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The Art of Living

“The Art of Living”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry


Matthew 22.34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


I was walking to a plane in Spain when I heard the pop.  It was my Achilles heel.  What followed was excruciating pain.  We were boarding so I kept going.  I thought this would subside, but even the slightest movement was rough.  This really hurt. 

I was flying with my daughter Laura from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid.  She was studying abroad.  After meeting her in Paris we travelled by train to Spain.  It was a great trip. By this time Laura was fluent in Spanish and French; she navigated all the arrangements.  My only complaint, other than incredible pain, was how she chose the cheapest hostels; they were rough, dumps.

Once we landed in Madrid I told her, “I am going to keep going.  I will be pretty slow, but we need to do this. I am not sure if I will ever be back in Madrid, and I don’t want to miss the Prado.”  The Prado was our plan for the day.  It is easily one of the best museums in the world and I had been waiting for some time to see Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas.

Guests at the museum that day thought I was either the most sensitive of art devotees or just a very emotional person because of my tears.  A few times they caught me weeping and I wanted to explain, it’s not Velazquez it’s my Achilles.  In the end I thought it best to leave it alone, suffer silently.

After the museum we foraged some groceries and called it day.  Sitting in another terrible hostel in a cheap chair icing my leg, my daughter turned on the small black and white television and we watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Spanish. As the drama unfolded, I told Laura, this is one of the best days of my life.  We are in Spain, I saw one of the greatest paintings in the world, I am eating charcuterie, we have fabulous wine and cheese and bread, and olives.  And if that were not enough, I said pointing to the small black and white television, we can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Spanish. This is a great day.

Some might joke that I don’t get out enough.  But the opposite is true.  I have been very lucky, fortunate, to see and experience beautiful things, sublime works of art, architecture, so much so that I know when there is a confluence of truth, goodness and beauty.  I can sense them coming together. When things come together like this, we rise above the brokenness of life, the despair; we encounter the power of the Holy Spirit.

Not all the time; nor in ways that are completely predictable, but from time to time, the sublime emerges.  When you commingle suffering and the Prado, fabulous food, the company of a beloved, you are almost there.  You just need the ridiculous, laughter, to finally push through the darkness robbing our lives of joy. You need Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Spanish on a small black and white television.

This is what poetry is meant to do.  When poetry works, the lines of a poem conjure all the elements I found in a cheap hostel in Madrid.  Poetry is like those boxes that come to your door, where all the ingredients of a dish are prepped for you to cook.  You don’t need to go to the store or wonder where to find ancho chili powder.  It’s all in the box.  And this is true of great poetry.  The hardship, the beauty, the profound, the mundane, the taste and folly of life are all there.  You just need to put them together, add the heat.

This was true for me in song written not too long ago.  It is beautiful.  Listen to the words.

When I die, let them judge me by my company of friends
Let them know me as the footprints that I left upon the sand
Let them laugh for all the laughter
Let them cry for laughter's end
But when I die, let them judge me by my company of friends

When I die, let them toast to all the things that I believe
Let them raise a glass to consciousness
And not spill a drop for grief
Let the bubbles rise at midnight
Let their tongues get light as thieves
And when I die, let them toast to all the things that I believe

I believe in restless hunger
I believe in red balloons
I believe in private thunder
In the end I do believe

I believe in inspiration
I believe in lightning bugs
I believe in slow creation
In the end I do believe

I believe in ink on paper
I believe in lips on ears
I believe what's shared is savored
In the end I do believe

I believe in work on Sundays
I believe in raising barns
I believe in wasting Mondays
In the end I do believe

I believe in intuition
I believe in being wrong
I believe in contradiction
In the end I do believe

I believe in living smitten
I believe all hearts will mend
I believe our book is written
By our company of friends

The song was written by Danny Schmitt.  I love this song for two reasons. One, I believe he captures the truth of shema, the lessons we read today, about loving God and loving your neighbor.  He captures the truth of each without naming them.  The shema is lived well when you have a company of friends who write the book of your life, who mend your hearts, who share what is sacred and thus find the savory taste of it.

He opens up the dry dusty lines of Leviticus and breathes life into the law and the prophets with lightning bugs and private thunder and ink on paper.  All good things to believe.  It is all this and something more.  The more is the folly of being with others where you laugh for all the laughter and only cry at laughter’s end.  Right, there is the sublime, the confluence of life lifting us up, healing us.

