It’s not a question we ask often —certainly not often enough given the priority Jesus puts to the verb “love”in His Good Samaritan teaching of Luke 10:25-37. That parable still remains a heckofa grenade that Jesus throws into our christian bunker. It was in response to the question about what it looks like to “love one’s neighbor;”to which the so-called expert in the law quickly responded back “Exactly who is my neighbor?” Most people know the story,so I don’t need to recount it again. But I was reminded of it this past Friday at a work function.
There was a fellow who worked with Stephen Covey who was doing his thing on time management for students about to go or return to college. And then he quoted something that caught my attention:“Who you are is a function of what you’re willing to take responsibility for.” I heard it and immediately jotted it down on my napkin. The reason? Because it’s become apparent to us in our four and a half years out here that we take responsibility and hard work much more seriously than most Christians who come here. We have had scores of people come to visit,and a number of them are big shot,leaders of leaders. We tell them that while we try to practice availability when people visit,it’s pretty hard to connect sometimes because we are all working so hard. We all work —hard. We have feet-to-ground,having taken large chunks of responsibility for people as part of our own growth as people who love. You will find no armchair theologians or professional bloggers in our midst. There is too much work to do. Everyone works. We have started businesses,schools,and social entrepreneurial ventures. We have written city code and legislation. We have started non-profit groups and mentored others in doing the same. We cleaned up and tend a three acre farm. We heavily engage in the arts and keep avenues open where others can engage in the arts. We take the responsibility of large local problems like substance abuse,recidivism,diabetes,truancy,unemployment,child abuse,learned dependence,STDs,and suicide. In short,we have made ourselves our brothers’and sisters’keepers. We have taken the time to do what the Levite and the priest refused to do for the man on the side of the road. Why? Because LOVE DEMANDS IT. There are no shortcuts. This is the teaching of Jesus:be your brother’s keeper;enlarge your sense of neighborhood and community beyond those whom it is easy for you to serve.
The truth is,as assumed by Jesus in his hard Samaritan teaching,there are lots of good reasons why we SHOULDN’T show tangible love to others and take responsibility for them. We have our theological reasons,our psychological/therapeutic reasons,our leadership philosophy reasons,and personal reasons. I’m not gifted that way. It would be a waste of my time. I should be doing more important things that really bless people. It’s not strategic in the Great Commission. I am apostolic —not pastoral. I’m a trainer,not a worker. I need to create boundaries. I am not under the law,but under grace. I need to avoid codependency. I need to protect my family’s time:God,family,work. I have to rest and practice my sabbath. I have to provide for my family. Someone else will take care of that person. I would fail at that. I am not good at that. I don’t feel comfortable around people like that. There are many reasons. But none of them are good ones on an absolute scale. Let’s let Jesus’s words stand. Can we all just admit already that despite how accomplished we may be in the fields we are in,we have a lot to learn still about loving others —the divine imperative under which all others must fall. And it’s not going to be learned UNTIL WE TAKE ACTION. A book is not going to help us,nor is more teaching on the subject. We understand Jesus. We just don’t want to do it.
If we’re not willing to take responsibility for those in great need,those who live next door to us,those who have no voice at all,those who are being swallowed alive by capitalism and consumerism and false christianity,then who will? No one. And that’s why there’s so much suffering in our world:because we’re not willing to step up and love in an incarnational and subversive way.
