Love Your Neighbor as You Love Yourself
What is one thought pattern or core belief that operates in the background of your life that if you changed it, would transform you?
We all live with fundamental operating assumptions that come from our family, our education, our experiences, the larger culture, the religious system in which we were raised and so on. What if the assumptions with which you live no longer help move you toward your goals and prod you to fulfill God’s purpose for you? What thought pattern exists under the surface that if it were changed would shift how and where you put your energies?
Amy Ahlers, The-Wake-Up Call Coach, asked it this way, “Underneath the surface of your filled to the brim life there is one thing that can change everything. That one shift that will cause ripple effects in every single area of your life when you change it. What is this one thing? 'It’s your one big core belief that is no longer serving you.'”
There’s a whole host of tribal beliefs that can operate under the surface; however, there can be one dominant thought that feeds into all areas of our life. Beliefs such as, “I am not enough,” “I’m damaged goods,” “People won’t love me unless I do things for them,” or “I’m the only one who can do it right.”
This is not a new thought of course. In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul writes, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." When I ran a Mary Kay business while the kids were small, a favorite phrase in sales training was, “you bring about what you think about.” Thoughts have a powerful influence on our behavior, and sub-conscious beliefs can cause us to sabatoge the very things we desire and for which we work.
Amy’s question gave the opportunity to reconsider the power of my dominant thoughts so I spent some time pondering what core belief dominates my behavior and my health right now. It didn’t take long for this thought to bubble up, “Everyone else is more important than me.” I had never said it so plainly, so clearly.
This one thought explains why I’ve been working on some important goals and still haven’t met them. Service to others is as ingrained in me as breathing – as a female, as a Christian, as a daughter, and as a Pastor. I’ve absorbed down to my cells the idea that everyone else comes first—my children, my husband, my extended family, my church, my work, my friends. My job is to take care of others’ needs and to spend time on myself meeting my needs and working on my goals is “selfish.” I would rather be called a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel, even a bitch, than to be called selfish. When I was growing up, I thought that being selfish was the sin of all sins (perhaps becoming a pastor is a good cover for such a sin—maybe no one will notice!).
I played around in my mind what would be different if I let go of this unhelpful, even destructive core belief. What if I was as important as everyone else? What if I thought taking care of myself and my needs was even more important than anyone else; after all, I am the only one who can take care of me. My body might have fewer chronic issues if I believed taking care of me was the most important use of my time and energy. I would spend more time meeting my own goals and listening to God at work in my own spirit, rather than doing this for others.
Over the last month I began to practice shifting my behavior. Self care first, service to others later. I cut back on two areas where I was volunteering. While a change in thoughts does shift our behavior, I believe it also works the other way around. Sometimes we have to “act as if” we believe we are important (or whatever new thought we're embracing), and as we change our behavior, our thoughts shift as well. It can be a self-reinforcing system in both directions (we have an amazing Creator!). I’ve learned it’s important to shift thoughts and behaviors at the same time in a complimentary direction!
As I shift my thoughts and daily priorities, I do notice one amazing truth: the more I care for myself, the more energy I have to serve others in a healthy way (not in a needy-please-don’t-think-I’m-selfish way). I believe this is why Jesus, in three of the four Gospels answered the question about which is the first commandment like this: “The first is, ‘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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31, emphasis is mine).
We (and most of Christian history for that matter) seem to forget the second part of the second greatest commandment – love yourself. Early 20th century mystic Evelyn Underbill said it this way, “don’t be ferocious with yourself because that is treating badly a precious (if imperfect) thing that God has made.” I’ve got the imperfect thing figured out; I’m working on the precious part.
Photo Credit: Stock Images, dreamstime.com
A Sermon on Philemon preached September 4, 2016
Anyone who’s been a parent, or loved a child deeply, knows the anguish and the anxiety of releasing your child into the world. Of sending them across the state or across the country to move into the next phase of their life, be it college or their first job.
I received this kind of concerned letter from a parent a couple of weeks ago—well, actually, it was a message on FB, but in today’s world, that constitutes a letter! A friend in Kansas City wrote and shared that her daughter was moving back to North Carolina for her senior year of college. My friend wondered if she could stay at our house in St. Louis as she traveled across country. We were delighted to help and she is now safely arrived at school and taking classes.
It’s a letter that most of us have both written and received—seeking the blessing of someone else’s love for our child, and sharing our love for someone else’s child.
