opinionated, I got in trouble a lot in school. Reckless and impulsive, I got in trouble a lot out of school. I liken my adolescence to the taming of a wild animal. Discipline came at me from all directions, often in ways that were painful at the time, but I had to learn that constantly pushing my limits, even if it only resulted in catastrophe one out of every ten times, still had the potential to hurt me and other people.
Over time, I learned to discipline myself (imperfectly, mind you; to this day I am asked to lower my voice about twice a week). Although my friends tease me about what has been called my ‘relentless quest for self-improvement’ I know that if I don’t keep that discipline going, there’s no telling what will happen.
So, with my love of discipline, I have been accused of having a draconian approach to Lent. I make big sacrifices and large commitments, and make my best effort to let God set a watch over my mouth, limiting gossip, whining, cursing, rambling. And no, I don’t let myself go back to whatever I gave up on Sundays during Lent.
Yet I know these disciplines are only a means to an end: closer communion with God. As someone who has been compared to a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, I know well that all of my sacrifices and achievements mean nothing if I have not mastered that greatest discipline, the discipline of love.
“The measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” It is tempting for me to merely take comfort in that prophecy, confident that like my hair and personality, my measure will also be big. I am abundant in affection, enthusiasm, and laughter. But I can’t ignore the censure in Jesus’ words, because often the portions I mete out to the world are exemplary only in quantity, not quality. I can also be abundant in anger, in self-indulgent sadness, and in ugly moral righteousness. No simple sacrifice, no added almsgiving, can make up for the helpings of negativity that I have been known to heap onto the lap of the world.
Working more than one job, studying, conducting, singing – I interact with hundreds of people on any given day, and a candid assessment of these interactions reveals a lack of love that makes me ashamed. A student calls out my name with a smile, and I don’t notice until I am three steps past him down a crowded hallway. On the third rehearsal of a day I conduct entire pieces without looking up from my music stand. I have committed most of my adult life to ministry, and still I don’t always see the currents of grace that I swim in every day.
And so this Lent I recommit myself to loving other people. This is scarier than all my other rules and practices because it’s not about me and what I can accomplish – it is about what other people are to me and how I allow them to change me. And in the end, it is what we will be judged on – not on how many years in a row we gave up drinking or if we accidentally had bacon bits on a Friday, but on how well we loved other people.
To be merciful, just as our God is merciful: there is nothing in the world that is more difficult for me than this. I know my heart is capable of great mercy, but I can’t say I exercise it on a daily basis. I know I should always be ready to say “whatever you have done, no matter how terrible or frustrating or horrifying or dumb, I love you”. This takes an act of will. My lifetime of discipline is for naught if I don’t use that practice to direct my heart where it ought to go.
Sometimes God makes this act of conversion, of re-directing our hearts, quite easy. But we all know that most of the time it is not. Pray for me tonight as I will pray for you that we may prepare ourselves for that good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing. May we open our hearts to forgiveness and mercy, may we discipline ourselves to exercise caritas, and may we be abundant, wild and untamed in virtue and love.