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Sometimes I tell people that if I ever became a pastor (or in the nomenclature of the denomination I grew up in: preacher), I’d get up in front every Sunday and say, “It’s complicated.” Then I’d give the blessing and we’d be done.

The world is inherently tricky. People are complicated and the only way to never find yourself in precarious situations is to live alone in the woods somewhere—and I doubt even that will do it. (Thoreau borrowed Walden Pond from Emerson and had his mother do his laundry.)

As C.S. Lewis puts it, “The price of freedom is loneliness.” When we moved from THE CITY, we thought we’d miss restaurants and museums and zoos and things of that nature. I didn’t think I would miss the opportunity for isolation. If you’re really going to live live in a small town, you find pretty quickly that everything is inextricable and that everybody’s lives (the good, the bad, and the extremely problematic) bleed into everyone else’s.

What I wish is that Christ, after saying Love your neighbor, had added exactly how to do that.

I mean, I know that he did, in lots of different ways, but I could use a real clear 12-point plan or something along those lines. Solve for X. A simple answer.

But of course, that’s not how it works. And more often than not, when I find myself in a complicated situation with a neighbor, literal or not, that I’m asked to love, I’m left with the incredibly complex question: Just how do you love somebody?

That church I grew up in, the one with the preachers, while certainly having doctrine, didn’t write it down in catechisms and creeds. And when I was asked to respond to three creeds for the job that I have now, I began my statement with: “I’m not much of a doctrine guy.”

I had always thought of doctrine as a way to keep people out, instead of inviting them in, and I was suspect of the underlying—implied, I thought—certainty in doctrine. I’ve never been one for certainty, though that’s not because I haven’t wanted be. It’s like a fashion I can’t pull off—I try, really I do, but I just can’t ever quite wear it in a way that’s comfortable. So I tell people that I’m more interested in the questions then the answers, in the hows and the whys of Love Your Neighbor, and I ignore the command as best I can, which is fine in theory and impossible in practice.

In the second paragraph of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It you find this:

“…on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite it before we could walk the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have…”

When I recounted the interview for my department, how someone had suggested that I think of doctrine as foundation, my wise colleague offered a different option. She said that sometimes she thinks of doctrine as the edge of a cliff—it’s the thing you hold onto when nothing makes much sense.

Love your neighbor. How? Love your neighbor. How? Love your neighbor. How?!

Love your neighbor.

What a beautiful answer, (almost) enough to satisfy.

Luke Hawley

Luke Hawley teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. His collection of short stories, The Northwoods Hymnal, won a Nebraska Book Award. He sings and writes songs for The Ruralists. Check him out at www.lhawley.com or www.fullyruralized.com.

3 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Hey, Luke. I really like your post. Great job. You sound very practical and I think using our common sense goes a long way toward understanding the answer to your profound question, how do I love my neighbor. I think many of Jesus’ teachings were based on common sense. But we want to make things difficult.

    You suggest that you are not much of a doctrine guy. That’s doubtful. For you, your doctrine is that everything the Bible teaches is true. To teach at Dordt, you would at least have to confess that, along with the apostles’ creed. So do you see how different your doctrine is than that of the Muslim, the Jew, the Hindu, the Buddhist, and on and on? You got doctrine, that’s a certainty.

    The “deist” believes God reveals himself in creation, and not through special revelations such as the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon and so on. These, including the Bible, are all claimed to be inspired of God and therefor true. All of these writings are said to point to the one true way to God and to meaning. And yet they all differ at key and essential points. But creation is the only revelation that has come from God himself and with an application of common sense goes a long way toward revealing “the chief end of man”, ”to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

    When we all get to the pearly gates of heaven (if there’s such a thing) we may be surprised to see not only Christians, but Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and people of every other religion. And when we question God as to what is going on, he’ll probably say, all these people (including Christians) are here in heaven, not because of what they believed, but in spite of what they believed. They are here because God is a God of love and forgiveness. Welcome to God’s heaven.

  • JoAnne says:

    Hi Luke, I really appreciated your reflection and chuckled several times in the course of reading it. If a preacher stood up and announced, “It’s complicated,” gave a blessing, and sat down, he would have my full respect. However most Sundays we need a little more direction than that. We need something to hold onto when we’re on the edge of a cliff, a brilliant metaphor for why we need some doctrine. Hard and fast, no loopholes doctrine, maybe not, but doctrine.

    Here’s my answer for “How do I love my neighbor?” I love my neighbors by remembering that I am as exasperating, delightful, irritating, comforting, tedious, exciting, helpful and hindering as they are. That’s one of the beauties of Communion, a weekly reminder to remain humble, that we are all children of God and all in need of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.

    I have a different perspective, I think on Midwestern neighbors, having grown up on the East Coast. I lived in Pella, Iowa for eight years and was loved by my neighbors and loved them back in a way that I had never experienced on the urban/suburban East Coast. Both my husband and I responded to this new experience of what it means to be a neighbor with a mixture of surprise and gratitude. We are now back on the East Coast and miss those kinds of neighbors sorely. In fact, I may write about that experience and share it with you all if you’re all interested.

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