Many times in pastoral ministry, I find that, in one way or another, I’m counseling people to love their neighbor. It comes up in my preaching, worship services, committee meetings, and so on. The golden rule is simple, but complicated. It’s easy, but difficult. We all know we need to love more. At times we do, but more often than not, we know through experience, that loving our neighbor is a life long learning process. It takes years of practice, failures, confessions, amends, and so forth. Love is a high calling and it’s a calling worth pursuing.
When faced with a difficult task, I find it helpful to use a variety of images to help me imagine how I can complete the job. For instance, if I need to visit a sick congregant, I can envision the image of the chaplain on a naval ship. The chaplain doesn’t row the boat, wash the deck, or fire the cannons, instead he is there to support those who do. It’s not my job to be a doctor, nurse, or family member to this sick congregant, instead it’s my job to be present with them with spiritual support.
In the Biblical story, there are countless images painted for believers that help us imagine how we can face the difficult task of loving our neighbor. In the Apostle Paul’s day, there were numerous itinerant preachers hoping to swindle the common folk out of their hard earned money. Naturally, some of Paul’s churches became concerned that Paul might be just another crook. So, in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul describes his love for the Thessalonian Christians with three images: an innocent baby, a caring mother, and an encouraging father. Each of these images provide a posture for loving our neighbors.
Although in many translations, Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 are translated as, “We were like young children among you.” A more accurate translation is, “We were like infants among you.” Paul uses this “infant” image to communicate his integrity and love for these Christians. He wasn’t trying to take advantage of them, instead he was looking to love them. Like when my son was born, he came into this world with needs, but he had no concept of what it meant to use someone or take advantage of them. He cried for milk, he longed for cuddles, he wanted love but he didn’t know anything about my wallet. Likewise, Paul wasn’t preaching for the money. He was preaching for love’s sake. A childlike posture is one of humility, learning and growing day by day. Paul chose the humble posture of a baby.
Many of the itinerant preachers, would stroll into town shouting their messages from the rooftops, only to take off the next day with the local’s money in hand. They were not interested in real relationships. Yet, Paul was. He compares himself to a loving mother because he isn’t interested in only preaching a message to them, but he wants to share his life with them. He wants to go to their homes for dinner, celebrate their birthdays, and mourn with them at a funeral of a loved one. This image reminds me of the character named Aunt Cordie in one of my favorite novels, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Jayber is a young boy when both his parents die from the flu in 1918. He’s left with nothing. At the wake, many people come by and offer words of comfort, but only Aunt Cordie does something about it. She picks him up off the ground, lets him cry in her arms, and says to her husband, “Othy, we’re going to take him home.” Aunt Cordie takes Jayber home and raises him as her own son, with all the love and affection a young boy needs to thrive. She took action to care for the needs before her. Paul was like Aunt Cordie to these Christians. He didn’t want to just preach at them, he wanted to engage and live with them.
However, Paul knew that love did not mean only being present and available, it also meant knowing when someone needed encouragement to take the next step in following Jesus. He writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” Like a father teaching his child to ride a bike, Paul knew when he needed to push and let the ones he loved ride on their own.
When I first started in ministry, an older man named Reggie came alongside of me to encourage me. He took me out to lunch and gave an opportunity to share about my struggles and celebrate my strengths. I’ll never forget the day when we were sitting outside at a Mediterranean Grill, and he told me, “Whatever you say to me, stays right here. You have my complete confidence.” I knew in that moment, that I could trust Reggie. I trusted him to accept his encouragement and I benefited immensely from doing so. Like Paul, Reggie loved me like a father who is willing to encourage, comfort, and urge his children to live lives worthy of God.
As you reflect on these three images from Paul, what other images come to your mind? Are there other metaphors that might help you to better love your neighbor? If so, lean into those images. Remind yourself of the ways God has called you to creatively love your neighbors and even more creatively love your enemies. Love is our highest calling. It’s worth investing all the creativity and imagination we have into it.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema