“I don’t have to like these people, but I do have to love them.”
It was quite early in one of my seminary internships during an after church pot luck dinner. I was at the end of the serving line and looking out across the fellowship hall for a place to sit when that thought occurred. It came out of the blue and completely unbidden. I am reluctant to make claims about the source of that thought but it did occur to me that I should pay attention to it.
That sentence confused me for quite a while. “I don’t have to like these people, but I do have to love them.” I had assumed “liking” necessarily preceded “loving”. And I assumed that you couldn’t have one without the other. Then ever so slowly I realized that love isn’t so much an emotion as it is an action. We don’t have to feel loving first in order to act in a loving manner. Love is something we do. It is Jesus’ command to us, to love God and love our neighbor.
So during that year of internship, I learned to love and then to like. (And to be honest, the folks at Parkville Presbyterian Church in Parkville MO. are very easy to love and to like.)
Now I work in campus ministry with people from a very wide variety of beliefs and perspectives about what it means to be a Christian. Daily I have the opportunity to practice love. And I find, almost always, liking eventually comes as well. We don’t achieve agreement over every point of doctrine. Not even close sometimes. But love for these brothers and sisters in Christ ? Yes that comes, if I focus on extending the love of Christ rather than being source of correct theology.
I remembered that potluck as I was thinking about denominational life after General Assembly.* Some people are glad about the actions the church took, feeling that we are now a more just and more Christlike church. Others feel the church has abandoned traditional and biblical standards, and are unhappy about these decisions.
What do we do? How do we stay together as the Presbyterian Church (USA)? But perhaps the first question is should we stay together?
I think so. What we hold in common far outweighs our differences. To be Presbyterian is certainly not the only way to be Christian. We may not even be the best way to be Christian. But we have, as a denomination, particular gifts to give to the larger church. Not least of which is our willingness to wrestle with difficult questions. Do we perfectly discern God’s will? Of course not. Do we try? Yes we do. And sometimes we find ourselves unable to resolve a question to everyone’s satisfaction.
I am not suggesting life together will be easy, simple or effortless in these next months and perhaps year. Our system of taking votes to find our way through tough issues makes it hard for us not to end up feeling like either winners or losers. But winning and losing are not what the kingdom of God is about. Perhaps we are here at this uncomfortable place to discover the way past winning and losing.
If the kingdom of God is as boldly and radically inclusive as scripture suggests, then the church exists, at least in part, to show the world how people who disagree about some things still manage to love each other and live together as a community of faith. This is where the distinction between liking and loving comes in. You don’t have to like everything I do or think or believe. You can honestly think that I have completely missed the mark on certain issues. If you think I have missed the mark, I probably think you have missed the mark as well. What we think and believe matters, of course. But honestly we know we won’t get it all correct. Fortunately, life together as Christians isn’t about getting everything right. We are not saved by correct belief but by the grace and love of God. God accepts us, imperfect as we are. Perhaps we too can we allow some space for the incorrect and mistaken beliefs we all have.
In our life together we need to remember what and who we hold in common. As followers of Jesus we need to remember that love is more than an idea, love is action. Brothers and sisters there are many things we need to do. We need to worship. We need to feed the hungry. We need to work for peace and justice. And we need to show the world a glimpse of the kingdom of God here on earth. A glimpse which includes our ability to love each other even as we disagree about some particular beliefs. If my experience is any indication as we focus on loving each other, we will find at some point that we also like each other.
For Presbyterians thinking about leaving the PC(USA), I wish you wouldn’t. Honestly some of your beliefs make me uncomfortable. I have no doubt some of my beliefs make you uncomfortable. But you have gifts to give to our life together. And I may have a gift of two as well. Can we stay together in an uncomfortable place until we emerge on the other side? Can we stay together trusting the Holy Spirit to help us and guide us? I hope we are able because I think this is part of our calling.
This topic is unintentionally becoming a theme here this summer. I wrote “Still Wondering: What was the church supposed to be?” and “Generous Spaciousness: Book Review” which also explore aspects of this topic.
* For you non Presbyterian’s in the crowd, General Assembly is the every two year denominational meeting of the PC(USA). As always there were many decisions made and only a few received much notice. And this year, again, issues of sexual orientation and marriage were top of the list of most discussed decisions. If you want the details, go here. The short version is that the restrictions prohibiting clergy from performing same sex marriages- where they are legal- were removed. (Not mandated, not required, just the prohibition was removed.). Also the GA recommended and sent out for Presbytery approval that the language about marriage in the Book of Order be changed to “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”