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  • Writer's pictureIan Gulland

Love what is near (July/August 2021)

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’ (1John 4.11-12)

There are certain thinkers and writers from the past and present who seem to speak into most situations. For me, G. K. Chesterton’s clarity, wit and observation seems to hone into what is most important. For example, I now look askance at anyone who seems to speak primarily in the abstract: “fixing the economy,” or “changing the culture,” or “loving humankind.” Why? Because it’s easy to succumb to self-righteousness when pursuing utopian visions in regard to great and massive things. It’s when you are faced with the smaller things and the people nearest you that you begin to spot your own flaws and diagnose your lovelessness.

In a cartoon from 1959 (Peanuts), Linus Van Pelt says, “I love mankind . . . it’s people I can’t stand!” We’re all about “loving others” and “loving people” and “loving your neighbour” in the abstract. But then we discover the others around us and the actual persons we come to know and our real next-door neighbour might turn out to be harder to love than we expected.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima recalls the confession of a doctor he once knew:

“I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams, I often went so far to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said.

Many of us can relate to the annoyances and obstacles that make it hard to love those closest to us. We’re told that marriage is all about compatibility, but what if the greater secret of marriage is working through incompatibility? We’re told that loving our kids comes naturally, but what if it requires a supernatural endurance? Yes, we commit to loving our kids no matter what, but that kind of love often requires leaping over whatever we may dislike about them in the moment.

Social media makes it easy for us to see ourselves as more loving than we really are because we redefine love in terms of the “love for the world” we express, or the “social change” we get behind, or the “causes we support.” Still, in the end, it’s not saying “believe all women,” or “black lives matter,” that ultimately defines the test of our loves. Slogans are easy; suffering is hard. And there is no real love without suffering and putting our preferences aside (even within the church!).

Our ideas of loving whatever is massive and influential—of scaling our love in the abstract—can lead us to overlook what is right in front of us: the people and things that are nearest. Émile Cammaerts writes:

“It is infinitely better to love one woman than to love women, to care for five friends than to care for five hundred, to live in a small house than to live in a large one, and to be loyal to one country, one civilization, one religion, than to attempt to be loyal to all countries, all civilizations, and all religions.”

In an era of constant online connectivity, we think keeping tabs on our hundreds of Facebook friends is a reflection of our love, but the real test of friendship is in how we bear with and care for our handful of closest friends. We think the bigger house is better than the smaller. The mass-produced item is better than the homemade craft. The chain restaurant’s menu is better than our family recipes.

But what if it is in loving what is nearest to us—discovering what Cammaerts describes as “the romance of small things”—where we are most likely to find happiness and bring about lasting change in the world? What if it’s in the cultivation of culture at home, with our neighbours, with our church, where the most significant change takes place?

All our efforts at building a better church or bringing about a “more perfect union” in our society will come to naught unless we first love what is nearest.

We must love God before we run after what we think we can do for God.

We must focus on our family before we can focus on the family.

We must love our next-door neighbour before we look for ways to improve the neighbourhood.

We must love the church member, with whom we have little in common, before we can love “the church.”

The love that goes farthest starts with loving what is nearest.

You may have noticed that our new website includes these words: faith, hope, love. These reflect the call of the church. As St. Paul writes in 1Corinthians 13: ‘the greatest of these is love.’

In the season ahead we look forward to being re-connected with many in our community. May I encourage you to take the words from John’s Gospel to heart. Central to the ‘Good News’ of Jesus is love: God’s love for us and his call for us to love others. Let’s love those who are near.

With love and blessings.

Revd Ian

[Source: Trevin Wax, 2020]

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