Somehow it has always been easy for me to love the outcasts, the marginalized, the broken, the scandalous, the "tax collectors and sinners" among us. It has been easy for me to love those who have rejected the church just as so many in the church have rejected them, the ones the holier-than-thou want nothing to do with. Don't hang out with the likes of them, they warn. Sure, Jesus might have, but we're not Jesus.
We're not Jesus. It's okay to turn our backs on them, to mock and scorn them, to blame them for society's every failing, because we're not Jesus.
I love those outside of the church - the ones who have never known Christ, the ones who have known Him and turned away, and the ones who see how very true it is that we're not Jesus and turn that justified anger on Christ Himself - but those inside the church? That's much more difficult for me.
Not all of them, mind. There are so many beautiful followers of Christ, kind, compassionate, and servant-hearted. They are humble and human, imperfect yet sincere. They love God and love others because in the end that's all that was asked of us. Those dear ones are so very easy to love.
But loving those modern-day Pharisees, who value rules over love and letter over spirit...that's hard. I struggle to love those who preach hate and violence over love and peace. I don't know how to love those wolves in sheep's clothing who would lead Christ-followers astray with their distorted doctrines. Loving those who impose their man-made burdens, heavy yokes instead of the light one offered by Christ? That's hard.
Yet Christ has not given me permission to withhold that love. Quite the opposite, rather: Christ tells us to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" and "do good to those who hate you" (Matthew 5, Luke 6). If I only love those for whom my love comes easily, what good is that?
Don't you know how difficult that is, Jesus? Don't you know what these people are doing to those inside of your Church, to those outside of your Church?
In response, He laughs gently. Oh yes, He says. I love you, don't I?
And it's true. Too often have I overlooked the needs of others in my own selfishness, built walls in place of bridges, and hurt those both within and outside of the church. I confess that I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and I have done those things which I ought not to have done. There is no health in me.
Once again I am faced with my own pride, my own hypocrisy, the log in my own eye. I adore the story of the prodigal son and yet truly I am the older brother. I love to point out that Jesus dined with sinners, broke all the rules and saved his harshest words for the Pharisees, and yet it is far more difficult for me to acknowledge that he dined with those same Pharisees as well.
I call for grace, but grace for whom? Only those I deem worthy? In that case, it's no grace at all. Love God and love your neighbour, I say, and yet here I am picking and choosing my neighbours. Everyone is my neighbour, and I am called to love.
I don't always know where to start, but this time I do. I pray. I pray for softened and changed hearts, my own above all else. I acknowledge sincerity in the hearts of those I would condemn, remembering my own past firmly-held beliefs that now leave me ashamed. I seek wisdom and guidance as I write, speak, and act from a place of compassionate love rather than animosity.
Again and again, daily, hourly, I pray.