Love thy Neighbor

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The longer I do this thing of trying to walk through life calling myself a Christian and trying to figure out what that means in a world where everything feels increasingly urgent and conversations and relationships have become increasingly fraught, I find myself wondering what is the minimum essential belief. Is there a basic statement we can boil down this thing called following Jesus to that all of us who claim to be trying to do that can agree on–or dare I say, should agree on.

And I’m not one for pulling verses out to support my position because I feel like it’s too easy to do that and miss how those words connect into the grand stories that span the whole of the Bible and can’t be understood without connection to the other, but there is this one statement, this one instance, where it seems stunningly clear.

Don’t get me wrong, the context is still very important, as is the way that Jesus answers this particular question. The question comes in a series of questions. Two different religious groups wanted to trick him into saying something illegal or blasphemous so they would have grounds to get rid of him. They had realized he was talking about them in his parables and they “wanted to arrest him” (Matthew 21: 46). And the very next parable Jesus tells had to be rubbing salt in the proverbial wound talking about how all the people they called unclean, and undesirable, sinners and righteous alike, and brought them to the wedding banquet instead of the original invitees. Now if we zoom back out on this story for a second, and look at all the times God tried to invite humans to God’s party and they mistreated God’s messengers, you see why they end up missing out on the party altogether. But only because they refused to come. Folks, there’s a whole other post in there, but I’m trying to set the stage for this one statement so I’m going to move on.

Fast-forwarding here there were several other trick questions about taxes and the resurrection, and finally they come out with the one they think will really stump Jesus. Now if you go through these stories in Matthew 22 you’ll see Jesus frequently returns questions with questions and in a broader context of the gospels, returns questions with stories.

So I believe it is very significant here that Jesus returns this question with a concise and brief statement. One of the religious leaders, who was also a lawyer, asks Jesus,

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

And Jesus answers 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 first and greatest commandmant. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

I mean, this is huge. This is about as clear as it can be. The Hebrew Scriptures are called the Tanakh which is an acronym for the law (Torah), the prophets (Nevi’im), and the writings (Ketuvim). So saying “on this hangs all the law and the prophets” is short-hand for saying, “All scripture hangs on this.” And since Jesus is standing there in the flesh, pre-writing of the rest of what we Christians recognize as Scripture, I think it’s safe to assume all of what we call scripture hangs on these two commandments, which are so intertwined, that even though this lawyer asked him for the most important commandment, Jesus gave him two.

So I’m breaking down all my theology and beliefs and re-analyzing all of it. Is it based on love of God and in the same breath, love of my neighbor?

Because when we are radically committed to love of our neighbor, it changes how we preach, how we vote, how we interact with people we disagree with, it changes everything. It requires we put the well-being and thriving of our neighbor over and above any other goals and forbids us from supporting things that prevent human flourishing in any sector of this planet. I could get specific with examples, but I think any issue in the church or in the world can be measured with this, and if people are really trying to come up with solutions that hold the love of your neighbor in first place, then we would be implementing a whole bunch of things differently. Does that belief love your neighbor as yourself, does that policy put the flourishing of your neighbor above all else, does that movement put the safety and peace of your neighbor in first place?

What would you change if you put love of neighbor first?

One last thought and then I may come back to this in other posts, but if you’re wondering who your neighbor is, Jesus has a story about that for you too. And just for kicks if you haven’t done it, look at what the people he was telling the story to thought of Samaritans and vice-versa. Jesus loved to get in there with stories that would have been considered transgressive to the religious leaders of his day.

And one more extension of this who is my neighbor. If this tied up with love of God is the most important thing to believe and act on, then Jesus showed us what that means very literally in the cross. And he died for the whole world, meaning if we are to walk in his footsteps, then the whole world is our neighbor.

Okay last, LAST, caveat. I’m thinking on a broad scale right now, and trying to hold up both theological and political beliefs to this light. In no way does this apply to you staying in toxic relationships that are sucking the life out of you, or are otherwise abusive. Staying in those relationships enables abuse and doesn’t help anyone. Removing yourself from those loops and calling out the toxic person or abuser when necessary and safe to do so can also be an act of loving your neighbor as well as yourself. But most importantly, if you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for your neighbor. Taking steps to promote all human flourishing means that you and I get to flourish as well.

Power and Participation

#RubyWooPilgrimage
#RubyWooPilgrimage

In my talk for the Lights for Liberty vigil, I mentioned the feelings of helplessness that can often overtake us in the face of such overwhelming evil such as the current human rights violations being perpetrated in our name at our border. It’s easy to sink into a sense of complete impotence as an individual against such a large problem, or to turn away, overwhelmed and just try to pretend it’s not happening.

And I get it, I struggle frequently to find balance between staying aware and not looking away from the atrocities in this world and living my life, being present for my family, and finding joy in the good of creation that is still all around us. Between the human rights violations and the ecological disaster that we are poised on the precipice of, I feel like I can barely breathe some days.

But this is where engaging and participating actually comes into play as the ultimate win-win situation. You see, by engaging and finding something we can do to help the situation, we not only find a way to make the world better, we make ourselves better in the process. And in doing that, we also can find the space to breathe, to be less overwhelmed, to be present in our own lives and in the lives of those in our communities. I find this advice from Rabbi Ruttenberg to be absolutely essential in continuing to find energy to move forward.

