Rules of Engagement

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:34,35 (NLT)

This past Christmas, while we were loading our plates at a crowded breakfast get together, a friend and I exchanged a few brief remarks about people who go off to the wilderness to live in solitude, away from the rest of the human race. “Sounds kind of appealing sometimes, doesn’t it?” he cracked. I had to admit that it does, sometimes, sound appealing. “Except we aren’t built for that,” I offered. He agreed.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? We are at our happiest in the warm company of people whom we love and trust. Yet trustworthy people can seem few and far between, even among Christians. Sadly, some might say especially among so-called Christians. Too many humans have had their souls so deeply punctured by another human that they have chosen to separate themselves entirely rather than risk more harm. They retreat into their own company or the company of animals, who haven’t got a treacherous bone in their bodies. Animals are straight up; their motives clear.

I dare say that, for many, Covid quarantine wasn’t so bad.

The friend I exchanged comments with on Christmas morning is like me in his need for solitude to recharge. So is his wife, another dear friend. Yet these two brave souls left their comfortable place and moved to a faraway part of the world. They now live and work among people whose rules of engagement with one another are highly social, crossing privacy boundaries you and I take for granted. The privacy piece is one thing, but my friends are also immersed in a different language, spoken and written. In different behaviors that are considered well-mannered and different ones that aren’t. In different rules for conducting business at the markets and cafés. Even the strangers they meet on the road have different expectations than they’re used to. And pretty much everyone is walking, rather than driving, to get where they are going. On and on the local constructs go, all different from what an American would feel comfortable with, much less know instinctively. In a very real sense, this missionary family are living the Apostle Paul’s philosophy of becoming all things to all people out of respect for Jesus’s commandment to love.

But you don’t have to be a missionary to to show your respect for Jesus’s call to love, and you don’t have to go to the other side of the planet to find people with different rules of engagement. They’re right next to you every day. In the vehicle beside you at a stop light. On the same aisle as you in the grocery story. They are at your place of employment and in your congregation. They are, perhaps, your very own flesh and blood.

Maybe all of these differences started at the Tower of Babel when God divided people by language—after all, the way we talk is integral to our culture. But I doubt it. Our differences probably go back much further than that. Like, to the beginning. And despite a persistent ideology that the human race will someday, somehow, achieve a utopian nirvana of perfect happiness with one another, the evidence is against that ever happening.

So, back to this commandment that Jesus gave, when He told us to love each other. That kind of has an individual ring to it, doesn’t it? As in, person by person, situation by situation, rather than, “Oh, I just love all kinds of people.” Sure you do.

Loving is a tall order, and a lot of things get in the way of it. Mostly things like someone breaking my personal rules of engagement. Or me breaking theirs. Every time that happens, it’s like a little crime has been committed. The Bible calls it an offense, and it’s hard to make it through a day without one.

Peter, the most famous of Jesus’s disciples, must have been present when Jesus gave the commandment to love each other. Years after Jesus left, Peter reiterated the commandment to his own followers, saying that love covers a multitude of sins. Love—in its most elusive form, forgiveness—cuts through offenses like a hot knife through butter.

That kind of love is so rare that it’s a superpower. It’s trendy to talk about superpowers. Just Google superpower memes. Social media is chock-full of them. But there’s only one real superpower, and we all know it when we see it.

Just like Jesus said we would.

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