Pencils Down

Listen here.

I have a pretty shameful memory from when I was back in the 4th Grade.

We were taking a spelling test, and I think this was the first year we had begun to check each other’s work. After taking the test, I passed mine to the student in the desk behind me, and got the test from the student in front of me, comparing his spellings with those our teacher Mrs. Lechleitner was now writing on the board for reference.

Looking down at his spelling test it had several errors, but they weren’t spelling errors. The test had been written in cursive, and poor Steven Brinkman — who was one of my best friends all through school — had written the cursive “m” with four bumps instead of three. (At this moment, feel free to draw a cursive “m” in the air with your finger!) Many of the words had the letter “m” in them, and while I knew that he had actually spelled the words correctly, I also knew that he was shaping these letters in the wrong way, and there I was with my first taste of power, a red-colored pencil in my hand. I marked them wrong. 

As soon as I gave Steven his test back, he spun around in his chair, wondering why I’d marked them incorrect when they were clearly right, matching what was on the board. I told him his “m” was misshapen, and should only have 3 humps and not 4, and as I heard myself saying it, I knew that I was in the wrong. He shot his hand up, and Mrs. Lechleitner came over to us to preside as supreme judge. She looked at the correct spelling, she looked at the misshapen-but-legible letters, and she upheld my grading. Penmanship is important, she said. The words were wrong. I felt awful. 

The problem I was running into there, my little fourth-grade self, was the issue of Interpreting the Law.

This is an issue that comes up again and again in the Gospels. You may remember the Gospel reading which concerned Jesus’ disciples picking the heads of grain to eat as they walked through the fields. They were accused of breaking the Sabbath rest—plucking the heads off of grain stalks is technically work. What does Jesus answer? “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” In other words, the rules about sabbath-keeping are for our benefit. We aren’t harming the dignity of the sabbath by eating a snack. Interpret the law by its spirit, and not its letter. 

Sabbath-keeping was one of 613 laws in the Torah. 613! Imagine how careful you had to have been to keep right with the law, and to keep away from all the 4th-grade boys with their red-colored pencils! At yet today, Jesus tells us: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Keeping the rules Jesus gave us matters to Jesus, here. He’s not saying that following the rules is wrong. But Jesus had taught us something about those 613 laws, summarizing for us that the whole spirit of the law exists in the following two rules: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Of course, I can look back at that day in the fourth grade and know what the right thing to do was. I’m much more sophisticated now that I’m all grown up, and hindsight is 20/20. Today’s issue—for my adult self and all of your nuanced grown-up selves—is this: how can we set before our eyes the spirit of what Jesus demands of us?

There is a cozy kind of mindlessness that comes with checking off all the right boxes, and yet Jesus asks us not to lift our red pencils against ourselves and others, but to think and feel and love first. And so I ask you, which is the easier task: to follow those 613 rules by the letter, or to follow the spirit of the two rules Jesus gave us, “Love God, and love one another.” 

— Kevin Newell, May 2020

Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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