The pastor’s Sunday was ending badly. He lived in New York City, had arrived at the church before sunrise and now, in the evening, he was making the long subway ride home. He was angry with himself for how the sermon had gone. He was more than a little threatened by the church up the street that seemed to be thriving. That pastor was younger than he was. After youth group, a mother had complained about acolytes who wore sneakers instead dress shoes of– right in front of a sneaker wearing kid. The pastor cringed inwardly. He hadn’t defended sneaker wearing because the dress shoe mother had a very dressy bank account. He missed his train, so he had grabbed a hot dog – well two – and some fries – which was just one more thing that felt out of his control.
Another man got on the train with three children. The father seemed to be in his own world. He didn’t say a word to the children. The oldest sat sullenly with a mustardy hotdog dripping onto the floor. The two younger ones were fortified with chips, candy and cans of pops, as they bounced incoherently around in aisles. The pastor remembered he had only seen his own children across crowded rooms today and they were likely to be asleep when he got home, which made the pastor more annoyed.
When the youngest child, placed a handful of bright orange Cheetoh dust hand on his black dress pants the pastor had enough.
“For the love of God!” he almost shouted. “Watch your children.” The father roused himself. He looked at each child, one by one. He said, “You’re right. I’ve got to get myself together.” He shook himself but then his eyes brimmed with tears. “I’m pretty much in shock. Their mother just died. My wife. She had a stroke. Out of nowhere…we’re coming from the hospital.” A sob came and the children each looked at their father. The little ones grabbed hold of his legs. The big one fell over in his father’s lap.
And the pastor thought, “For the love of God, what is wrong with me? How have a gone from a day in a life of trying to love God and I can’t even seem to love my widowed neighbor and his orphaned children?”
For the love of God why can’t I love my neighbor? The answer to that question lies – perhaps – somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ answer about the first commandments. A religious teacher asked Jesus – out of the hundreds of laws in the Torah – which is the first? Jesus offers a well-known commandment from Deuteronomy. It begins with the great Schema: “Hear o Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.”
Then Jesus offers a more unexpected response, a verse hidden in Leviticus. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD”
This isn’t a linear progression: if we love God, then we will love others and then we will love ourselves. Jesus has love of others reflecting back onto our love of neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the same construction Jesus uses when he teaches us to pray: forgive others as you have been forgiven. To love our neighbor, we need to love ourselves.
No wonder the pastor wasn’t feeling the love of his weary neighbor that evening. He was nowhere near loving himself.
Religious leaders and people have understood – and approved of – love of God – even if we aren’t very good at it. We understand loving our neighbor– although we’re not very good at that either. But loving ourselves has been difficult to understand. We’ve not been taught to practice it in a healthy, ethical – even religious – way.
It might help to think of what it means to love someone else – a spouse, a child, a grandchild, a friend, a pet – maybe even an institution. Let’s use verbs that are part of loving. When we love someone we could use the words: value, forgive, care for, honor, accept. When we try to apply those loving words to ourselves, many of us – like the pastor that evening – begin to falter.
You shall value your neighbor as you value yourself. But many of us don’t think of ourselves – all parts of ourselves – as inherently valuable.
You shall care for your neighbor as you care for yourself. A lot of faithful people do a poor job – like the pastor – of taking care of their own needs – physical, emotional, spiritual.
You shall accept your neighbor as you accept yourself. Most of us have a put together, public, I’ve got my dress shoes on and my work is all done self that we want everyone to see. But there are other parts of ourselves that we aren’t entirely comfortable with, that we really can’t accept and don’t want anyone – not God or ourselves – to see.
This is a real concern within the Christian experience. There are a lot of Christians doing all kinds of good and necessary things – but their inner lives are wasting away. They are outward focused, without being attentive to what’s going on in their own minds and hearts. A lot of Christian souls exist in a kind of angry, tangled torment. They haven’t received the good news of love within themselves and, therefore, can’t share it.
A lot of religious teachers worry that this is one of the reasons the Church can be so dysfunctional and cruel. We do to our neighbors what we do to ourselves. If we are critical, cruel, judgmental within to ourselves, then we inevitably do the same to our neighbors. If our love of ourselves is puny and partial – we aren’t really forgiving, caring and accepting of ourselves – than that’s the kind of lackluster love with will offer our neighbor.
Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. So for the love of God – we need to find a way to love really ourselves.
This happens when we lean fully into the first commandment: “Hear, oh people of God, the Lord God, the Lord is one; 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.” When we do that we turn to the One who loves us – wholeheartedly. We find one who accepts us just as we are. God, who made us, who knows us with all of our pain, self-hatred, recriminations, petty thoughts. God honors us, forgives us, cares for us, values us. When we love the one who loves us – unconditionally – we hear a voice more honest than our negative, critical egos. The Holy Spirit tells us: “You are accepted. You are accepted by One who is greater than you. Accept that you are accepted and loved.”
The capacity to love oneself, to like, to forgive, to accept oneself is not selfish and it’s not a sin. In fact, the ability to love neighbor and stranger flows through one’s capacity to love and accept oneself, and the ability to love oneself is rooted in God’s love for every part of ourselves.
This work, this inner-work, isn’t easy. But we have a religious obligation to ourselves and to our neighbors and to God to deepen the capacity to love ourselves. For the love of God, we need to stop raging against ourselves, tearing ourselves apart. We must be kind and compassionate to the beings that we are. We need a relationship with ourselves that mirrors God’s relationship with us, and that relationship is rooted and grounded in love.
Then a pastor might have come to the end of a long day – aware of his bitterness, weariness and fears – and felt the kindness of a God who cares for him fully, accepts the darkness without judgment and brings transforms it. He might have noted his indigestion and resentments as sign of grasping irresponsibly for control and let the forgiveness of God become forgiveness of himself.
Then he might have seen a weary father and three desperate children rocketing through the world with him and said, “You look like your having a worse day than I am. Is there anything I can do to help?”
And right there, for the love of God, he would have loved his neighbor as himself.