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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Two for the price of one, no, actually three for the price of one!

Note: In this post, I reflect on some thoughts that came out of a weekend retreat I took with my church this weekend. It so happens that the reflection fits right in with a series of posts in which I have been meditating on the commandments. See the last one here, where you can also find links to the rest of the series.

When the teachers of the law asked Jesus to identify the Greatest of the commandments,
Jesus answered by giving not one but two commandments.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The writer of the gospel of Matthew says that Jesus added, "All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments."

This past weekend, I spent a couple of days with my church at the Rancho Las Palmas Marriot Resort and Spa in Palm Springs, CA at an all church retreat. The speaker for the weekend was Lon Allison, the director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, IL. Lon preached a very powerful yet simple message from Mark 12:28-31. He says that this is the number one goal for the Christian. Quoting Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart, he says the Greatest Commandment is in two parts. Part one is about Loving God with all of my heart and soul, all of my mind and strength. That part is about the will (heart), the rational and the emotional (mind) and the body (strength). In other words, it is about all of me. It is about spiritual discipline. He says for years he thought this meant to increase his devotions, memorize scripture, pray, and generally be more holy. That was easy to love God. However, he missed something about what the verse says and what Willard brought it out in his book, and that is the phrase "all your soul." He says the soul is about the relational aspect of the person. It is about what makes up your identity. It is about the extra-personal factors, the interpresonal, the social and relationship aspects of the person. Until you love God with all of your soul, you haven't actually loved him.

The second part of the Greatest Commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" actually completes the Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Another aspect of the verse is about this word, "Love." Allison said the verse did not say, "Like" but "Love." It is not about an emotional feeling. It is about commitment.

As I listened to the sermon, I felt really convicted.

You see, at the first meeting of the weekend, our lead pastor had asked us to be vulnerable and share with one another in our small groups. We were asked to share about was how we got connected to the church. My wife and I were open to our group and we shared how after three years, most of my family had not connected with the church.

In fact, we shared, how we felt that we were socially, economically and culturally quite alien to our church, and we had found it hard to fit in. Although the church calls itself a church for misfits, we found ourselves misfits among the misfits. Earlier, when we were going through our struggles with being jobless, with the difficulties with our finances, and our strive with our rebellious children, we just felt no one truly understood us. We found that it was difficult to share with our friends at church. It appeared to us that they would rather that we not share our pains and just rather that we be happy, praised God and thanked Him for everything. It was hard for us to be vulnerable and to open up because people appeared to "tire" of our pain, our sufferings and our struggles.

While I was still without a job, it was ok, and people were feeling sorry for us, or at least they reached out to us and genuinely wanted to help us. Shortly after I found a job, people would come to us and say, "You guys were struggling for a while back there weren't you?" When I would look them in the eye and say, "We still are," that is when we feel they would shrink away, as if to say, "Oh, no not again." Or, "You ungrateful brat!" Or, "You just like to be needy don't you?" Or some such. Maybe they didn't really feel that way, but that was how we felt was happening to their responses to us. So, we would just kept our troubles to ourselves.

As time went on, we stopped going to our small group fellowship, and stopped telling people that we are struggling. Struggling with two oldest daughter's losing interest and faith in God and the church. Struggling with our balances our finances and repaying our debt (money that we had borrowed while I was out of a job). Struggling with what God really wants to do with our lives. Struggling with many questions of faith, life and commmitments.

It seemed to us that as long as we answered their "How are you's" with "Great!" we did not get the withdrawing or shrinking-away responses.

That was what we shared with this small group at the start of the retreat. We said, the only reason why we were there is because we still believed that God wants to connect us to Himself and that He wants us to be part of a faith community. Plus, our two youngest children were connected to their children's and junior high ministries. We were losing the older two, we did not want to lose the younger two. So, we stayed, and we have come to the retreat because we wanted to draw closer to God, to be spiritually renewed and refreshed.

Immediately after that sharing time, our lead pastor led us in a session where he shared that he hoped we as a church will persevere in our running of the race. Someone asked him what is the purpose of this race? He said, "It is the race to love God and to love our neighbor." He said, "We are called not to like our neighbor, but to love our neighbor. It is about commitment, not an emotional feeling."

