“This is real love – not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4.10)
I heard a story recently of an elderly married couple celebrating fifty years of wedded bliss. They chose to celebrate their anniversary by staying in, taking a candle lit-bath together, and enjoying a bottle of wine. At one point in the evening the wife said, “I love you”, to which the husband replied, “Is that you, or the wine talking?”, to which the wife responded, “It was me, dear. But I was talking to the wine.”
Telling someone you love them can become routine, but it can also be nerve racking. Saying “I love you”, and being unsure about a response, can feel like jumping out of a plane without the assurance that your parachute will open.
In his book Short Cuts to Happiness: Life Changing Lessons from my Barber, Harvard University’s Tal Ben-Shahar discusses how uncomfortable saying “I love you” can feel. Tal’s barber in Tel Aviv is a man named Avi, full of folk wisdom which Tal pairs with all kinds of research in his book. Avi the barber has no problem saying “I love you, brother”, which at first Tal finds uncomfortable. “Isn’t that phrase reserved for girlfriends or very close family members?” Tal wonders. If we splash “I love yous” around to just anyone, doesn’t that cheapen love’s meaning and value? But based on research and his own experience, Tal writes that many us overly constrict love. We’ve learned to stifle love and its many expressions in various relationships and life gets thin. Instead, Tal suggests, when we give love room to be expressed uniquely within our various relationships, life gets better. “Lowering the bar for the experience of love doesn’t make it any less real or valuable.” In fact, he says that the more room we make for love’s expression, the more we crave and share it.
Emily Dickinson shared a similar sentiment: “To love is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” After hearing his barber tell him “I love you” and following that experience with some study, Tal Ben-Shahar made a life change. He committed to saying “I love you” whenever he felt like it. And he found that loving with less limitations was indeed a short cut to happiness.
It strikes me that Jesus didn’t stifle love, but was generous with anyone open to him. As we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jesus is “the body language of God” (Mark Oakley), so what is true of Jesus we know to be true of God. Sometimes we try to segregate Jesus and God, as if they’re made of different stuff or have competing interests, but Jesus is just God’s heart walking around outside of God’s chest. So, if Jesus didn’t stifle love, that’s because God doesn’t stifle love. That’s what we heard earlier in 1 John: “This is real love – not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4.10) One of the things John is getting at here is that God said “I love you” first, through Jesus who was more than willing to risk his life for the sake of the world that “God so loves.”(John 3.16)
In our Love Your Neighbour series, we’re in a three-week run on asking what it looks like to care for our neighbours. We’re talking about care from community to community, household to household, and this week about care from person to person.
Caring for our neighbour, person to person, is very often what we think of when we imagine what it means to love our neighbour. As we heard last week, however, we should always check that assumption, as Jesus himself loves within a community, loving along with his first followers. So, care is highly communal. Of course, within that communal reality comes how we relate person to person.
I say person intentionally and not individual because we’ve become too used to describing ourselves as individuals these days. We’re not individual parts of some machine or circuit board. We’re organic, we’re soul, we’re mind, we’re persons. An overemphasis on being “individuals” can leave us dangerously disconnected and isn’t a far cry from “everyone for themselves” thinking. Carolyn Kristjansson recently shared a similar thought in our GROW summer sessions, pointing out that we often see one another as either embodied needs or interruptions. That certainly has nothing to do with love-your neighbour-shaped living. Jesus didn’t see people as embodied needs or interruptions, but as unique yet interdependent persons.
So what does caring for our neighbour mean, person to person, in the pattern of how Jesus cared and loved? I’d suggest at least three places to begin.
First, caring for our neighbour personally as Jesus cares means being convinced by love.
The story goes that a nun in training discovered that pride was one of the seven sins. She responded by saying, “Well, it’s a good thing I’m so humble.”
When you first get to know John, the John who wrote the words we read earlier, the John in Jesus’ inner circle, he can come across a little pompous. In his biography of Jesus he’s always referring to himself as “the one Jesus loved”. He does this for a variety of reasons, but at the very least he’s obviously confident in Jesus’ love for him. This conviction compels him, as it did Jesus’ other disciples, to share the gospel liberally and fearlessly. There’s an old saying that goes “people won’t remember what you said but will remember how you made them feel”. John and the other disciples certainly did remember what Jesus said, but they also dramatically experienced Jesus’ love for them. They knew how God really felt about them.
So, one of the things we could say about caring for our neighbour is that we don’t care for or love people out of our own resources or capacity alone. We don’t care out of duty, obligation or gifting alone. We love because God loves us first. Loving our neighbour becomes very challenging without a robust understanding of God’s love for us. We love most truly when we grow each day with the increasing confidence to say, “I am the one who Jesus loves”.
“Hurt people hurt people” is a common phrase, but with John’s words in mind we could turn that the other way around and say, “Loved people love people”. So, fare warning, try and care for your neighbour without embracing the frivolous love of God yourself, and the well will run dry pretty quick. Thankfully, the living water of the Holy Spirit is poured daily into our hearts, and all we need do is find the still and quiet places to drink. That’s when we find ourselves in line with Jesus who prayed in John 17 that he had loved the disciples just as the Father had loved him. We love and care because we’re convinced that we’re loved.
Second, caring for our neighbour personally means we will be vulnerable in love.
The parachute picture we imagined earlier, about who says “I love you” first, is a little dramatic but does get at the trepidation which comes with risking love. Rejection might be our greatest fear as human beings. So, any risk of rejection, even small, is genuinely frightening. Rejection can cause us to question our value and identity.
