Prepared remarks for sacrament meeting, Sunday, January 28, 2018.
In studying about the second great commandment – to love our neighbor as ourselves – I thought it would be useful to first look at the three types of love mentioned in the Greek New Testament.
First is eros – love of a sexual nature, root of the English word erotic. Second is philia, which is brotherly love, or affection held for family or those close to us. And then there is agape. This is the highest form of love, that which comes from God. It is love shown to all, regardless of circumstance or the nature of relationship we have with them.
This same form of love – agape – is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13, where it is rendered as “charity,” which:
suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
So Christ’s injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves could also be rendered to say “have charity for your neighbor as you have charity for yourself.”
The other point that I would make here is that the two great commandments are not meant for those who we love naturally. If they were, the commandments wouldn’t be required, because we would just do them. Dennis Prager, a noted Jewish thinker, has pointed out that the commandment to love God contains an unwritten subtext: that there are times that God isn’t lovable. There are times that it’s hard to understand him, to trust him, to understand why he does certain things, or doesn’t do other things. The second great commandment, to love our neighbor, is much in the same vein: it’s intended for those who it is challenging to love, and for those times when showing love can be a challenge.
The reason I share this is to underscore how difficult it really is to follow the two great commandments. They may be simple, but they are not easy.
The first personal example of showing love to a neighbor that comes to my mind is by way of Sunbeams. When the bishop first extended the calling, I think most of the blood drained from my face, but I accepted, and it was a great blessing in my life. Early on, my wife Shirly gave me wise counsel: “You need to get on their level to talk to them.” They’re tiny, so everyone towers over them; crouching down and talking to them eye to eye helps a great deal. And this is the first formal church class they’ve ever attended, so it’s only normal that the come into the class with a good deal of apprehension.
I found that being their friend, being happy to see them, and getting down on their level to interact with them was generally effective. And then there were Autumn and Cara, fraternal twin sisters. They responded like this: (frowns and looks down at floor). They basically wouldn’t talk to anybody, about anything, for any reason at all. I started referring to them as the “Mormon nuns,” because it was like they were in a convent and had taken a vow of silence.
I continued to serve in this capacity for several months. Then one Sunday, when we were back at home after church, the doorbell rang. Shirly answered it. “Hang on a second. Ryan?”
I went to the door. Standing on our doorstep next to their smiling mother were the Mormon nuns, holding a plate of cookies in a Ziploc bag. Two or three drawings were in a stack on top. And there they stood, like this: (mimics holding plate of cookies while frowning and staring at ground). It’s almost like they were bracing for impact: “Take ’em, just take ’em, please, we just want this over with.”
This is meaningful to me for a couple of reasons. One is that I caught up with their mother at church, thanked her for the gift, but suggested that she had planned the whole thing. She denied it. “I didn’t put them up to it. Every Sunday we bake cookies, and they decide who to bring them to. And they said, ‘We want to bring cookies to Brother Boots!'”
The other reason is that, as Sister Boots explained, we have no children of our own. So I don’t get this very often. I don’t have a steady stream of preschool artwork making its way to me. I took those drawings with me to work and hung them on my cubicle wall.
Yes, this was hard for these little ones. Obviously it forced them outside their comfort zone. They did it anyway, and blessed my life as a result.
What are other ways that we can show love to our neighbor? In Mosiah in the Book of Mormon, Alma is speaking to a group of converts next to the waters of baptism, explaining to them what it will mean if they choose to take the baptismal covenant upon themselves. Among other things, he says that they must be “willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (18:9).
As it happens, Shirly had a particularly powerful experience with offering solace, which I share with her permission. In the same ward where I taught the Sunbeams, a terrible tragedy struck a family in the ward. One morning, they awoke to find their youngest son, only six months of age, cold and without a pulse. The mother attempted CPR and paramedics were called, but it was too late. He had been physically healthy, hadn’t had any issues that they had known of – it was simply a sudden, awful case of crib death.
As it happens, Shirly is a very good scrapbooker. When she heard about this family’s terrible trial, it occurred to her to make a scrapbook for them. Something small, basic, with space in it to include pictures and write down their memories of their baby boy. But after some thought, she decided against it. She felt that it would be seen as her trying to be seen of others, which she definitely didn’t want. She didn’t know the mother very well. She felt it would be best not to insert herself into the situation.
A week or two later, she got a call from the Relief Society president. “Shirly, I have an assignment for you. I understand that you’re a really good scrapbooker. Would you be willing to make a scrapbook for the family? It doesn’t have to be very big – it could be something small and basic, just with spaces in it for pictures and to write down what they want to remember.”
Shirly, recognizing that she obviously had been receiving a prompting from the Spirit, got on it, and put together her little scrapbook. She also included a brief note that said, in effect, “We know you’re going through such a terrible time. Please know that we love you, and we’re praying for you.”
The day came to deliver the gift. Shirly drove by herself to the family’s home, immensely nervous. What, precisely, was she supposed to say to this sister?
She arrived at the home, walked to the front door, and rang the doorbell. The mother answered the door.
Shirly, at a complete loss of what to say, just held the book out and said, “Here.”
The sister saw the book and, upon recognizing it for what it was, immediately teared up. Shirly, not knowing what else to add, walked to her car, and the sister closed the front door.
Shirly didn’t get back in the car. “This isn’t right,” she said to herself. So she walked back to the front door, and again rang the doorbell. The sister answered the door again, holding the scrapbook in one hand and Shirly’s note in the other.
“I’m so sorry,” Shirly said, her voice filled with emotion. “Please, I don’t mean to be unkind – I just don’t know what to say!”
The sister, grieving the loss of her baby boy, tears streaming down her face, laughed. “Neither do I!”
