A couple of things happened late this fall. One of my boys was interested in checking out the sport of rowing. And then we found out that a rowing studio had opened up not far from where we live. Turns out it’s owned by a guy that went to the same small town high school as me, and he gave us a good deal on a starter membership. So, two or three times a week, I’ve been training with my two sons on rowing machines.
Something about trying a new sport and working on it in a training studio has been really interesting. I watch my boys working with a physical intensity I’m not used to seeing in them. We hear the trainer telling us over and over that rowing uses 86 percent of the muscles in our body, so the training is asking a lot of us, and it’s strengthening us. There are benchmarks for success in this activity – these feel motivating to me too. Just last week, I set a new personal record on one of these times.
Which I can do because I wasn’t very good when I started and I haven’t been doing this for long. But still, it’s energizing to be laying some new grooves in my fitness. So instead of just getting progressively weaker and creakier as the years go by, which at some level is just inevitable – I get that. But maybe I can also find new sources of energy and strength. Through training.
Now it doesn’t matter to anyone but me if I lower my rowing machine times or boost my power. It’s training in a rowing studio.
But we train in other areas of our life that matter to us as well, or we don’t, and we feel the cost of that. The professor who taught me developmental psychology when I was training to be a teacher was also a middle school science and health teacher. God bless him. Teaching middle school health is the work of the angels.
He told us how he taught sex ed to middle schoolers, and particularly about the kinds of relationships in which they’d start to experience romance or sexuality. And he would talk to them about the grooves we lay, whether we want to or not. Like skis make tracks in the snow, or sleds make a path down the hill that gets more and more fixed, harder to deviate from over time.
Or if you are my age or older, or if you’re hip and take your music on vinyl, you’ll know about record grooves, the spot where the needle sits as the record spins, so that it takes some kind of jolt to get it out of the groove. Human behavior and thinking are patterns like this. The more we do something a certain way, the more we are training our mind and our body to keep doing it that way. So he’d tell his 7th graders, think about the kind of romantic or sexual relationships you want to have later and start out in that same kind of pattern. If you want a series of shallow, unintimate, uncommitted, unloving partners later in life, then casual romantic contact without deep relationship—hook-up culture—will set the grooves to get you there. But if you want a committed, intimate, loving partner later in life, then practice commitment, practice self-control, practice emotional vulnerability and love and affection earlier too. That will set different grooves.
I thought this was a great way my professor was teaching about relational habits and grooves in the context of sex ed.
We do this kind of training, this habit-making, this groove-setting in all the parts of life. We do it intentionally and unintentionally. At Reservoir, we try to make this kind of practice of the inner life—of spirituality, of relationships, of character – as explicit as possible, so we can make choices about the kind of spiritual and relational and moral life we each want to develop. This is why we end just about all our teachings on Sundays commending a spiritual practice—a type of training for a deeper, more joyful, more resilient inner life and connection to God.
At the start of this new year, we wanted to make explicit why we do this, and to what end. If you want to be a person of faith, and specifically if you’re intrigued by the notion of following Jesus, or perhaps even committed to a Jesus-centered life of faith already, then what is at the heart of that life? Where is it going? Are there things like spiritual, or inner life, or relational personal records? How would we train for such a thing?
So for the first eight weeks of this year, we’re teaching a series called Training in the Studio of Love. The sequence is inspired by an idea that an old friend of our church, a writer named Brian McLaren, has been exploring. He’s noticed that religion in general, Christianity in particular, has been good at training certain mindsets, ways of thinking, many of which haven’t served well. But he’s also noted that Jesus was abundantly clear about the center of faith, about the end not just of religion but of all of life. And McLaren has suggested a system of training in Jesus’ way of love, one that we’ll follow in this series.
We’ll be reading this week, and each of these eight weeks, from the memoirs of the life of Jesus called the Good News of Luke, after the name of its purported author.
And we’ll jump right into the middle here, because there’s this moment in Jesus’ life when he gets right at the center of the things. What is most important in life, and how do we train to get there? It starts like this.
Luke 10:25-28 (CEB)
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
So by way of context, Jesus has been training his disciples—his students, his apprentices. He’s been training them to do what he’s been doing, which in Luke is called speaking good news, particularly speaking good news to those who are poor. And announcing freedom, and healing, and liberation for people.
But this legal expert is somehow threatened by what Jesus and his students are up to. Or maybe he doesn’t understand it—it’s so unexpected, or simple, or out of reach for him, we don’t know. But he does what a certain type of person will do when threatened or confused. He tries to start an argument.
So, three things we’ve got here: how arguments work and don’t, the meaning of life, and theory vs. training.
Arguments. This scene is an argument that somehow never becomes an argument. As I mentioned, there’s this legal expert who likely is threatened or confused, but in his mind—and in everybody else’s mind—he’s an expert. And experts don’t like seeming threatened or confused, so this expert tries to start an argument. Luke says he was trying to test Jesus. He’s trying to ask Jesus a hard question, or a controversial one, or bait him into a conversation where Jesus will appear to know less that he does. But the argument that he was looking for never materializes.
