Part Five – Loving our Neighbors

“You shall 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, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:30-31

Concluding my reflections on sustaining health amid a pandemic. Each day I have focused on one dimension of our humanity: heart, soul, mind, strength (body), and neighbor, to move towards a place of total health in the new year. Today I focus on NEIGHBOR (any other person, irrespective of nation, age, race, or religion, with whom we live or whom we chance to meet).

Please see my previous reflections on soul, heart, mind, and body, the inner health of our own being absolutely shapes how we interact with others. Abiding in Christ, healthy boundaries and intentional spiritual disciplines precede and undergird any conversation about keys to effective missional innovation. Faithfulness is the soil of fruitfulness.

Before we can fruitful in our work for God, we must be faithful in our walk with God.

The problem with many entrepreneurial types is the double-edged sword of our drivenness. That same hardwiring that pushes us into new frontiers to risk, experiment, and create new things, can also push us beyond God’s will. We can become so busy working for God that we forget to walk with God. This leads to burn-out.

But burn-out is impossible when we yoke with Jesus, who says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

For Christians, we believe Jesus has given us two great commands that identify the purpose for each dimension of our humanity, he said “Love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

While loving God with all our being is the ultimate goal and how we grow into a place of total health, all our love for God means nothing, if it does not somehow flow out into the lives of the people we share the world with. Here are some potential ways to grow a healthy social sphere.

1. Love yourself.

Jesus’ following up the command to love God, says the next command, love your neighbor as “yourself.” I think it is true that if we don’t love ourselves we can never truly love our neighbor. As we say in the recovery fellowships, “hurt people hurt people.” But what we don’t say is also true, “healed people heal people.”

You would think in the current, so called “Me Generation” and the age of the “selfie,” we don’t need to spend a lot of time on self-love. But narcissism, and projecting an image of ourselves for likes, loves, and retweets, is not the same as self-love. In the digital age we are seeing deepening levels of depression (and new categories of disorder) built around social media addiction. The celebrity cult zeitgeist has created a new shame-based culture, if we don’t feel we are super-model attractive, insanely intelligent, successful, and “winning” in comparison with the perfectly filtered lives of others, we experience “not-enoughness.” By being constantly sent these signals in digital culture, shame tells us “I am not enough.”

Healthy self-love is not dependent on our social media followings, engagements, or even what people think about us. It’s about knowing who we are, and whose we are.

As an orphan, for most of my young life I was filled with resentment, fear, guilt, and shame. I derived my identity from external forces. My self-esteem was extremely fragile, because it was not based in an accurate portrayal of my being. It wasn’t until I experienced the love of God, and entered a relationship of mutual love, that I realized my true identity.

We are all beloved children of the creator of the universe. We are actually incapable of loving others until we can have a healthy self-love based in our true identity. I think the real take away here is that we need to care about our neighbor, as deeply as we care about our own lives. That is setting the bar quite high for some people.

2. Start with the people closest to you.

Sometimes our neighbor is under our own roof! It is possible to get so focused on helping those in need, that we neglect our own friends and families. I learned the hard way that that this leads to burn out. Next, we have to look at the people who live in our own neighborhoods. Do you know the people who live around you? Next door? Down the street? Maybe a good starting point would be to find ways to meet everyone within a mile radius of your home in the coming year?

For those of us still in quarantine situations, how might we use technologies to connect with and love our neighbor?

One benefit of the digital ecosystem is the ability to ask a large group of people about its needs, challenges, and hopes. With the internet came the phenomenon of “crowdsourcing.” This is typically understood as a sourcing model in which we can obtain goods and services from a large, open, and quickly evolving group of participants. Teams across many fields are now using crowdsourcing to organize and divide work between participants to achieve a cumulative result.

Followers of Jesus can use this same approach, but rather than toward a consumeristic end, we can seek to genuinely know, love, and serve the netizens in our relational networks.

For example, I started a new appointment to a declining congregation in July of 2020. In the height of the pandemic spreading in Florida, an epicenter of the virus, I was unable to employ my usual methods. While I visited the existing members in a series of virtual home visits, I also used the simple “looking for recommendations” feature of my personal Facebook profile. I asked, “Dear Ocala friends, what are the greatest challenges, needs, and concerns in the city and surrounding area?” People began to respond with things like COVID-19, food insecurity, racism, and so on. I then invited all those who responded to have a town-hall gathering we called a “Community Listening Session.” This led to the creation of new fresh expressions, which I describe in detail in my latest book Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post Pandemic World.

3. Be intentional about breaking out of your usual social circles.

I know some people who only hang out with people in their own church. What good is that? Seriously, that’s more like belonging to a club than being a disciple of Jesus. Try to be in relationship with people that are different than you. For most people, our “neighbors” are people who have the same color skin as us, or the same socioeconomic status as us, same political party, or the same culture or background. That is too limited of a social sphere.

