This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

All we need to know

I don’t know if I have ever been able to convincingly say that I love God. So, I don’t really say it very much. I don’t not love him, but to claim that I love him has always felt like a stretch to me. Mostly because I can’t see him.  I believe he is there, here, everywhere. I believe that the Christ is God incarnate, that he is everything . . . our before, our after . . . that all things are called to him. Richard Rohr quotes Teilhard de Chardin as saying that “the cosmos is fundamentally and primarily living. Christ, through his Incarnation, is interior to the world, rooted in the world even in the very heart of the tiniest atom.” I believe that too. But I don’t know if I love him in the way I understand that word. And I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in that little hesitation.

Still, in the book of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying there are two commandments. Love the lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. And the second is like the first. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, he said, hang the law and the prophets. In other words, pretty much everything hangs on them. But apparently the two commandments aren’t different from each other; they are the same. One doesn’t follow or precede the other. So, to love God is not possible unless I love my neighbor and to love my neighbor means that I love God. Which really means that God is my neighbor? It kind of makes sense because my neighbor, as is biblically stated and acknowledged, is made in the image of God.

A bit strange that Jesus, in giving us this summary of all that matters, didn’t say we need to believe certain things, or many things, or frankly, any things. He said to love God and our neighbor. And he talked about it and lived it all the time. So, does believing “the right things” not help us to love our neighbor better? Will believing not quite the right things make us less able to love our neighbor as we should? I don’t know, but I don’t think there was anything, anywhere, in Jesus’ teaching and in his actions that didn’t have directly to do with how we treat each other. How we actively love our neighbor. This is not something that happens in “our hearts” and then sits there as a nice feeling. It seems always to be about paying attention to those on the margins, those who are left behind. Migrants desperately trying to get to a better life in the United States. Children of those migrants, sitting, still, in prison. 8 million Yemeni people starving because of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, supported by American and apparently many other interests. And around the world . . . neglected children, traumatized and impoverished adults, 68 million displaced people. Jesus was that good shepherd who left the 99 in the holding pen and went out to look even for that last, terrified lost one.

Early on, in Matthew 5, Jesus talked to a crowd and revealed his kingdom as upside-down from what was expected. And to this day, much of even the Christian world seems to still prefer that other kingdom; the more familiar one that comes with power and conquest. But Jesus said blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. It was a sermon near the beginning of his teaching and healing ministry. And if you skim through the rest of the book, it’s loaded with tiny interventions, all of them a big deal for the people affected. Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile. Give to the one who asks. Love your enemy. Don’t accumulate wealth and security. Be slow to judge. Jesus heals the leper. The Centurion’s servant. Two demon-possessed men. The paralytic. The blind and the deaf. And he shows his impatience for those who can never get past the details of their beliefs. “They honor me with their lips,” he says, “but their hearts are far from me” (Chapter 15).

It’s the season of Advent. Nearly Christmas. When I was young, I didn’t really understand some things our dad did with us around Christmas. He may have explained them to the older ones, but from where I was, he just did things. Every Christmas Eve, well before bedtime, after the cows had been milked, he would put some candies and oranges and peanuts into several little brown paper bags, and he’d pile us kids into the car. We were quite a few, so not everyone could go. But we were always enough to be able to sing some songs. Our little Janzen choir. Our first stop was usually the home of Tina, a mile down the road. She had cerebral palsy and didn’t get out very much. Dad would knock on the door, and we would be invited in. He would arrange us a little, and one of our sisters would start us singing a couple of songs. Some German. Some English. Then dad would ask us each to recite a little Christmas verse we would have memorized for Sunday School. And finally, one of us would give Tina the little bag of goodies. Dad would visit a little with our hosts and off we went. Harry was blind. A mile the other way. Two older women lived alone at the other end of the village and we would visit them also. Usually, there were four or five stops and, finally, we’d be on our way home. Christmas Eve!

Christmas morning we would do the same little visit for two older couples who also didn’t get out easily anymore. They lived almost next door. We would make these visits just before we sat down to our mom’s Christmas dinner; it was a kind of inconvenient interruption, because we were all pretty hyped with whatever toys and coloring books we had just received earlier that morning. And we were hungry.

I don’t think we ever complained about these visits; we went because dad and mom expected us to. I don’t remember dad ever belaboring these experiences with us, but I’m pretty sure he went to all this trouble as much for us as for the people we visited; he took us into the activity of loving our neighbors . . . for us kids to experience that those who hardly get out, who are ill, or blind, or alone, or elderly need us to show up. We needed to do it . . . for them . . . and for us.

I read a sermon last weekend. It was written by Carol McNaughton, the peace program coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee Alberta. It’s a thoughtful sermon in which she talks about the need to love our neighbor, to show up with them, and to share space around a table where all are equally welcome. She also reminds her hearers that “showing up” can be complicated because sometimes just showing up isn’t enough. But it gives me hope, she writes, to think that Jesus did not so much come into the world to have us worry about doctrines as to show us how to live. He asked people questions and told them stories they identified with . . . and all of it, one way or another, was about loving God and our Neighbor.

Maybe I do love God. But I don’t know if it matters. What matters is the loving my neighbor part, especially when it’s difficult and complicated to see ahead and God, for sure, is in there somewhere, right alongside and among those neighbors. It’s what Jesus was pointing to when he said the second commandment is like the first. They are the same.

Carol ended her sermon with this line: “may we love our neighbors and trust that doing so will teach us everything we need to know.” That’s a big word, but I think our dad understood something about this.

Abe Janzen lives in Calgary, Alta., attends an Evangelical Mennonite Conference congregation and works with Mennonite Central Committee Alberta. He blogs at Messy Notes, where this post first appeared.

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