A new preacher is in town. He doesn’t preach sermons in a church after the mandatory hymns and worship songs have been completed and he doesn’t stand behind a pulpit with a wireless microphone clinging to his ear. He doesn’t have the gelled hair, Greek tattoos up and down his arm, nor does he don a suit and tie with respectably marshaled grey hairs. He doesn’t wear any sort of provocative clothing attempting to raise our social awareness. In fact, he wears the most unbecoming of clothes possible, the type of outfit one might put on in the hopes of slipping in and out of a room completely unnoticed, even though he never does. He wears clothes that look as though he went to a thrift shop and tried to find whatever fit him best for the least price. Sometimes it’s a brand-named polo, other times it’s a stained button-up.
He did not come to make friends, he says, though ironically many people do befriend him. He’s seen lingering outside strip clubs, in the parking lots late at night where all the deals go down. People spot him emerging from the homes of the desperate housewives of the neighborhood, the women who seem to live out the stereotype without the comedy. One of his best friends is an IRS agent; one of them is a fundamentalist known for screaming about the judgment of God coming upon the country, another works in the fishing canneries one town over and swears like he’s getting paid for it. The preacher’s company does not speak highly of his standing.
He teaches in high school cafeterias and local restaurants after church. Sometimes he appears clean-shaven, crisp and clean, other times it appears as though he’s let it slide for a few days. Everything he says is divisive while simultaneously unifying, like applying a band-aid to a wound he just created. The Conservatives of the town despise him because he preaches more about social issues than those of morality; abortion and gay marriage don’t seem to concern him nearly as much as taking care of the poor. Liberals who listen to his words find him repulsively narrow-minded; he makes definitive statements that no one has the right to make. He has an answer for every question, and though he has no office with a framed diploma hanging over his head, he appears to be more knowledgeable than the best on both sides. He speaks as one who has authority though no one has given it to him. In this he manages to unify leaders in the town on both sides under mutual despise.
So they attempt to trap him. You’ve read the story; you know how it goes. The brightest minds from the town assemble together in the hopes of debunking him once and for all. Doctors and lawyers, journalists, priests, pastors, an author and a professor: all the intellectuals of the town brainstorm to find a question that will stump him, that will reveal to everyone he’s just another nobody from nowhere, and his message is nothing.
They consider their options:
“Are you for or against homosexuality?” No, they decide, too relative.
“Where do you come from?” Too open, he could say a lot of different things.
Finally they have it. The light bulb goes on, and they have their question. They turn to the lawyer in the group, a middle aged man with three kids, an ivy-league degree, tax receipts from his local church and a wife who hasn’t felt loved since their second honeymoon in Bermuda on their tenth anniversary.
“You’re good with words,” they say, “you ask him.”
And he does. The next Sunday they find him, talking to a modest crowd on the lawn of the Presbyterian Church, sitting on the grass. They approach him as a group, slowly. The lawyer glances back at them, united on this one front, then steps forward and interrupts:
“Teacher,” he says.
The man turns and looks at him, through him.
The lawyer sputters for a moment, but a diploma, six-figure salary and twenty years of experience in a defense court push the words forward: “ What is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
A hush falls on the crowd. The group of leaders looks at each other, smiling not on their faces but with glimmers of vengeful confidence in their eyes. They got him! They know it. He loves to answer in questions, but there’s no question to answer this one. He thinks he knows religion, thinks he knows the Bible but there’s no way he can know this. If he gives them one law, it will make it sound like all the other laws don’t matter; heresy to everyone who hears. And he knows that. He knows his only answer is to say “I don’t know” and in doing so he’ll have been stumped, humiliated and embarrassed in front of all these other people who worship him so.
The man pauses for a moment then looks the lawyer straight in the eye: “The greatest of the commandments,” he says, “is to love the Lord your God with all your heart all your soul and all your mind.”
There’s silence for a moment on the lawn. His gaze doesn’t lift from the lawyer, as if these words were meant in all infinity for this moment, for the lawyer with a wife who was at home wondering in the back of her mind when she would leave him and tell him she’d been seeing their neighbor for two years now. He spoke as if the words were meant in all of time for the young man who dreamt he’d be something more than his parents, who dreamt he’d find a way to “make” something out of himself, and having arrived at the top of the ladder he’d set out to climb, found that his salary, home, reputation and everything he worked for felt like sand in the fingers of desire. And yet, even in speaking these words to this lawyer, he moved his voice in a manner as though he were speaking for the entire cosmos.
“And not that you asked,” he continued, “but here’s the second: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these commands rest all the law and all the prophets.”
There was a hush before he turned and continued what he was saying to the people gathered on the lawn.
And there you have it. Love God. Love others. The mantra of every reformed evangelical who grew up with WWJD bracelets, attended youth group, partied through high school, grabbed cynicism with education, but then came back around after college by finding their way to a church that cares about social issues, hipster culture and seems to have a backbone. We tithe on Sundays, attend “Theology on Tap” on Wednesday nights, vote cynically and listen to Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West as we clean dishes each night. We take our theology with a sip of Chardonnay all the while wondering if the shirt we wear was sown by a poor child living somewhere on the other side, with the other half. We roll our eyes when we read another “progressive” blogger give a “relatable” perspective on some words of Jesus we’ve already heard a million times, but we’re interested so we pull up our Itunes, bring in some Bon Iver and declare that we are not Christians, we are Christ followers. We love God and we love others.
But this, of course, begs the question: what, in all of hell and heaven combined, does it mean to “love God”? This, of course, is the foundation upon which our religious and philosophical worldview is bent: but what does it mean? We all went to elementary school and took vocabulary quizzes, in which we knew that to define a word with the word itself equaled “wrong!”. “No,” our teacher wrote in the margins, “thoughtful does not equate to someone who is full of thoughts” (read: “smartass”).
So why do we now accept the phrase “Love God” as a satisfactory foundation for our faith when our very cultural association illuminates that we haven’t a clue what it means to “love” anything, much less who the object of our love may be. “What is love?” We scream on the dance floors every Saturday night, we scream in the midst of our broken marriages, the cuts on our wrists and politics on TV. “What is love?” We ask of our siblings that can no longer look us in the eye, of the woman who’s had an abortion and the man on the street corner holding a sign that says “God hates fags”. “What is love?” We cry through the flipping car of a driver who had one too many and lands his Toyota upside down in the ditch, of a memorial service for a man who was somewhat bored, somewhat confused and ended up shooting someone else before himself to prove it. “What is love?” We contemplate through our hymnals and praise songs on Sunday mornings before pondering it into the face of every pornographic advertisement and email from local dating sites our lonely hearts absorb. “What is love?”
If we can possibly find ourselves an answer to this question, if we can settle into our rocking chairs after sixty years of marriage, look at our spouse and see, in one moment, a collage of all the fights, sex, tears, screams, laughter, hatred, despise, hurt and commitment that a lifetime can hold, if we can hold a child in our arms, know they are our flesh and blood and there’s not a thing we wouldn’t do for them, if we can possibly bear the grace to be given a chance to lay down our life for a friend…if we can possibly attain to any sort of moment like this and declare to ourselves that we know what love is…well…then…what/who/how/which is God? If we can grasp the idea of love, but cannot grasp God…then where does that leave us? All filled up on love and nowhere to pour?
The question still eludes us.