The Greatest Commandment 2019
by Fred Pruitt
Fifty years ago. Wow.
It was the summer of 1969, the summer of Neal Armstrong walking on the moon, the summer of Chappaquiddick, the summer of Woodstock, the summer of the breakup of the Beatles. The jungles of Vietnam were ablaze.
While all those momentous events were happening, I was tucked away in isolation in Basic Cadet Training (BCT or BEAST) at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The only news that reached us was the Apollo landing. We all watched it in our dorm common room (that we “doolies” weren’t allowed to use EVER — this was special dispensation) and we all saw it together, 40 or 50 of us cadets crowded into a dormitory tv lounge, as Neal Armstrong set foot on the moon. We all cheered – 20 Jul 69. But the other stuff, since we didn’t read newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio during training, we missed it all.
Only we didn’t “miss” it, because the Academy’s presence itself overwhelmed us and blotted out most of the rest of the world for those thirteen weeks. It was couched in a spectacular cascade of the beauty of God’s mountains and skies. I cannot possibly describe it. Even in the hardest moments of BCT I was still bathed in the overwhelming presence of both of them, the mountains and the sky, back-dropped behind the Academy buildings as we ran or marched or even occasionally, were still. I remember doing pushups looking at the peaks above, or running miles in formation in the dawn surrounded by mountains just beginning to be visible as black shapes while light seeped over them, with the brightest and clearest stars anyone has ever seen, giving way gradually to the dominion of the day.
For three weeks of our training we lived in the field in tents, away from the campus, one of them in “survival training,” (though it was hardly as rough as the regular troops get). What a setting – in the Pikes Peak National Forest, on top of the mountain range above the Academy, around 9,000 – 10,000’ elevation. We spent Monday – Saturday in the forest, “surviving,” and the last two days hiking some 30 or so miles to our pickup point.
Since there were several hundred of us out there in the woods at one time, in groups of 12, each of us supervised by an upperclassmen, they were not really taking any chances that any of us would starve to death or get eaten by wolves, but I lost about 20 lbs in that week, so that should tell you something.
It was worth it, though! I saw the stuff of the dreams and imaginings of my childhood on that hike. The mountains of the West, where the Indians had run down their prey, and where mountain-men, cowboys and cavalrymen had explored and settled and made it their own. O, how gorgeous it was as we hiked along beaver dams, crossed mountain rivers, traversed high mountain meadows, and explored boulder-filled evergreen and white-barked aspen forests.
We were trucked into our location in groups of 12 and each given a “survival packet” that supposedly a downed pilot would have, containing a few energy bars, toothbrushes and toothpaste. They also gave us a parachute (to use as a tent to smoke jerky), sleeping bags, canteens and water purification tablets.
We camped in the same location for a couple of days while we got some training, though I don’t remember what they trained us in. Then the third day we were given a live rabbit to kill and some beef strips to use to make jerky. Somehow I got the job of killing the bunny. That’s really not my thing, as I found out. Won’t tell you how I did it, but once it was done, I couldn’t eat any of bunny, even though the rest of the guys said it was great, and we were starting out on a 30 mile hike the next day.
Still, turned out I loved the jerky (I didn’t have to kill that cow) and some of the other guys didn’t like jerky, so I ended up trading toothpaste for jerky. Toothpaste served as food for the last day or so for some. Not me, I had jerky.
The last morning, at the pickup point, all the hundreds of us converged where they had set up fire pits and were grilling steaks. I remember standing in line with hundreds around just salivating for that steak. You could smell ’em cooking long before you got there. Finally I got up to the grill and they slapped my steak, texas toast, and orange on a plate and handed it to me. I took one bite and ….
Ok, ok, I am finicky, yes! I’d been out on survival training for 6 days and having had virtually nothing to eat. We had long since ceased fantasizing about things young men that age frequently fantasize about (women) and only dreamed of double-cheeseburgers and fries from McDonald’s, but, darnit, my steak was too rare, and I just couldn’t eat it!