Caring for another person, risking a loving action, then, puts us in a vulnerable spot. It’s opening up before you know you’ll be opened up to. It’s giving when you aren’t sure you’ll be given back to, let alone be received. It’s jumping out of the plane without the assurance the parachute will open. Vulnerability, as the popular phycologists tell us, is bravery.
That’s what’s so brave about Jesus’ life and death. He becomes increasingly vulnerable to the point of death. He becomes so vulnerable and open that he makes room to bring everyone in. The movies often tell us that love comes easy, that we should expect to get as much as we give, but that’s not how God loves us. God loves without assurance of reciprocation and without strings attached. So, we should expect a measure of risk, of feeling uncomfortable when caring for the persons around us we call neighbours. Love is risky.
I remember when I first moved into our apartment building. I hosted an open house and invited all my neighbours over, even though I had very little furniture or culinary skill. To top it off, I got the feeling that a single young man inviting his neighbours over just to hang out was met with some suspicion – they probably thought I was a little strange. But I made the first move anyway and opened the door. I risked looking strange or like I had some kind of an agenda, and I felt a little exposed. My neighbours still think I’m strange, but they also know that they’re welcome, and a lot of love has been shared between us since then.
Our confidence in God’s love leads us to take vulnerable steps toward others, but that’s also going to take some risk and bravery. As T.S. Elliot said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Thirdly, caring for our neighbour personally means we will be consistent in love.
I once heard someone say that every time we leave someplace or leave someone, giving up on a person or situation, we are saying in one sense that “God can’t happen here.” Of course, there are times we need to let go of one another, like in abusive relationship for example, but the idea that in every kind of leaving is an inherent giving up on someone struck a chord with me.
Inversely, the same is true. Anytime we choose to stay in a place or stay with someone, for the sake of love, we are saying resolutely, “God can happen here. God hasn’t left you or me or us, and I’m going to ensure we remember that by sticking with you myself.”
One of the words the Bible often uses to describe God is faithful. An angle on God’s faithfulness is to say that God is consistent. God’s love is not a flash in the pan kind of love, not a one-night stand kind of love, but a long term, long suffering (in the old translations) kind of love. “To be trusted is a greater complement than to be loved” said George MacDonald. And trust is born of consistency.
In a world where virtue signalling and minute by minute social justice concerns roll over quicker than a Tinder swipe, the consistency of our care is vital in sharing genuine love. Commitment and consistency, however, aren’t sexy words easily sold on us easily these days. But we’re not attracted to commitment or consistency – that sounds a little dull. Unless, of course we’re buying a computer or we want our house to stand up straight or our health care system to work or our partner to stay with us or our children to learn to be responsible adults. We learn pretty quickly that we might not find consistency and commitment attractive on the outside, but the heart of these intentions keep our most treasured interests afloat.
Sylvia Path was an American poet, novelist and short-story writer who wrestled with depression much of her life. She once wrote, “As a skeptic, I would ask for consistency first of all.” (The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Path)
In John 13 we hear that Jesus loved his disciples and loved them to the very end. That’s sacrificial consistency – a love that doesn’t leave us high and dry when the going gets tough. That’s love we can trust and pray to emulate, even though we may fail. Those are three places to start in loving our neighbour person to person: be convinced, be vulnerable, be consistent.
Love and the Pandemic
In his new book “God and the Pandemic”, which I highly recommend, Tom Wright says that it’s very tempting to ask why? Why is all this happening? For what purpose? Is there something we’re being told or are having to learn in all this? Why are we facing this pandemic? What Wright argues, however, is that in the great history of the Bible the intention has not so much been to ask “why?” when catastrophe strikes, but “what?”
Of course, people asked why terrible things happen in the Bible, but over again they learned that there are mysteries involved they couldn’t understand.
Or they learned that looking for reasons as to why they were in the mess they were quickly turned to blaming one another – read the book of Job see those stories play out. For examples today, Wright cites the recent blaming of other countries or governments that didn’t act quickly enough. Asking “why?” has a nasty way making us turn on one another, of scapegoating, and is often full of guesswork. It’s also a question that looks backwards.
What I find so encouraging about Wright’s appeal to spend more time asking “what?” and less time asking “why”, is that asking “what?” is a question that looks forward. Jesus asked what he could do for love and so did his first followers. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…” we read in Hebrews. The whole story of scripture rests on looking forward into joy and hope and healing for the world. You could say that the cross is an arrow always pointing us forward.
So the job of the Christian is not to sit around speculating about what has happened, or even to worry about what might happen, but stand up and ask: what can happen? The job of the Christian is to collaborate with God to bring joy and hope and healing. The job of the Christian is to ask What can we do? How can I help? Our faith looks forward toward fulfillment, and we’re part of doing the filling in!
Christians asking “what” more so than “why” when disaster has struck, historically, produced the first orphanages, the first hospitals, the first hospices. It was the Church who stayed to nurse those afflicted by plague in the second and third centuries. No one had seen that kind of confident, vulnerable, consistent love before.
Christians ask, “what can be done?” And that’s what we must do today with our neighbours. What can be done? How can I pray? Who can be looked after? Who needs a call or an email or a knock on the door? Where can I care and demonstrate love from a place of confidence, with vulnerability and commitment? That kind of question dares God to move in our lives.
Why not give it a try this week and trust that the parachute will open.