I have an apparently irresistible tendency to speak in terms of metaphors…
My wife and I have been together for over 20 years, and our familiarity with one another aids, at least a little bit, our communication. For example, if I were to be driving home from work and receive a text message from her that read, “pick up bread,” I would have a specific response. Namely, I’d stop at the local warehouse store and pick up a two-pack of a particular style of sliced sandwich bread from a specific baker. We do this approximately every two weeks, so I know the routine. I pretty much know what “pick up bread” means, and the fact that I do is kind of an amazing thing.
It’s kind of amazing because suppose that the situation were a bit more complex. Suppose that what “pick up bread” means is: “Stop at Druer’s Bakery on 4th street and see if they have their sourdough bread fresh baked today. If they do, please buy a loaf. If they don’t, but it was baked within the last three days and is half-priced, get that. If they have neither, see if they have their plain sandwich bread with the split top, baked today or yesterday. If they don’t, then go to Jones Bakery at the corner of 6th and Ash. They make lousy sourdough bread, but their rye is excellent so see if they have any. If they do, it will be fresh because they only keep it two days, so it should be fine. Buy a loaf and bring it home. If they don’t have the rye, then go across the street to the supermarket and pick up any kind of sandwich bread they have as long as it is wheat and feels fresh. But if that weird guy with the greasy hair and half-grown beard is the clerk, then don’t buy it because he freaks me out and I swore we’d never deal with him again.” In fact, we could make the meaning of “pick up bread” as complex as we wanted; say, complex enough to require ten pages of rules to articulate on paper, and I would still know, in an instant, what the simple phrase means. That’s kind of amazing, especially when you realize that this goes on with every single one of us with every single language construct we encounter throughout the day.
It’s obvious that the meaning of “pick up bread” differs from person to person, but the tricky part is that even for my wife and me, the meaning might change from time to time. “Pick up bread” on this particular day may refer to the conversation I had with her the previous night, wherein she noted that she needs French bread to take to a party tonight. Or, “pick up bread” might mean that I am to pick up a box of frozen, pre-buttered garlic bread—and I will assign this meaning to the phrase if I am at the top of my game and recall that we are having spaghetti for dinner tonight.
Anyway, the point is that “pick up bread” means something different for different people, and possibly means something different for the same people, given the circumstances. This is my way of saying, for purposes of this post, that meaning is contextual. Words themselves, as symbols written or spoken, have no intrinsic meaning. The meaning is embedded in the context of relationship, history, and the momentary circumstances and environment at hand.
The reason I bring this up is because there is a church I know that has a slogan: “Loving God, loving neighbors. It’s that simple,” and every time I think about that slogan I think of meaning being embedded in context. I think about how most of the Christians in the world agree with one another in principle, and how they really don’t agree in actual practice.
With all of my heart, I would agree with the idea that loving God and loving neighbors is the simplicity of Christian faith and praxis. I really, honestly believe it’s that simple. It’s that simple, and if all the Christians in the world would just stop bickering about doctrine and focus upon the simplicity of this idea, life in Christendom would be far more harmonious. But, it’s not that simple, and the reason is context. I would be willing to wager that nine out of ten Christians surveyed, if they are Christians who spend much time reading the Bible, would say that the two greatest commandments are: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is not a tough answer to come up with, because Jesus was extremely explicit about this. But this is analogous to “pick up bread.” We all know “pick up bread” means our spouse wants us to show up at home with the type of bread product he or she in mind when they constructed the message, but the trick is, from one person to the next, from one context to another, what does “bread” mean? So in other words, what does it mean to “love God”, and what does it mean to “love my neighbor?” That’s the extremely complicated part, and there are limitless answers, many of which are accompanied by very highly developed, intricate and strongly defended doctrinal systems.