Unfortunately, in that particular circumstance, one cannot call the manager over, nor return one’s steak to the grillmaster. One is stuck with what steak one is given. But I passed it on to someone who had no qualms whatsoever about eating raw meat, kept the orange and the Texas toast, and so broke my “survival training fast.”
I made up for it that night, however. Coincidental with the last day of our survival training, there was a big rodeo that night in Colorado Springs. It must have been a pretty big deal, because Michael Landon, Little Joe Cartwright, was the Grand Marshal. Our whole class went to the rodeo that night, all 1400 of us. The upperclassmen had given us strict orders, for our own protection, to those of us who had spent the previous week in survival training and whose stomachs were shrunk, to “not spend more than $2.00 on food,” (that was a lot more money in 1969) and as the children of Israel told Moses, we all said, “All that thou hast spoken unto us we will do.”
And, that is what we all thought was what we would do.
Until we got to the rodeo …. (Just like the children of Israel!) …
There were no upperclassmen around, and there was cotton candy, hot dogs, hamburgers, candy bars, popcorn, french fries and soft drinks. They were all brought by vendors walking through the bleachers shouting their products. I am absolutely certain that the revenue generated that night from the 1400 cadets had to far exceed $2800 I’m certain, because we were all food-deprived and we bought everything we saw. I don’t remember much of the rodeo but I remember I ate everything any vendor came down the aisle with.
The next few days we all spent in mortal fear we would be asked how much we had spent at the rodeo. Because of the Academy’s “Honor Code,” (“We do not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone who does”), we knew if asked if we’d spent more than $2.00 at the rodeo against orders, we’d have to say yes, and get whatever punishment we had coming.
But the day never came.
That was the law side of things there, but the grace side of things culminated for me one particular night after survival training. We had been training in topographical map-reading, and to put our map-reading skills to the test. Little groups of four of us were given maps of the area, compasses, coordinates of particular locations in the area, which we were supposed to find merely by map-reading. Each point we were supposed to find, we had to pick up the proof of our having found it. We had to eventually find our way back after dark.
It was another of those wondrous days. My group made our way through the forests and foothills with the high peaks of the eastern side of the Rockies. The peaks were towering above us. Slowly we found each map coordinate we had been given and it was getting to be nightfall.
The last portion of our hike took us to a large clearing. When we walked to the edge of the clearing, we saw that we were on a high plateau above the back portion of the residential section of the Academy grounds. Below us cascading down the foothills and into a valley were the lights of the dwellings of humankind, the laid out rows of the streets, the streetlights, the driveways, the occasional cars moving slowly down the streets.
To the east above us and beyond the range of the lights below, lay the whole panorama of the western sky and the vast infinity of space, filled with sparkling white lights that seemed as if they were blazing, against the utter blackness of the sky behind them. Then below that high view was the land stretching out equally as infinitely into blackness.
We stood and paused there – I think all of us were overwhelmed by the view. I had never been taken with such immensity before, something so beyond me, something so noticeable, something so “there.” For a moment we found ourselves almost speechless, except to utter, “wow,” or “God,” or “Man, will you look at that?”
It was only a sky; it was only a landscape draped in the darkness of night. But no, it was infinitely more. It was “wow”, it was “God” (meant as an adjective, or expletive), or “Man, will you look at that?” I repeat it here because we could not help but to repeat our utterances of sheer wonder.
In all this speaking of God being “us,” we are safe in Him because it is always with this panorama behind us. We are ever overtaken by the immensity of the Living God. Indeed, we cannot help but worship Him, night and day praising God in the inner sanctuary of our being, ascribing inwardly to Him all honor and glory and majesty and righteousness and holiness and joy and wisdom and Love.
We have been billowed over by Him, HE WHO IS completely beyond, HE Who is above all that we ask or think, HE WHO answers before we call, HE of whom we ask, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” It is this very same HE who asks us, when we are the most forlorn and distraught and think we can go no further, “Will you also leave me?” and we answer, “How can we, Lord, YOU have the words of eternal life?”
