VIEW VIDEO I was thinking about God this week, and the broad range of people God attracts–conservative, liberal, moderate, thoughtful, reckless, fanatical, and even atheists, many of whom spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about the god they don’t believe in. This week, I was thinking of one person in particular, a woman I know who regularly professes her love for humanity but can’t stand people. I know other folks like that, and we’re all maybe a little that way, just about different things. For example, I believe in the importance of exercising daily and eating right, but seldom do either one. I know a man who writes letters to the editor against racism but then moved when a Black family moved in next door to him.
It’s easy to be for something in theory, while opposing it personally. And the opposite is just as true. Our neighbor Bill, who happens to be a plumber, doesn’t think much of humanity, but when I called him last week at midnight to come replace my failed sump pump before it flooded our basement, he was there in ten minutes and stayed two hours and wouldn’t charge me. He might not care much for humanity, but if you need him at midnight, he’ll come right over.
We’ve been talking about the virtues and vices of religion, so today I want to talk about religion’s tendency to profess its love for humanity while despising people. I’m making a distinction between humanity and people. Humanity is a concept or theory, and somewhat ethereal and therefore easy to love, while people live next door and play their music too loud and let their dogs bark. Quoting Linus in the Snoopy cartoon, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” Humanity is “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” but people inconvenience us. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, which sounded wonderful because we thought he meant humanity, but it turned out he was talking about specific people and told us our neighbor was our long-time enemy broken and beaten on the roadside and suddenly loving our neighbor wasn’t such a good idea.
The problem with Jesus was his specificity. If he had stuck with generalities, they would have made him president of the Rotary Club and given him the key to Jerusalem. It was his specificity that got him in trouble, his annoying tendency to love specific people, which would have been alright if he had stopped there, but then he had the temerity to suggest we do the same and that’s when things went south. Religions do a great job of loving humanity in general, as a theory, but loving specific people has always been a challenge.
We know of course that it is never enough to love in general, we must love specifically. In the book of James, the writer asks, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James is making a distinction between the theory of love and the practice of it.
To love specifically is the easiest and hardest work of all. My nephew and his wife had their first child last month, an adorable little boy. They are over the moon about this child and can’t do enough for him. There are 130 known photographs of Abraham Lincoln, and their little baby flew by that mark his first hour. I think they might even love him more than Mary and Joseph loved Jesus, at least based on the photographic output. It is easy to love a baby, isn’t it?
But then guess what babies do? They grow up. They become people. They learn to talk and, somewhere along the way, learn to talk back. They have their own ideas, many of which alarm and annoy their parents. After a while, the parents aren’t taking nearly as many pictures. That little baby who smelled so sweet and clean and baby-powdery, now smells like old tennis shoes. Pizza is discovered under their bed pillow.
Then, rather than hanging on your every word, they openly despise you and go to bed each night praying they were mistakenly switched at birth in the hospital and that their real parents will return to get them. At this point, you would not object.
It’s not unlike a visitor arriving at Quaker meeting. We’re delighted to see them, to learn all we can about them, to share a meal with them. We can’t believe our good fortune, that of all the churches they could have attended, they picked ours. Then they attended monthly meeting for business and had the nerve to disagree with us, and just like that they went from being an idealized human to being a person with their own ideas, some of which alarmed and annoyed us.
To love specifically is the easiest and hardest work of all.
God trains us to love specifically by placing people in our lives who are absolute train wrecks. Remember this, friends, just as someone else is the train wreck in your life, you are the train wreck in someone else’s life. Yes, we get the babies, but we also get their parents, some of whom are irresponsible. We get their grandparents, who talk so much about their grandchildren, we can’t squeeze in a word about our own. We get the saints, but we also get the alcoholics, addicts, and abusers, who desperately need to be loved specifically. For their sakes and for ours.
To love specifically is the easiest and hardest work of all. It is never enough to profess our love for humanity, we must love specifically.
There’s an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished, so loving specifically might end catastrophically for us, as it did for Jesus. But there’s another old saying, that we reap what we sow, which means that loving others specifically might well inspire them to love us in return. And so, in love given, and in love received, we are made well.
Let’s end with a query: Who is God calling me to love specifically today?