Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Love, not like

As a pastor, one of the things I frequently do is visit people when they're in the hospital. While hospitals are not my favorite places to spend time (I will never understand how doctors get used to the mixture of the smells of urine and sterile cleaning products), I do it because showing up and letting people know you care about them, even if it's only for five minutes, usually helps them feel better on days when they don't have too many things to be happy about.

The other day I was making the rounds at the hospital and one of the people on my list was a person in my congregation who, I'll be honest, I don't like very much. OK, I have an intense dislike for this person. Not many people like this particular individual, and with good reason. I'll just leave it at that. But this person was in the hospital, so I went. I wasn't there for terribly long. I inquired about their diagnosis and treatment, chatted about some unrelated matters, said a quick prayer, and left. To an outside observer this was your standard hospital visit.

I mentioned to a friend that I had visited someone that I didn't like very much. They said that was "very big" of me to do that, and that they imagined that a lot of people wouldn't do that. I shrugged it off because I didn't bring it up to brag. As a matter of fact, I felt a little guilty for having gone into the room with that feeling of dislike for this person in the back of my head and that I had been reluctant to go in the first place.

As I've reflected on this since I've begun to think that this brief visit was more important that I had first thought. In the Sermon on the Mount, the writer of Matthew's gospel has Jesus saying that if you only love those who love you, you're no better than a tax collector (or any other group of people you happen to dislike). We are called to love everyone, especially those who don't love us. Jesus didn't say anything about not liking people. There were plenty of people (mostly religious people) Jesus didn't like, but he loved them and died for them anyway.

I think that if I didn't make this brief hospital visit I wouldn't have any business calling myself a Christian, to say nothing of calling myself a pastor. If I had refused to go to that hospital room (particularly when I was visiting others in that same hospital who I like very much), that would have been proof that I had no integrity and did not practice what I preach. I did go, so maybe there's some hope for me after all.

Before I sound like I'm on my high horse, let me say that this was one brief hospital visit. It only proves that I had integrity and practiced what I preach for about ten minutes. Whether or not I embody these values I aspire to and exhort others to practice is a daily choice. How will I do next time I pass this person in the hall at church? Will I ignore them like I sometimes do? Or will I at the very least say hi and inquire how they're doing? I'm pretty sure we're never going to be best friends or anything(although you never know- stranger things have happened), but Jesus calls me to love this person, even if I don't happen to like them.