The National Day of Prayer drew millions of Americans together on May 2 to offer their hearts to God.
The theme of this year’s day of prayer was “Love One Another.” I suspect the theme was selected because these days we mostly don’t.
Sure, we love our families, and selected friends, and those who have built their nests on our own branch of the great tree of religious faith. But everyone else? Maybe not so much.
It all reminds me of an old Peanuts comic strip. As Linus sucks his thumb and holds his blanket, he says, “I love mankind, Charlie Brown, it’s just people I can’t stand.”
Many of us chose to deny love to individuals by refusing to see them as anything but an expression of the stereotypes we apply to larger groups. That way we can absolve ourselves from having to display the risky vulnerability required to love. Instead, when we meet new people we only want to learn enough about them to justify in our minds why we don’t have to like them. This way we’re in control, and we can wash our hands of another human soul without any annoying effort on our part.
Which leads us back to the original premise of this year’s National Day of Prayer: Love One Another. It’s only three words, but what exactly does it even mean? Do we have to love those who have hurt us? Does it mean sitting down to a happy dinner with someone whose private loving actions we might find abhorrent?
I’m going out on a limb here but through the years most of the “love one another” prayers I’ve heard include a form of “bless them, God, that they can change their ways to become someone we (and presumably You) feel more comfortable loving.”
This, of course, isn’t real love. It’s passive-aggressive emotional manipulation that says “I’m happy to love you, but only if you agree with what I say, think, and do. Otherwise, I’ll only love you vaguely in theory, and from a very great distance.”
We define this kind of attitude as “love” in order to justify ourselves. Those on the receiving end of such a vague and theoretical emotion call it what it is…hypocrisy.
I don’t know a lot, but here’s one thing I know: Loving someone in theory is a waste of time. You only truly love someone when you get beyond the political, religious, and social labels to know the individual in full, with her beliefs, experiences, quirks, foibles, goals, dreams, disappointments, and the life experiences that have led her to that point. And when that happens, we’ll discover all those impenetrable roadblocks to earning our love aren’t all that difficult to break through. And we’ll discover the goal isn’t to love them because they’ve become more like us, it’s to love them just as they already are.
So for what it’s worth, here’s my prayer during this week when the nation briefly, but unitedly, tries to come together before our God.
We’re a mess down here. We talk foreign languages to each other and get mad when we don’t communicate. We declare too many people unworthy of our love, and it’s only because we don’t take the time to break through the brave but false veneers others use to cover their lonely and fearful hearts —just as we constantly cover our own lonely and fearful hearts.
Lord, put me in positions where I have no choice but to ask for help from those I dislike, so that I’m forced to recognize how much our common humanity overshadows our petty divisions. Douse me with the humility to see how arrogant I’ve become, while believing I’m pure as snow.
Enable me to actually understand why others feel differently about things. Let me look more aggressively for what unites us than what divides us. Let me internalize the truth that empathy for others is a million times better than all my snide sympathy.
Is this too much to ask? For You, no. For me? That’s another question.