77. Love Everybody…… REALLY!!!

LOVE EVERYBODY…… REALLY!!

      For as long as I can remember I’ve been taught that Jesus wants me to love everybody.  As a young boy that message came through loud and clear from my parents, from my Sunday School teachers, and from the pulpit  (when I was paying attention).  As I got older I couldn’t help but see that message as I personally studied God’s word,  read the works of Christian writers, or began listening to Christian music. Later, I found myself to be the one preaching the sermons (I did pay attention to those!), leading Bible studies and teaching classes.   The message was consistent…..JESUS WANTS ME TO LOVE EVERYBODY! 

       REALLY?  I feel like asking Jesus –  “Have you met everybody?  Have you ever had to sit in traffic on the interstate during rush hour?   Have you listened to that rude clerk at the local grocery store?  Did you see that kid causing havoc at the mall?  Do you know the crimes that man committed?  Are you aware of what that girl does for a living? Aren’t you offended by the obscenities that man is shouting at his kids or the way he is abusing his wife?  Don’t you get it…..those people aren’t loveable!  They’re obnoxious, inconsiderate,  unlovable people who just make my life more difficult?   You really expect me to love everybody?  REALLY?

       Do you know what I think Jesus’ answer is?     YEAH, I REALLY DO!!

      That certainly hasn’t always been easy for me!!    In my career I’ve had the privilege of serving both in a local church setting and in a couple of national ministries.  Those opportunities have exposed me to a lot of different people literally all over the world.   Most of the folks I’ve been privileged to serve or interact with have been wonderful people that  I’d enjoy spending more time with.  But there have been more than just a few that I’d prefer to avoid,  if at all possible.  You know the type of people I’m speaking about!

      Several of those interactions stand out in my memory.  Years ago  (longer than I like to admit)  when I was serving as a Youth Pastor at a particular church I had such an experience. I had a weekly meeting with the Senior Pastor on Tuesday mornings.  I could almost count on the fact that I would be in “trouble”  every week because of something I had done since the previous Sunday.  The concerns almost exclusively came from one long time member in the church who had specific responsibilities that intersected with what we did in the Youth Ministry.  It became a standing source of laughter between the Senior Pastor and I as we discussed what I had most recently done that led to this man’s weekly complaint.  Sometimes I didn’t find the humor in the situation!

     I eventually moved on with my career, but 12 years after leaving that church I came back as the  Senior Pastor.   Much to my chagrin, not much had changed!   This man who had made my life so difficult as a Youth Pastor was still there,  and he was as grumpy as ever.  He had the spiritual gift of “DISCOURAGEMENT”…….and he used it liberally!  I’m really not sure why he was so cantankerous, but at least by then I knew I was just one of many who were the target of his vitriol.   If anybody was “unlovable”, it had to be him. He was more than just “hard to love”……he was downright impossible at times.  I need to love everybody?   REALLY?     

        I learned a lot of things from that experience.  Perhaps the most striking epiphany came when I realized that though this man was far from “perfect’,  so was I!  I had to struggle to be civil around him. He used to make me so angry!  As a result, God and I had a lot of talks about those experiences…..and the focus wasn’t on who this man was or how he treated me………..it was about who I was and how I treated him!  I don’t know if I’ve ever been more aware of my own struggle to love people the way Jesus does. 

     Bob Goff said,  “LOVE DIFFICULT PEOPLE…..YOU ARE ONE OF THEM!”      Ouch!!!

     I like to think I’ve grown since then, and perhaps I have.  But I still find it hard to love some people.   I don’t think I feel as compassionate for some groups of people as Jesus would………and that bothers me! 

      For instance – I live in Portland, Oregon.  As many around the country have seen,  our city has become the poster child for how NOT to react to the challenges that accompanied the year 2020.   Our once beautiful downtown area has become something that resembles a war zone after countless protests and civil unrest.  Our state lags well behind in dealing with the Covid pandemic, with businesses shuttered, low vaccination rates, schools still closed, and politicians squabbling over non-essentials.  And over the past year the homeless camps in our area have expanded beyond what anyone would have imagined, creating a multitude of social and logistic problems for both the residents and our city leaders.

      One of those homeless camps has sprung up in the main street leading into my own neighborhood.  Running parallel to a freeway onramp,  the first block and a half  of this street has become a gauntlet of tents and temporary structures, broken down RV’s and cars, and mounds upon mounds of garbage everywhere.   The people that inhabit this encampment are very foreign to those of us who live in the neighborhood.  What was once a grassy park-like field that bordered this street has been transformed into something that looks like it came out of a third world country. 

     I’m troubled by how I feel about  this homeless camp. I drive through at least twice every day  and I feel disgusted.  I’m angry at them and angry at myself for being angry at them!  And honestly…..I haven’t figured it out yet!  Jesus wants me to love these people?

     I’m convicted by what Joseph Stowell said,

“If we love Jesus we will care about the things He cares about!”

     Fortunately, the scriptures offer us some help in figuring this out.  Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends and a dedicated disciple.  He was bold, fairly courageous, and passionate….but he wasn’t necessarily a people person!!  During a breakfast encounter, recorded for us in John 21,  Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. When Peter answered, “Yes,  I love you”  Jesus said, “Feed my lambs”, “Take care of my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”   While I can’t tell you everything about Peter, I think I can safely say that, at this point of his life,  loving and caring for “unlovable people” wasn’t one of his strengths!

       Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the account of Jesus calling out his disciples for shooing away the children that had come to see Him…..and it’s a fairly safe assumption that Peter, as the head of the team, may have led that effort!   It was Peter that Jesus had to strongly rebuke in Matthew 16 when He tried to explain to His disciples where His ministry was heading on behalf of a lost  and somewhat “unlovable” world. And In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the crucifixion it was Peter who withdrew his sword and cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. I mean, I understand that some people are harder to love than others, but cutting off someone’s ear indicates that you may have a personal problem!

       Jesus had often talked about AGAPE – unconditional love, ….and He does so again in this encounter along the shores of Galilee!   Jesus needed Peter to understand….He loves people more than anything!!  And He wants us to love people that way too!

      I don’t know about you, but that’s personally challenging.   Peter and I may be in the same boat here!  Jesus said, “Peter, if you  REALLY love me, feed my sheep; love  and care for the people I love”  I wonder, do we love people like that?  Despite their nationality, race, political affiliation, gender identification, criminal history,  personal habits,  economic condition, occupation,  or spiritual condition?  That’s pretty convicting, isn’t it?   Everybody…REALLY?  That’s a very hard ask!

      Like Peter,  if I was there along the shore of Galilee on that morning I think Jesus would need to pull me aside after breakfast for a little chat too!  He would truly want me to understand that      HE LOVES PEOPLE MORE THAN ANYTHING!! AND HE WANTS ME TO LOVE THEM TOO…. REALLY!!