The main thing

The main thing

In the early 1990s I lived in Lubbock, Texas. One of the men who took me under his wing in that strange new land was Dr. Carl Andersen, founding director of the Center for the Study of Addiction at Texas Tech University. It’s hard to overstate the importance of what I (and many, many others) learned from Dr. A during those formative years, which was often summarized in the short, pithy sayings that frequently fell from his lips. One of them was this:

 “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Being tall and in the habit of wearing a Stetson as he was, as well as speaking with a bass rumble that you felt in your chest, it was understandable that Dr. A’s words took on the almost mystical air of Curly in ‘City Slickers,’ especially to wide-eyed freshmen straight off the ranch. “But what is the main thing?” That we had to discover for ourselves. (Or ask a senior, who might point us to the Fifth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

One of the bible scholars of Jesus’ day asked him a similar question: “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Even if we’ve never read the words on the page, I imagine most people I know would offer either the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) or this paraphrase of the answer Jesus actually gave to the scribe’s question:

“Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

For Jesus, that was the main thing. And apparently the scribe agreed with Jesus, stating that to do those things was more important than the endless activity that he witnessed in the Temple itself. Jesus responded by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And there’s the rub. Because it’s one thing to be able to offer an answer: it’s another to live it out.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does that mean? I have shelves full of books that try to answer that question from multiple perspectives. I have drunk countless cups of coffee with others while discussing what it might mean in this place at this time. After four decades of hearing those five words, here’s what I have come to believe it means to love your neighbor as yourself:

To genuinely want for my neighbor what I want for myself.

So, for instance, if I want access to affordable, healthy food, I have to want that for my neighbor as well. If I want affordable, quality healthcare for myself and my family, I have to want that for my neighbor as well. If I want to be treated with respect and dignity, then I have to want my neighbor to experience the same. If I want to live in a neighborhood where I’m not concerned for the safety of my kids, I have to want that for my neighbors as well. The challenge – or temptation, perhaps – is my proclivity for making choices to secure those things for myself that do not take my neighbors into consideration.

A couple of summers ago, there was a brief spate of shootings in the park at the end of our street, including one where shots were fired at a car speeding away past our homes. “What if our kids had been playing on the porch? Or walking back from the park when it happened? Do we feel safe living here? Should we move?” Those were the kinds of questions being asked by some of our neighbors – and ourselves. Yes, we could make the choice to move to another part of the city where public violence is rare, but what of our neighbors for whom that is not a viable option? What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves at such a time?

It was my next-door neighbor, Travis, who gave me the glimpse of the Kingdom of God that I needed. Travis is the president of our Neighborhood Association, and cares deeply and thoughtfully about our neighborhood and those we share it with. While the news channels and people using social media were lamenting the “thugs” and “gang members” terrorizing the park and wringing their (virtual) hands over the shootings, Travis suggested we begin a monthly pot luck dinner in the park, and make a point of inviting those youths being labeled “thugs” to eat burgers and hotdogs with us. And that’s what a group of our neighbors did. A banner was hung in the park advertising the pot luck, and then on a Saturday afternoon, people dragged their grills from home, set up tables for the food, brought folding chairs and blankets and set up a corn hole game. While the kids played on the swings, and the smoke from the grills drifted across the park, a couple of people wandered around and invited people to join the picnic, which most did. We met and shared a meal with neighbors we didn’t know before, and did so each month until that winter. Travis modeled the Great Commandment for me – if I want the park to be a safe(r) place for my kids to play in, I have to want it to be safe(r) place for all my neighbors. And to take responsibility for it becoming so, something else Dr. A taught me, and which you can find on a poster hanging in most A.A. meeting spaces:

“I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”

This lies at the heart of the Great Commandment. It is the main thing. To understand that my neighbor’s well-being is my responsibility, and in doing so discover the wisdom the prophet Jeremiah offered God’s people in exile in Babylon:

“Seek the welfare of the city, where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare lies your welfare.”

This is the paradox of the Kingdom of God: when I reject the way of self-seeking and self-securing for the way of seeking the welfare of others, I discover the life I yearn for: a life rich with a diversity of relationships and mutuality. Whenever I genuinely want for my neighbor what I want for myself and begin to take responsibility for that I find myself living the life for which we were created. The challenge is to resist the temptation to come up with reasons why my neighbors don’t have the things I want for myself and my family, (“They’re lazy. They make poor choices. Life isn’t fair. They’re (fill in the blank).”), and thereby excuse myself from taking responsibility for their well-being. Which, it seems Jesus is saying, is to find myself far from the Kingdom of God.

As we begin a new year, let us encourage one another to grow in our willingness and capacity to keep the Great Commandment. Let us learn what it means to want for our neighbors what we want for ourselves.

Let us encourage one another to keep the main thing the main thing.

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