Sunday I preached on Mark 12: “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The next day I got a text:
I kind of don’t like dropping a biggish question like this in text because its typically a poor medium for complex/nuanced discussion, but its been on my mind since Sunday…
“What does the first commandment, love the lord your God, look like in practice in my everyday life? And feel free to call or tell me to come up to church or like recommend a book if you don’t like to text.”[I scheduled an in-person conversation in response to this text, but we both agreed this question might also be blog worthy, so here goes.]
First of all, we can tell from what I did and didn’t preach what interests me lately about the Greatest Commandment and it’s companion. I find the parallel of the two commandments especially attractive, the way our love of God and love of neighbor are, in some senses, the same thing.
And since the “practices” of love of neighbor are more immediately hands on and bodily than the seeming abstraction “love of God,” I’m not surprised neighbor-love and its practical implications was more clear in the sermon.
That being said, in the sermon I spent a good amount of time also talking about the name of G-d. “Taking care” in the ways we name G-d is central to both written and spoken forms of Judaism and Christianity. Because G-d is holy, even the name of G-d, or how we name G-d, is holy.
In Judaism, they say The Name (Hashem). In English we translate the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) as LORD, capitalized. There isn’t a precise way to translate a name that is written as a word one can’t or shouldn’t speak, so we do the best we can.
By now you’re asking yourself, “How is this practical in my every day life?”
Well, in one way it’s very practical. It’s training in how to speak of G-d.
There’s some possibility we shouldn’t speak of G-d at all. Ludwig Wittgenstein for example said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Maybe there should be complete silence around G-d. And yet there’s also the argument of Karl Barth, a relative contemporary of Wittgenstein, who said that speaking of God was the impossible possibility. We cannot speak of God; so we must.
I don’t know what to make of some of these paradoxes. They are embedded in some of the most fascinating theological and philosophical reflections of the 20th century.
What I do know with greater certainty, however, is this: we see modeled in the dialogue between Jesus and the scribe an invitation to speak with one another about God and God’s commandments as precisely one way to practice the commandments.
So it’s an invitation. Specifically, it’s an invitation to consider that the love of God includes reflection on how we speak (grammar) and consideration of what we mean when we say the name of God (theology).
Want to get real practical? Read good theology.
Do you doubt that reading theology is practical? If so, why? Isn’t it possible the greatest guardians of truth and faith and life are holed up in cubicles in the backs of libraries, and without them, everything would fall apart?
Okay, Pastor Clint, now that you’ve convinced me that reading books fulfills the law and the prophets, what else you got?
Well let’s not completely abandon the practical implications of the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength.
Clearly, there are habits or activities that are designed to express this love.
One is worship. I mean, we love what we worship and worship what we love, no? Which is why when somebody is really in love with someone, we say they worship the ground they walk on.
I have some mixed feelings about what gets to count as worship. Is worship a feeling, especially feelings of abandon and ecstasy, in which case we all need to take lessons from the Pentecostals? Or is worship a formal language we implement and hope G-d doesn’t strike us down for our cheekiness, in which case we need to take lessons from the Pentecostals?
Or is worship mutual sharing, like with Communion, or is worship sitting in silence waiting for the Spirit to speak (thank you Quakers)? Or is worship the reading of ancient texts aloud and interpretation of them?
Anyway, however we slice it, it seems one way humans have committed themselves to loving God is through weekly, daily, hourly, or even perpetual worship.
Love typically involves talking, right? So prayer. Does G-d talk back? Well, some people tell me G-d does, so I have no reason to doubt them. I myself never hear that speech as auditory speech, but I sure do sometimes have intuitions, and sometimes the voices of others sound like G-d to me.
And maybe worship is general reverence. Like cherishing life, creation itself, the given-ness of things, their “thrown-ness” (if you’ll allow just a bit of phenomenology).
So anyway, I guess we love G-d by worshipping G-d. I lead worship every single week, at least twice, often more frequently, and I still have no idea what exactly that means. But I do it anyway, and I think we only discover what it means in the ongoing practice of it.
Okay, if I might add one more, the one that is most difficult: don’t have any other gods.
This last one is particularly difficult. Almost all of us are beholden to many gods, and some of them have great power in our life. Off the top of my head, I can think of:
Neoliberalism — The Market — The Ideology of the Nation State — The Self (or the abnegation of the Self)
Luther famously wrote: “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.”
The problem with some of these gods is our seeming inability to even imagine a life without them. Even those of us incredibly skeptical of free markets still rely on them. And although I believe neoliberalism is a tired abusive god I also see it swallow everything into itself to such a degree even the things I love are subsumed into it. Or with the nation-state, although I hate the violence intrinsic to such states and their maintenance, I also love living a rather peaceful life at the geographical center of one of the most powerful and largest ones.
Anyway, to love G-d with everything means to extract ourselves from the love of the other gods. We are to love only the one G-d. At the very least, part of that work is admitting to the gods we place above the one G-d in our life. You can’t change allegiance when you don’t even realize you’ve been pledging allegiance to other gods all along.
Finally, you asked for some reading recommendations. Here’s a hopefully inspiring list:
Søren Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart in Upbuilding Discourse in Various Spirits
Mark Allan Powell, Loving Jesus
Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Person
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story (because a commentary placing this commandment in chapter 12 in context is worthwhile)
Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) of God and the Holy Trinity