I Love You Like I Love Myself

Turn to a neighbor, look them in the eye, and say “I love you like I love myself.”

That was my friend Tabatha Jones Jolivet’s instruction to us before she spoke on the second day of Why Christian (#wx2019) last weekend.

I had to force the words out in the direction of my neighbor, who had been awkwardly commenting to me throughout the previous presentation. I didn’t know her. But she had a socially-awkward vibe.

When I had to turn to her and say “I love you like I love myself,” everything in me wanted to hold my tongue. Why would I look this stranger in the eye and make such an audacious claim?!

Why did she have to be my neighbor?? And WHAT is with having us say this to a complete stranger?!

It wasn’t a moment that would have made my seminary professors proud…

**

I have a hard time telling half-truths and white lies. As in, if I don’t think that outfit or haircut looks good on you, and you ask me directly, things are going to get awkward. I’m not bragging about this; on the contrary I’m actually embarrassed about it.

Twenty years ago, a boyfriend-turned-fiancee lied and cheated on me, and in the wake of that trauma, the value I placed on honesty went through the roof. Things became very black and white, true or false. And I couldn’t bring myself to say something untrue, even if it meant the hearer’s feelings could get hurt. What a jerk, right?

I still struggle with this–whether and when to say the socially-appropriate thing out of kindness or respect instead of saying what I actually think.

**

Here’s the thing: saying “I love you like I love myself” to this woman sitting next to me – based on what I claim to believe and how I claim to live – it should have been easy. I’m all about loving our neighbor! That’s one of my favorite things to talk about! I know God wants that for us. There’s no doubt in my mind.

But there in that vast cathedral when I was given this horribly uncomfortable task, even after the words rolled effortlessly off her tongue, I didn’t get half of the words out, chuckling nervously and grateful for the cover of noise echoing throughout the chamber that seemed to disguise my shortcoming.

The painful truth is that I know why it was so hard: I didn’t believe it.

It wasn’t true for me. I didn’t feel love towards her and couldn’t lie about it. If I’m even more honest with myself, I felt mild contempt for her, irritated at how she kept talking when I was trying to participate in worship, and how she wasn’t making much sense anyway.

I didn’t believe it. It wasn’t true for me. I didn’t feel love towards her and couldn’t lie about it. If I’m even more honest with myself, I felt mild contempt for her, irritated at how she kept talking when I was trying listen to the first testimony, and how she wasn’t making much sense anyway.

And yet.

She’s a child of God. Just like I am. No better or worse in God’s eyes. No more or less loved by God.

And I’m called to love her.

I’m embarrassed to even admit this to you. It’s not like she had done something horrible to me or someone I love, or anything else that might qualify her for “enemy” status–you know, the ones that are supposed to be harder to love. She was just a fellow human being, attending the same conference – ironically about why we are still Christians despite everything around us and everything that’s happened in our lives.

And here I was, acting decidedly unChristian in my heart.

**

It’s so easy to talk, write, preach, and sing about loving our neighbors. But actually looking them in the eye and saying “I love you like I love myself” – and meaning it? That, my friend, is where ish gets real and our hearts are tested.

The more I reflect on this, the deeper the gut-check as I realize that this neighbor – this awkward loner – she’s the one Jesus would have been hanging out with. I mean, yeah, Jesus *did* hang out with seminarians and ministers…but mostly so he could keep setting them straight, pointing out the ways in which they were excluding and judging and othering, calling them to the world-changing hospitality and love and grace and mercy and reckless inclusion that God dreams of.

Things were easier with the “love your neighbor as yourself” instruction. The way Tabatha twisted it up into an affirmative “I” statement and told us to direct it at the person seated next to us, that got way too real. My head was yanked out of the theological and philosophical clouds and into confronting the flesh-and-bones-and-breath-and-spirit human person sharing the pew with me. Do I love her like I love myself?

I hope that next time I’m given such an uncomfortable exercise, I’ll be able to speak up without hesitation and pronounce the truth that I do, indeed, love you – my neighbor – as I love myself. The neighbor who talks too much, the one who’s guarded and defensive, the one who refuses to wear deodorant, the one who seems untrustworthy, the one lacking self-awareness, the one who’s completely self-centered, the one whose over-confidence is obviously hiding something, and the one who wears hatred and judgment and condemnation like a 3-piece suit. The more difficult to love, the greater the challenge and opportunity to grow.

This ish is not easy. Like you, I’m a work in progress. And the discipline of sharing (one might even say, confessing) like this – it’s how we grow. What if I asked you to turn to a stranger nearby and say “I love you like I love myself.” Would you do it? Could you say it honestly? Lmk in the comments.

May you walk in love this week, with eyes open to neighbors who need your love and kindness and a heart that is willing to reach out.

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