Gunsmoke in the Garden
10 September, 2000

Dear Friend,

. . . Often I think of myself as a Contrarian; that is, someone who cannot hear someone say this or that without immediately thinking the opposite must be true. This makes listening and reading difficult. During a sermon, for example, I find one point of disagreement after another. [See my letter of July 23, 2000].
. . . I have yet to hear a sermon about the first commandment I agree with. In my glorious opinion, the commandment to love God is first because it is the most difficult thing to do. It's first because we so easily forget it and, even remembering it, struggle.
. . . If the first commandment was to love my wife's squash cobbler, I'd be on my way to sainthood. Last Sunday she filled a large cookie sheet with her squash cobbler and I've savored it every day this past week. No struggle here -- except to get rid of my cute little protruding belly.
. . . Loving God is a struggle, especially to do so fully with heart, mind, and soul. The struggle is possible at all only because, for a few moments in this life, I have loved God fully. This isn't something I take credit for. Having had the experience, it leaves open the possibility of further experiences of fullness.
. . . If loving God is a struggle, it helps once a week to join others who know how to celebrate the love of God and to participate in a ritual that reminds us of that love. In a typical week, I may only experience that love as the most transitory of sparks, a pinpoint whose illumination comforts me even when things are darkest, like today when I went to the refrigerator and find there is no squash cobbler left.
. . . Loving God is a challenge even tougher than loving our neighbors. I don't have to tell you how hard it is to love people. And, if you have any sense at all, you know how difficult it is for people to love you. I'm talking about the real you, not the pleasing veneer you think we don't see through.
. . . Each person has something to teach us about God. Every time we learn to love someone, we learn a bit more of what it is like to love God.
. . . Think of life as a university. It's a horrible thought, isn't it? Think of each person as a course in the university. Yes, I know, that's a terribly degrading way to think of people but here's my point -- we aren't given the easy courses first and the harder courses later when we are ready for them.
. . . From birth, we are confronted by people so difficult to love that even a lifetime of learning might not prepare us to love them, certainly not fully, with heart, mind, and soul. From birth, we are surrounded by people as sweet as squash cobbler and as bitter as battery acid.
. . . This observation reminds me of the books of James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian turned writer whose ability to appreciate the wide spectrum of humanity is an inspiration. It also reminds me of the teaching technique of Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso from India.
. . . The sitar imitates song. In teaching students, Shankar would sing a phrase and the student, using the sitar, would play it back. First, Shankar would sing an easy phrase, something the student could mimic easily. Then Shankar would sing a harder phrase. Finally, he would sing a truly difficult tune and, after the student bungled it, Shankar would play it correctly on his sitar, asking the student to try again. Then the process would begin again -- with Shankar giving the student easy, challenging, and impossible bits of music to play, letting the student experience competence, struggle, and failure repeatedly.
. . . That's what God seems to do with us. Every day we meet people easy to love, who we struggle to love, and who we utterly fail to love.
. . . It's not the way I would have arranged things but I'm willing to admit that, perhaps, God knows better than I.


The top photo is of one of the conservatories at Longwood Gardens just after a fireworks display had filled it with a whispery smoke and the smell of gunpowder. Appropriately, the gardens were built by a man whose family's fortune began with gunpowder manufacturing. Click here to visit the Longwood Garden website.


R E S P O N S E S

Danny: You've outdone yourself again! With your permission, I'd like to quote some of this in a future sermon. If I do quote part of your writing, it probably won't be about the squash cobbler. Besides, isn't that an oxymoron?
. . . --Dale

Danny, I liked your thoughts, but I question whether the First Commandment is to love God.
. . . As I recall the First Commandment is the "Shema Yisrael!" In Luke, when the lawyer quotes the passage about loving God and neighbor, he is quoting from Deuteronomy where the fundamental command or the call, if you will, is to listen, to hear, and to heed God. The shema has this profound presupposition that God's self-disclosure precedes our love of God.
. . . We cannot know who or what Yahweh is until Yahweh tells us. We do not realize that it is God who has done great things for us -- as in liberating the Hebrew slaves or us -- until God tells us. God's telling us may, indeed, scare us out of our wits as it did the Hebrews. But, we cannot love what we don't know and we don't come to know God until we listen, hear and heed God when God choses to disclose God's Word. This Word expresses, as in John 3:16, God's love for the world.
. . . All communication is relational and all relationships --whether human or divine -- depend on communication. Until God communicates God's self to us, we can have no relationship with God. Alluding to the divine theophany at Sinai in Deuteronomy, Paul (in Rom. 10:5-17) suggests that God reveals God's self through preaching of the Word of God. God commands that Israel first hear, listen and heed God before God proceeds to list the commands or utterances which follow. This isn't accidental. The Word which is preached is Jesus Christ. Its about how God through Jesus Christ loved the world. The sound of this Word, to which God begs us attend, proceeds all.
. . . -- Peace, Mason

Mason -- Just the sort of reply I'd expect from you -- one which makes me wonder if I really am a Contrarian, simply because I agree with everything you say (except, of course, the parts I didn't understand).
. . . You didn't mention it, but I love the story of the transfiguration because the disciples are told to listen to Jesus. That is what they are called to do, not build something; that is, the way to honor God is to listen, which means, as you say, to hear and heed.
. . . I agree we cannot love what we don't know. But what if we know just a little for a little while, say, briefly through a glass darkly. I say we can love God even when we know very little, the smallest piece. Then, as we know more, the love is fuller, deeper, truer. But all we need is the smallest spark. How does that sound to you?
. . . --Danny

Danny, I think you got the drift! Your observations about the Transfiguration were on point at dead center.
. . . But how much "knowing" and understanding is enough? How much is too little? First, the issue doesn't seem to be about the quantum of intellectual or academic understanding but about our capacity to take God at God's Word and trust God. Otherwise, most of us would be sunk. We'd have to exclude most of the human race -- certainly those less educated and less sophisticated, those mentally ill or mentally retarded. And, this question was really at stake in the theophany at Sinai. God had already proved his trustworthiness and his credibility by having liberated the Hebrews from Egypt. Now, he asked them to listen.
. . . So the issue isn't how much do we need to know to love God but do we trust what we are hearing! But how much trust is sufficient? At Luke 17:5ff Jesus tries to answer this same question with a wonderful oriental hyperbole about having faith the size of a grain of mustard seed. I suspect that the "apostles" (note Luke's shift in descriptive word he uses -- from disciples in Lk. 17:1 to apostles Lk. 17:5!) wanted a more definitive description of the End Time which they believed was soon to come.
. . . They didn't want to be caught off guard. They wanted to be able to read the signs of the times to be prepared. But Jesus refuses to play their game and instead uses the hyperbole about having faith the size of the grain of mustard seed. It isn't about having the intellectual skill of being able read the signs of the times, the Book of Nature or even the scriptures. Its about trusting God. Through this trust comes a whole different category of "knowing" which is summed up in Anselm's notion of faith seeking understanding.
. . . Which brings us full circle. In the Transfiguration, Jesus implicitly supplants Moses and the disciples are told that "This is my beloved Son, hear ye, him!" But what we hear and heed is a paradoxical kind of loving -- that gives itself up for the whole world and which is self-denying to the point of dying for us. As Paul says, "That proves God's love for us . . . while we were still sinning Christ died for us!" (Rom. 5:8). God's trustworthy acts precede and evoke our trust and this trust seeks a fuller understanding.
. . . So, it seems that all we have to know is that God has entered our lives with acts of grace, forgiveness and liberation. The rest is ephemera.
. . . -- Peace, Mason

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