Sunday, September 7, 2014

Defining

Defining
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 7, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 John 4: 7-12

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. [1]

Every year I begin my classes with the same lesson. I use it as an introduction to what I think literature is all about. I have them do their best to define "love", not that all literature is about love, but if you stick with me you'll get what I'm talking about.  It's cool because it is a word that means so much, and means something personal and different to each person, and it means something even to teenage boys. It is a word that is packed with experience, and each of us have experienced love in one of its forms throughout our lives. Love is something that is universal, it lives in all times and all places. It is an idea that is infinite, and so I am setting the boys up for failure, when I send them back to their dorms on the first night of school with a blank piece of paper, and the assignment that says, define love. . . and don't just define it from the dictionary, I want you to define it completely and leave nothing out. Ok, go, gentlemen. . . good luck.
Now they always come back with basically the same ideas. There is the dictionary definition that comes first, and it is always easy to spot it, those cheaters think they're so smart. . . . something like . . . "the intense emotional feeling of attraction and attachment to a person or object." That is always first. . . then you get a few words trickling in, like, passion, romance, affection, preference; sometimes unconditional creeps in. But in those first try definitions so much is left out. . . it always is. . . which at this point is very good for the lesson because the bait is set. . .their minds are beginning to work, and they are already realizing that there is more to it instead of less, more to words than what the dictionary has to offer, and that is key, so next I get them to come up with two word phrases that have love in them. . . like tough love, puppy love, love shack, love hate relationship. . . on and on. . . usually like twenty or so, and with all of them on the board it is easy to see some of the major holes in their first definition. It just doesn't go far enough. . . and I ask them, what they think about their original definition. . . they always say it's pretty bad. . . it sells itself short. . . it is a cheap version, it is too limited.
It's at this point that I get into the root of the problem with them. . . and I get to do so by showing them a Greek root that is found in the assigning word, the cause of the problem, and the result of the problem, all at the same time, and that is the Greek root, "Fin." It is the root in words like "final" and "finish." And for the bell choir  your "fine" in your music, like DC al Fine. . . where you go back to the beginning and then play through to the fine, to the end. . . yes the root fin means end. You see I'm always working on their vocabulary. . . you have to have many levels going on at once. . . kinda like a sermon. . . but yes this root "fin" is also in the word "define" because that is what you are doing. . . you are putting ends on where the word begins and ends, the boundaries of meaning that make the word itself. That is what you do when you define. . . but the problem with a word like "love" as I am trying to get them to see is that you can't put ends on it because . . . here is the next one. . . love is "infinite". . . do you hear it again, there is the "fin" again, this time describing something that has no ends. You can't define something that is infine. . . it doesn't work. . . because no matter what you do, when you set the ends you will end up, and here is the last one, "Confine," you always confine. . .  when you try to define the infinite.
So then with their minds swimming. . . I tell them, O. K.  so now do it. I want you to define Love. . . "but Mr. Atkinson you just said it was impossible." Sure it's impossible. . . and I'm the teacher and I'm telling you to do it, so go ahead. Now with them flabbergasted, frustrated, and utterly confused. . . I ask them. . . how do you do it. . . how do you define something that is infinite without confining it? How? . . .  Blank stares. . . Come on guys don't quit on me now. . . it's day 2. . .
Hand goes up. . . yes. . . "You could just be vague. . . "
"Sure"  you can just be vague. . . but isn't that just what we had on the board at first. . . a vague definition that really doesn't help us and sells us way too short?" Yes, no good, too easy, I won't let you punt. . . I told them this anecdote. . . and it connects here. . . so you have a community. . . I tell them. . . let's call it a school. . . and the school has a religious tradition, but that religious tradition, though still there, does not reflect the make up of the school. . . maybe it does a certain majority, but the school has grown much more diverse. . . so you decide to water down the message so as not to offend. . . you try to make everything safe. . . and vague if you will. . . what happens. . . nothing right. . . it all becomes a waste. . . no one gets anything out of it, because it is a lifeless, vague version of something that should be giving life. . .  Think about it with love. . .what if all you had was this vague definition limiting people's concept of how love works, what love does, how it affects people, what it is. . . what if you go with the definition of love that we started with. .. that whole intense feeling of attraction thing. . .and then that intense feeling of attraction isn't returned, and you get that amazing all encompassing pain that goes with love sometimes. . . but your definition doesn't include it because you were being safe and vague and. . . men do you see the problem? That person may think that their love wasn't real, they may down play their experience. . . they would be missing something extremely important.  "Yes coach, we get it." So next try. . .
