Monday, June 4, 2012

How to really love your neighbor

"Love thy neighbor," quips the old T-shirt, "but don't get caught."

We may find this amusing - or scandalous - but the kernel of truth in this is that a lot of people think that expressions of love are this great taboo.

I've heard so many sermons on love, how God is love, what the attributes of love are, the fact that we are called to love, that we should love everyone and pay special attention to loving our brothers and sisters in Christ (more about that in another post).  But nowhere have I heard any sermon on HOW to love. You know, the kind of love where the person you love KNOWS you love him or her.  And I don't mean romantic love or erotic love - I mean a fellowship of spirits, where each can be him or her self and feel safe in the other's presence.

There was a Christian doctor who wrote a book called How To Really Love Your Child - followed by the sequel, How To Really Love Your Teenager (Dr. Ross Campbell, ©1977 and ©1981) and I remember reading those books and thinking how the techniques he talked about could apply not just to children and teens but everyone we claim to love unconditionally - and that only a heaping dose of God's presence could ever give us the power to do it.

Because let's face it - as much as we want to love unconditionally, we just can't do that in a sustained manner in our own strength.  We are human, after all.  But God can give us that love for people, because He loved us first.  Because He IS love. 

It's not an original idea, but I keep telling anyone who will listen that we absolutely CANNOT give away what we don't have.  Trying to love someone will never work, no matter how much we think (or are told that) we "should."  Unconditional love, explains Dr. Campbell, works on a 'tank' principle, much like a gasoline tank in your car, except with emotions.  If a person's emotional tank is full, he or she is able to act in an appropriate and responsible way toward other people.  But if it's running on empty, that's when mistakes are made, and problems can start and can get out of hand. 

I would add that God IS unconditional love; it has its source in Him.  Paying attention to deepening our relationship with God is the first step in the process of loving others: it starts with letting Him love us, and trusting that love. I only say that because I've heard so many people skip over that crucial part and then wonder why "it" doesn't work for them. When our own tanks are full from God's inexhaustible reservoir, we have something to give to others, without becoming depleted ourselves. Filling someone else's tank out of a place of abundance is one of the most remarkable experiences there is.  I've used that one principle of "filling the tank" time and time again with my children, with amazing results.  It works - and it's awesome

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Sometimes, though, there's a disconnect between actually loving someone from that fulness, and being able to express that love in a way that the other person can understand and access.  In essence, there's lots of love in the tank but the gas line is plugged. This is where the rubber meets the road - where we get to participate in God's plan.

Dr. Campbell also talked about that at length in his books and suggested a three-pronged approach to communicating love (in a nutshell: eye contact, physical contact, and positive focused attention).  This idea is very similar to a book that Dr. Gary Chapman wrote some thirty years ago, describing five love languages.  Learning what primary love-language the other person speaks can go a long way to knowing how to communicate the love that we have for that person in a way that he or she will understand.  The five love-languages (or the five ways people understand that someone loves them) are: 
(1) Words of Affirmation, 
(2) Quality Time, 
(3) Receiving Gifts, 
(4) Acts of Service, and 
(5) Physical Touch.  

I'm primarily a Words of Affirmation person.  My husband, on the other hand, is an Acts of Service type.  He had to learn to affirm me with words (which he used to feel were not necessary, just "fluff") so that I could appreciate his expression of love for me in other areas (in his own love-language, like when he does the housework, the yard work, and so forth.)  And - though it has taken me many years to "get" this, and I still have to work at it because I'm basically um, you know, lazy - he believes the affirming words I say to him much more when I make the effort to get up off my duff and do the dishes with him, or help him put together a BBQ or a piece of furniture. 

The bottom line is that expressing love to someone takes an investment that a lot of us don't think that we have: time.  Time to get to know the person, time to discover what makes him or her tick, and time to spend with him or her.  

And we never need to despair.  We have help.

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