Hear the opening lines of Deuteronomy 6 and you cannot escape a feeling that you have stumbled on some center pole of sacred story, a great stake having been driven to the core.
It’s as though you find yourself at a magnetic pole, and no matter which way you turn, the compass reads a single all-embracing direction. It becomes the mantra of Jewish faith, and, heard from the lips of Jesus, it is the touchstone of all covenant, the gathering point of all spiritual duty.
What is the dramatic setting? An aging leader having reckoned with mortality summons the people for a valedictory address. They gather on broken, alien ground “beyond the Jordan,” the promise of Canaan still a shimmer in the distance. This might have served as a moment to square accounts, to glory in achievements or be carried away by mawkish sentiment. But that cannot be. Not with history hanging in the balance.
Ripples of anticipation sweep the standing clans. Then silence. Comes the voice at last, echoing in the valley, addressing those present, but reaching across time to generations yet unseen. That voice fashions a cornerstone capable of aligning an entire structure — both religious and social — whose promise the prophets will later call “shalom.”
For the moment they are sojourners. Mountains lie in their path. There is yet wilderness to traverse. A river to ford. A land to be allotted and filled. And who can tell what sagas will follow, endeavors that ache for purpose, dignity and underpinning? Journeys that this charge will sustain and bring to safe term?
And what is the architecture of that structure?
First, it establishes the contours of our love for God. It is a commanded love, yet a chosen love. It lies alongside loyalty, reverence, faithfulness, perseverance and obedience. It is akin to the love chosen and vowed in weddings: “To hold from this day forward, for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.”
It is the beauty and depth of such covenanted love that touches us most deeply, evincing tears far beyond the shiver of romantic sentiments. Little wonder that the nature of our bonds with heaven are so often cast in the imagery of bride and groom, of wedding processions and feasts.
Second, it is a collective love, a social aspiration. The appeal is addressed beyond the individual to Israel, a gathered people. This muscular love is expressed with joined hearts, with united breath, with combined might.
That collaborated love extends to the generations — the children and children’s children, and in some mysterious way, even the faith ancestors.
As I write these lines, I am aware of the many who have expressed this muscular, collective love for heaven and neighbor in the savage aftermath of hurricanes Michael, Florence and Maria. In these acts of compassion, we recognize the priority of divine mercy, to which they have responded in kind.
Third, it is a learned love that grows with instruction (6:1) and practice (6:3). It is the supreme, ongoing syllabus for community.
None know this better than partners in the project of sustained and creative expression of love in a marriage. There is an aid in these pursuits: because we are fickle, we surround ourselves with reminders — like sticky notes — fastened to “gates,” “doorways” and even body, so that we press on in sacred calling, the nobility of shared life.
And, in response to those cues, we voice that sacred name, that story and calling, midst mundane moments, to lift us, our family and neighbors to wakefulness and gratitude for whatever we know of that land flowing with milk and honey, for the guided journey that brought us here from the brickyards of slavery and humiliation.
Now writing and leading retreats, Jonathan Larson of Atlanta has wandered the globe as storyteller, service worker, teacher and pastor. He blogs on the spirituality of travel at jonathanlarsonblog.com.