When Jesus was asked which commandment is most important, he answered: "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." (Matthew 22:36-39, NRSV)
Well, I can't look at my neighbor in the mirror and say nice things. I can't monitor my neighbors weight, health, exercise - or I shouldn't, anyway. I can't tell my neighbors when it is time to go to bed.
So how do I love my neighbor?
I guess the first thing is to figure out who my neighbors are.
When we lived in Virginia, our neighborhood was very close knit. We had a party for every holiday, it seemed. Our kids came and went from house to house to the point that we made a rule: whenever you change houses you need to check out with a parent whose house you are leaving and check in with the house you go to. Halloween was like a lawn tractor derby. The dads decorated their lawn tractors and pulled wagons filled with trick-or-treaters, while the moms stayed home and handed out candy. I always enjoyed asking what the trick would be if I chose to take my chances - some would throw toilet paper in my trees but most kids said, "That's OK. We won't do anything." I loved Halloween (still do).
Now, in Pennsylvania, we live on a less densely populated street. We've met most of our neighbors, but haven't become close to any of them. I really think that is geographic more than anything else. No one trick-or-treats here.
The faith of my fathers says that my neighbors are people who live near me, look like me, and believe like me. Their houses are similar to mine. Their lifestyle is similar to mine. Their values are identical to mine.
This badass woman says, "No."
My neighbors live all over the world. Their skin is all shades of skin. Their hair is straight, curly, kinky, blonde, brown, black, white, gray - some have long hair and some have no hair. Some live in nice houses like mine, and some live in slums, or tents under a bridge. Some live in their cars. Some live in apartments in the city, and some live on estates. Still others in shacks on the beach.
Some have kids, some have no kids, and some are kids. Some have professional degrees, some have college degrees, some have high school degrees, and some have no high school degree because they chose not to finish or haven't gotten there yet. Some are stay-at-home parents and some are work-outside-the-home parents.
Some travel around the world. Our nephew enjoys traveling for triathlons - a concept I don't get but to each his own! Many of the people in our new town have never traveled outside a 50 mile radius of home. Some enjoy camping, some enjoy nightlife. Some prefer the beach, some prefer the city, I'd always choose a lake. Some can't afford to vacation, and some just like to stay home.
Some have excellent health care. Some have none. Some struggle with chronic health conditions and some are very healthy. Some are health conscious and some aren't "compliant" with the regimen prescribed/advised by a healthcare provider (compliant is an interesting word. It isn't usually because someone just doesn't feel like complying - culture, gender, family dynamics, economics, education, and comprehension of instructions are just a few of the things that cause people to be "non-compliant," a term I hate).
When I was growing up, almost everyone I knew was Christian. I remember there was one Jewish girl in my elementary school, and to my childish mind that meant that she got extra holidays and I didn't think that was fair. It wasn't until I was an adult that I actually got to know people of color and other religions. They are all my neighbors.
My neighbors live in Flint, MI where the water is contaminated with lead.
My neighbors live in homes threatened by sea-level rise caused by climate change.
My neighbors depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and eat seafood contaminated with heavy metals. These neighbors are threatened by pollution, changing ocean temperatures and increasingly severe storms.
My neighbors have lost children, husbands, fathers, and other loved ones to police brutality because of their race.
My neighbors are indigenous peoples whose ancestors were betrayed by the United States government, and who continue to be ignored.
My neighbors have lost 1,155,235 loved ones to COVID (ECDC, 10/26/2020).
My neighbors are 545 children wrenched away from their desperate parents who now can't be found.
So how do I love my neighbor?
The faith of my fathers said that one has to be baptized and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to get to heaven, so we love our neighbors by proselytizing and saving their souls. By telling them how wrong their faith is. This badass woman says, "No."
You might tell me that John 14:5-7 says that no one comes to God except through Jesus: 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know[d] my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Yep. I believe that. Jesus came to bring all of us to God - all of us.
Most of us follow a faith tradition determined by where we were born. If born into Christian families, we tend to be Christian. If born into a Jewish family, we tend to be Jewish. Muslim family? Muslim. Hindu family? Hindu. To reject the faith of one's heritage and family is traumatic, which is not to say plenty of people haven't done it - just read anything by Rachel Held Evans.
My mom grew up in a Presbyterian household. My dad wasn't religious but realized early that if he wanted Mom in his life he would have to let God in, too. He did. I grew up in either Presbyterian or Methodist churches, with one stint in a Congregational Church. I met Jay in a Methodist church and we were United Methodist until we joined the United Church of Christ when we moved here. Had I been born to a different family, say in Saudi Arabia, I am quite sure I would be Muslim. If I were born in India I might very well be Sikh.
