Adam Ellsworth is currently loving his service as a Teachers Quorum Advisor in Alpine, Utah. He and his wife, Maricel, are enjoying the challenges that come with raising three boys, ages 14, 11, and 11. Professionally, Adam has been practicing law as a patent attorney since 2006. After receiving his bachelor’s degree at BYU, Adam graduated law school from Pepperdine University, after which he took a job in Washington D.C. Adam and his family recently moved to Alpine after living in Washington, D.C. for 13 years. Hear his How I Lead interview HERE.
I recently attended a funeral of my friend’s dad held in a funeral home in Utah. As I sat in the main room waiting for the family to enter from a nearby viewing room, I looked around at empty seats. No one else was there. While my friend’s dad had chronic health issues that would have kept him from attending church services regularly, he and his wife were members of a local ward. They would be known by bishops, elders quorum and Relief Society presidents, assigned ministers, and neighbors. But on this day when loved ones gathered to remember the life of the recently deceased, no one came.
My friend did not complain. His family did not seem upset that no one else was there. They mourned and celebrated together. And I felt glad to mourn and celebrate with them. But I was also a little sad for my people. We don’t always do “love thy neighbor as thyself” very well, do we?
Who is my neighbor?
When Christ shared the parable of the Good Samaritan, in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, he selected a Samaritan to be the protagonist. The Samaritans were despised by faithful Jews. But only the Samaritan had compassion and took time to care for a wounded man along his path.
Sometimes we say this parable teaches us that “everyone” is our neighbor. I don’t think so. While it is true we should not hold onto contentious feelings towards anyone, the Samaritan in the parable did not love “everyone.” He took time out of his journey to express love for the one person on his path.
In a podcast episode a few years ago, Kurt interviewed a Protestant pastor, Dave Runyon, who realized in his efforts to love “everyone,” he was neglecting his literal neighbors. He was not being intentional in loving his literal neighbors, because he was too busy doing important church stuff, such as setting up church activities and counseling families.
“I filled up my life with so much of that [e.g., church duties], I didn’t have any time to get to know the people who live right around me.”
Dave said as he came to this realization, he had two thoughts. His first thought was, “Jesus is smart. What if Jesus gave us a simple plan, that if everyone did it, it would change the world?” His second thought was, “I wasn’t doing it.”
Loving at a Deeper Level
Faithful latter-day saints fall into similar traps. In my experience, we do a good job of being warm and friendly to others we see in a church setting. I personally feel joy and love for my fellow ward members when we worship together. But to say that I love my fellow ward members based on brief interactions at church, is like saying I love the ocean based on sitting on the beach. The surf is not the ocean. It is a miniscule part, although an admittedly beautiful part, of a vast and complex ecosystem. I may love the part of the ocean I can see, but there are vast depths I cannot see. I may (and do) love my brothers and sisters at church, but Christ’s admonition to “love our neighbors as ourselves” is an invitation to love our neighbor at a far deeper level.
We Cannot Love Whom We Do Not Know
Our capacity to love a person is proportional to how well we know them.
Movies represent love as being instantly smitten by beauty or a wacky weekend with a partner’s family. But these are only the seeds of love. A deeper kind of love requires getting to know a person’s hopes and challenges, then choosing to share in their hopes and be supportive as they face or overcome challenges.
Think of your hopes. What is it that you hope for in life? This year? This week? Now think of your neighbor. What are their hopes? Do you know their hopes like you know your own?
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Think of your challenges. What is a difficulty you are facing? What is an area in which you are striving to improve? Now think of your neighbor. What are their challenges? Do you know their challenges like you know your own?
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Christ’s admonition to love our neighbor as ourselves is an invitation to become more like Him. We cannot follow Christ’s admonition if we do not take time to get to know our neighbor. We can only love a person to the extent we are willing to take time – yes, outside of a church setting – to get to know them and to the extent we are willing to share in their hopes and challenges.
Develop Loving Friendships With Those Around You
The invitation to love our neighbors as ourselves is an invitation to make new friends. One of my favorite expressions of the relationship between love and friendship is by Louis Armstrong in his song, “What a Wonderful World.”
“I see friends shaking hands, Saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”
Discussing a recent publication, Dr. Marisa Franco, a psychologist, noted three different types of “belonging” identified in scientific literature: intimate relationships, belonging to a cause or purpose, and platonic friendships.
Platonic, or non-romantic, friendship is an important kind of love. In addition to the eternal benefit of developing Christlike attributes of loving our neighbors, friendship is scientifically linked to increased longevity and reduced mental health issues, such as loneliness and depression. And yet, according to Dr. Franco, the number of adults who say they have “no friends” has increased fourfold compared to decades past. In addition, our circles of friends are shrinking compared to years past.
