Throw out the rules.
I have been waiting, impatiently, for Fall to arrive. This hot, humid weather of the last month has been annoying. The New York Times recently suggested that maybe we need a fifth season, not autumn, but something called "hotumn". The weather seems to be changing though, and I’m glad. There’s no doubt in my mind, autumn is my favorite season.
I was wistfully remembering a walk I took an autumn season years ago in Connecticut. It was down a road lined with trees aflame in red, orange and yellow leaves. It was a canopy of color, and the wind would rise up from time to time, sending down upon me a swirling shower of leaves, like burning shards falling from giant torches. I stopped for a moment, and sat down on a rock beside a lovely little stream.
Across the street from where I was sitting was an old white house. It had a big porch stretched around the front on the first floor, and leading up to the door was a neat aisle of purple and yellow chrysanthemum plants. The whole house had a meticulous, perfect look about it. An older gentleman, undoubtedly the owner, was raking leaves from two large maple trees that stood on the front lawn. As with the rest of the house, he had raked it all together slowly, methodically, deliberately, into two large, very neat piles. I watched him rake, wondering if he was as old as the house. At a certain point, when every single offending leaf had been removed from the lawn and carefully raked into one of the piles, he stopped and surveyed his work. Then he put down the rake and went somewhere behind the house.
A few moments after he left, I noticed some kids coming up the street. They were maybe 10 years old. When they walked in front of the old man’s house, they noticed the leaves, the two giant piles neatly arranged near the road. It was much too tempting for them to pass up, and I could see the idea spread across their faces simultaneously.
Suddenly one pushed the other into a pile, and then the others joined in. One after another they dove into the fiery mounds, and they were obviously having a lot of fun. They were giggling and laughing, whooping and hollering, picking up leaves in their hands and throwing them up in the air and at one another, and of course the mountains of leaves were rapidly becoming lakes and a multitude of leaf puddles, scattering everywhere and anywhere.
I was having fun just watching them, and I kind of wanted to go over there and jump in myself... but I didn't.
And then the owner reappeared. He came from behind the house struggling with a bunch of plastic lawn bags in his hand. When he looked up and saw the kids for the first time, he stopped dead in his tracks. For a moment, it looked like he might break into a smile.
But that moment disappeared, and this dark storm crossed his face. He moved quickly towards the kids—who hadn’t noticed him—and when he was near, he yelled at them. “Get out, get,” he said, waving his hands like a scarecrow come to life. “Don’t you know the rules?…” he said, sputtering, and I wondered myself, what were the rules? “Get out of here, get out…”, he yelled.
I thought he was going to have a heart attack. The smiles on the kids faces disappeared, and they went scampering down the street like they were running away from a bear who had just awakened to see his cave disturbed. They did make a mess, leaves scattered everywhere, and the old man stood there, bags in hand, surveying all the damage, muttering to himself. Then he picked up the rake, and began again the meticulous job of putting things back in order.
I discreetly watched him for a while. He raked and raked, and then began to put the leaves into the bags.
I thought about the words he yelled out to the kids: “Don’t you know the rules?…”, and wondered what exactly were the rules he believed we should be living by.
Of course I felt badly that all his hard work was undone, but to see those children jumping literally for joy into the mountains of leaves with such abandon… well, it was pretty wonderful.
Don’t you know the rules? What are the rules that you should follow on a beautiful October afternoon under the golden streams of a dying sun?
The Jews had 613 rules that you were supposed to follow. The Catholic Catechism is 846 pages in its paperback edition, and there are a lot of rules in it.
What is the greatest rule of life, what’s the most important lesson or commandment that we should follow, how shall we live? Well, said Jesus, how about love? How about the rule of love?
After Friday's fun and scary Halloween party for the children of Epiphany’s school, I went to get something from Gristedes. I walked down 21st Street, and as I approached the corner of 1st Avenue I spotted a man alone on the sidewalk, speaking sternly to a child I could not see. He was clearly upset, and was correcting some misbehavior.
As I got closer, I realized that the ‘child’ was a small dog, and the man was pointing at him and telling him that he was not obeying. “You know better than that, I’ve told you over and over again, you must obey me,” he said as the little dog looked up at him with these big eyes. The man picked him up and gave him a little whack on his behind, then placed him back on the ground. Apparently the dog was attempting to cross the street without heeding the warning of his owner. The man looked both ways, saw that the street was empty of traffic, and then shouted, “Go!”, and the little dog instantly ran across the street to the other side, turning to wait for his master as he followed in the crosswalk. “Good. That was better,” he said to the dog, and the dog and the man smiled at one another. They turned to go in another direction, and I walked on, smiling at what I had just observed, touched by the obvious love between dog and man. I was thrilled.
After Gristedes I wandered over to the river, and saw two couples wrangling away in some kind of October love. One pair were young, perhaps in their early 20’s, the other pair were gray-haired and seasoned. The older couple was holding hands, looking at a boat traveling down the East River. He reached over and kissed her on the cheek. She looked up at him and smiled. The younger couple was a little farther down the path, sitting on a bench, their faces nose to nose, whispering something private and affectionate. At a glance, I could see the passion in their faces, flushed with love. It gave me a little rush.
There is something about love, you know. How it makes you feel, how it makes the whole world around you feel.
When you’re deep in love, there is a kind of wild uncertainty, sometimes a deliberate abandon. Things are put in a completely different perspective when you are in love, and you put aside the ordinary ways, the routine order. When you’re in love, you do crazy things. You take giant risks. You cancel appointments. You buy extravagantly. You spend hours and hours making something. You circle the block a million times. You travel way out of your way. You rush to the street corner on your beloved’s command, "Go!".
When you’re in love, your true love is all that matters, or matters above all else. When you’re in love, the rules are not quite the same. Sometimes you throw the rules out altogether, or you subsume them in the one rule that guides all the rest.
That’s what Jesus did when he threw out the rulebook, leaving only two, probably the most wonderful and difficult rules of all: to love God, and to love each other as God loves us. Jesus knew that when love is calculated, measured and legislated, it ceases to thrill, to excite, and to inspire. In fact, it ceases to be love at all.
Love God, and love each other like God loves us. That’s it. Embrace with wild uncertainty, sometimes deliberate abandon. Unlike our ancient Jewish ancestors, the law of our God is not so tiny, so neat, so deliberate as a perfect pile of leaves, every single i dotted, every t crossed. No, the law of God that we follow in the example of our brother Jesus is a law that is much bigger, much more risky, daring and trusting. It involves picking up the leaves and throwing them, crazily, joyously, way up into the crisp air of a golden autumn afternoon.
And sometimes, it brings a great deal of pain. Take a look at that man hanging on the cross, take a look at what kind of pain it can bring. Suffering love is perhaps the most beautiful love of all, and the most Godly. The quiet, unnoticed, unheralded love that gives and doesn’t count the cost, that fights, and doesn’t heed the wounds, that toils, and doesn’t seek to rest, that labors, and doesn’t ask for any reward. Sometimes it even brings death.
But always, the rule of love that He followed brings with it undeniable, unbelievable, unrelievable fulfillment and ultimately, yes, joy.
Are you ready once again to throw the rules up into the air on a beautiful October afternoon under the golden streams of a dying sun? Shall we join him?