The Revd Brutus Green
There is a moment in cinematic history which everyone has seen. It is the moment when Clark Gable, playing Rhett Butler, turns to Vivienne Leigh, as Scarlett O’Hara, and, walking away from her life forever, issues the immortal line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I say everyone has seen it, but in fact I haven’t - though it took me a moment to remember this because I have heard about this scene so many times that my mind has bizarrely created a false memory of the occasion. What’s even odder is that I’ve read the book in which “Frankly” is omitted, and this seems strange because even as your reading it, “frankly” is so indelibly written in your mind that you can’t believe it when it’s not there. It’s this moment though in which Rhett finally gives up on love, gives up on Scarlett. A love that’s lasted through the entire civil war and 3 marriages. Finally he decides enough is enough and he walks away.
I love a lot of things. I love walking through dry leaves, I love the smell of the sea, I love sunbathing when I should be working, I love drinking fine wines when I should be sleeping, I love Paris in the Springtime, I love that my mother always makes at least three desserts at every meal, I love the way Steve says “supportative” when he means “supportive” and I love it that it always makes Bryan giggle, but what on earth does it mean to ‘love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’?
Now we can be glib. We might say that we had learnt in Sunday School that God is very good, by which we should infer that we should approve of God, and therefore love God. Equally we might say that we had learnt in Sunday School that Jesus died for us, which sounds tremendously generous and good, therefore, we ought to love him. We might feel guilty that we are not able to arouse in ourselves a strong enough feeling, and sneak off to clap and swoon in a trendy church that meets in a school, or travel to Timbuktu in search of a panoramic vista that will give sensory shape to the awe we feel is due but find it hard to muster.
Is this what it means to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind?
Well no. Those are all things in which we are not really being very honest. Superficially saying we love God because we have always been taught to say that, thinking we ought to love but not knowing why, attempting to arouse a particular feeling, these are all ways of duping ourselves when actually we think that we don’t love God.
And we might not. We might be angry, or resentful, or very likely bored by God. Some of us went to a debate on Job last Tuesday and one of us - I won’t mention who - in the company of a really very good theologian and a novelist, beneath the awesome whispering gallery of St Paul’s - fell asleep. It may have been a long day in the office or the sweet soporific buzz of an acoustic that’s far more difficult than ours - but his gentle snores did little to declare his love of theology, the science of God.
But just as you might - even now - be angry, resentful or bored by the person sitting next to you - neither the Hebrews nor Jesus mean here that you should remain in a constantly excited state about God. When I was 11 I fell in love with a girl called Nicola and I spent the next 7 years - very biblical - in a perpetual state of longing. When you’re 11 you are actually perpetually excited but I remember just being fascinated by her, trying to arrange fortuitously to bump into her, daydreaming about a chance conversation. In those seven years I spoke no more than two sentences to her though they were sublime moments. In many ways the whole situation was ridiculous. I never got to know her at all and if anything the feelings involved were paralyzing and intimidating. The love, however, was not about a feeling. That was just a consequence. The love was about seeking. Contriving to meet. Desiring to see and to take hold of the magical creature that I saw.
To love is to seek. To chase after. To doggedly pursue.
The context here is that the pharisees have been trying to catch out Jesus and this question is no different. For the Jews all 613 commandments of the law were considered to be equal, but Jesus’ actions had undoubtedly led to him being seen as playing fast and loose with the law.
The great commandment - to love God with all your heart, soul and mind - that Jesus responds with is from the shema prayer, which he gives as a distillation, or foundation, for the law - as the hook upon which the rest of the law ‘hangs’ - as Jews still hang the words of the prayer upon their door posts. It is important to see this commandment in its context as a prayer, said twice a day, by children and adults before they sleep, fixed on the doors of their houses, often the last words a Jew would speak from the massacre at Masada by the Romans to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Because what Jesus is saying is that at the heart of the law is prayer.
The reason this matters is because of what prayer is. Like loving God people often confuse how they think they should pray for what prayer is really about. Most people would tell you that we shouldn’t pray out of our own desires. Our unworthy, selfish, confused desires. That the point is to pray for the things we think God approves of, preferably in high-falutin’ theological God-speak - the sort of “O Lord, I thine unworthy ever-so-humble servant prays thee for all thy other creatures afflicted by pernicious wickedness and poverty...” This again though, like our pious attempts to love God is not really very honest - it’s often not what we’re really thinking about, wanting or even interested in. It’s just about saying what we think we should say to the God we think we should love.
Our prayers, if they are to be authentic, honest, will have to come from our actual desires. So pray for what you want, however childish or desperate, even if you know it’s contrary to God’s will. It’s often in the difference we feel between our desire and God’s desire that we discover the prayer itself. Prayer is not so much about changing the facts as about changing ourselves.
And this hopefully makes some sense of that great feeling of disappointment we have when our prayers are not answered. There is a temptation either to think it’s all a waste of time, or to think that we did not pray well enough. Prayer though is something that God does. Not something we do.
It is less that our prayers have a causal effect on divine providence and more that God causes us to pray because prayer is where time and eternity meet, where the mess and muddle of human life and our own conflicted and ambiguous desires are wrung out against the backdrop of what is true and good and beautiful. Our prayers are where God is and what God does for our sake.
And in this sense, prayer itself is a form of seeking. It is a seeking of the person we really want to be, it is a seeking of what is true and good, it is a seeking for the best possible way of living with ourselves and with others. And in this its character is love, because for this to be meaningful we have to really desire to live well, to be honest with ourselves, to be good and true, even if sometimes we don’t know where to start. This is what it means to love God - as the psalmist says, ‘to seek his face’. It is why the pharisees fail with all their lofty words and sophistic arguments. Prayer, seeking God, requires honesty, genuine confronting of yourself, seeing yourself from the point of eternity.
And this is what makes it like the second commandment. If we learn to love God we will naturally begin loving our neighbour. Equally if we have begun to love our neighbour, we have begun to love God.
We all know what it is to walk away from a relationship. To give up as Rhett gives up on Scarlett in the face of seemingly impossible conflicts and a past which has exhausted us with fight after fight and the torment of affection and desire, frustration and hurt. The life of prayer can equally be exhausting, can leave us feeling battered or bored, meaningless or not good enough. Loving God requires perseverance to test ourselves and to resolve again and again to be a better person and a better neighbour. Here Scarlett is our model - not a pretty or attractive character - often gauche, domineering and unlikeable, but undefeatable in persistence and gumption so that even at the very end she is determined to fight to get Rhett back. So we have to commit ourselves to the values we believe in each day, to seeking God, loving God and loving our neighbour as best as we are able, and forgiving ourselves and others each day when we fail, praying each day for our daily bread - resolved not to give up and walk away. After all, tomorrow is another day.