Who am I to say that my faith is the only "true" faith? Didn't God create all of us? The Bible says we are made in God's image. I'm pretty sure I don't look, with my white skin and light brown hair, Eve. I still believe I am made in the image of God, and one of my favorite children's messages is the one where I ask the kids what God looks like (they usually say an old man with a beard), and then invite them to look in a mirror. THEY are what God looks like. but as I look at them, I see girls and boys. Some dark hair and some light hair. Sometimes kids with different skin color or eye shapes (but not often around here). So if I believe that we are all created in the image of God, then I can't insist that God looks like me.
Isn't God big enough to embrace multiple faith traditions? Didn't God promise Hagar that God would make a "great nation" of her son, Ishmael? (Exodus 21:18). Ishmael is a son of Abraham and the father of Islam. Does God not love the people of Islam as much as he loves Christians?
I love my neighbors by accepting them for who they are.
The Islamic people are my neighbors, and I love them by not insisting that they think, worship, celebrate and live the way I do. Same with the Jewish people, Hindu people, Sikh people, Buddhist people, and all the other faith traditions, whether I have a name for them or not.
My neighbors are hungry. Christmas is coming, and we will once again hear Ebenezer Scrooge ask, "Are there no prisons?...And the Union workhouses?...Are they still in operation?...The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?" (Dickens). I've often been thankful that I don't live in Dickens' London, where poor people dress in rags, eat some horrible gruel, and blame and punish children for being born under "sinful" circumstances. But lately I've had to wonder if we aren't moving back toward a Dickensian society. I love my neighbor by ensuring that social safety nets survive, and that our system doesn't deny opportunity to anyone.
My neighbors love their families. Every family has a unique dynamic, and every parent does the best that he or she can. Love and encouragement occur at all socioeconomic levels, as does abuse. I love my neighbors by respecting them despite our differences, and by supporting social service programs for domestic, child, and elder abuse.
My neighbors want to be healthy. What does it take away from my healthcare if everyone else has it? I will be honest - I know that "Obamacare" isn't perfect, but a disaster? How so? How many parents have sat up at night praying for a sick child - might be easier to ask how many haven't. I have, and my kids only had the usual childhood illnesses like ear infections and chicken pox. My kids got all the recommended vaccines so I didn't worry about measles and mumps. Thankfully they never had any serious illnesses. Neither has their wisdom teeth any more, but both still have their appendixes and all their tonsils. They had the advantage of good nutrition, a safe home, low stress, no trauma, and relatively clean air and water. How can I, knowing how much I worried about my kids, deny the comfort of healthcare to anyone? I love my neighbors by advocating for healthcare for all.
And speaking of healthcare, if my prosperity is gained at the expense of someone else's clean air, clean water, or secure land, then my gains are ill-gotten and belong to those who were robbed of security. Again, I vote. I recycle. I minimize single-use plastics wherever I can - even though it is much easier to rip off a strip of plastic wrap. I compost.
We donate to local and international aid agencies like UNICEF, UMCOR, Habitat for Humanity, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. We donate regularly to our church to facilitate the good work the church does. There are so many others - these are just the ones that we have chosen because as much as we'd love to, we can't donate to everyone.
I love my neighbors by wearing a mask when I am out in public. If one person doesn't get sick because I wore a mask then my personal comfort be damned. I know masks are uncomfortable - I don't like them either. But it is what we are asked to do to respect those who are vulnerable.
I love my neighbors by not calling them names. I love them by not waving guns or flags in their faces. I try to be sure I am not posting disinformation on social media. I believe that we can disagree without hating each other.
And I pray. In a previous post I wrote about my prayer triangle - God wants me to be in relationship with God, so I pray. God wants relationship with others, so hopefully they are praying, too, in whatever fashion they choose. God wants me to be in relationship with other people, some I know and some I'll never meet, so I pray for them. I don't know how that will lead me to love them, but I know it does.
We've talked about how important it is to love our neighbors and ourselves. We don't talk nearly enough about HOW to do that. I'd love your suggestions and ideas. Because the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love each other. We're not doing a very good job.
Oh, and Happy Halloween everyone!
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London, Chapman and Hall. 1843.
ECDC. "COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of 26 October 2020." European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases. Accessed October 26, 2020.
Halloween greeting. https://www.zazzle.com/halloween_greetings_poem_pumpkin_trick_or_treat_card-137882349707622461. Accessed via Bing, October 26, 2020.