This Carpenter Seems To Know A Lot About Love (John 15:9-17)

Most people don’t re-read books.  If you’ve read a book once, you rarely go and do it again.  Unless it’s a classic, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or something of that quality, we rarely tread the same ground.  On the other hand, we’ll see the same movie countless times.  The books that changed our lives, even the good ones, are usually a one-time encounter.  It’s not as if the endings change.  If you read Moby Dick for a second time Captain Ahab and the whale don’t suddenly become friends.  However, I do know Russians that are continually reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  They are plowing through, a page or two a night, of some of the longest novels ever written.  They do this year after year.  Do you know why they do this?  It snows a lot over there.

Here’s my point:  I never re-read John Grisham.  I re-read the Bible.  I come back to these words day in and day out.  If I’ve read them hundreds of times before, it doesn’t matter.  I will read them again.  All the rules of re-reading books are null and void when it comes to the Bible.  The ending may not change.  We change.  How we hear and receive the stories evolve over time.  No two encounters with the Bible are ever the same.  So yes, when you read the Bible, it’s as if the whale and Captain Ahab can become friends.  Some days you’re Ahab and other days you’re the whale.  That’s how life works.  That’s how the Bible works.

One of the passages I’ve returned to, whether by assignment or curiosity, is John 15.  This is the IKEA furniture assembly instructions of the Gospels.  On the surface, it appears so simple.  The words look easy to understand and follow.  I should be able to get this and reproduce the instructions exactly as follows.  Do this, say this, stand here, and the finished product should be Christ like excellence.  I’m here to tell you it’s hard.  It’s never as easy as it looks.

My first observation is this:  how does a carpenter know so much about love?  Each time I return to this passage, I marvel at the depth of his knowledge and wisdom.  How should I put this?  He uses words sparingly, meaningfully, like a carpenter choosing from a small supply of wood.  The finished product is designed somewhere in his mind.  We only witness the individual pieces of being cut, formed, and shaped.  Each new piece, in and of itself, is a work of art.  Each begins to connect to the other in such a way that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine a time when these two pieces of wood were not united to form part of the larger whole.

Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, says “I too have loved you”.  Jesus loves us, this we know.  Do we?  Is it possible that we can understand the depth of love the carpenter from Nazareth hold for us?  Even as it on display and crafted by hands; do we see and understand what we claim to know?

What keeps us from knowing Jesus’ love?  Why do we say “this we know” but actually don’t believe him?

We live in a sometimes depressing world that pushes our self-esteem in the gutter.  Whether we realize it or not, our self worth is attached to the way others respond to our existence on social media.  Jesus’ love doesn’t equate to money in the bank.  We’re condition to think that real love is somehow tied to real money.  We, like countless country songs tell us, look for love in all the wrong places.  The list could go on and on.  The point is this:  we don’t believe that Jesus loves us because we allow the world to make a convincing case for not believing Jesus.  Once the joy’s been removed from your life, the cynicism creeps in and you’ll believe anything but the simple truth of the Gospel:  Jesus loves you.

Jesus goes on to say, “I love you” because he wants us know joy.  He links knowledge of his love to a realization of joy.  The two dovetail together like the corners of a cabinet.  Jesus wants us to be joyful.  Joy is the antidote to the cynicism which works destroys the simple craftsmanship of Jesus’ love.

Jesus loves us and we are to love each other.  Jesus’ love is a reflective experience.  Love leads to a joy that doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Jesus’ love is lived and shared with others.  When we go to an art museum, we stand before a great work of art.  Looking at a painting is an intensely personal experience.  What’s happening, at that moment, is between you and the artist.  It’s not that way with the carpenter.

Jesus’ love fosters a sense of joy that is simultaneously personal and communal.  We cannot be in relationship with Jesus without also being joyfully engaged in the lives of others.  If both aren’t present, we’re not in loving relationships, either with Jesus or those around us.  Isolationism, narcissism, and artistic dead ends will not be found in his craftsmanship.   If you can only see yourself in Jesus’ work then something is wrong.  This is my commandment, he says, “Love each other as I have loved you”.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Food for Thought-Pouring Flat Beer on Aunt Hazel’s Grave

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I didn’t know how to read until well after I was born. My momma, serving a life sentence for shooting my daddy in the eyeballs when I was eight, was not around to read stories to me or enroll my hydro-cephalic head in the women’s correctional pre-kindergarten literacy classes. Additionally, daddy’s bullets to the eyeballs seemed to have created some sort of genetic issue which made me as blind as a bat (at least for a time). As I said, I couldn’t read.

