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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.