This spring has been a season of record-breaking floods across the Midwest, submerging farms, businesses and houses. The flooding this year could be worse than the historic floods of 1993, which devastated the region. In the coming days, the Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers are all at risk of spilling over their banks, levees, and inundating places like Sand Springs, OK, Jefferson City, MO, and a whole lot of small towns. The spillways in New Orleans are already open trying to get ahead of the coming waters. Places like Hardin, Ill., a village of about 900 people, sits in a particularly vulnerable spot on the Illinois River near where it flows into the Mississippi River. The city clerk updates river forecasts every 20 minutes to let the residents know if the village is about to become an island. It almost did on May 7th of this year. It will be a long weekend of watching and waiting.
It has been a hard winter and a harder spring for people from Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and other states along the Midwest rivers. So many things destroyed. So many people have lost everything. One of the local folks being interviewed remarked that although they had lost a great deal there were two things that were saved: (1) all their important documents kept in a storage unit equipped with a handle – just grab and go. (2) two boxes of keepsakes –not pre-packed, but the folks had previously thought about what exactly what they would take in an emergency – what would fit in a cardboard box. Probably good advice for us all.
I thought about it – what if I had just a few minutes to take one armful of things and rush out of the friary – what would I take? I don’t have many important papers, but what I do have are all in a single folder. That’s easy to grab and go. But what about keepsakes or things one holds dear. In no particular order I would probably grab my external back-up hard drive, a Franciscan habit in case I wasn’t wearing one at the time, my parent’s wedding picture, and like the people in the news story, a cardboard box of keepsakes (but I will have to think more about what goes in).
Why the backup hard drive? Well there are all kinds of files there, but what comes most to mind are (a) photographs covering a lifetime of friends, family and people in places I have ministered; (b) my journal of my time in Kenya and of all the people there; and (c) 25+ years’ worth of Bible study notes, commentaries and reflections. The Word of God is a keepsake and so are memories of the many people with whom I have shared God’s word. All of it pointing to people.
Franciscan habit – it is who I am and more importantly points to the people to whom I belong, whom I in relationship with, to my brothers in Christ.
My folks’ wedding picture – sure I have digital image – but it is not the same thing. There is something precious and dear in holding the very thing that was the gift.
In thinking about it, there is a commonality. Everything from the picture, to the box, to data stored on the back-up unit – they are all something I hold dear because they point to someone, I hold dear. What would be in your box? What are the things, who are the people whom you hold dear?
And that question goes to the core of the gospel. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, … Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23, 24). The love part we think we have a grasp on, but so often we simply understand “keep” as “obey.” Somewhere on my back-up hard drive are the notes which tells me that John uses an interesting word for “keep” – tereo. The basic meaning are: watch over, guard, hold, reserve, preserve someone or something, not lose, protect.
Note that “obey” is not one of the meanings. It seems to me that a good paraphrase of this word is “hold dear.” We are to hold dear, to keep Jesus’ words because that word points to the one we love – Jesus, the Christ.
And here is his word, his command given to us: Love one another as I have loved you. And the Living Word of God showed how he loved us. He served, healed, fed, liberated, taught, encourages, blessed, prayed, felt compassion with, forgave – he gave his life for us. This he did as his Father commanded, these things he held dear – we are the one he held dear.
This coming week along the banks of the flooding Midwest rivers, folks will be serving, healing, feeding, encouraging, prayers, and helping the ones they love, the neighbors they know, and folks they are just meeting in the boats, the shelters, and the aid stations. The hands stretching out to hold dear that one who grasps their hand – to help them with the keepsakes they carry, the things they hold dear.
The experience of the midwest rivers should give us pause and maybe prepare our own grab-and-go list. In that same way, this gospel should also give us pause and ask us to look into our own lives and ask the more important question – what parts of Jesus’ words do we hold dear? Who do we hold dear? Where in our lives are folks being swept away in rivers of trouble? Will we be the hands that grasps their hands and helps them with go-bags and cardboard boxes of keepsakes?
Then we will begin to gain a true understanding of the question Jesus asked Peter: Do you love me? Just look at the things we hold dear.