February 19, 2017
Letters Home (from a retired pastor to his family, the Church)
I was not a good student in my younger years. I think that was because I was bored during my grade school and high school years. I simply did not pay attention in class. I relied on getting through by doing well on the exams. Consequently there were several fine details of that educational experience I missed. One was the finer points of English grammar. In those years I knew nothing more about adjectives or adverbs than the man in the moon.
What has been interesting to me is how the things I thought I had not learned as a child began to unfold for me as the years have gone by. It is as if I had actually heard my childhood teachers and had learned much more than I realized. Today, if you asked, I would tell you that adjectives and adverbs are what adds color and character to nouns and verbs. They function like many of the things that make our lives worth living.
Have you asked yourself what makes life worth living? As Americans we might answer “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Others of us may say having work or ways to contribute to society makes the difference. Still others might respond that having family and friends makes life worth living. Maybe members of the 1% of our society might say having all you want fills the bill. Those of us who have experienced any of these have probably found that they are no guarantor of a life that feels fulfilled and worthwhile. During my time as a parish priest I have sat with many who were struggling their way through this situation. There is little that is more demoralizing than to come to the point when you have all you had striven for and ultimately realized that it has not filled your soul. This is when we realize something more is needed, and it all begins again. Maybe we simply need to add a little adjective or adverb to our lives.
Recently I read an article in Christian Century (11-23-2016, page 10, Dean Nelson) that quoted a story that you may be familiar with. As the story goes a new doctor had gone to volunteer with the Sisters of Charity in Kolkata. He thought he had a great deal to offer because of his professional skills. Upon his arrival he saw all those in need and knew he had come to the right place. To his amazement, instead of being assigned medical responsibilities he was instructed to shovel a pile of kitchen trash into buckets and carry it to the dump many blocks away. After completing his task, and becoming filthy in the process, he reported back to Mother Teresa’s office and noticed the sign above the door. It read, “You can do no great things — only small things with great love.”
At one time or another most of us come to the point where we deal with the issue of a life worth living, and the questions of meaning and purpose. For many of us these are constant themes as we go about our daily work of finding our way through this world. It is very tempting to look for the one answer that will satisfy our need. Is it this job, that place, this person, that mission that will finally satisfy the need in our heart for meaning, purpose, and ways to make our life worth living? Another saint, Paul, has joined his voice to the words on that sign above Teresa’s door. In his first letter to a congregation in Corinth Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” He goes on to say that without love it is as if he were nothing and he gains nothing.
It is possible to lead a life doing all the “right” things and still feel empty. If our lives are solely motivated by a sense of obligation, resentment, or hubris we can be left feeling as if our existence had no color. What we need is the right adjective and adverb to make the difference. That thing that makes all the difference is love, self giving, self sacrificing love; the love that is referenced in the sign the young doctor noticed above Mother Teresa’s door. When we add this modifier to the things we do in life everything changes and becomes worthwhile. That love is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.. (BCP 216)