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Pick something you can do, do it. Keep doing that week after week. Write your representatives, talk to your friends and call them into the movement, read books and articles and get a better education and understanding of current events, attend events, go to a protest, check on your local organizers and activists. If we all just keep doing what we can in the moment, it doesn’t really matter how “big” or how “small” our contributions are if we just keep at it. It all adds up to a big movement, with lots of various-sized parts, and it will make a difference.

The education and engagement factor is why I want to go on the RubyWoo Pilgrimage this fall. I want to be better equipped and educated so I can come back and share that with my community, and then we can go forward together and make a bigger difference collectively.

If you want to help get me on that bus, you can donate to my Facebook fundraiser here, and then follow this blog for updates as I go on that trip this fall!

Everything happens for a reason? | The impact of believing that on our societal morality

IMG_3901If everything happens for a reason, if the prosperity gospel is taken literally, then we don’t have to help anyone. It works great for easing our consciences on the poor, the sick, the refugee, the prisoner, or anyone else we can call the “other.” Everything happens for a reason means that they are responsible for their own situation whether it’s through bad actions, lack of faith, or maybe just God’s will. And who are we to interfere with that?

When author Kate Bowler got sick with stage four cancer, people told her that maybe God had let her get cancer so she could help other people. (See her TedMed Talk). There’s multiple parts to this sort of statement. And I haven’t read her book yet, (it’s on my list!), she may get more into some of this, but here’s my take on everything happens for a reason.

People desperately need to make some sense out of bad things that happen. The world can be scary and dark and chaotic, and maybe, just maybe, if the bad things happen for a reason, then there’s sense to be made out of it all. People quote or misquote that Bible verse “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (my paraphrase of Romans 8:28 but it is similar to multiple translations of this verse). This verse, this one tiny phrase from the whole library we call our Scripture, gets turned into “everything happens for a reason,” the beloved American proverb quoted by religious and non-religious alike.

This misquote or misunderstanding is scary; this underpinning of a five-word phrase that can literally shape the course of a nation. It is so commonly said, commonly quoted, commonly believed.

Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from someone who is suffering rather than entering into their pain with them. When I got pregnant the first time, I made the mistake of telling a whole lot of people right away. So then a few short weeks later, I had to go and tell them that I’d miscarried. I received so many reactions, and almost all of them were distancing ones. People needed to put distance between my pain, my loss, and their lives. “Oh, everything happens for a reason!” “The baby must have had something wrong, this is a good thing!” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Needless to say, all of those rubbed salt in my wound. I was excited to be pregnant, excited for the possibility of a child, and my hopes and dreams in that moment were dashed. The second time it happened, I was somewhat wiser, but as it was later along and I had one child, I needed support. It was hard to find people to just come watch my kid so I could deal with the physical symptoms I was experiencing. People don’t want the awkwardness. I had one friend who volunteered, just one. To be fair to some of my long-time friends, they didn’t live nearby and I know they would have helped if they could.

Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from poor people and from addressing poverty as a system of injustice. If God blesses those with the “right” kind of faith, then they are poor through their own fault, right? And people who are sick are sick because they lacked faith, and the prisoner is in jail because of their actions and the sentence was surely just because, everything happens for a reason. And the refugee, and the immigrant, well, if their faith is right it will get them where they need to go, no need to reform immigration, or offer our aid.

It’s great for justifying ignoring everyone, putting all the onus on God to bless or not bless, and then we can just sit here and judge people because of their lives, after all, aren’t their lives the fruit of their faith?

And that’s all well and good for soothing consciences, except…

Except, literally none of that is scriptural. In fact, it’s as close to the opposite of the story God is telling us in Scripture as I can think. The story that follows God trying to be in relationship with messed-up, broken people. That follows those people of God through slavery, through the desert, as refugees, as people displaced from their homes and carried off into captivity. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about how those people disobeyed God and brought all that one themselves. Everything happens for a reason, after all. But if we follow the story, it was God that led them to Egypt in the first place as a salvation but they were later enslaved. Where babies were killed because Pharaoh was worried they would outnumber the Egyptians and take over. If God led them to Egypt and left them there, and everything happens for a reason then God is the author of all that evil too. But we don’t usually like to think of the full implications of that statement. Obviously there’s more there than can be tackled in one blog post, but it bears thinking about.

Perhaps most clearly, everything happens for a reason ignores the very Saviour it claims to worship. The Saviour that was born a poor brown baby in a kingdom ruled by an evil king. A Saviour who had to flee a massacre–becoming a refugee from violence–when he was just a little boy. A Saviour who did nothing but kindness and mercy and healing, but was still wrongfully convicted by a justice system that was anything but just, and put to death at the hands of broken, messed-up people who thought they were doing God’s will.

If Jesus came to show us God, and also came to show us how to be human, then what Jesus shows us is a God who enters into human particularity and doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. Doesn’t blame people for circumstances wrought by unjust systems, doesn’t leave those who are grieving or without hope. He sits with those society shunned, touched the unclean, and broke the rules of the religious orders of the day. He was executed by the government for fear he would cause an unrest. His arrest was instigated by religious leaders because they thought he’d blasphemed God.

The cross has many lessons for us, but the one for today is this: we must be very very careful thinking we know what God looks like, especially when that picture of God we hold looks like us and agrees with us. Scripture shows us that wherever God is moving it’s disruptive. Things that Jesus did in Scripture were revolutionary and even transgressive. So we must be wary of a picture of God that makes us too comfortable with what we believe, because there’s a good probability that picture is an idol.