Love and Service as Presence

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus answers the question of a scribe as to what the most important commandments are. They are to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, mind, and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The Scribe affirms what Jesus says–it’s one of those rare moments in Scripture when an encounter between Jesus and a scribe or Pharisee ends in harmony and agreement. The meaning of life is to love God and to love others, which we find are interrelated practices: loving God naturally leads us to love others and when we love others, we are also loving God for “God is love.”

In a service learning and social justice class that I teach, we read a number of different authors in philosophy and theology, and also authors who reflect actively on the nature of service. In the past several years, many of us have used an article by Rev. Samuel Wells from a talk called “Rethinking Service” that he gave at a LFP National Conference in 2012. Wells writes that our culture mistakenly thinks that the fundamental “problem” that needs solving is mortality, so we focus much activity around the (mistaken) notion that we can somehow alleviate mortality by alleviating illness, finding new cures for disease, breaking athletic records, etc. But Wells argues that the biggest problem facing people in the contemporary world is not mortality but isolation. We see many groups of people isolated: the elderly, persons with disabilities, incarcerated men and women, shut-ins, and people who are simply lonely.

As Well argues, our view of service too often focuses on doing things “for” others, but Jesus calls us to undertake service as a way of being “with” others. Wells cites Jesus’s words: “Behold, I am with you always.” This rings true of my own relationship to a community of incarcerated men. I don’t go to prison to do anything “for” the men. I go in order to read and to discuss spiritual writings and philosophy and to be with them. Often their sharing gives me some new insight. Other days, it’s simply good to be together, exploring ideas and questions or listening to some member who is in need of the presence of community. I would also argue that this is true of all relationships of love: they are not so much about what we do, but our presence to one another. Do we listen attentively? Do we also share of ourselves in meaningful ways? Do we practice faithfulness of relationship? Are we distracted or engaged–truly present?

Love is not about fixing or primarily doing something “for” others but mostly about being “with” others in a reciprocal way. Love is mutual presence.