So far 2021 feels like 2020 part two. This has been an emotionally draining time for all of us. We can identify with the excerpted words of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? Look on me and answer me, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” There’s almost a death pall over the world. We’re tired of this. We weren’t made to be isolated creatures. We long for relationships and interpersonal contact. Our country and world have seen tempers boil over because of the sheer weight of this prolonged assault.
Added stress to an already worn out world is the politics of division. No matter what “side” one is on, COVID and evil has taken advantage of our ongoing malaise and pitted us against one another. Our inward focus on self-survival in these past months has exacerbated our differences more than our common values. If someone were to ask you what your highest value is, what would it be? What would they be?
Our church just received 150 face masks free-of-charge from our denominational communications people. What they have written on them is very telling in terms of priorities and highest values: “Love Your Neighbor” is in big bold letters, and down at the bottom in small letters is “The people of the United Methodist Church.” My cynicism is on full display at this point because I don’t think loving my neighbor should be my highest value. It would have been much more preferable to me that the mask boldly said, “Love God,” “Love Jesus,” or “Love God and Neighbor.” In these days of division and hyper-judgement, loving our neighbor is extremely important, but when I read what Jesus called the two greatest commandments, he didn’t start with love your neighbor. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Celebrating the individual is our national pastime nowadays, and we justify ourselves by buying into this anti-social tactic. It is anti-social for us to say everything anyone does is fine. Don’t we realize that God made differences between plants, fish, birds, animals and people as a good, even great thing? We want to flatten the curve on differentiation by overplaying sameness. We have made individual autonomy our highest value. This over-valuing of self is most insidious when it demands that everybody else understand me; i.e., appreciate me, love me, support me, condone me, and applaud me.
You begin to see why the commandment to love your neighbor becomes a warped slogan of self-actualization when it requires everyone else to kowtow to whatever my self-proclaimed values are. The problem with this is that no one can really understand someone else. It is absolutely important and a good thing to try to walk in someone else’s shoes, and attempt to see their perspectives. We should value one another as made in God’s image, but identity politics is basically narcissism because it doesn’t recognize that we have all been marred by original sin. Everybody can’t be right, right? So, what do we do? What message would you put on your mask that represents your highest value?
Maybe your highest value might be to hang on to The Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If that’s not good enough, we could go further and take our national conscience a bit higher by following the two great commandments, but doing them in order: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hear me, I am talking both/and, not one without the other. One cannot even begin to understand and love one’s neighbor without first loving God. A blanket kumbaya that accepts any and everything from others too easily becomes a convenient rationalization of my own actions, desires, and identity. God has to come first before I can really appreciate my neighbor or love myself.
The Bible actually has a very clear statement that spells out what it means to love God first and foremost, and our neighbors second. That statement, of course, is the 10 Commandments, albeit in the McClendon version: “Have no other gods but Me; Don’t make or bow down to idols; Don’t use my name in a way to make it mean something it doesn’t; Keep at least one day holy so you can have time to remember Who I am; Respect your parents and those who take care of you; Don’t murder and that includes way more than you think; Sex is sacred, so don’t fool around in your head, bed or on your TV, computer, or phone; Never steal in any way, shape, or form; Don’t lie or spread anything that isn’t 100% accurate; Be content, and don’t be envious or want what you don’t have.”
These commandments are pretty evenly split between love of God and neighbor. They beg the question: What would happen if we took them to heart, and put them into practice? What changes would occur in our country, world, and our personal lives? How would they shape our values, how we treat one another, and, most importantly, how we view and worship God? These commandments, seriously observed, make me get out of my pompous perch of judgment and self-approval, and take God and everybody else seriously.
Fred Craddock, consummate story teller and preacher, gives us a hint of hope and instruction on how this can work. He talked about how he had to get from one place to another on his family’s farm when he was growing up. His experience as a young man gives us a good lesson in civics, civility, and Christianity in a world fraught with divided opinions. As he walked the fields working in the family truck garden, the red mule he used to plow with would often get loose and make Fred have to chase him through an old family graveyard.
He would complain to his mother about having to go through that spooky old cemetery. His mother’s usual reply was, “There’s no other way. Now when you go through the graveyard, make sure you don’t step on graves. Graves are sacred ground.” Fred, in the late hours of waning sunlight, was chasing the mule through the cemetery, and he got frustrated because, in the diminished light, he didn’t know whether or not he was stepping on his Mama’s precious graves. Getting home he told his mother, “Mama, I couldn’t tell what part of the cemetery was sacred.” And she said, “Well, I know, it sometimes looks the same. But if you’ll just treat it all as sacred, you’ll never miss.” Craddock concluded, “You treat it all as sacred, but that’s just the way Mama was.” Is that the way we are? Do we treat whatever or whomever as sacred or profane? Something to ponder as we name our values in our complicated world.