“The word of God is Love”
While working on something and this sentence came out in quotes. At first I could not remember the source. Google was no help, and so I have been trying to decide to use it without citation or rework everything to avoid saying it. Its been a stumbling block. The origin came flooding back on a recent long drive, but to understand the moment it helps to explain why I was in North Dakota in the first place.
You see back in the day gas was cheap but plane tickets not so much; consequently those of us with time to spare would take what we called “Road Trips” from one place to another. With camping and careful living a person could get from one coast to the other for a couple hundred bucks. When camping the order of preference was: sedan, station wagon, truck with canopy, van with a camper van being the penultimate vehicle of the budget minded traveler. “a man with a van is never homeless” was my motto back then. So in 1997 with I set out with my 1970 VW Westphalia camper from Seattle headed east to New York. While Kanga was a great living platform she was from an even earlier time; a time of individual door locks, crank windows, no cruise control and a simple Blaupunkt A radio feeding a single 4 and 1/2 inch speaker in the dash, which struggled to overcome the road noise through paper-thin doors and the rattle of an engine design which predated the ball point pen that sounded like a can full of nickles when it was running well.
While no ox-cart, travel by Volkswagen was a far more visceral experience. No AC and often no heat, the small motor labored up hills to the point I called Idaho “The State of second gear” while the narrow tires and ancient shocks transmitted every bump in the road directly to the straw filled seat cushions. On a long journey the interior would invariably end up smelling like hot oil, sweat and dog. Well mine did because I had a dog.
Kanga was from a time before a person could choose their music unless you were lucky enough to own an 8 track player. Stations would come and go as the miles rolled by; faint at first but growing louder and clearer than fading back into the static. Anywhere in middle America the choices were few but in the North Dakota, a state with fewer people than a single mid-sized city, when their were choices in music it was often between Country and Western, and sometimes there was no choice.
Talk Radio was typically centered around the Bible, a book I was uncomfortable with after growing up among forty minute Christians, as in Christian for forty minutes on Sunday. I was more uncomfortable with the words of many “true believers”; then as now many use the Bible to justify hate and this was the nineties: being a long-haired man in a VW could be hazardous to your health in flyover country. We were one of the “others” back then; and the Bible was the language of those who locked the doors. Christian talk Radio was in my mind the propaganda voice of the enemy. But one night as we rattled across the great plains Jesus Radio was the only game in town. It was hot and even with the windows rolled down and the vent windows cracked the inside of the car seemed stale and palpable. The dog gave up on the day and lay down in the back while I kept my foot firmly down on the pedal hoping to find a good place to sleep.
The radio sermon was of that style where the preacher had the cadence of the Midwest: with the key points of any good Bible belt sermon: confession, parable, scripture restated conclusion. Not all the words were clear but at the crest of a hill the words came clear; “The word of God is Love” he said; clearly, emphatically with a nasal twang and extended pause for effect. That’s a catchy turn of phrase one has to admit. He went on to tell of his first years preaching when he would work away into each night ignoring the pleas from his wife and children for attention. He wanted each sermon to be perfect he said; a reflection of the love of God he said. When his wife came to him one night to eat dinner with her he was angry and turned say something dismissive to her but when he saw her face he realized that here was the reflection of God’s love standing beside him, crying. Then his children came in and begged him to come out of the study and he saw that same perfection in them. He realized that he was surrounded by love and that all this came from God.
He spoke on about how he struggled to be a better husband. Then he went on and decried practices that must have been common enough in the Evangelic world to be worth noting. He spoke to the women listening and told them not to tolerate their husband striking them, to protect themselves and their children, even advocating divorce. That they did not have to (as he put it) “submit to sharing a bed” with their unfaithful husbands. While I found myself agreeing with many of his words, I wondered about this world where this even had to be discussed. From his choice of words it was apparent that these ideas were radical; the concept that women had a right not to be beaten, forced into sex based on prior agreement were revolutionary. I felt a deep sadness for all those trapped in that world.
Finally an exit with a park nearby came into view, Kanga rolled off and as the sermon continued. A quite bank by a small river and the only tree for miles waited; water, shade and free, the trifecta of camping. I turned off all the lights and rolled a cigarette in darkness. The preacher was still going; it was a bad novel I just could not put down so I listened.
“Love is a word we say with our hands”. He said that we show our love in our acts. He went on to list some equally radical ideas for men, such as; don’t hit your wife, don’t cheat on her, don’t ignore or belittle her. “Treat all Creation as you would the Creator. ” His words were good but the world they portrayed burned in my mind. Why stay? I wondered, why not just leave and go somewhere that already knew this? A million stars unknown to urban dwellers lit up the sky and for a moment I felt closer to divinity but further from religion than before the sermon began.
At the time I had no answer and went to bed feeling unresolved and slightly ill. A squirrel lived in that lone tree, and it spent the night showing its displeasure at my choice of a camp site by throwing acorns on the roof of the camper. Still bothered and discordant I left early in hopes of putting the entire Great Planes in my rear view mirror. Somewhere along the road it came to me that the speaker stayed put not just because it was likely the only world he knew, but for all those people for whom his words sparked discomfort. Somewhere these words were a lifeline; imagine a woman at the edge of bed, alone under that huge sky and isolated hearing that her life mattered, her safety mattered, her heart mattered. Maybe the preacher made few friends in his world but he stayed there and spoke the truth. Over the radio he might never know if anyone heard him, if any lives were changed; he just did what the right thing and hoped for the best. Sometimes it’s all that can be done.
Many years have passed since then; that car is gone and its may now have been a decade since I owned the vehicle that defined so much of my life. My Muir and Bentley manuals sit quietly collecting dust on a shelf while now I am not only a church member but an Elder of that church. So much has changed but the idea still resonates; speak Love with your hands. I try to speak the word less and act on it more, failing as always, even here as I have probably written the word twenty times in the preceding paragraphs. Love though is like the Lords Prayer, the American Pledge of Allegiance and all the other lofty goals that seem forever out of reach. While we will fail at these goals it is the effort to reach up that defines our true worth. Someday there may be able to forgive our debtors (though I prefer trespassers being raised Episcopalian), have liberty and justice for all and truly act with love our neighbor as we love ourselves, but probably not in my lifetime. Still we must leave behind more love than we found, more peace and justice in a natural expansion of the campground rule to a meta level.
So while few read my blog, and maybe most of you have given up before now, if you are reading this go forwad and do more than say loving things; speak love with your hands. It is a small thing, but it is better to be a small light than a great darkness.