The book of Philemon is also such a letter—a letter written by the Apostle, Paul to Philemon. Paul writes as Onesimus’ Father—not his blood relative—but instead, as his father in the body of Christ, his father in faith who brought the Gospel message to Onesimus. Rather than being sent by mail ahead of time, Onesimus carries this letter in his pocket as he travels from Paul, who was imprisoned in a different town.
The circumstances of this letter are different from the one my friend sent, because Onesimus is Philemon’s slave. But at its core, this really was the same letter for it carried in the anxiety and anguish of a parent sending her child into the world. Onesimus has left Philemon—we’re not sure why or how—and fled to Paul who is the founder of the Christian community that gathers in Philemon’s house.
More than a simple night of lodging, this letter carries in it life and death for Onesimus. In the first century, a slave who has left his master and owner without permission, would have been severely punished or even put to death for his transgression (this is part of our own history in this country). Imagine the fear and trembling with which Onesimus traveled—wondering if this short letter in his pocket is sufficient to persuade Philemon to spare his life and not give him the punishment allowed by law.
In the letter in Onesimus’ pocket, Paul reveals to Philemon that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, and because of this, appeals to Philemon to do away with the owner-slave relationship. Paul encourages Philemon to forego his legal rights as a slave-owner, and instead, to transform their relationship to one of brothers—as equals—in the body of Christ. Paul is asking Philemon to live out his admonition in Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
“I am sending you my own child,” says, Paul, "'my very heart'—a precious one whom Jesus loves and forgives and saves—so change your thinking Philemon, expand your mind, for when you change how think about Onesimus, you will be freed to behave differently toward him—not as one who commands his behavior, but as one who loves him in Jesus Christ.”
Paul invites Philemon into the hard spiritual work of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Paul beckons Philemon to leave behind social stratifications and class privileges and instead to live by Galatians 3:28, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
“Philemon, it’s not enough that you believe in Jesus’ love, forgiveness and power,” says Paul, “Jesus asks you to be his love, forgiveness and power. Let go of your rights and the vengeance or anger that goes with them, and change your behavior, your relationship with, and your treatment of Onesimus.”
Paul adds, “I could command you to do it—for I am in authority over you, but I want you to choose it through the power of Christ who dwells in you. Can you receive this son of mine, my own child, my own heart, into your home and care for him as your own child rather than a slave?”
As in so many other passages, Scripture does not give us the satisfaction of telling us the end of the story. What happened? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and love him as a brother in Christ? Did the church gathered in his house, let go of their assumed “right” to decide who is in and who is out, and follow Paul in being transformed by the renewing of their mind in Christ to act out of love and forgiveness?
The only answer we have is the one we ourselves choose. Paul’s letter asks us if we will forego our societal or class rights and privileges to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s letter asks us to extend the radical hospitality of Christ himself in our relationships, communities and churches. I fear that the very public use of Christianity as a moral club with which to ostracize and demean those we find distasteful or too different is finding more currency today. I fear the politics of hatred spouted by those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians is becoming a more powerful voice than the voice of grace and love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
My husband Dan, serves a Presbyterian church in a small town. A church member told him the story of a young woman who found herself in a situation like Onesimus. Although covered in tattoos and piercings, she was seeking a loving and forgiving relationship with Jesus, so she visited one of the churches in town. After the worship service, the members of that church literally asked her not to come back. They thought it was their right to decide who was in and who was out.
But doesn’t she, like Onesimus, have a letter in her pocket? A letter from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.
And doesn’t every immigrant fleeing war or abuse or sex trafficking or hopelessness have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.
And doesn’t the gay, lesbian or transgendered student in your family’s school have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.
And didn’t Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and every other young African American man in this country, whom we have been taught to fear in so many ways, have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.
Can we expand our thoughts, can we be transformed by the renewing mind of Christ and love them, care for them, help them, with dignity and with agape love?
Paul makes one final promise in his letter for Onesimus: "If Onesimus owes you anything, any money for labor lost, charge it to me. And when I come back to you, I will pay the price of whatever he owes."
Paul himself is walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. "I will pay the price myself." Paul is the living example of the love of Christ in action, in real life, in real relationships.
We hear in Paul’s own transformed heart, the promise of Jesus Christ to all of us. As Bible-believing Christians, Paul calls us to join him and Philemon in relinquishing our rights whether of citizenship or church membership, whether of privilege or class status, and instead, allow Jesus to transform our minds and our lives around the love of Christ who has paid the price for us.
We can be the Pauls and Philemons of the church today, embodying the love and radical hospitality of Christ himself. For don’t we each have a letter in our pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love her as you would your own child.