In the life of Jesus, he was constantly breaking the social barriers and reaching out to people who were different, we see him constantly pushing the boundaries and expanding the concept of our “us.” Jesus reaches out to the religious other, the Roman Centurion, and heals his servant (Luke 7). Jesus reaches out to one considered racially and religiously impure, in the Samaritan woman (John 4). Jesus reaches out to the cursed ones with withered limbs (Mark 3), the untouchable lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus reaches out to sinners, tax-collectors (Luke 15), and prostitutes (Luke 7:36-50, John 8:2-11). In fact, Jesus demonstrates that the scope of “neighbor” is massive in scale, it includes people from every race, tribe, and nation (Revelation 7:9).

2020 was a year in which racism and racist policy where widely exposed. Racism is healed not just through repentance and prayer, but through prayerful relationship with our racial other. Perhaps starting with the resolve to make three friends who have a different skin color than you in 2021 would be a good step.

4. Leave margin in your life for random analog and digital neighbor encounters.

If your schedule is so busy that you are always running from one appointment to the next, you leave no time for random encounters to develop into potential relationships. Interactions can lead to real connections; real connections can turn into relationships. Healing, salvation, and grace manifest in relationship. If we are too busy, we sprint through the world never stopping long enough to capitalize on relational opportunities. Sit down with your 2021 calendar, have you left any margins for love of neighbor? Can you restructure it in such a way that you can?

Perhaps this is something we need to explore in the cyberscape as well. Can we create spaces where we can “pay attention” to people using digital technologies created to monetize our own attention? Can we use the same algorithms and mechanisms that prompt us to consume instead to cherish people made in the image of God? Can we take a system that programs us for the shallows and use it against itself, to bring people into deeper relationships?

Perhaps one way is to follow people we disagree with? Social media also creates silos and echo chambers. Trumpism has exposed the fact that people do actually live in two different USAmericas, they are operating from two completely different mental models. Both major perspectives are only partially true. The digital algorithms work to connect people with similar perspectives. Be intentional to engage with people who think differently than you do… break the algorithm.

Also, we should use the “unfriend” or “unfollow” features sparingly. In the digital world, as they say, “easy come, easy go.” People quickly sever relationships with people after disagreements. This creates a superficial level of relationship. I personally make a commitment never to unfriend or unfollow anyone I relate to. Jesus doesn’t turn his back on us when we act crazy, and we shouldn’t do it to others. Of course, situations of abuse or stalking are an exception to the rule.

I find we can absolutely love on people in digital space. Be a cheerleader for others. Don’t always post about yourself. In your pre-planned time on social media, pray for God to nudge you toward people that need a word of hope or encouragement. Randomly remind someone how awesome they are.

5. Don’t be in debt.

Part of loving our neighbor, is not owing anyone anything. Being in debt to others diminishes our relational capacity and fractures the common good. It would take more space than I have here to discuss debt elimination plans, but there is no greater freedom in the neighborly realm to not owe anyone. It eliminates unwanted stress that strains our relationships. It frees us up to be more generous.

Money is one component of this, but there are deeper realities as well. Have you harmed someone and never made things right with them? That harm clings to our soul like a shadow, darkening every interaction we have, whether we realize it or not. To have a healthy social sphere, we need to make amends to everyone we have harmed, whether perceived or real.

Perhaps starting 2021 with a list of all your debts, or all the people whom you owe amends, and commit to make things right in the coming year.

6. Practice presence.

To form loving relationship with others we must be “really there.” In a high pace world, where every minute is saturated with stimuli, as a species we need to learn to listen again. It’s always funny to me when we have all our children under one roof, how connected to our mobile devices we are. We are having conversations, while at the same time, texting, Tweeting, Snapping, Posting, and engaging all those other social media mediums. Relationship is all about the art of being “with.”

We can’t be with each other when our minds are out in cyberspace. Now in the Covidian Era when in-person time has become much more infrequent, we need to really cherish those moments of molecule swapping, face to face time. If we scaled down the time we spend engaging technology mindlessly and spent it building relational capital with others, just think of the benefits.

7. Care of creation.

If we claim to love our neighbor, why do we live wasteful lives of excess that are destroying the common neighborly good and the planet? Most people don’t realize the global effects of living a life of extravagance in a disposable society. When we have too much, there are others who have too little.

The USA is an incarnation of empire. We dominate the world through the destructive systems of extraction (extract wealth and resources, in order to transfer wealth from the vulnerable to the powerful), commoditization (reducing everything and everyone to a dispensable commodity that can be possessed, sold, consumed, and traded) and violence (we support the practices of extraction and commoditization through undertaking violence on whatever scale to ensure success). The consequences of this activity are devastating to other people and the environment itself, as we suck the world dry of its resources. We are complicit in these activities just by our current lifestyles.

The key to making progress here is starting small. Small acts can have tremendous impact. Trying to get off the grid as much as possible, and being conservative in simple ways like: turning off electricity in our homes when we are not using it (hit that light switch!), growing our own vegetables, breaking free of debt and consumerism, shopping at thrift stores, downsizing our living space, researching corporations that outsource their labor and not buying their products, recycle everything you can, speak out against the political and justice systems that victimize the vulnerable as much as possible, etc.

Being intentional in these small ways can increase the greater neighborly good.
If you find this helpful, please like and share it with others. May God bless you in the new year!

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