The Measure of Love

The trees right now are absolutely breathtaking. Every year about this time I say something like, “I think this is the prettiest fall I’ve ever seen.” But it feels that way, doesn’t it? The orange, yellow, red, and green trees all together—the bright fall sunlight illuminating everything—the swirling leaves as they spiral toward the ground as you’re driving by; it truly is a masterpiece, a balm for the soul, a living, changing landscape of color that is a loving gift from God.

And although we get to be the grateful recipients of this beautiful gift, we don’t have to do much in response except enjoy it. Oh, we do feel appreciative and we take pictures on our cell phones and we may have some raking to do. But each year in its cyclical pattern, the green vibrance of the growing season gives way to this crown of the year—the massive, colorful celebration at harvest-time. And of course as we all know too well, after this brief moment of riotous color, we will be turning toward the quiet grays and browns of winter.

But here’s an interesting science fact you may not remember from elementary school: The colors that we see and love so much in the fall don’t just appear for a few short weeks as the weather turns cooler. Those colors we’re seeing just now are actually a part of the leaves all along, from the time they begin life as a tiny bud and then as they begin to grow and unfurl into widening green leaves. During the growing season, the leaves have an important job to do: they capture light, water, and carbon dioxide and convert those elements into nutrients for the tree. It’s the Chlorophyll in the leaves that captures the light, and Chlorophyll is also what makes them green. So during spring and summer, when the leaves are busy capturing the season’s light, their true colors are masked by the vibrant green of the enzyme that helps them do their jobs.

In the fall, as the light changes, the days grow shorter and the nights grow cooler, and in response, the tree releases less and less chlorophyll until finally it stops altogether. The real colors of the leaves—red, orange, yellow, and gold—begin to show through, and the leaves start to send their remaining nutrients to the roots of the tree to help it prepare for the coming winter. Gradually the leaves dry and curl, and the place where they are connected to the branch begins to loosen, preparing for their flight to earth. At the right time, when the branch is ready and a gusty breeze available—or maybe not, sometimes they don’t need a breeze–the leaves will fall to earth in yet another act of loving service to the tree, first to blanket and provide insulation for the roots to protect them from the cold and wet months to come, and then eventually to become a layer of organic matter that continues to feed the tree as it decays, still a part of nourishing the living landscape.

Can you hear in this what a loving system of service God has built into the support and nurturance of life? All the constituent parts have a job to do—the soil and roots, the tree, the leaves, the air and light and rain? It’s all part of the system created to sustain life—not just our lives, human lives—but all life, which God loves and cares for, tenderly, plant by plant, person by person, leaf by leaf.

So these beautiful colors we enjoy are really part of a remarkable process that happens continually, consistently, and on a scale that boggles the mind. An average deciduous tree may have more than 200,000 leaves—large trees may have as many as one million!–all going through this intricately ordered process at the same time. And many trees live 30 to 40 years or longer. Think of the vast community of life, year after year, rising and falling in the life cycle of each tree—each one!—in your yard, along your daily drive, all across the country and the world.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see where love fits in to a process like this.  Here is how Early Friend Isaac Penington defined love:

"What is love? What shall I say of it, or how shall I in words express its nature? It is the sweetness of life; it is the sweet, tender, melting nature of God, flowing up through his seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto himself, both in nature and operation. It fulfils the law, it fulfils the gospel; it wraps up all in one, and brings forth all in the oneness. It excludes all evil out of the heart, it perfects all good in the heart. A touch of love doth this in measure; perfect love doth this in fullness."

Isaac Penington saw God’s love as the perfection present in the system designed to support and uplift all life, a system that thankfully includes us as God’s children—or creatures, Penington might say. The sweetness of life is made evident by the high intelligence of the system designed to support it. For the trees, this involves an elaborate means by which each leaf contributes to the well-being of the whole. In our families, it involves living out those qualities of God’s character—peace, love, compassion, honesty, integrity—that establish healthy relationships and an ordered home so God’s Light can be known. In our meeting, Love involves making space for God’s leading, caring for one another, respecting the unique qualities of each individual person, and doing all we can to live with goodness of heart.

Every bit of life that God has created and continues to maintain is invited to know the “sweet, tender, melting nature of God.” It is in us. It is us, the heart of our essential nature. When we cover it up with busyness and drama and needless pursuits, our true colors are masked for a time. But when we seek the silence, the chlorophyll of our strong personalities—our likes and dislikes, our opinions and our plans—begins to fade, and the real hue of God’s essence in us show through.

