ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: GONGS AND CYMBALS

By James M. Decker 

I’m going to level with you. This essay has been difficult for me to write. I’ve had it on my heart for several weeks, but every time I’ve tried to write it, I’ve been stymied. I don’t know if it was writer’s block or something in the world just didn't want me to say this, but I’ve had to fight my way through it. Some essays come easy. This one did not. It is about love. But we’re not going to be touchy feely. I hope I make you a little uncomfortable.

I’ve written about my Christian faith a number of times. I never want to preach, but I want you to understand that from which I get my values and my decision-making. I’m a believer in living out my faith and backing it up with my actions. I have no use for merely paying lip service to faith because it’s expedient to do so (whether politically, culturally, or socially).

It’s for that reason that I want to discuss love. The Ten Commandments tell us to love our neighbor. We all know that. In Matthew 22, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord but the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Even if you’re not a believing Christian, I expect your values system accounts for some sort of neighborly love. But let’s talk about what that really means. It is easy to nod your head at loving your neighbor. It is easy to support the concept. It is a lot harder to actually do it in the way that Jesus commands.

Some of you have great neighbors. You might even live next door to family or close friends. Loving your neighbor comes easy when you have neighbors like that. But what about THOSE neighbors, the nasty, bothersome ones? What about the ones who look different from us or act differently? What about the neighbors who have different values? What about neighbors who live a life that we don’t understand?

Well, Jesus didn’t put an asterisk next to “neighbor” to include only the people we like and who are like us. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan cared for a badly beaten Jew. The injured man had been ignored by his own people — in fact, they had crossed to the other side of the road in order to ignore his plight. The Samaritan stopped to help. Samaritans and Jews were about as different culturally from one another as anybody we could run across on a daily basis. Yet, because he showed mercy, the Samaritan was the true neighbor to the injured man, not the man's own people. We are called to do the same, no matter the differences with our own neighbor.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he discusses spiritual gifts. We all have gifts that we are called to use in our personal witness. Each of those gifts is unique and diverse. Our collective gifts work together like the parts of the body, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But as Paul finishes his discussion of spiritual gifts, he turns to love. He opens Chapter 13 of that letter by admonishing that it is nothing to use your spiritual gifts without love. In fact, he writes that using your gifts without love is like a resounding gong or clanging cymbal. Real appealing imagery, eh? Have you ever considered that you might’ve used your spiritual gifts like that? I imagine we all have, if we want to be honest.

I’m bothered that too many in society are willing to pay lip service to their Christian faith without the actions to accompany it. I think it all comes back to this discussion of love. What concerns me is what Paul speaks of — if we act as Christians but do so without love, then it sounds to the non-believer like the resounding gong or clanging cymbal. I know we all have different tastes in music, but I can’t see walking up and down the streets of Stamford banging a gong and clanging a cymbal and expecting it to drive people into our churches.

But when we act as Christians without love for our neighbor, that’s exactly what we’re doing. If we’re not living out our Christian faith with love — real, messy, hard, genuine love — for ALL of our neighbors, we’re not living our life as we’ve been commanded.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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