As I mentioned above,we have even developed spiritual reasons for not doing this stuff. I have even heard some teachers decrying these acts of love/responsibility as “mere good works”masquerading as evangelism. I wonder what James would have to say about the alleged “mere good works”? Or what Jesus would say about them since He teaches that you will know the tree by its fruit. The assumption behind this allegation is that people can do good works more easily than verbally share their faith. There may be an element of truth to this for the average evangelical who has a compartmentalized faith and life;for such a person,an act of love could be a one and done “service”act. But if it truly is an act of obedience to Jesus’s command to love others and if love really does conquer all things (1 Corinthians 13),then what’s wrong with an act of love that is not fully planned out and does not articulate christian dogma on first contact? NOTHING. Forgive my bluntness,but the ones making these allegations and cautions are armchair theologians who don’t really understand the nature of relationships. They make evangelism merely the confrontational,verbal proclaiming of Christ. But anyone can do that proclamation without love;on the flip side,I have found that when I love a person,proclamation is part of the package. It is an authentic and necessary part of the love package as we seek to save them in every way they can be saved. The litmus test,however,needs to be LOVE,not whether there is verbal sharing of a body of knowledge (i.e.,methodological correctness). Yes,indeed,the lost are part of the group of people whom we need to take responsibility for,but we need to see that this “saved/unsaved”is not the only lens we should be using;it actually interferes with having a normal and natural relationship with them. Jesus didn’t use an outright pagan as his main example in the parable. He specifically used someone who was syncretistic and whom any 1st century Jew would have felt nervous hearing about as the recipient of our love. Also note that in Jesus’s story,it doesn’t end with a “born again”experience at the end that comes as a result of the service. Love does not seek to procure its desired result at one’s desired time frame. It just freely gives. The Samaritan is loved,but not converted. We should let that stick.
Our capacity to grow as lovers of people is a function of what and who we’re willing to take responsibility for. So it’s time to stop being the fenced-in suburbanite,time to stop shaking our fist at God like Cain did (“Who am I? My brother’s keeper?),time to stop having such a narrow understanding of family,and time to put ourselves —one act of obedience at a time —in harm’s way of the Holy Spirit.
That’s how it started for me. I knew little about love,even though I taught others on love and God’s love all the time. I was not multiplying loving people in my church I planted. I was not raising loving children. I had great theologies that I could articulate well. I had leadership philosophies and convictions that kept me safe from the Samaritans. I was safely in my suburban home —in the non-smoking section of life. And I knew deep down inside,that I was selling out. I knew my life was too small in its orientation of others. I was Mr. Irrelevant. And Mr. Discontent. Because if Jesus made us to love God and others,then our deepest contentment in life should come from living out this purpose and natural design. But I wasn’t.
So I gave it all up. Gave up my job that afforded me a comfortable lifestyle and afforded me respect. Gave up living in the part of the country that everyone dreams of living in (the SF Bay area). Gave up surrounding my kids with the best they could be surrounded by in terms of quality of public services,parks,recs,programs,public education,opportunities for growth,etc. And my wife and I moved to the opposite of what we had:a rural and desert mining town nearby native reservation boundaries. Few opportunities (we had to make them),worst education in the state,next to zero multiculturalism. We went to the county with the highest teen pregnancy and teen alcoholism rate in the state. We moved to the proverbial other side of the tracks. And I struggled right away. I didn’t have position or title anymore. I was relationally naked. It had to just be me —well,Christ in me —without those trappings that facilitated non-normal,unnatural relationships. I worked at a cafe our church family started. And that was hard,hard work that humbled me. As nice and other-centered as I was in my personality or in my pastoral training,it still wasn’t enough. I was STILL too self-oriented,self-important. I had to give up even more —like my need to feel like I was doing influential work,like my need to be recognized,like my need to demonstrate expertise,like my need to see fruit and results,like the need to have my name associated with a great thing. It was just me —working with my hands,cleaning dishes,making coffee,and mopping floors. It was the best “internship”I could have ever had as a former Christian leader.
When that was allowed to take its course in me,the Lord opened me up to greater responsibility:the education of an entire nation’s school dropouts. I have agreed to be their “keeper.”It’s not the kind of job that people proudly put on their fb “about me”page. But I LOVE IT. I had asked God to help me learn to love others,and since taking responsibility for others is a necessary part of that,what better way than this? I have gone from hanging out with six figure salary employees at Google and facebook to hanging out with people who are on food stamps,have never had a bank account or credit card,and desperately want to change their life predicament through education. I am regularly scheming with others in my church family and with like-minded tribal leaders how we can bring hope and shalom prosperity to more families on the reservation. I could make the case that they need it/me,but I have come to see that God is still saving me in every way that I can be saved. Part of that includes saving me from my priest,levite,bunkered in suburbanite orientation. I need to grow in love. I need to have more of the Father’s heart in me. I need to include more people into my “family”circle. So I am thankful that God has come through for me. Moreover, I am thankful that I can look my kids in the eyes and tell them that Jesus’s teachings have life and power in them. As one who takes the discipleship of my children seriously,such opportunities are pure gold.