Love Yourself

shooting ghosts 2

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 29, 2017.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Matthew 22:34-46

I recently finished a book, Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War, a memoir penned by retired Marine Thomas “TJ” Brennan and combat photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly. This is a powerful story of both men’s journey from the trauma of war to their subsequent recovery. Both men’s stories weave together from action in Afghanistan, back to the states, and into a lasting friendship. I found TJ’s story especially compelling.

Finbarr is present and takes pictures as TJ is knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade in a fire fight with Taliban fighters. After being treated for a concussion TJ is sent back to his unit even though he is still experiencing severe headaches and memory problems. Nevertheless, he manages to lead his unit successfully until his deployment finally ends. When he returns home TJ learns he has a traumatic brain injury (dead brain tissue the size of a golf ball), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and what is known as Moral Injury, damage to his mental health due to what he experienced in the war.

We learn that on a previous deployment to Iraq, TJ blew up a building with two Iraqi insurgents inside. When he went to confirm that they had been killed, in addition to the insurgents he found that two children had also been killed by the projectile he fired. He had killed two children.

Understandably, TJ develops severe depression, has nightmares, and in time attempts suicide. While the Marine Corps’ official channels encourage Marines like TJ to seek help, when they do they are ridiculed as weak by their superiors, shunned by their fellow Marines, and taken out of the units that give them their identity as Marines.

And though he couldn’t wait to get back to his wife and daughter, TJ finds it all but impossible to rekindle the love he once had for them. He is awful to his wife, pushing her to the brink of seeking a divorce.

Throughout the book, the photographer Finn tells his parallel story of trauma, and the rest of the book chronicles their long road back from these experiences of death.

You have noticed that I, like most preachers, take whatever I am reading, either in a book or the headlines, or experiencing, either in my past, my life today, or the life of the church, and hold it up next to the Bible passage for the week to see how one informs the other.

In this morning’s passage from Matthew a lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment? We will leave aside for the moment that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong and focus instead on Jesus’ response which is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

I would guess that this is one of the top five answers given when people are asked for their favorite Bible passage. Love God and love our neighbor. What a seemingly simple formula for faithful living.

But I have a hard time leaving well enough alone so I began poking at these so-called greatest commandments. In particular, I have always wondered about those two words, “as yourself.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Is this part of the commandment, to love your neighbor just as you are to love yourself? Does God command self-love, and if so what does this look like? An entire self-help industry has existed for at least fifty years purporting to teach us to love ourselves. I remember my parents had a book I’m OK – You’re OK. There it is, love your self – love your neighbor.

I dug into some commentaries about this passage. I will spare you the translation and analysis of the Greek word for as, but in short, the answer is no, Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves. Instead, he is commanding us to love our neighbor the way we already do love our self. Jesus assumes we already love ourselves. Self-love is a given.

Well, that brought up another question for me. What does Jesus mean by love in these commandments?

In our lives today we think of love as a feeling, a strong emotion in response to something or someone outside us. So, love as we know it is passive and emotional.

But biblical love is neither. Love, as used by Jesus here, is not passive but a choice, and is not a feeling, but what could be called active mercy.

Bible scholar Clayton Schmit writes:

This means that, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it. 

So what could all this mean to TJ? As I said, he has found it impossible to rekindle the powerful love he once shared with his wife, Mel.

TJ and Mel attend a fundraiser for the Semper Fi Fund. He is the featured speaker, and from the podium shares his story, their story. “I admit I’ve been a terrible person at times, that no person deserves to be treated the way I tormented Mel. I tried to emotionally destroy her. Misery loved company, see? She was the closest target. I burdened her with my own guilt, my shame. I called her names I now regret. I pushed her away.”

Though Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves, he assumes a love of self as a basis for love for one another. And. remember, love here is not a passive feeling, but an active choice to show mercy. To treat his wife Mel with loving-kindness, TJ needs to act with mercy toward himself. He needed to learn to be patient, generous and gentle with himself.

Two important aspects of TJ’s healing come from telling his stories, even and especially those stories that caused him to feel guilt and shame, like the story of him killing the two children, and a story of hoisting a brick to bash in the head of a dying and helpless Iraqi soldier because of the diffuse rage that consumes him. At first he would share these stories with therapists, later in articles he wrote for the New York Times blog At War. It was TJ’s experience writing for this blog that piques his interest in journalism.

He gets a job as a reporter at a Jacksonville, North Carolina newspaper and begins interviewing other veterans about their experiences in war. They open up to him about their experiences, both their love for the comaraderie and excitement of war, and the wounds they still carry, both physical and emotional. TJ can relate to all of it. Hearing their stories affirms TJ’s identity as a Marine and reminds him that he is not alone in his struggles. Storytelling has been essential to TJ’s healing.

I tell TJ’s story, of course, because though his experiences of trauma are extreme, and his moral injury profound, we all experience hardship and the accompanying wounds. We can all be challenged, at some point in our lives, to love ourselves and so also, our neighbor.

Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, is a way to love neighbor and self. Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, communicates mercy, patience, generosity and gentleness.

In her book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette writes, “Every Sunday morning at our church, a person who is not a paid professional walks up the steps next to the ministers, stands in front of the microphone with their knees knocking and voice trembling, and begins, “Now is the time when we bring our own stories before God. And each gives a testimony – recent or from the distant past – about a sin they committed.”

“This is a book,” she continues, “about telling our stories – our real stories. Not the all cleaned up versions…but the stories of things that almost killed us and made us stronger, the stories of people who did unforgivable things to us, and, most importantly, stories of the unforgivable things we ourselves have done.”

People talk, she writes, about the “obvious” candidates like hatred, sexual sin, jealousy, greed, and arrogance, but also include things that aren’t necessarily sins such as clinical depression, anxiety, and addiction. Those these aren’t sins in themselves, keeping secrets from loved ones or refusing treatment, can be seen as sin as this breaks the bond of love.

Just as telling his own stories and providing an outlet for other veterans to tell theirs created opportunities for healing, so testifying about their sins to one another in Rev. Baskette’s church has set love of self and neighbor free. Beyond the positive effect on members of the church, it has grown and strengthened the community of the church. Her church in Sommerville, Massachusetts grew to over 300 members and had 80 people signed up to give their testimonies, a 20 month waiting list!

Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor begins with an assumption that we love our self. Do we? Do you? For TJ the path to restoring and strengthening love for his wife began by finding and renewing love for himself and the man he had become after the war.

Storytelling was central to this long process of restoration, each story a choice, an act of mercy toward himself or another.

I am just beginning Baskette’s book but am intrigued by her idea of testimony in the church. As I said, TJ’s healing, confessional storytelling began in private with a therapist, but ultimately became liberating when he shared these stories publically through his writing. My sense is that his public testimony was essential to the cause of love, as it was only then that he knew that his secrets had lost their power to guilt and shame.

TJ concludes his speech at that fundraiser with these words to Mel. “I love you. Thank you for saving me.” He steps down from the podium and he and Mel embrace. He writes, “I longed for Mel in Afghanistan. The few moments I hold her in my arms are the embrace I wish I had given her when I first stepped off the bus. For the rest of the night she glows. So do I.”

What would it require for you to share your stories? To listen to the stories of others without judgement? Could you share your stories with a best friend, a therapist, or your pastor? Can you imagine ever sharing these stories in public? Let’s think and pray about these things; our self and our neighbors depends on such acts of mercy.

Amen.

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