How do you define something that is infinite? I start to give them hints. . . remember that you are in English class. . . its day 2 and this is an introduction exercise. . . more blank stares. . . I ask them. . .What if I were to say, "love is like a hole in the head" . . . it's painful. . . it takes life. . . but then also, sometimes when you are in it your brain seems like it going to fall out, and you lose your mind completely. . . or that your head has this hole. . . and it is the shape of love. . . and if it is not full. . . you will never be whole. . . we could go on and on couldn't we. . . what if I said "love is a water" it gives life, it's refreshing, it's powerful, it cleans and refreshes, starting you out anew. . . it also could be dangerous . . . especially when out of control. . . when it rises too quickly. . . when those floodwaters are raging. . . what about when it's not around,. . . life just can't flourish. .  . everything dries up and dies. Do you see figurative language. .. poetry. .. this is what allows you to define something indefinable. . .why does it work? Because it leaves it open for interpretation. . . the writer means it a certain way or ways, but it also allows for the reader to take it another way, and every reader will bring his own ideas and take it a different way. . . why because experience. . . love like other infinite ideas, is something that is infinite because everyone's experience is different and should be taken into consideration. . . to leave out someone's experience would be to sell love short. . . again confining the infinite.
But that is not the only way. . . how else guys. . . how else can we define the infinite. . . blank stares. . . but interested ones. . . how else. . . come on guys remember it is English class. . . still nothing. . . remember it's English class and now we've gotten Poetry covered already. . . someone says "stories" . . . yes narratives. . . why . . . because again we are bringing experience, showing experience, showing life. . . I point up to star crossed love. . . on the board as one of those two word phrases from earlier. . . I could define that sure. . . or I could write and perform Romeo and Juliet and I would take you much further. . . I could define what it is to be an orphan, or I could Oliver Twist. . . obviously the story is not enough. . . interpretation, connection, all of that is part of the deal. . . it needs to be there in the intimate relationship between writer and reader. . . and so I tell them that is what we will do this year. . . we will read some of the great works of world literature. . . looking at how people throughout history have tried to define things that were indefinable. . . I ask them what are some of those things. . . those infinite things. . . we already have love. . . what about hope. . . what about dreams. . . what about friendship. . . what about evil. . . what about good. . . what about human nature. . . what about God. . . these are the ideas we seek to understand, to study. . . because they are the ideas of humanity. . . and they always have been. End of lesson. . .
Now what does this have to do with us, here on Sunday morning. . . it is there in this morning's reading from 1 John with that famous of metaphors. . . pairing two of these infinite ideas together. . . God is love. And just like love. . .  God is infinite. . . God is hard to define. . . and yet we seek to do so, oh so often. And the danger is just like love. . . when we define God. . . we confine God. . . We make God small . . . we sell God short. . . we try to put God in a manageable, definable box. . . one that makes us comfortable. . . one that gives us a sense of security. . . one that allows us to be in control. . . one that fits our lives. . .and then with God in that manageable box we use God for our purposes. . . whether they be controlling other people. . . or judging other people. . . or making us feel better about ourselves and our situation. . . but just like the Israelites in building their golden calf. . . this God is a mere shadow of God's true reality. . . God's infinite reality.
So how do we then get to know God. . . how do we get to tell others about God. . . to communicate about God if we can't define. . . the answer is similar to how I told my students to define love. . . through metaphor. .. through relationships between things. . . common threads and comparisons. . . that is poetry. . . and also through narratives. . . between these ideas we get to share our experience, for that is what we do, that is what we have to give and to get from eachother. . . experience. . . relationship. . . all of these teach us about each other. . . and give us more and more of an understanding about God. So then it makes sense that the way that we get to know God is to love one another. . . to get closer to God by getting closer to eachother. . . loving our neighbors. . . listening to them. . . telling our stories. . . It's all there.
And that is what Jesus is for us. . . metaphor. . .in that Jesus is both God and man. . . a comparison of two unlike things. . . brought together. . . and it shows so much about both. . . amazing metaphor. . . and narrative. . . God coming to us. . . walking with us. . . tried by us. . . dying for us. . . and then raised. . . again busting through any perceived limitations we may seek to place on the infinite. . . that's quite a story. . . and it is a story that could teach us beyond what any other thing could do, because it meets us where we are, allows us to experience it for ourselves. . . and creates that wonderful relationship between the teller/actor/creator of the story. s. . and all of us blessed, open hearted witnesses. It is love forever defined by metaphor and narrative, it doesn’t confine the infinite, but sets it free in that relationship. . . and so we come to understand what love is, and also what God is, and so we come to the communion table together and once again become a part of that narrative ourselves. . . each of us. . . together . . . and with Christ. . . Amen.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Jn 4:7-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.