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Once I came across a small pond while wandering in the woods. A tiny creek fed that pond with a gentle flow. A three-foot high berm arced its way around the southwestern side like a crescent moon. On the berm, an overgrown hedge stood guard, leaving the trail beside the creek as the pond’s only entrance. A thick layer of fallen branches and decaying leaves from past seasons covered the surface, almost as if the ground were growing over the water. A quick scan confirmed what I had already smelled: the pond had no outlet. The water had become stagnant.
I recalled that pond recently as I read the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” In particular, Q&A 107, which asks whether it is enough that we do not murder our neighbor in any way, brought me back to that pond’s edge.
The catechism teaches that in order to keep the sixth commandment fully we are “to protect [our neighbors] from harm as much as we can.” In other words, we might keep the letter of the law by technically refraining from murdering our neighbors in action, speech, or thoughts, but such restraint is only a first step. A more robust understanding of God’s will for us in this command beckons us to proactively love our neighbors through friendship, mercy, and doing as much as we can to protect them.
In our current partisan context, I find it a whole lot easier to be like that stagnant pond. I have grown comfortable with meeting the bare minimums of Christian engagement. Though Jesus emptied himself for us (Phil. 2:6-8), I have a tendency to build a protective berm around myself that for the most part allows me to keep God’s love in and the troubles of the world out. I have acted as if keeping myself from committing direct acts of disrespect, murder, adultery, theft, deceit, and coveting is a satisfactory “thank you” for the sacrifice Christ made for me. While I readily confess with my mouth that I need Christ to save me, in practice I am quite content with a minimalist works-righteousness: “At least I haven’t broken any of the big commands today.”
But the catechism confronts my self-justification. Though I might avoid directly violating the written law, I have fallen gravely short of fulfilling Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself. How am I loving my African-American neighbors when I am silent in the presence of their all-too-frequent suffering? How am I loving neighbors without speaking up for the integrity and dignity of their families at border crossings? How am I loving people from First Nations communities if I am unwilling to hear their stories of generational loss and grief, often at the hands of white Christian men like me? Question and answer 107 beckon us to see that the abundant life God extends to us in Jesus Christ is much more than a personal holiness of avoiding overt sins. While I might not murder my neighbors, I have failed to do as much as I can to protect them from harm. I have not come close to emptying myself for the benefit of my neighbors.
So I am left to wonder: To what extent have I really understood how much Jesus Christ has forgiven me? As John declares, “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Without love, I am only a stagnant pond.
It’s these sins of stagnation, what we have sometimes called “sins of omission,” that clutter the surface of my faith. When was the last time I contacted an elected official out of concern for my neighbor’s well-being? How often do I actually linger in conversation with a neighbor, invite an elderly person over for coffee, send a card to someone who is sick, or simply look a cashier in the eyes? In auditing my monthly patterns with respect to time, location, and money, I see little evidence of spending myself on behalf of those living in poverty, as the Spirit calls us to do (Isa. 58). I fear that while I love the robust, abundant life of Jesus revealed through Scripture, I have far too often settled for a comfortably anemic Christianity that requires very little of me in practice.
Late last year, the chair of our consistory table challenged our elders to spend 20 more minutes in prayer each day, give $20 more to our church each month, and invite one person or family we don’t really know to our homes each month. After a couple months he extended that invitation to the whole council, and then again to the whole congregation. These are hedge-trimming practices intended to lower the “too busy” excuses we’ve built around ourselves. They prepare us for the deeper, more substantive work of removing our isolating berms by which we keep others—and their suffering—at a distance.
I confess I have left a lot undone when it comes to loving my neighbors. Working out my salvation “with fear and trembling” requires far more of me—my time, my influence, my financial security, my reputation, my friendship, my love—than I ever expected. Yet as I listen to the Spirit through the catechism’s teaching, I hear Christ beckoning me: “Come, lose your life for the good of your neighbors. Trust me. My love becomes even more abundant when you give it away.”