Love God. Love your neighbor.
Those, in brief, are the two greatest commandments, the commandments that sum up all the Law and the Prophets.
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. ~Matthew 22:35-40
Jesus is reminding his hearers of the Shema, the passage from Deuteronomy 6 that the Jews would have recited daily. And he is also reminding them that it is impossible to keep God’s laws. There is no task list to master, no checklist or rituals. None of us can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. God’s holiness demands perfection, not good effort.
Thankfully, because of God’s grace, we can trust in Christ’s work on our behalf!
That doesn’t negate the commandments, though.
It’s easy to make an argument that reading helps us love God with our minds. After all, the better able we are to use the minds God gave us, presumably the better able we are to love him with those minds.
But how about loving your neighbor? Can reading help with that, too?
I want my children to wrestle with the messy elements of loving our neighbors. To realize the “oomph” behind the parable of the Good Samaritan. To think about the many different kinds of people who are our neighbors here in 21st century America. To do something about those realizations. In short, I want to disciple them in this area of loving our neighbors.
My three kids are all in middle school, a time fraught with social tension and kids trying to find their way. It can be tough to speak up about your feelings, especially when you’re not sure what you’re feeling in the first place!
Is there a way to grow in loving our neighbors as ourselves even while we’re figuring out our own selves?
Books to the Rescue!
A story offers a more neutral ground in which to explore emotions and the people who feel those emotions. Through reading a story, we learn empathy, see some of the different ways people reflect the image of God, and discover ways we can interact helpfully or hurtfully with others in a non-threatening arena.
Neil Gaiman expressed this eloquently in a lecture reprinted in The Guardian a few years ago:
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed. (emphasis mine)
When Gaiman says that we “learn that everyone else out there is a me,” that’s getting at Jesus’s words to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If ever there’s a time when kids love themselves, it’s middle school. It might not look like love as they mourn their braces, struggle with acne, complain about how they look–but all of that insecurity is rooted in a deep, abiding fixation on self, even if that self hasn’t reached its full potential.
Enter: The Love Your Neighbor Book Club
This is not a school-oriented book club. In fact, most of the books aren’t “hard reads” in terms of academic reading level. We don’t sit around and discuss plot, characterization, or symbolism. Instead, we use the story itself as a launching point for such big questions as:
- how do I love my neighbor if he is really, truly ugly? how are we both made in the image of God?
- how do I love my neighbor if she is deaf? blind? or has some other physical disability that requires significant aid?
- how do I love my neighbor if she is from a completely different country? What if she is has a different religious faith than I do? As a Christian, do I preach to her or help her celebrate her religion or some middle ground?
- how do I love my neighbor if he is brand new to school, talks funny, and is a snob?
- how do I love my neighbor in faraway Africa? what if she doesn’t have basic amenities, such as fresh water? how does that change my existence here and now?
- how do I love my neighbor if he is my own brother and a total jerk?
These are big questions that don’t have easy, clearcut answers. But they are worth discussing, worth thinking about. And I think that kids benefit from discussing these questions with a Christian worldview, with fellow Christians.
Our book club started this past January. We read Ugly, El Deafo, and Inside Out and Back Again. In addition to the books themselves, we talked about practical ways to love our neighbors who go to our church, who are physically disabled, who we see in the grocery store, and more.
Here are our selections for this fall:
- September: Save Me a Seat
- October: Long Walk to Water
- November: Tangerine
- December: The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
- January: Missionary Biographies and Prayer for the World
I’ll be posting more info on each book as we get to them, including practical tips for book clubs in general as well as some of the practical ways we’ve dreamed up to tangibly love our neighbors. Feel free to read along with my family and our local Love Your Neighbor Book Club this fall.