I remember an exchange with a stranger when I was in my twenties. I was a student at the time. One day on my way to the cafeteria a guy stopped me in my tracks and said, “Hey, I keep seeing you around and I just have to ask you something. Why are you always smiling?” It’s funny how his words still ring in my memory. He got me thinking. I didn’t realize I was always smiling.
It can be surprising to realize that the things you do or know are not commonplace for everyone. Starting in the teen years now, everyone is encouraged to specialize and have a story. We are often told to focus on those skills and experiences that show we’re successful and make us stand out. Today there is a push to become an expert. What’s your brand? What are you known for?
A few yers ago, columnist David Brooks addressed this in The Road to Character. He called the push to become an expert “resume virtues”. He said there is also something else, something that connects with the core of who we are. These are “eulogy virtues”. These are the things we have cultivated over the course of a lifetime that make a difference to others. They are things like courage, love, kindness, honesty. I think in part, these are things you discover about yourself; things that have been given to you.
We recently went to a Memorial Service for a friend. He had a big personality and was a funny guy but most of all, he was a person who made everyone feel loved. This is what he was known for.
Couldn’t we use more people like that? Things seem to be changing. More and more, the issues and ideologies that divide us can become what define us in ways that are not helpful. It’s harder to find leaders who are willing to try to find common ground. We need people who are committed to love as “the headlines howl; the walls shake, and the earth moves underneath our feet.”*
In his farewell address to his disciples, Jesus gives us a vision for how we can live and what we can be known for. He says, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” And then he takes it to the next level saying, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples.”** You are to be known by the love you have for one another.
How do we become known for love? It begins by honoring the source of love. Jesus said you are to love as I loved you. When we love, we can do so as one who has been loved. We are sharing what we have received. God’s love is so great that it goes to the cross and beyond for us. God’s character is love. Listen to how God defines himself: “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”*** God is love and we are created to be like him.
So where do we begin? We ask for God to show us how to love and we try to share the love we know in Him. God is merciful and gracious and slow to anger. We can pursue love by being merciful, gracious and slow to anger. We know that love is patient. We know that Love is kind. If we are living in love there should be some evidence of patience and kindness in us.
Being known for love in our context today means we are going to have to see one another and acknowledge one another as a person of value, despite our political, social or religious affiliations. We are going to have to live differently. We are going to have to give up the temptation to make assumptions or categorize or depersonalize each other. We may even have to go out of our way to acknowledge those who may be different from us because while there are differences, there is one thing that unites us, each one of us is a child of God.
We may not always like each other but with a little effort we can acknowledge one another, pray for one another, seek the welfare of one another, forgive one another, and work to serve one another. It’s not easy, but if we work at it, we may start to see God’s love in one another. We may start to notice a smile or a gracious gesture that we cannot deny is good. We may begin to see ourselves and each other in a new way.
I am thankful for that exchange with a stranger years ago because it prompted me to become more aware of myself and how my actions affect others. We all are known for many things. Let one of them be love.
* This is a phrase used by Barbara Brown Taylor, “The End is (Always) Near”
***Exodus 34: 6