Ping! The penny dropped.

I realized that God has called me to love. In fact, I recalled that Jesus said to His disciples, "A new commmandment I give unto you..." I bet Peter was fishing out his notebooks. Oh boy! For the rest of the crowd, they have the two greatest commandments upon which the entire Law and Prophets hang. We are special. We get to have a new commandment. Can't wait to hear what it is! "Love one another as I have loved you."

Wow! Is it really that simple?

Later as I listened to Lon, it hit home even more.

Loving God is incomplete unless we love our neighbor. It is as simple as that. If I say I love God, and yet hate my brother, I lie and I am still dead in my sin, and I am walking in darkness. That was what John the disciple whom Jesus loved said.

And, for the disciples of Christ, our special commandment is to love one another as He has loved us. Love.

I know what it means for me now. I had started the retreat by sharing and opening up confessing my wife's and my, uneasiness about other Christians in our Church. About the fact that Christians tend to not feel comfortable when one of their own opens up and share their vulnerability, suffering and pain. About the fact that we felt like we had been judged and our pains and suffering were not taken seriously by others in the body of Christ.

So, what did we do?

We withdrew ourselves. We felt since we had been misunderstood we shrunk from their fellowship. Instead of seeking them out and loving them, we decided that it was too difficult, too painful, too inconvenient, for us to be vulnerable with our fellow Christians.

Yet, our Lord has commanded us to love them. It is not our responsibility to change their minds about us. It is not our responsibility to make them understand our perspective, or understand our struggles. Our responsibility is to love them. We say we were hurt, or we were in pain. Rather than retreat and try to heal by ourselves, we need to practice what it means to heal spiritually, and that is to heal the Body of Christ. To heal as we share with the community. The only way we can experience full healing, is for us to open up to the community of faith and to share the Spirit of Christ as the balm to heal the wounds, the hurts and the pains that is harming the body. Because if we are hurting, then the body is hurting and the healing must be within the community. As the body heals, then we heal. Rather than look at people, especially the people who "should have known better," who often disappoint us by their callousness, by their judgmental spirits, and by their critical spirits, we are to run the race, "looking unto Jesus." We are to let the Spirit work in the Body of Christ, to heal the Body of Christ. Maybe that is what the "one another" commands of the epistles are all about.

So, my wife and I left the retreat with one simple pledge: We will get connected immediately with a small group and we will commit ourselves to love - to love God, to love our small group, and to love the body of Christ, and in so doing fulfill our commandment to God and to love our neighbor.

I bet the reason that the Lord gave a specific "new" commandment to the disciples not because it was "new" necessarily. I believe one might be able to argue that the new commandment for the disciples was already embedded in the two -- especially the second of the -- greatest commandments, upon which hung all the Law and Prophets. But, he gave them a "new" commandment because He knew they wouldn't get it unless he reiterated it to them. They needed to hear it again, and they needed to have it spelt out to them, and finally they also needed to practice it because the Lord knew how messed up they were.

In a sense, it would have been easy to love those who are without Christ and those who have not yet responded to the gospel. Also it would be quite easy to misunderstand that the work of the gospel is to love the unchurched. To go out there to preach the gospel in the name of love. To be a martyr for Christ in the name of love. To be "suffer for the faith" and to "suffer oppression" and to "suffer rejection" in the name of love.

He wanted to underscore the real work of the gospel - to love one another. To love my brother and love my sister in Christ. To love those who are of the family of God. To love them - to be committed to them - and in that way, to do the work of the gospel since "by this all men will know that you are my disciples." That is the real work of the gospel. It is when we love one another as disciples that the work of the gospel is being carried out more than any overtly evangelistic campaigns. I used to think that loving one another is about edification - building the body of Chrsit, while loving the unchurched is about evangelism - loving them to the body of Christ. Now, I understand it: loving one another is evangelism! And, evangelism is building the body of Christ!

Oh wow! I pray that by God's grace, mercy and strength that we will be able to carry out this commitment - this new Commandment, that really is part of the Greatest Commandment.