How to Love

I’m not sure who came up with this illustration, but I really like the way it helps me understand what Christian individuals and communities are supposed to do.

Jesus says that two commandments are the greatest of all: Love God, and love your neighbor. You place those commandments at the top and bottom of a Y axis.

The X-axis is the part most people forget: We act not just as individuals, but as larger communities. This diagram helps us break out of our American tendency to think that every human activity boils down to the individual. So the left side of the axis is what we do as a church community (public), and the right side is what we do as individuals or smaller groups (private).

The way we act in love toward God as a community is worship. We gather together to pray, sing, read and interpret scripture, and offer our praise and attention to God. The way we act in love as individuals or small groups is devotion. We do some of the same activities like prayer and reading, but we also study, fast, and practice stewardship of our time and money.

Moving clockwise around the image, the next act of love is toward our neighbors individually. This area is sometimes labeled “charity” or “kindness,” and it includes all the ways we behave toward others, like practicing hospitality or helping people in poverty.

The way we love our neighbors as communities is the part that seems to generate the most controversy in churches today. The phrase “social justice” has become a political litmus test. Being human means being part of social groups and structures: families, work groups, organizations, genders, ethnic groups. A feral human being, cut off from others, is not a “natural” human being. As Christians we are part of an even larger organism called “the church” that transcends all of these social boundaries, and this corporate creature has an impact on society that can be good or evil. If we ignore how we behave toward others as a larger group, then we are likely perpetuating evil. Justice means restoring just relationships between all people and groups of people.

Usually when I’ve seen this illustration used it leaves off the part I’ve added in the middle: Witness. I put it in the middle not because it is most important, but because it overlaps all of the spiritual disciplines and connects public and private, God and neighbor. Witness means both seeing and saying what God is up to in the world. It includes what Christians usually call “evangelism,” which means telling the Good News, but also being a living witness in the world, what Jesus called letting “your light shine before others.”

The United Methodist Discipline describes the mission of every church as “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” but our new church will think about making disciples in this way. This is how we join God in the renewal of all things: publicly and privately, loving God and loving neighbor: worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness.

2 thoughts on “How to Love

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  2. I went for a 40 day, 650 mile hike on the PCT in the Southern California desert and it opened my heart. Our daily, hectic lives are dis-regulating. When walking, eating, searching for water, taking care of sore feet and sleeping are our only concerns, life can creep back in. I truly felt the brotherhood of all men as well as the oneness of all things.
    The PCT descends into Antelope valley at a big ranch called Tejon. It crosses the highway and the monster aquaduct and then begins to ascend toward the Tehachapi mountains through an endless sea of windmills. After hours of dusty dirt roads that the wind farms have graded over the old trail, you suddenly become aware that you are climbing giant mountain traverses into the Tehachapis. The mountains have broad steep shoulders and the traversing trail is a 12 inch goat path winding from one giant canyon to a shoulder or saddle and on into another canyon, and another and another and another. As the sun began to go down and the long shadows appeared, my consciousness seemed to go “deep and wide”. I no longer felt separate from the mountains, I felt some kind of ancient unity with everything around me. I felt as though I was the eyes and sentience of a giant being, of which, the mountains and me were merely different parts.

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