Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Most Important Thing

Note: It is so easy to get wrapped up in criticism and philosophizing about lifestyles and choices and culture and doctrine and ... well, you get the point. 

While I would consider myself a covenant keeper, and I believe there is power in keeping covenants, I find myself occasionally miffed by the cacaphony of discourse that exists in the world. Recently my mantra has become “Why can’t we be friends” (complete with background music and a little side to side swaying with a snap). I truly believe the Beatles’ proclamation that “All you need is love.” Now, of course, we need to define what we mean by “love”, but in general I am using the “agape” version of love, which I interpret to mean “A profound regard for the welfare of another without any desire to control the other, to be thanked by the other, or to enjoy the process.” (Edward Nason West)

About a year ago I gave this talk about loving your neighbor, and in that talk I made the assertion that there is no commandment greater than the commandment to love your neighbor. Now, that isn’t actually my assertion - it comes from the Bible.

In the New Testament, Mark recorded an exchange between the Savior and the scribes. The scribes asked the Savior “What is the first commandment of them all?”

Jesus responded, of course, that the first great commandment is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”. What he said next, though, is very interesting. He went on to say, “And the second is like” - this means that the second commandment is like the first one - “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. It is significant hat the Savior would teach us that loving our neighbor is similar to loving God. Later the Savior would teach, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” and in the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin taught that “When ye are in the service of your fellow being ye are only in the service of your God.” Loving our neighbor is like loving God because anything that we do to our brethren is like we have done it to the Savior, who is one with God.

But the Savior’s next statement recorded in Mark is what really stands out to me: There is none other commandment greater than these.

Let me repeat that:  There is none other commandment greater than these.

The commandments we are talking about here are, first, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”. The second one is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

There is none other commandment greater than these.

But what about the law of chastity? You might ask. No other commandment is greater than the one that says to love God and love your neighbor.
How about the law of tithing? Nope. Not more important.

Surely commandments the prophets give us to share the gospel are important. But not greater than the commandment to love your neighbor.

What about the word of wisdom? Nope.

The law of sacrifice?

There is no other commandment greater than to love your neighbor.

In Matthew another statement is recorded, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” and in his epistle to the Romans, Paul explained, “and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself… therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” All of the other commandments are contained in this commandment to love thy neighbor. The words of the prophets can be held up against this standard. There is no other greater commandment than to love God, and to love thy neighbor.

Paul emphasized the importance of this great commandment when he wrote to the Corinthians, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” If people cannot feel Christlike love emanating from us, then all our good works are for nothing. We must truly posses charity, the pure love of Christ. We cannot simply say that we love our neighbors, we must actually love them purely, without guile.

The importance of loving your neighbor is illustrated by this quote from Elder S. Mark Palmer of the Seventy. He said, “As we learn to see others as the Lord sees them rather than with our own eyes, our love for them will grow and so will our desire to help them. We will see potential within others they likely do not see in themselves… And we will never give up, remembering that those who are hardest to love need love the most.” Charity, or the pure love of Christ, changes the way we see people. When you truly love your neighbor you spend less time judging and more time on your knees asking for inspiration to serve. You spend less time wondering what people think about you and more time getting to know your neighbors and learning their needs.

What does it mean to love your neighbor? When Jesus was asked this question, he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Savior doesn’t explicitly tell us that the traveling man was Jewish, but since he was traveling from Jerusalem it is pretty certain. A bit of historical context that can help us better understand this parable is that the Jews and the Samaritans were something of political and religious enemies. The most illustrative modern example would be the relationship between Palestinians and Israeli nation in the middle east. In the parable, as this Jewish man was traveling to Jericho he was attacked, beaten, and left for dead on the road.

Two Jewish men traveling along the same road passed by the wounded traveler. Both the priest and the Levite were not just ordinary people traveling, they were men ordained to priesthood offices. The person who finally stopped to help was actually the man’s enemy, a Samaritan, and not someone of his own faith. Not a fellow Jew, not a friend, but a Samaritan.

After describing the parable to his listeners, the Savior asked the question back to them, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” The answer came, “He that shewed mercy on him.”

Loving our neighbor means having mercy on those around us - whether they be our friends or our enemies, whether they be part of our circle of friends who are similar to us or people who are living contrary to our own beliefs and practices. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently taught, “let us serve and love our fellowmen. Let us do this with a natural confidence, with humility, never looking down on any other religion or group of people.”

It can be easy to look down on those who live or believe differently than we do. We must resist the temptation to treat others with less compassion or less affection because we disagree with them. President Uchtdorf also taught, “In God’s kingdom, greatness and leadership means seeing others as they truly are - as God sees them - and then reaching out and ministering to them… The Savior loves all of God’s children regardless of their socioeconomic circumstance, race, religion, language, political orientation, nationality, or any other grouping. And so should we!” When we put people into groups or categories we create distinctions that make it hard to practice the second great commandment of loving our neighbor. Political parties, sexual orientations, gender identity, working vs stay at home, socioeconomic status, all of these groupings can cause use to pull away from our neighbors, rather than leaning in and loving our neighbors. If we are to follow the Lord’s great commandment there can be nothing that stands in our way of loving our neighbor - not political leanings, not gender, not race, not lifestyle choices - nothing. It can be incredibly difficult to look past these differences, but oh how we must learn to do this! We cannot keep the commandment to love our neighbor when we allow our differences to divide us.

