Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Book of Deuteronomy we find Moses instructing the people to keep God’s commands and promises long life for them and their children. He then told them that they must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” In Mark’s Gospel one of the scribes asked Jesus which of commandment was the greatest. Quoting Moses, Jesus told him to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” But he went on to say “[y]ou must love your neighbor as yourself. The scribe agreed with him and Jesus responded by telling that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.”
In my years as a hospice chaplain I found that only part of my time was spent caring for my patients. I was also required to write into the patient’s chart and on each visit I had to complete a spiritual assessment (it was there that I first learned that medical community had no idea what I did or how I participated in patient’s care).
One day I met with a patient for the first time. I explained my role and asked him about his spiritual beliefs. He told me “I love the Lord” and then he stopped talking. When I realized he was done with my question I was about to launch into an explanation that I had an entire assessment to fill out but I quickly realized he had given me all the information that I needed.
He was a good man by any measure. He was kind, gentle and sincere. I don’t know if he knew the words of Moses or Jesus, but he lived them. I emphasize this because too many times I encountered colleagues, and a few patients, who would have gone in an entirely different direction, who would have attempted to prove how smart they were.
I once met a fellow chaplain whose business card gave his name and then a long succession of initials after his name (MDiv, DMin, BCC, COD, SOB, etc.). Some of these initials were education degrees, some were associations he belonged to. All were intended to impress the patient. Problem is, he wasn’t a very good chaplain. His encounters were all about him and his primary motivation was to convince the patient that he had been in the presence of greatness. He wanted his patients to admire him and that left little room for him to love them.
When we are called to love the Lord and each other it’s both simple and lifelong. Too often we think of love as either a feeling or an intellectual assent. Not only is that false but it makes things too easy for us.
If love is merely a feeling then we’re off the hook because we can’t control our feelings; it should go without saying that a marriage based on love as a feeling is doomed nearly before it begins. If love is a feeling we take no responsibility for our decisions and when the marriage falls apart it isn’t our fault.
Love also isn’t simply an intellectual assent, and I believe this is more insidious. I’m stepping into dangerous territory here, but I sometimes hear about someone exercising “tough love.” I know it’s hard to make decisions about our actions in response to someone who is making poor decisions. We know we shouldn’t provide beer to an alcoholic child or cash to a sibling who will use it to support an unhealthy relationship. But I’ve also witnessed several episodes where someone will act with disdain or anger at someone and justify it by calling it tough love. Love can be tough but it should never be an excuse for us to abandon someone.
Ultimately love is a decision. When we say “I love you” we mean many things but at its basis we commit ourselves to another person. “I love you” compels us to write our story into the story of the other and work for their benefit, as they work for ours.
And if this sounds easy I haven’t been fully communicating what loves demands of us. Because of 24 hour news channels and social media, the definition of neighbor has dramatically expanded in the last forty years.
And now, not only are we called to love the guy next door who never mows his lawn or the family down the street with the state of the art sound system, but we called to love those we will never meet.
We are called to decide to love the refugees fleeing persecution in Africa. And the victims of sex trafficking in Latin America. And also those who cause the refugees to flee and those who enslave children as sex slaves.
I’ve participated in countless meetings where we’ve discussed compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue happens when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the suffering of others. Several years ago I was at such a meeting. Most of us were Christian and we talked about setting boundaries, turning off the TV set and limiting what we saw. But one of our group, a Buddhist nun, found herself puzzled by our discussion. She explained that her faith teaches there should be no limits on our compassion.
She talked about how we are not called to fix the suffering we see, but work for what we can do. In terms of refugees she suggested that we could donate to organizations that care for refugees while voting for politicians who advocate for reforms in oppressing countries. She also suggested that we could speak out against those who pay money to have sex with children and slaves.
Of course she believes we should pray but if that is all we do we’re shortchanging both God’s commandment and our own ability to participate in change. If we truly believe we are called to love God and each other we need to keep asking the question: “In this moment what can I do?” If we feel overwhelmed we should acknowledge that and keep pushing.
Maybe we tell our addicted nephew that we’re available when he’s ready to chose another path. Maybe we call out a coworker who tells an offensive joke that objectifies women. Maybe we support an organization that works to change a nation, or an organization that profits off the suffering of others.
At the end of the day we are called to love, not to fix. Let’s do that.