Momma shot daddy one night on the front porch while I (in utero) and three lawn ornaments watched in amazement. Daddy drove the second shift Schlitz beer delivery route for the honky-tonks, strip joints, and low-budget funeral homes in Surry County. One might think, given the late nights he kept, a handsome and strapping man like my daddy, who plied the nectar of the devil could pick up any number of grieving women from places like the Neon Palace Funeral Home. It wasn’t the case.

Daddy’s eyes, the ones momma shot out, never strayed far from what he could see while sitting in his old recliner or the front seat of his delivery truck. The night he came home from his last run mama finally realized the beer truck wasn’t out restocking bars, drink machines or caskets all over the county. Looking outside the front door, there it was, parked right across the street in her sister Hazel’s driveway.

Three hours later, when he returned from his nightly delivery, the excrement hit the proverbial wind rotation device. Names were called, accusations were leveled, and Hazel admitted to being a slut. Mama was mad. She went into house and found the Prince Albert can; the place her granddaddy kept his old Confederate derringer. To paraphrase the old Afro-American spiritual, “she never said a mumblin’ word.” She shot his eyeballs out. One right after another, pop-pop. Hazel said one rolled around on the floor for a few seconds before the dog took it. Both eyes now reside on a shelf in the same Prince Albert can with the derringer.

None of this changed the fact I couldn’t read. Growing up in prison, I was first exposed to literature through boxes of donated books sent to the prison library. The books people send to prison libraries are those believed to be unreadable and unwanted in mainstream society. Because I couldn’t see, I went each day and listened to someone read me the titles of books. Because my memory is short, I can’t remember them all but many were by a man whose last name was “Patterson”.

When I was nearly 19, the prison doctors told me I didn’t have to stay there any longer. I needn’t be there at all. Even though I didn’t kill my daddy and possessed a certain fondness for my momma, it was important for me to move on with my life. I needed to go home. This presented a challenge. I couldn’t see. Since the day of my birth and hearing of my father’s tragic death I suffered from sympathetic blindness. One of the prison staffers, a medical orderly serving three to five years for breaking and entering offered me a life altering piece of medical advice, “Open you damn eyes, fool!” Thanks to this timely wisdom I opened my eyes and began my journey home. It was the day before my 19th birthday. I left prison with a box of books from the library, three dollars, and a letter from my momma to give to her sister. I didn’t read the letter from my momma but I have a real good idea what it said. I did read the first two words. They were “Go” and “to”.

Hazel, my weak willed and sexually indiscreet aunt who destroyed my life, would now raise me as her own child. The thought of living with my mother’s sister, despite all my father once saw in her, filled me with no amount of dread. The nit-witted daughter of a hare brained sharecropper, Hazel never mastered the use of flour in baking or fire in cooking. We needed to eat.  I didn’t want the state to come and send me to live with my other aunt Jo Jo.  Would I burn the books I brought from prison or teach Hazel how to make fire? I thought one of my prison books might prove helpful. It’s was a boys adventure story from the early 20th century. Written by a famous British author JBK Worthington, it was the story of the Royal Canadian Mennonites of Peace. These Mennonites, in their big black hats would travel the far north of Canada building fires and praying for people to use peaceful means of resolving conflict. By rubbing two sticks together, over a piece of dried wood or paper, the Mennonites would create a fire. I was almost certain the same thing could be accomplished in our stove.

It was a great idea, at least on paper. Take dried leaves, old newspaper, and dried sticks to make a fire in a stove. If it worked for the Mennonites outdoors, why wouldn’t work indoors for me? After twenty minutes, my fire tee-pee was ready to burn and I was ready to pee. Exhausted by reading and fire-making, I went outside to the outhouse. Hazel, however, had neglected to inform me, that during the period of my voluntary incarceration and blindness, gas was installed. I was unfamiliar with the word gas, the smell of gas, or the knob which read, “On and Off”. The mechanics of modern home appliances were still foreign to me.  Before I could get back to the kitchen to finish my fire, Hazel came inside to try her hand at lighting the new gas stove.

Reports indicate the explosion was heard over three counties. Amazingly, I emerged unscathed, protected from the blast by quick thinking and a well-placed box of books. Hazel wasn’t so lucky. Bits and pieces turned up over the next week or so. Thank God for all of her tattoos or we would have never identified all of those little pieces. When it was all over, I decided to put her out back with daddy, right where she belonged.