There are some, for instance, who would say that loving God begins with moral behavior, and some who would say that loving God begins with the heart and leads to moral behavior. Some would say the two are the same. Some people would say that loving the drunkard who asks for money means ignoring him and not supporting his addiction. Some would say loving him means giving him money to stop his pain of the moment. Distinctions exist for almost every situation a person can dream up, from the very tiny and subtle to the large and blatant, and I don’t want to go into any of them herein; it is an exercise left for the reader. The point is simply that it is quite possible that the Christian across the pew from me is doing his or her best to love God and love neighbors fully, as am I, but our beliefs and our praxis as to what those two things mean are very, very different. As Christians living in communities small (i.e., congregational) and large( i.e., Christendom), what do we do with this? I think there are things we can do with it, and things we cannot. Let me return to the bread metaphor again…
There are times when, despite all my familiarity with my wife, I just get it wrong. Maybe the store is out of the normal bread so I take a guess at a substitute, and it’s a really bad guess. Maybe I forget that we talked about tomorrow’s party. Maybe I neglect to read the menu stuck to the refrigerator door and so don’t notice that we’re having spaghetti tonight. I miss it. I fail to interpret “pick up bread” correctly. But here’s the deal: Did I fail with the best of honest and sincere intentions, or did I fail because I just didn’t try? In my opinion, if I make an honest effort to get what she wanted, and do my best, I’ve “picked up bread.” This could mean that I could tell from the parking lot that the warehouse store would take an hour, and she’d much rather me get a substitute bread at the quickie mart than be home late. It could mean that in a myriad of ways I get a substitute that, all things considered, she would accept as a thoughtful and caring attempt to fulfill her request. (This is, in actuality, due to the very great depth as to what “pick up bread” really means; it’s quite a deep definition that is buried in the relationship that exists only between my wife and I.) But on the other hand, it’s entirely possible for me to decide that I don’t care about her request as long as I can think of some plausibly arguable excuse as to why I couldn’t fulfill it. Maybe I’m tired and cranky and I don’t want to go to the warehouse store today and so I stop at the quickie mart and get whatever they have. Maybe I’m feeling particularly uncaring on a particular day, or even mean and cruel, and so I pick up a package of hamburger buns. “Hey all you asked for is ‘bread,’ and hamburger buns are bread” I might defiantly remark in the midst of her protests. For that matter I could buy kosher crackers and when she complains, “this isn’t even bread!” I could sarcastically demand, “Well you call it bread on Sunday mornings, don’t you? Which is it: bread, or not?” And so there is more to fulfilling my wife’s request than meeting the particulars of what she meant when she asked me “pick up bread,” and ultimately in the relationship between my wife and I this “more” is what matters most: There is leeway, and there is devotion. If my heart is devoted to her request, there is (and rightly should be) leeway in what I do. But I have a responsibility to—in fact if I love my wife I will— devote myself to trying to meet her requests as best as I can. And of course, picking up bread is only one—one of the most simple—in a list of countless items in our life together.
And so there is leeway and there is devotion. In Christian terminology, we might say that the leeway is Grace. And, we might say that the devotion is the loving of God and neighbor through the heartfelt giving of one’s self as a living sacrifice. The takeaway is that in a church that says it’s all as simple as loving God and loving neighbors, there are two things that must be present in order to live up to the slogan. One, each Christian much devote his or her self, deeply and profoundly within the depths of his or her uniquely individual soul, to the love of God and neighbor. But two, the church in general must understand that there is leeway; that loving God and neighbor are contextual, and that it is the heart (providing the why of praxis), rather than the mind (judging what the praxis must be), that makes loving what it is. The call for the Christian is to love God and love neighbor, but not to tell another Christian precisely how this has to be done. And the church, as a whole, should continually encourage and foster just such a devotion in each individual member. I tend to think the apostle Paul would agree, for he said:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God. Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. (Romans 14:1-13. NRSV)
Loving God, loving neighbors. It’s that simple. Well, if each Christian passionately and profoundly devotes his or her self to loving God and neighbor from the heart, and
if each Christian is given the trust and freedom to do so as he or she sincerely understands it, then yes: It’s that simple. And yes, I believe this with all of my heart.