There is a primary song that always seems to burn in my heart when I hear the words, “I know you, and you know me. We are as different as the sun and the sea. I know you you, and you know me, and that’s the way it is supposed to me. I help you, and you help me, we learn from problems and we’re starting to see. I help you, and you help me, and that’s the way it is supposed to be. I love you, and you love me. We reach together for the best we can be. I love you, and you love me, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.” Our differences should be a reason to love each other, rather than a reason to divide us.

In General Conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave us a list of people who should be included as our neighbors, reminding us that in the gospel family “there is room for those who speak different languages, celebrate diverse cultures, and live in a host of locations. There is room for the single, for the married, for large families, and for the childless. There is room for those who once had questions regarding their faith and room for those who still do. There is room for those with differing sexual attractions.”

Sometimes it can be tempting to want to show other people why we are right and correct them in their behaviors and lifestyle. We have experienced the joys of living the gospel and we know that if only they would change the way they believe or live or if only they would make different choices they would be happy. Unfortunately, we often let these types of attitudes change our relationships with those around us, and we look down on them, condemn them, treat them in condescending ways, block them, ignore them, or continually criticize them. We have to remember that, as Paul taught, “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Your spiritual gifts, your inspiration and revelation are of no use without charity. All the gospel knowledge in the world won’t help those you wish to help unless you first have charity.

Elder S. Mark Palmer of the seventy told a story in April General Conference about some missionaries he presided over who were struggling with living the mission rules. Elder Palmer knew the happiness these Elders would experience if they would learn to live the mission rules, but as Elder Palmer sought inspiration about changing the hearts of these young men he realized that what he really needed to do was love these young missionaries. He said,

“In that moment, I knew it was not just the hearts of some of our missionaries that needed changing. It was my heart as well. The question no longer was ‘How does a frustrated mission president get a struggling missionary to behave better?’ Instead, the question was ‘How can I be filled with Christlike love so a missionary can feel the love of God through me and desire to change?’”

I have experienced for myself the contrast between these two approaches. As a parent I have observed that my children are much quicker to change their hearts and their actions when I focus on loving them rather than correcting them. When I criticize and point out their mistakes and actions we are left with hurt feelings and resentment. When I instead make a concerted effort to more effectively show my love - whether through a hug, a smile, a compliment, a thank you, a special trip, or kind words - I noticed that we all behave a little more charitably toward each other. Unfortunately I have done more of the criticizing and less of the loving, but I am renewing my commitment to show more love toward the people who matter the most to me. This principle applies to spouses as well.

The Doctrine and Covenants contains my favorite explanation of when correcting is in line with God’s commandments. Section 121 reads, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;” Love unfeigned means love that is genuine and sincere. You can’t fake charity. Charity is so deep in your heart, so pure, that you feel as if your heart will explode. The section continues, “By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile - reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost;” This last part is important - “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost”. As a mother I cannot remember a time when my reproving with sharpness was “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”. More often than not my reproving comes when I am moved upon by frustration, and the Holy Ghost doesn’t work through frustration. Remember, that it was not in the earthquake or the tempest, but in a still small voice. The majority of the time, our power and influence is more potent when we use persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. We are more effective examples of the Savior when we follow his second greatest commandment - to love our neighbor. But wait, there’s more! The instruction in Doctrine and Covenants continues, “and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved”. If we do reprove because we were moved upon by the Holy Ghost (which let’s be honest, rarely happens, right? Because persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned usually do the trick) we must increase our love toward the person we have reproved.  Increase (that means there was some love there to begin with). But remember - first we try persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned.

Within the church there are ample opportunities to love our neighbors. I encourage you to jump at the chance to serve as often as you can. Remember that the Savior can empower you and give you strength to serve in ways you may think are not possible for you right now.

Visiting and home teaching is a built in way for us to learn love our neighbors - both for those visiting, and those being visited. Some people are excited for this opportunity to love and serve, while others may feel uncomfortable with the thought of, as I once heard it described, “forcing [your] way into people’s lives.” I think this is a valid concern that many of us might feel when first assigned to visiting teaching. As a recipient of the service of visiting teachers I can tell you that I have loved my visiting teachers “forcing” their way into my life. Even if I have not become lifelong friends with these sisters, I have loved their compassion, example, and experiences. Visiting teaching can help us engage with people we may not have ever been interested in getting to know, and we can learn so much from someone who is different from us. In our April General Conference, Elder Robert D. Hales taught, “Like the Good Samaritan, we cross the road to minister to whoever is in need, even if they are not within the circle of our friends.” Often, visiting and home teaching help us to reach out to those who are not “within the circle of our friends”, and we both profit from the relationship.