Our Old Testament reading today offers a simple way to stay in touch with that essence:

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.

Keep God’s goodness top of mind, the writer of Proverbs suggests, wearing God’s best qualities like a scarf around our necks, the coat across our shoulders. God’s love should be written indelibly in our hearts and souls as the intention, the ideal of our lives. Whatever else we might reach for, whatever might attract us, we should never let the Love of God slip from first place. It may sound like a big idea, an impossible goal; but really living in touch with God’s love is as simple as choosing to be kind.

This brings one of my favorite hospice patients to mind. She is now 96 years young and still feisty and full of life and enjoying every day. Her story has always been full of family and humor; she moved to Indiana from the “hollers of Kentucky” in the early 1940s as a newlywed, when her husband found good-paying work that got him out of the coal mines. Soon three of her brothers came to share their small two-room house as they all found jobs and sent their money home to help support the rest of the family. She cooked and cleaned for all the men, and even though it was a crowded and sometimes noisy home, it was a happy one; she has good memories of playing cards and sharing music on long summer evenings.

Almost 80 years later, with four kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids raised, she still feeds everyone who visits and refuses to let people leave without taking some doilies and potholders she crocheted herself. When I arrived for my visit last Tuesday, she was at the counter by the sink, sealing the jars on the pear preserves she’d just made, her rollator at her side. And that’s all the room there was in that small space—just enough for her and her rollator—so I stood on the other side of counter as we talked.

I thought of all the love, all the care, the recipes, the remedies, the comfort that she had cooked up in her tiny kitchen over the years, feeding not only her husband and children but any hungry friends they had—she had many “adopted” and borrowed children in addition to her own—and also church friends and crafting friends and neighbors who needed a meal or a smile. She told me about the barn parties she and her husband put on every fall with huge vats full of ham and beans, cornbread that filled several tabletops, and more desserts than they probably have in heaven. It sounds like people came from all over the county, and they would have comedy skits and music and make it a night to remember. The echoes of the joy are still there in her house—and in her eyes and her laugh, and in the laughter and love of her kids and grandkids and friends.

When we go to measure the value of love—the good it can do, the blessing it brings—where do we even begin? Do we begin with a 19-year-old newlywed who said, “Oh I suppose” when her brothers wanted to follow her to Indiana? Do we begin with the roots of the family tree—the parents who taught the children to share and help each other, to be good to one another and care about the qualities God said are most important?

When we look a little closer to home, in our own lives, how do we measure the love we have received and the love we give? Where did it begin? Did it come from a mother who held us as an infant and sang us to sleep? Did it begin with her parents, who cared for her and modeled a good and loving life? Was it in the environment, the soul, the culture, the church? Perhaps all the love we’ve ever known or shared is truly an expression of God’s love—the deepest law of nourishment and belonging in a living universe. It didn’t start with us, and it won’t end with us. We are part of a loving system designed not only to support our lives but to give us joy in the living, every single day.

Our New Testament reading is one we all know well—and it shines a spotlight on love as the primary quality that brings all the others to life:

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

We may have reached all kinds of accomplishments and done all kinds of things, amassed great wealth and traveled to exotic places, but if we haven’t yet learned to live with love, we haven’t yet found the most important thing. We may even have great faith, Paul says—the faith to move mountains—but still our lives will be empty without love. And we’re not talking about romantic love here, as in finding the right partner, or even family love, where everyone at home gets along. Paul is talking about our capacity to love, our willingness to be open to others, the intention of our heart to look for that of God in all, to receive and enjoy and share our connection with other living beings—not above them or below them, but together celebrating this great gift of life and honoring the essential spirit in one another.

Paul paints us a precise picture of how this system of God’s love works:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,"-- we are leaves, remember--"but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears."

That is how life can work, as God created it. We all fit together in a great and beloved community where one person’s gift fits another’s need and so there is no lack, no hunger, no division, no jealousy, no hate. We are open to the light we receive, and we take it in and it nourishes us. And then we can share it with our community, for the good of all. It’s not such a far-fetched idea: all the trees around us are doing it right now. When we let God’s love inspire our actions in the world, our true and soulful colors will begin to show through. Our world can—even now–be transformed.

In closing, I offer this poem from the poet Hafiz:

“I sometimes forget that
I was created for Joy.
My mind is too busy.
My Heart is too heavy
for me to remember
that I have been called to dance
the Sacred dance of life.

I was created to smile
To Love
To be lifted up
And to life others up.”


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