They embraced, and Shirly returned home. That was the last they spoke of the little scrapbook, but not the last that Shirly heard about it. Some months later, another sister pulled Shirly aside at church, and said, “I’m her visiting teacher. Thank you for putting together that scrapbook. The family has spent some Family Home Evenings picking out different pictures and deciding what they wanted to write. She really loves it. It’s been a good way for the family to grieve and heal.”
There is one other data point that I feel prompted to share. Shirly knows another sister who also lost a child very early. Both of these sisters, independently of one another, said that they had friends who they lost as a result of the death of their children. After the passing of their children, these sisters who had once been friends chose to distance themselves, give these grieving mothers a cold shoulder, rather than offer comfort and support.
Yes, it can be immensely difficult to offer love and support in such tragic circumstances. But this is what we signed up for when we entered into the baptismal covenant – we agreed to support and sustain, to love our neighbor. Yes, it’s hard. It frequently pushes us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. It frequently means we have to make ourselves vulnerable, take some risks. But it’s part of our obligation as Saints.
As some of you know, my youngest brother Chris was a member of this ward at the time of his death from a drug overdose in 2016. Many of you, who I have only met in passing, stepped up to help in the wake of his death, and this is service for which I am most grateful. There is one act of service which I only learned of very recently. On the morning of his funeral, a friend of his, a fellow LDS addict in recovery, took it upon himself to vacuum the entire meetinghouse: the chapel, the hallways, the whole building, weeping as he did so. He didn’t do it to be seen of others. As far as I know, nobody even asked it of him. He simply did it because it was necessary, because it would be a way to honor his fallen friend, because it would be a way to help a grieving family stretched beyond what it could endure. That was the second commandment in action.
A careful reading of the scriptures tells us that there are directions in which this commandment should be extrapolated. Specifically, Christ told us we were to love more than our neighbor; in the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
A deeply powerful example of this appeared in the news recently. On June 8, 2015, Suliman Abdul-Mutakallim, a 39-year-old Navy veteran who had served in the Iraq War, was walking home in the Cincinnati area when he was jumped by three assailants and shot in the back of the head. They helped themselves to the contents of his wallet – roughly $60 – and then ran. Two of the three alleged attackers were arrested by police. One of them was 14-year-old Javon Coulter.
At his sentencing hearing in November, Suliman’s mother Rukiye, a devout Muslim, was invited to speak. Here is what she had to say in the courtroom as she faced one of her son’s attackers.
To honor him, I’m here and I am offering my family to help you and those who were with you to see a better way of life…So rather than have you go through more agony in the future, consider allowing our family to come visit you, to work with you, to help improve your education, to make sure that you have a skill that when you come out you can feed yourself and you never have to walk this path again…I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but I don’t hate you. I can’t hate you. It’s not our way. Showing mercy – that is our way. I cannot hold this bitterness, I will not hold it. And I plan to be involved with your mother, if she allows it, to try to help her.
She then did something that courtroom veterans had never beheld. With Javon’s permission, she stepped forward and gave him a hug. She then hugged Javon’s mother.
This woman isn’t of our faith – she’s not of any Christian faith. And yet this woman presented a textbook example of loving an enemy.
All of this doesn’t really address a very important question: Why are we commanded to show love to all, even to those who sin against us grievously? There are many reasons, but one of the most compelling may be found in the book of Alma. Aaron had been working to convert the Lamanites to the gospel, and the father to King Lamoni had had a powerful conversion experience that left him unconscious. While many of his fellow Lamanites suspected foul play, Aaron revived the old king, and when he came to, he “began to minister unto them. And he did minister unto them, insomuch that his whole household were converted unto the Lord.” (v. 23)
But outside the king’s palace, a crowd had gathered, again concerned over the suspected actions of this Nephite. The king responded a bit differently: “But the king stood forth among them and administered unto them. And they were pacified towards Aaron and those who were with him.” (v. 25)
So when the king administered to the people, they were merely pacified. But when he ministered to them, they were converted. This is why showing forth love to those around us, particularly those who may be most difficult to love, is so critical to the Lord. We can only convert when we minister. And we can only minister where love is present.
Back in 2015, Shirly and I hit our limit with respect to infertility. Emotionally and spiritually, we were on fumes. Even temple worship did little to remedy our spiritual despair. One weekend, after one such fruitless temple visit, we both received a series of tender mercies that were immensely important to helping us pick up and move forward. But there was one experience in particular that meant the world to me.
The year before, I had served as a nursery worker, where I had the opportunity to find a couple of little friends. At the beginning of the year, I moved back into Sunbeams. On this particular Sunday, at the end of the three-hour block, I was at the door of my classroom, waiting for parents or older siblings to come around and pick their children up.
As I stood at the doorway, one little girl from nursery who I remembered well walked up and stood before me, looking up at me a bit tentatively. I held out my hands, offering to pick her up. She responded in kind, and I picked her up, greeted her.
“Give me a hug?’ She responded, putting her head on my shoulder.
Right at that moment, a second little girl from nursery walked up and flashed me a big grin. I held out my free arm and scooped her up. Again, a gentle hug. There I stood for a moment or two, holding those two two-year-olds, getting loved on – being ministered to, really.
Brethren and sisters, we have enough and to spare of rancor, disagreement and unkind words. We don’t have nearly enough of those who understand, listen and reassure. There is no shortage of those who attempt to diagnose and fix based on little more than rumor or hearsay. We can always use more of those who are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. It is my prayer that we who have taken upon ourselves the name of Christ can more fully follow the Master’s second great commandment, the core of Christianity, to love others without reservation and be present for one another when we are in need of one another’s help. This I share in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.