Because Jesus won’t take the bait. Arguments just don’t seem especially interesting to Jesus, they don’t move forward what he cares about. So Jesus does what he does so often when he’s asked a question, which is that he asks a question right back. Not defensively or dismissively—we know what that sounds like—but curious.
Like—well, you’re the expert. You’re wondering about the center of it all, how you find deep and rich and good life forever. What does our law say? How do you read it?
I wish I’d remember this on Christmas Day where like 30 seconds into my conversation with one of my brothers, I was already embroiled in a weird, random argument. That did not add anything to either of our days. It did not in any way move either of us forward.
Arguments are rarely the best way to move an idea forward in a relationship. But they always take two people, and Jesus rarely let himself be one of those people. Because there’s always another way forward.
So, arguments and their alternatives.
Second, the meaning of life. When I was a kid, my friends and I thought this was the ultimate unanswerable question, the conversation stopper to stop all conversations. What’s the meaning of life? As if nobody knows.
So maybe it’s a great test, but again, Jesus asks: what do you think? And the legal expert responding to Jesus says well, in our tradition, we’ve been taught that the meaning of life is to love God with your whole self and to love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself.
And Jesus just says yes. Sounds good.
What does he mean—yes? Yes, this is what our tradition teaches. Yes, this is true. Yes, this is the center of where to aim our energy if we want to really live?
Yes. Yes, I think all of that. This is becoming a short conversation because Jesus just says yes.
The meaning of life is love, and not just romance, but to love what made you, to love where you come from, to love the source of all things, and to do that with your whole being. We might call this gratitude, we might call this wonder. We might call this resistance to a consumer culture obsessed with power and success and buying and acquiring. We might call this living into a story of grace or abundance or the relationality of all things. All this, yes. But the simplest and I guess the most traditional way to put it is just to say to love God with our whole selves.
And inseparable from that, right tied up in it, is to call other humans neighbors and to love them just as we love ourselves.
That’s it. Short, concise, but the very center of life, and the path to more and more life.
There’s a whole program here, and one that Brian McLaren suggests we take in a particular sequence we’ll use over these 8 weeks.
We start with love of neighbor, because it stretches us, it pulls us outside of ourselves, and helps us think about what love really is and isn’t. We’ll spend two weeks on that.
Then we look at an unselfish love of self. Because Jesus, and the whole tradition assumes that we know how to love ourselves, and that we know how that’s different from being self-centered or all wrapped up inside ourselves. But of course, we don’t know those things. So we’ll spend two weeks on that too.
Then we ask what it means to love this world around us. Two more weeks on that.
And finally, grounded in all that, we return to what it means to love God with our heart, our being, our strength, and our mind. So that’s our sequence for January and February.
So again, Arguments and how they work and don’t, second, the meaning of life and what we’ll be up to this winter, and then third, theory vs. training.
You’ll notice I’ve been talking about the meaning of life—an abstract, theoretical question. But the legal expert doesn’t exactly ask it this way, he asks how do we *get* life? How do we obtain real, abundant, lasting life? And Jesus, and his tradition, takes his slight drift away from theory and runs with it. Because Jesus is less interested a theoretical answer to this question about the center and source of life, and much more interested in the training that will take us there.
Jesus invites this man, Jesus invites us—ours minds, our bodies, and our whole selves—to the hard work of training in the way of love. Jesus affirms that the law of love at the center of life isn’t a thing to think about but to do.
This isn’t satisfying to that legal expert who wasn’t really looking for training in the way of eternal life as much as he was looking for an argument. So he tries one more time. We’ll read the rest of the passage now, as we stick on this training bit for a while.
Luke 10:29-37 (CEB)
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Who is my neighbor?
There’s of course a radical expansion here. From the person that lives next door to you, or your spouse or kid or friend or co-worker. Out to a stranger, someone you’ve never met, in big trouble, in a dangerous place. And not just from friend to stranger, but from friend to stranger to other or enemy.
Jesus was remarkably good storyteller, and his story has a little rhythm to it here. There’s this priest walking by, and then there’s this Levite—which is broader than priest, but another big city establishment figure. And if you were a legal expert, particularly if you were part of this growing, dynamic party called the Pharisees, you’d expect to be next. Which would make sense—this guy is asking who is my neighbor? And so Jesus tells a story about neighboring. And there are two people who don’t love their neighbor. And this guy would expect somebody like him would be the third person, and Jesus would use that character to show how he should love his neighbor.
And on the one hand, the expectation is spot on. This is how stories work. The third person is the example to follow. Except with Jesus, his stories never quite follow expectations, so there’s this huge twist. This big, by the way, in the story, which is that Jesus says, by the way, your example is your enemy. The one who’s going to teach you how to love your neighbor, which is to say, the one who’s going to teach you the meaning and center of life, is the person you’ve written off and avoided and judged again and again and again. That person will show you the way. Go, and do likewise.
Your neighbor is your neighbor, and your neighbor is a stranger you’ll come across, and your neighbor is also the one you’d call other or enemy.
