The Flame of Love

SJF • Lent 3c • Tobias Haller BSG

The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

For the last two weeks we have been exploring the great virtues, beginning with faith and hope. Today brings us to greatest of the virtues, the enduring and eternal virtue, the one that lasts for ever: the virtue of Love — completing the circle that began on the Sunday before Lent began, when we heard those beautiful words from Saint Paul: Love never ends.

Love is eternal, Saint Paul told the Corinthians. And love is eternal because it is reborn in every instant. Love is always now. Faith looks to the past, and gives thanks for all that God has done. Hope looks to the future and trusts in God to provide. But love lives in the present, if it lives at all.

It is no good telling someone you loved them once, or that you’ll love them some day — who wants to hear that? And even hearing someone say, “I have always loved you” or “I will always love you” wouldn’t mean anything unless the one saying it loves you now. Love, true love, is eternal because it is alive in every moment. Love is like a fire that burns, but does not consume.

Moses confronted that love one day while he was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, living as a stranger in a strange land. God appeared to him as a flame that burned but did not consume, burning eternally on holy ground.

The God of love chose to reveal himself to Moses for one reason: he had heard the cry of his people in Egypt, and would deliver them, because he loved them, because they were his. The eternal love of God became, in that particular time and place, (as it always becomes in every time and place) the present love of God in action. The God of the faith that was past, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’s faith in God, the God of the hope of the future, who would visit and deliver his people, here on the mountain reveals himself as God Who Is Who He Is, or even better (as one translation — a Jewish one, I might add, the Koren Jerusalem Bible — puts it) the God who Is now what he always will Be. This is the God of the eternal and everlasting Now, the God who is love, burning but not consuming; giving life, not taking it, the God of love, present to forgive, to rescue and to redeem; the one who was, and who is to come — but who is always Love. As Saint John would affirm many centuries later, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Some of the theologians have focused on this story of the burning bush, and the Name God tells Moses to call him by, as a way of emphasizing God as pure Being, He Who Is, or “Being itself.” I would like to suggest that Saint John’s description is more apt — rather than get involved in debates about the nature of being, and like the former President parsing what is is, and simply declare that God is love. And that when we love we are most like God.

My brother in Christ Thomas Bushnell made a fine observation not too long ago. He pointed out that while we are called to have faith, hope and love, there is a reason for love being the greatest. We have faith, but God does not need to have faith — God is the object of our faith. We have hope, but God doesn’t need hope; God knows what is to come better than we do! Faith and hope relate us to God, because we have faith in God and hope for God’s plans for us; but love is the means by which we reflect God’s own being, as mirrors or likenesses of God, made in God’s image; and this responding love joins us to God; for God not only has love, but as Saint John says, God is Love.

After all, as Paul assured us, Love believes all things and hopes all things — it embraces both faith and hope — and it endures because it is embodied in the eternal nature of God, and it is through love that we are joined with God. That love of God that Is God, is eternal — it burns forever, and never consumes the source of its flame.

Most of you have probably seen the famous photograph taken in 1972 at the height of the Vietnam War, a disturbing photograph of a nine-year-old girl, running, burning and naked, from a napalm attack. It is a picture most of us probably find it hard tolook at for very long.

But there’s someone who for years found it even harder. His name is also John. He is the man responsible for bombing the village from which that horribly wounded, burning young girl is running. He had been assured by reconnaissance that there were no civilians in the area — twice. Yet after the bombing was over and done with, there was the photograph. The photograph was documentary evidence of the faultiness of military intelligence.

After the war, that photograph haunted John, appearing again and again in newspapers and magazines, in film clips and television programs, one of the most-reproduced wartime photographs ever taken. Think of that: think of the worst thing you’ve ever done turning up on the History Channel, featured in newspaper articles, even reprinted in your children’s high school history books. How’s that for a Lenten exercise? The worst thing you’d ever done plastered everywhere for all the world to see. For John, it was a constant reminder, a constant pain, not just for Lent, but his whole life.

And there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to tell the girl in the picture he was sorry. He wanted to say it wasn’t his fault, that he’d been told there were no civilians in the village. But there was the picture, with its own pain fixed for ever, the open-mouthed face with its silent scream, the skinny, burned, naked figure running with arms waving in pain, a silent agony in black and white.

Then, in June of 1996, John learned that the young woman in the picture not only had survived, but was still alive. Her name was Kim. He also learned the story of how the photograph had been taken, the moving story of the pain he’d only known as a still image on a page. On that day in 1972, Kim and her family had been hiding in a building when it was hit. They ran into the street, where the napalm from a second bomber hit them. As the young woman ran, she tore off her burning clothing; two of her young cousins were killed. The photographer, seconds after snapping that horrible picture, was joined by other journalists, pouring what water they had in their canteens on her burns, doing what they could before she was rushed to a hospital.

John heard that Kim was going to speak at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, and he knew that he had to try to see her. As he stood with the thousands gathered there, he heard her say that if she ever met the man responsible for her suffering, she would tell him she forgave him. They could not change the past, but they could work for a better future.

John found a way to get a note to her, a note telling her that the man she spoke of was there. He wrote later of their meeting, “She saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow. She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was, ‘I’m sorry; I’m so sorry; I’m sorry,’ over and over again. At the same time she was saying, ‘It’s all right; it’s all right; I forgive, I forgive.’”

The flame of charity burns, but it does not consume. The fire of love is fierce, but it does not destroy; on the contrary, it builds up and bears fruit — and it endures. Whether a burning bush, or the generous heart of a young girl who could forgive great pain, or the twisted figure on a cross crying out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”: Love burns, oh how it burns — but it does not consume. And it will keep on burning, persistent and earnest until it warms the coldest hearts into responding love.

Compared to God’s eternal love, our love may seem lukewarm. We aren’t burning bushes aglow with the love of God. Sometimes we may be more like fruitless fig trees in need of loving care and a second chance, or even a third, some cultivation and probably a good load of fertilizer! We can be a pretty sorry sight, sometimes. But it’s all right, it’s all right, God assures us again and again. God forgives us, he forgives us. And he loves us. As Leighton Ford so aptly put it, “God loves us as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us as we are.” God sends us gardeners to tend us, to cultivate and nourish us, loving us year by year into fruitfulness, And God sends the fire of his love, the flame of charity, to transform us and to warm us. God will keepon loving us, persistently warming us with the flame of the Holy Spirit until we glow with the love that burns but does not consume — the everlasting flame of the love of God. +

The story of the Vietnam photograph is based on a press release from Evangelical Press News Service.