“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8, NRSV)
We were drinking sweet tea as our chairs rocked back and forth on a hot July afternoon. Gerald was in his eighties. He never said much. When he did speak, it was never kind. He grunted his disapproval of whatever caught his ire, which was almost everything. Then he would be quiet for a long stretch before erupting again on another topic that infuriated him. People did not like to be around him. He drove them away. His wife, his children, and even his old friends were all gone. He was home alone most of the time except for two times a week when he went out.
He went to the grocery store every Wednesday morning. People there pretended not to see him. They didn’t want to become the recipient of his latest rant. Many days, the cashier was the unlucky target because there was no way she could avoid Gerald.
On Sunday, Gerald came to church. He sat in the back. He never shook hands. He never stood. He never sang. He never recited a creed or uttered the Lord’s Prayer. He never even bowed his head. None of us had any idea why he came because he didn’t speak to anybody. As soon as the service was over, he was out the door and in his old pickup truck, headed back to his perch on the front porch where, except for rocking in his chair, you would think you were staring at a granite statue—his face in a frozen grimace. He’d sit there until dark and then mysteriously disappear into the house for the night.
It was a small country church, and so there wasn’t much for a pastor to do most days but visit people. People expected me to drop by for a minute—even if I was just passing by on my way somewhere else—and they always had time, and they always had sweet tea. Even Gerald expected me to visit. Why? I’m not sure. But if I didn’t, I would be the subject of one of his venomous outbursts to the cashier when he went to the grocery store the next Wednesday.
People in the church pitied me for having to visit Gerald. They didn’t understand. I went not because I was supposed to go; I went because I wanted to go. I wanted to learn about the pain that lay beneath the surface, to identify the emotional toxin that poisoned him, or to put a name to the villain that created this angry, sullen caricature of a miserable life. He never let on. Gerald never revealed the source of his misery. He would sit quietly for a while, and then he would spew his venom trying to drive me away—but I wouldn’t go until he quieted down again. Once he was calm, I would pray, wish him well, and be on my way.
One time, as I got up to leave, he grabbed my forearm. It startled me that his weathered hand was still almost strong enough to pull me back down to my seat. I started to pull away—but instead, I dropped back into the chair.
I waited for what felt like an eternity not knowing what to expect. Then Gerald spoke.
“What is God like?” he asked sternly.
I was stunned. No ranting. No furious anger. For the first time in my memory, instead of making a brash statement, Gerald asked a question. It was as if there was a tear in the fabric of the universe. At that moment I was presented with both an incredible challenge and a tremendous opportunity. How could I describe what God is like when God, as the Bible says, is the very essence of love? How could I describe that “God is love” to a person who didn’t seem to know love? The task felt impossible; yet, sacred. What would you have said to Gerald at that moment? What would you have done?
Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church