I had the opportunity to visit teach a sister in my previous ward who was unlike me in a many ways. Our personalities were different, our backgrounds were different, and she was much older than me. One month in the fall last year she and I were incredibly busy and we couldn’t seem to find a time to visit that matched up with both of our schedules. Eventually in our discussion about why we were so busy she mentioned that a charity she had organized was hosting a 5K and silent auction that month. I enjoy running races and so I signed up for the race and ran with a few of my kids and my husband and I was able to visit with her at the race. Although she and I were very different, this was a way that we could connect, and a way I could show her my love for her. We weren’t sitting on her couch, and it seemed unconventional for a visiting teaching appointment, but this experience helped me to understand that visiting teaching isn’t just about a monthly visit where we sit on the couch and chat. It was about getting to know a sister and finding common ground and connecting - truly loving my neighbor.

Perhaps, though, the greatest opportunities come by loving our neighbors outside of the church. After all, the Jewish man and the Good Samaritan had differences that were both religious and political.

Most of us might say to ourselves, “Well, certainly if I see someone beat up and bleeding on the side of the road I would stop and help!” But what if it was someone being verbally beat up on social media because of their lifestyle choices, which may be different than yours? What if it is someone being excluded from a game or gathering because of their political differences?

How do you treat people who are different from you in your day-to-day interactions, not just in the emergency situations? Do you speak with kindness or do you spread hateful speech on social media? How do you respond when people post points of view that are different from your own? How would you treat your child if they told you that they didn’t believe in the church anymore? What if your child told you they had a different sexual orientation or gender identity? What would you say to them to show them that you love them? In these situations are you focused on keeping the greatest commandments, or are you focused on presenting a sermon full of all the other commandments? There is a place for all of the other commandments - and as faithful covenant keepers we should definitely be obeying them. However, if we are being faithful to the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor, then perhaps our actions and attitudes toward our fellow man would be different.

A hymn typically sung to prepare for the sacrament describes a humble plea, “Fill our hearts with sweet forgiving; Teach us tolerance and love.” Whenever I sing this hymn these words are heartfelt. I need my heart filled with forgiveness, which is so so sweet to me. I am still learning tolerance and love and I beg for them to be granted to me. Forgiveness, tolerance, and love are not part of the natural man. We must learn them and be granted them through the Savior’s atoning sacrifice. These are attributes that we obtain as we put off the natural man and become as children.

Children are naturally kind and compassionate. They don’t see differences as something to divide us, but rather as simply something that makes people interesting to them. When my parents moved to the south from Canada as a young family, my oldest brother who was about four years old met his first African American. His first reaction was to ask if the little boy’s skin was made of chocolate. One little girl saw an older gentleman in a grocery store and loudly told her mother than she liked old people because their skin was soft like hers. Children certainly notice similarities and differences between people around them, but they are more curious about those differences than judgemental. They do not look down on people who are different than them, and they don’t treat people poorly because of the differences. They are simply interested in the differences because they love so purely and want to know about the people they see around them.

Elder Dale G. Renlund spoke of the kind of behavior that can come when forget the great commandment to love our neighbor, “Persecution comes in many forms: ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion and isolation, or hatred toward another. We must guard against bigotry that raises its ugly voice toward those who hold different opinion. Bigotry manifests itself, in part, in unwillingness to grant equal freedom of expression. Everyone… has the right to express his or her opinions in the public square. But no one has a license to be hateful toward others as those opinions are expressed.” Persecution and bigotry are the antithesis to loving your neighbor. Where there is ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion and isolation, there cannot be love. When we truly love our neighbor there will be no room for these degrading behaviors. President Uchtdorf likewise testified, “Christ’s perfect love overcomes temptation to harm, coerce, bully, or oppress… Christ’s love will help us become a little kinder, more forgiving, more caring, and more dedicated to His work.” Loving our neighbor and developing charity prevents more than just unkind words and actions. Peter explained, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity preventeth a multitude of sins”. No only will we be kinder and more forgiving, but we can also stay pure from a multitude of other sins by practicing charity and focusing on the greatest commandments to love God and our neighbors. Paul expressed it this way, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor”

Let us remember that, while there are many laws in the restored gospel - and making a personal commitment to obey them is wise - there is none other commandment greater than the commandments to love God, and love our neighbor. We must not let our commitment to the other laws and ordinances of the gospel cause us to neglect the highest commandments of them all - to love God, and love our neighbor. I encourage you to find ways to increase your love for your neighbors - the neighbors in your home, the neighbors in your ward, and the neighbors all around you. I know that as you develop pure Christlike love for your neighbors you will have an increased power to resist temptation, and those around you will be able to feel Heavenly Father’s love for them through you.

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