After this, what it looks like to actually love that neighbor seems kind of obvious to Jesus. Like he builds up to the last person being a Samaritan and then says, oh yeah, he did everything the person needed, and then more. He took care of stuff and set him up for a better tomorrow. He paid the bill, and tipped well. You know, what love looks like—that’s what he did. Try it out.
There are of course crazy stories of people going big with this kind of love. People humanizing and neighboring, and so disarming their racists or their oppressors. Socially prominent people connecting with their Internet trolls. Whole nations figuring out how justice and reconciliation and restoration fit together.
But there are ordinary ways people live this out in less dire and maybe less dramatic ways too.
I think of the time I switched companies for a big promotion, only to discover that most of the people on the big team I was going to lead were rooting against me. Some of them were ready to actively resist whatever I brought to the table. Because of political and budgetary dynamics I didn’t really have anything to do with. I was hardly lying on the side of the road, robbed and left for dead. But I was in a jam. I was positioned to fail, or at least be miserable trying to succeed.
But there were four people who were willing to work with me on a little advisory council to turn that dynamic, four people who were willing to count themselves as my partners in the work, and one of those four in particular who made every effort to befriend me, to encourage me, to share with me whatever he knew and had. Those four people, and that one guy in particular, saved my year, and maybe saved my transition. They were my good Samaritans, my neighbors.
The question I have about all this is how do you get there?
This is not natural behavior, it’s not for me. I’m happy to engage my inner circles with a modicum of kindness, sometimes even that’s a stretch. But at most times, in most circumstances, I’d rather ignore the stranger and avoid or argue with the other or the enemy.
We’re free to do this, or course, but Jesus will trouble us with the observation that this is to miss the meaning and center of life.
How do you become the kind of person who, when you have the opportunity to save someone, do so without thinking? How—when you have the opportunity to heal division, or be good news, or to take your generosity and apply it somewhere you hadn’t thought of—do you be the person who sees the moment and says yes?
Because this is hard work. It asks a lot of us.
How do you get there?
I think like anything else that counts, we get there by practice, by training. By doing the next thing in front of us each day to re-neighbor the world.
Our family has been noticing that Grace, my wife, has developed this habit of chatting up strangers, particularly women, and complimenting women out in public whenever she can. Their hair, their clothes, whatever. And we realized eventually that this was a choice she’d made, to assert her voice in the world, and to do it in a way that would build up and encourage other women. And that seemed really cool to me, for a lot of reasons, but including because it’s this kind of training—a choice to make a habit of how she’s going to interact with strangers, and how she’s going to use her voice in those interactions, to encourage people, to alleviate their insecurity, to say: I see you and I like what I see.
I thought of this just last night because I was heading to a social event where I knew I was going to end up grumpy, disengaged, and checked out—sitting in a corner with my food, checking my phone, waiting for it to end. And I thought, I want to practice loving my neighbors at this party. I can do this thing Grace has been doing, looking for ways to just take an interest in each person I meet, have something nice or encouraging to say to them.
It was maybe kind of pathetic that I needed to actively make this choice, but I did, and you know what, nothing special happened. I don’t think I changed anybody’s life. I certainly didn’t save anyone. But I also didn’t end up checked out and grumpy. And I think it was practice, training to nudge me into the kind of grooves that will help me see and love my neighbor more.
I take Jesus at his word that this is good for us, this command to love our neighbor as ourselves. I think there’s an opportunity here – not just to heal the world, but to find the life Jesus says we’ll get when we train ourselves in his way of love.
I think the opportunity to find ourselves, even as we’re alone in the world, to also be accompanied by friendship everywhere we go.
I take this line from a poem by David Whyte, a poem I love called “The Bell and the Blackbird” that is full of some of the beautiful paradox that makes us life. And at the end, there’s this bit:
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
by every corner
of the world
I was so gripped by that image at the end. We all know life can be lonely. I don’t need more ideas about how to press into that reality. But I found myself wondering why that image of being “accompanied in friendship by every corner of the world” was so gripping to me, so appealing. And wondering what it would look like to experience that as true.
And I thought, I think the Samaritan in the story gets that experience. To do all that he did for the man lying on the side of the road is sacrifice and is great help to that poor man, but it’s a profound experience of intimacy and connection and friendship for the Samaritan as well.
For Grace to go about sprinkling the world’s strangers with compliments and encouragement is to give her connection and tastes of friendship everywhere she goes. For me to choose to practice presence and encouragement to strangers last night gave me a much more connected experience of the evening than I would have had otherwise.
I think in loving all our neighbors, wherever we find them—training in this each day, pushing the boundaries of just who is our neighbor, and just how much we might love them—we have a chance to fulfill the mission of Jesus, to re-neighbor the world, and to in the bargain radically change how we experience the world, so that we are everywhere accompanied by friendship as well.
This is the meaning and source of life. Well, at least part of it. There’s seven more weeks where this comes from.
But I do invite you to training, to practice this week, to ask each day: how can I greet each person I see—friend, stranger, other, enemy—as my neighbor? And to ask God for the power and the inclination to not ignore, avoid, or argue with them, but to give who you are and what you have in love.