Monday, February 27, 2012

Ancient Advice Still Helpful

You will not hate any person,
But some you will reprove,
And concerning others you will pray,
And some you will love more than your soul.

- Didache 2:7

The Didache, whose title literally means “teaching” or “training” was used to mentor people who wanted to enter the Christian community in the first century. We’d call it a manual, except that it wasn’t written down. Rather, people memorized it and then could call it to mind as they needed it to help them make decisions about the way they lived.

It was a little like the Boy Scout Oath which scouts memorize so that it can guide their behavior as honorable Scouts:
On my honor, I will do my best To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
Just like Scouts are learning how to behave in ways which honor their organization, followers of Jesus were learning how to live like Jesus lived, and the Didache expected them to practice its guidelines until they had the lifestyle down. Then they became members of the community by being baptized.

We have a mental picture of the early Christians living in peace and harmony, agreeing about everything, and easily following the teachings of Jesus. The centuries since these folks founded the Jesus movement make it easier for us to see them in this idyllic way. In reality, the first followers of Jesus were human beings just like us, and they struggled to get along together and to know what Jesus expected of them. They needed the help of the Didache and their teachers just as much as communities do today.

So the Didache gives practical advice for how to form a group of people with common goals – to live like Jesus lived – and common hopes – to see the reign of God on earth. Their purpose was to support each other in community so that they could reflect the dream of Jesus for the way people lived – fully connected to God and practicing justice and love toward each other.

The trouble is, even people with the best intentions still have to get along with one another. And there are always personality differences and differences in their priorities which rub up against each other. So the Didache talks about how to treat one another. It talks about this a lot because forming strong human relationships is the most important step in forming a relationship with God. The Bible is pretty clear that we can’t love God without loving one another, and the way we treat one another is the most telling evidence about how our love for God is working in our lives.

One of the things I love about the Didache is that it’s so practical and flexible. It says, “Here’s the rule…” and then it says, “but if you can’t keep it ideally, then try to come close like this…” Today’s verse is a great example of this. It says, “You won’t hate anyone.” That’s a pretty clear rule and an important ideal. Then it says, “but some you will reprove and concerning others you will pray and some you will love more than your soul.” Don’t hate anybody, but boy it’s going to be hard to manage that with some folks who are just begging to be hated. And with other folks you’re going to show a real preference because they are your soulmates.

Let’s look at this good advice a little more closely. First, don’t hate anyone. Hatred drives people apart and brings dissension into a community. Do you remember as a child telling your mom or dad “I just hate him. I just hate her.” An usually those childhood friends deserved that hatred. They were mean and hurtful and hit and pinched and lied about us. They made us feel plain terrible, and it seemed like there wasn’t any way to deal with it but to give in to the pain we were feeling and name it “hate.” The trouble is, hate never hurt that other person. It just made us feel even worse. It kept us awake at night while they slept peacefully in their beds. It made us dread going out to recess because we didn’t want to see or speak to them. Hate ties us up in knots and makes us miserable. Hate keeps us from talking to one another and certainly gets in the way of coming to reconciliation – to that point when we can say, “I’m sorry,” and make things right again. The advice not to hate others is really for our own good. Hate is a poison and when we fill our minds and hearts with it, then we’re the ones who pay the price.

But not everyone is easy to love and certainly not easy to get along with! So some folks in a community need to be reproved from time to time. Communities have core values and standards of behavior and we expect people to live by them. These standards may vary from place to place and time to time. It’s OK to belch your pop or beer when the guys are watching football but not do to the same at Grandma’s Sunday dinner table. It’s never OK to lie about someone else, or to repeat mean stories to hurt someone. And when that behavior happens, healthy communities gently bring it up and ask the person to make a change. My best friends are the ones who can tell me when I’m out of line because they trust me to improve. That kind of community helps us grow into maturity as people and as followers of Jesus.

And some people you will pray about… Isn’t it the truth that some folks are just incorrigible! They don’t respond well to correction, even when we’re being our most gentle. They always disagree with us, just for the fun of it. We would never pick them first to play on our team. But we aren’t served by hating them or getting worked up over them. So we pray about them. We turn them over to God, who’s better in the love department than we are, and let it go. Don’t pray and hang on! Pray and let go and move on. It’s been that way in human relationships since the beginning of time.

And some folks will be our best soulmates. Jesus had one disciple who was “beloved.” Tradition says that’s John, although the scripture isn’t clear about that. Of course when he’d gathered a bunch of men and women to travel with him and learn his ways, he had some he liked better than others. We all have close friends. That doesn’t keep us from treating others with respect. But what a good gift of God to give us folks who get us. The ones who laugh with us when no one else understands the joke. The ones who cry with us. The ones who make our days joyful. We say we’re lucky to have friends like that. But it’s not luck – it’s God’s plan for making human life wonderful, and for helping us be the great humans we’re meant to be.

Every community has this rich mix of people. Isn’t it great that when I’m the one that person is praying to tolerate, there’s also someone who thinks I’m the best. That’s why we gather together, so in the mix, we can each find the support and encouragement we need. And enough folks to keep us honest and humble, too. From the very beginning the followers of Jesus have gathered in community, and the guidelines help those communities to be healthy. No hate. Plenty of differences so that we have all we need – all the skills and viewpoints and personalities that make us complete. And a big dose of honesty and respect that helps us get along.