Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Love is....

I grew up Anglican. Every week, we heard or recited something along the lines of:
'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like, namely this: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.'  
Perhaps there were a few more thees and loveths (this was prior to the modernisation of the liturgy) but that's the gist of it. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I realised that these weren't just Anglican principles, but words spoken by Jesus. In the various Bible studies I attended, at school or elsewhere, we spent a lot of time trying to discuss what exactly was meant by loving God. It's something that, as far as I can tell many years later, takes a lifetime and more to learn. We get it wrong all the time, but since God loves us perfectly, He keeps on forgiving.

But then there's that second commandment, too. We are called to love other people. All people. Not just our friends, not just our fellow believers, not just those who think like we do or behave in ways that seem appropriate to us - but everyone. I know it, of course. I've always known it. I don't think I'm prejudiced or biased; I'm happy to have grown up in a fairly multi-cultural community and mixed with quite a variety of people. I believe that every person has equal value before God, no matter what their race, income, abilities or behaviour. I really do.

However, we can't be emotionally involved with every person we meet, let alone those we will never meet. Nor can we even feel warmly towards everybody all the time. But love is defined in many ways in the Bible: the well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13 gives some ideals. Love is patient and kind. Love does not bear grudges, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. And so on. Naturally we don't  reach these ideals, but if we're going to show love then this passage is a good starting point.

I've been coming across blog posts and news articles about people in the US and elsewhere who seem (from my perspective) not to have grasped these concepts. Protesting abortion clinics, shouting down gay pride marches, trying to campaign against health care for everyone. There was an article going around Facebook recently, about some Christians in Chicago at a gay pride march. They apologised publicly for the hatred and bigotry that stems from some right-wing American church groups, and hugged some of the marchers. Apparently this happened a couple of years ago - it's been reported in several places, and has attracted widespread commenting, both positive and negative.

I hope that, had I been in Chicago at the time, I would have stood with those who were offering compassion in this way. Thankfully I have not personally come across outright hatred and bigotry of the sort that I sometimes read about. Perhaps it's one advantage of being British, seeing almost everything in shades of grey, rather than extremes. A bit like the infamous British weather.

But my gut feeling is that Jesus, were he still a man on earth, would similarly have reached out in love to those whom society (or parts of the church, at any rate) condemns. In 1st century Galilee, he was criticised for mixing with tax collectors and sinners. Of eating and drinking with the despised in society.  Jesus reserved his anger and judgement not for those who sinned (that would be all of us...) but for the religious leaders who invented rules and regulations that quite missed the point of loving God.

I wonder how the parable of the sheep and the goats would sound in the 21st century. I started re-writing it with modern situations, and then realised that I would be showing my own personal biases - for we all have them, one way or another - and that I was making negative judgements which were no better (indeed, perhaps worse) than those who come across as bigoted or angry in high-profile situations.

I guess I'm not a fast learner. It's only now that I'm beginning to grasp hold fully of the idea that my responsibility is to love God, and love other people. And that, basically, is it. I show love for God - insofar as I can - by doing what he asks of me. By being honest, and courteous; by generosity, or kindness, or fairness. God has told us plenty of things in the Bible, and I  believe He also guides us in daily life, if we listen. We fail all the time, but He holds out His hand, and picks us up, and we move forward.

But my responsibility in these matters is for me.  Not for anybody else. That's not being individualistic, I hope. I recognise my part as a tiny little piece of the widespread Body of Christ, of course. But I can only be effective if I do what God wants me to do - whether in general or specific terms. It's no good wanting someone else's role - nor hoping that others will take on mine. God is the Master Designer, and it's only by each of us focussing on Him that the Body of Christ can truly function as it should.

However... it is NOT my responsibility to take care of anyone else's behaviour.

Disclaimer: when we have children in our care, it's fine to offer them some guidance, and right to help them understand the principles of following Jesus. But eventually they must make their own decisions, and be responsible for their own behaviour. It's hard to let go fully when they grow up, and of course we should be willing to advise or brainstorm with our adult children - or indeed with anyone else who asks us to. 


I am not responsible for anyone else's actions, nor do I have any right to judge them. God is the only judge, and He leads each person individually. He knows us all intimately. He knows which parts of my behaviour or inclinations I need to deal with first. And He knows the same about all His other beloved children too. It's remarkably easy to become complacent about sins - or mistakes - which we are not tempted to commit ourselves, and to judge them harshly in others. It's also, ironically, very easy to feel critical about behaviour in others that mirrors what we do ourselves.

And when I've admitted and worked through these tendencies, and feel that I'm beginning to move forward... that's when I realise that I still want to judge those who are judgemental. To fail to tolerate the intolerant. To criticise the critical.

That takes me right back to the beginning.
God wants me to love other people. Including those who do not, from my perspective, do a very good job of loving. 
This post has been several weeks in the making, as I tried to work out what to say, and whether the content was so obvious that it didn't need to be said. It might still have hung around my unpublished collection had it not been for reading, yesterday, this excellent post entitled 'How to love people you disagree with' on a blog I have recently started following. It said much of what I had been thinking recently, a great deal more succinctly.

So I cut this down (yes, it was even longer...) and tweaked a little, and decided it might be worth posting after all.

1 comment:

TV John said...

I heard a Shane Claiborne talk recently - very inspiring. He finished with a quote which, I think, he attributed to Billy Graham: It's God's job to judge, the Holy Spirit's job to convict and our job to love.