Habits of the heart: Love your neighbor

March 19, 2014

The church where I worship has a chalkboard wall that posed a provocative question: What neighbor are you trying hard to love? One of the answers hit my funny bone: “Left lane guy.” Most days, I commute 25 miles from home to office. I know left lane guy. I also frequently encounter “slow merge lady,” and yes, they both frustrate me too. I have often found myself muttering, “Learn to drive,” as I try to impatiently move around them and get to my destination.

Parker Palmer, a teacher and writer, reflecting on his journey toward living in intentional community, said what he discovered about community is that it is the place where the person you least like lives, and additionally, when that person leaves, another rises to take his or her place. Living in community is how God is teaching us how to forgive, to love, and to give and receive acceptance. It is where we become fully human.

Jesus gives us the command, “Love your neighbor.” In fact, it is part of what we call the “Great Commandment.” We are to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. On this all the law and prophets rest, Jesus says. Loving God and loving neighbor are on equal footing. I John goes on to assert that if we say we love God but don't love our neighbor, then in fact, we do not love God because to love God is to love our neighbor. And loving our neighbor is not merely tolerating them. It is a proactive act of extending ourselves to them in charity and love.

Here is one thing I discovered: Curiosity can be a helpful discipline when I am finding it hard to love my neighbor. A touchstone that I have been taught is, “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder”—so, for example: I wonder why I am having this reaction to this person or situation. I wonder what this person is thinking and feeling that would lead to this action or statement. When I can suspend judgment, and open my heart to another, it leads to empathy and understanding. It even helps me with “cut-me-off driver,” who I want to honk my horn at, but I try to be curious and think about possible reasons, other than being a bad driver, for that person not seeing me. And I have to remember, I too have made that same mistake and never intentionally, so perhaps that driver is just having one of those mornings. It happens to all of us.

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer says there are five habits that any community or nation needs to cultivate for their health and vitality. I discussed the first habit of the heart—the fundamental conviction that we are all in this together—in last month’s column. Palmer says the second habit of heart is developing an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” He goes on to say that “hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us.” And in fact, hospitality “actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive.” He notes that this is an act of humility as it acknowledges that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all, so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to the “other.”

Healthy families, healthy churches, and healthy communities are built when all people are able to offer their contribution, to speak their truth in love, to listen and learn from each other. We know deep down that we are all in this together, that it takes a village to accomplish most anything worth doing in the world, and therefore we value the other. We extend hospitality not because God requires us to do so, or to be nice. We extend hospitality because our community and our lives our enriched and strengthened by it.  

If there is one attribute I would wish for myself and our world, it is that of generosity. We are so quick to make judgments, to write people off, to close our minds to what we do not want to hear. To be generous means to give the benefit of the doubt, to not assume the worst, to not impute bad motives, to see the other as a beloved person of Christ who has gifts and graces to offer the world no matter their personal opinion on a particular topic. I am so glad that God has been generous to me, extending love when I keep falling short. To love as God loves means being generous, in turn, to my neighbor. 

“Love your neighbor.” It is a simple command. It is a lifetime of practice.

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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