It may be that we met Jesus by the side of the road while we were fishing or collecting taxes or working at a gas station. Whatever we were doing, He walked by and turned and looked at us, and we couldn’t help but get up from whatever it was and walk on with Him. We couldn’t understand Him always; we weren’t quite sure HE was doing the most prudent thing always, and He seemed to say things that really riled some pretty important people that we wish sometimes He had not said. But we could not help ourselves, darn it, because we found we loved Him no matter what.
He had the words of eternal life. Somehow behind Him and in Him was the infinity of the stars, the immensity of Being, the Reality of Life, and though we often had not a clue as to what He was talking about, we found ourselves so encompassed about with His Love that even if we tried to escape it because we thought we were not worthy of it, there were no outlets to be found and we were hemmed in on all sides with a Love so BIG, a love so MAGNIFICENT, a love so WONDROUS, a love so STEADFAST, a love so UPLIFTING, and a love so FORGIVING, that as we steadily realized it we ceased being so much petrified rabbits caught in the hunter’s flashlight beams that we suspected we were, and instead took off our garments and basked naked unashamedly in the Sunshine of His Love, because HE revealed Himself in us as ONLY LOVE, and absolutely nothing else.
“We love Him, because He first loved us,” the apostle John wrote. He Loved us to awaken Love in us. The only reason He wants to be “loved back” is because for us to Love Him in the Mystery of His Person, to live in perpetual thanksgiving for the gracious bounty of the Father, to tearfully wonder continuously at the immensity of His Love, is His Love going full-circle, propagating Love, creating Love, Love loving giving birth to love. To Love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength is to see that He is ALL of that, He is the Only Love there is, there is no other, and when we Love Him we are not loving with some “separate” love that somehow exists outside Him, but joining in the subterranean love-flow that is the foundation of the universe, which IS God manifesting Himself, and now we know ourselves are mere forms of HE WHO IS ALL.
Therefore and we gladly, joyfully, tearfully, thankfully, in great wonder and awe as to how such grace should happen to us, we cannot help but to fall on our faces before HIM in adoration and weakness, because when the heavenly vision of WHO HE IS overtakes us, we cannot but help but to say, with the prophet, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5)
Here we are completely undone, because in HIM we have lost ourselves, and see only HIM. There is ONLY ONE LOVE, and we are enraptured that HE is the ALL and that fills all the alls there are.
Lovers recognize and sense each other, even from afar. We do not love God as some old white-haired man sitting on a throne way up in some heaven far away. We love Him when we see Him and know Him where He is. We recognize Him everywhere we look; we see Him peeking out from the most unlikely places; we fall in love with His mountains and flowers and oceans and flocks of quail bursting above a field in the dusk. We see Him in beggars and thieves, as well as in politicians and soldiers. We see Him in little babies who have lost their mamas and live in refugee camps, and we see Him in little children who grow up in the warm nurture of loving parents who can provide everything they need.
How can we not love Him more than anything? Because He is MORE than “anything”!!! There is simply NO OTHER but He, and He has so overtaken us, so filled us, so overflowed us, that He has burned in the fire and heat of His passion anything in us that was contrary to His kingdom, and wrenched us WHOLE from the inside-out by the inundation of His Spirit into the very spiritual molecules of our existence and person.
In this revelation our love is turned around the right way. Before, that love had been turned around in on ourselves, but in the inflow of His love into our inner being He turns that love the other way, outward, and we begin increasingly to know His river of everlasting Life flowing from our bellies.
“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Matt 12:29,30)
Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” ceases to be something we strive for but becomes instead our permanent state of being.
“And he said, I will love thee, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.” (Ps 18, 1,2)
What wondrous grace, what bounteous love, that should foreordain that we would find ourselves hidden in Him Who is beyond all, yet in all, that against the panorama of sky and land fading in the distance together into infinity, we walk as Him in this world.
1 Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
2 Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
3 Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
4 Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
5 Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
6 Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.