The other reason why I love this song is where I heard it the first time.  It was a plea, a dare to the almighty, a moment of pure desperation.  It was offered as the end of a eulogy for a friend of many, Kevin.

Everyone loved Kevin.  He was an orthodontist in town.  He was one of those people who exuded happiness.  He and his wife and children renovated an older home in town and then renovated another for his practice.  Things were better because he was part of the community. He lived the North Country life with the summer cottage and events and parade wave you practice as you go about town. 

Our kids played with their kids.  He was Laura’s orthodontist.  Everybody loved Kevin a lot.  Yet as much as he was loved, it turned out the depth of his despair was greater.  No one knew his struggle with addiction, his debts, his poor choices with taxes.  When all came crashing down, Kevin took his life. 

To say the community was stunned is a gross understatement.  Heartbroken; many lives were shattered.  Understandably the family chose to not have a funeral. Too complicated.  Yet, Kevin’s best friend asked if a time of gathering could happen to remember him.  With the consent of the family St. Patrick’s church was opened in the evening for an informal gathering of friends.  Everybody came.  There was eulogy and tribute.  Hymns were sung.  But then Kevin’s best friend spoke and what he tried to say, to beg, to plead, to understand was how terrible must have been the suffering of his friend when one so loved could chose death.

That was when I heard The Company of Friends.  Everyone there got it.  This song was our prayer, common plea to the one who would judge: let the judgement fall to us, see him only in the light of those who love him.  Judge Kevin by his company of friends.  Let our heartbreak be the measure his life and death.

The shema is so simple.  Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.  Breath in, breath out, rinse and repeat.  Right, left; right, left.  It seems so simple, but love is never simple, is it? 

At the heart of the shema is an elusive truth: in order to love God and love your neighbor you must overcome despair, you must leave the darkness of fear, the voice that hounds and controls.  You must find the path of freedom so to love.  You must love not only life, but also yourself.  For when we love we give ourselves away.  If what we give is something we do not value, let alone despise, then it is not love we offer.

That’s the truth to be found in the cheap hostel in Madrid where the pain and the joy and the great food and the time spent with a kid, the rare fleeting moment of sublime happiness because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Spanish, that’s the truth lifting us beyond despair.  I wasn’t joking when I said this was one of the best days of my life.  For when the darkness comes and the fears incircle, we need days like that.  They are both treasured memory to keep, but also ramparts and defenses from the darkness. The moments where we find the life to love and the love to give away.

Recently I heard a psychologist give a great example of the shema. His example was something so simple, but it was also as complex as love.

He said, I want you to imagine a young child.  Imagine them as in your care.  What would you do for them?  You would guard them and protect them.  You would feed them good food and keep them clean and well rested.  You would offer them acceptance and grace and mostly would you offer an unbounded love.  If this is your child, you would love them with every part of your being.  You would do everything in your power because that is what we do.

Now, he said, why don’t you treat yourself the same?  Why would you not offer yourself the same grace, the same protection, the same love?  Why would we ever convince yourselves not to offer this love to yourself?  And yet we do.

I called a psychiatrist friend and shared this example with her.  I wanted to verify this.  Her response was, Oh, that is good.  I could almost hear the gears in my friend’s mind putting this example into place, wondering how she would speak this truth. 

The power of this truth is the way it reaches the heart of the shema. For to love God and love your neighbor as yourself is impossible without you loving you.  It just doesn’t work.  Unless you see your own heart like the child you adore, the one for whom you would offer all that is good, unless you find this place, then darkness prevails, the sublime is squandered. 

Darkness is easy to find.  Each day this last week has been another step of sadness with the tragedy of Memphis, the death of Tyre Nichols.  Heartbreak is not hard to find in our broken world.  Despair won the battle on a suburban street a few yards from home. It is always overwhelming to see violence overtake the shema; loving God and our neighbor as ourselves was betrayed for all to see.

And what can we do in a Jersey suburb so far, yet so close?  We must lament.  We must call for justice.  Yet our greatest response, what heals the world, is to fulfill the shema.  To do this we must overcome the despair, the darkness within us.  We must find the strength to love our own heart, so it is a ready to be given away.  To make of our world a company of friends. With this love overcomes hate.  Amen.

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

February 5, 2023
Matthew 22:34-40

Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Senior Pastor & Head of Staff

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