“What’s the single best action a person can take now to live a longer life? How do you take the edge off of depression? What can single people do to flourish, and married people do to revitalize their marriage? The answer to all of these questions is good friendship. Yet, despite friendship’s essential benefits, people are experiencing friendship famine. According to a survey of 2000 adults, the average American hasn’t made a new friend in the last five years…”
Our church has a strong tradition of encouraging us to seek and maintain intimate relationships in the form of dating, striving for an eternal marriage, and raising a family with an eternal partner. Our church also provides us with many opportunities to feel unified in the same cause – whether through leadership opportunities, service opportunities, or participation in classes in which we have the opportunity to hear and share our feelings about Christ. Therefore, active participation in church activities and service has a tendency to provide support for developing intimate relationships and a sense of belonging to the same cause or purpose.
However, our church provides less structure in the third class of belonging – creating belonging by seeking out and fostering new, lasting friendships with our neighbors. And it shows. Many church members, particularly adults (and most particularly, men), don’t take time to make new, lasting friendships with neighbors. We greet each other warmly and sincerely in church settings, but often fail to spend time building friendships outside church settings.
Surrounded By People but Feeling Lonely
Someone reading this article may wonder how they can feel loneliness while in a supportive marriage and while actively participating in church service. According to Dr. Franco’s research, different types of belonging satisfy different emotional needs. Deep, long-lasting friendships provide emotional and mental support in a different way than our relationships with a spouse or our acceptance in a congregation. Consequently, we may still feel loneliness and lack of belonging when we actively participate in church worship and when we are in a committed intimate relationship.
If we accept the invitation to love our neighbors as ourselves, we accept an invitation to make a friend of a neighbor. Friendship takes time. Only with time will we come to understand our friends’ hopes and challenges. Only by sharing in the hopes and challenges of our neighbors can we know them enough to love them as ourselves.
Invitations to Friendship
I believe friendship cannot be assigned. For example, an assignment to minister to a member or family is not an assignment to be a friend. It is, however, an invitation for us to make opportunities to start a friendship. In addition to our assignments to minister, ward leaders may encourage friendships by creating an environment in which friendships may grow.
I have been in wards in which small groups of members came together to participate in common interests. One group of elders had a monthly movie night. I made lasting friendships with a group that played soccer in the cultural hall in the morning while kids participated in early-morning seminary. My wife participated in a book group. A friend’s ward had thirty men – both members of our church and non-members – playing pickleball regularly.
In each case, anyone was welcome, but ultimately a relatively small group came together to enjoy time with each other. We did not worry about how many people attended. We had a great time with whoever showed up. Elders quorum and Relief Society presidents may ask their members what kind of hobbies and interests they have and consider sponsoring or promoting regular mini-activities.
Be Intentional About Loving a Neighbor
While our church can foster an environment in which we can build unity through lasting friendships, God does not want us to wait for anyone else to act before we accept His invitation to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can act now to create opportunities to build friendships. We can invite ward members and neighbors to a monthly pot-luck, a neighborhood walk-about, a game night, a sports morning, a movie night, a breakfast get-together, a book group – or anything that interests us. It does not so much matter what we decide to do, but that we are intentional about expressing love to our neighbors by spending time together.
My experience at the memorial service for my friend’s dad, when no other friends came to be with the family, mirror’s my family’s experience since moving to Utah from the East coast. I’m discovering that we, as a community of believers, are pretty good at making church friends. But we are not as good at making deeper friendships, particularly as adults. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some relate to regions, some to age, some to individual personalities. For example, in Utah, where so many of us are fortunate to have family living nearby, we are more likely to spend time with family instead of other church members. As another example, adults, generally, have fewer opportunities than kids to hang out in unscheduled interactions with others. According to Dr. Franco, these unscheduled interactions are an important ingredient for making friends. For many adults, busy family and work schedules leave us feeling like we don’t have the time or emotional capital to devote to making a new friend.
This Is Your Personal Invitation
I acknowledge all these realities. And yet, the invitation stands: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Christ invited the lawyer in Luke chapter 10 to “Go and do likewise.” The invitation is open to all of us. Who is our neighbor? It is the person along our path. We do not need to feel overwhelmed by our failure to spend time befriending the whole world. Instead, we can extend a hand of friendship to the one person in front of us, or next door to us, right now.
Great thoughts, Adam! On our mission we are encountering so many members at the margins of Branch activity that feel forgotten. Appreciate the call to action!
Thanks! In small branches, where there are fewer souls to provide fellowshipping, it can be a real challenge to make everyone feel welcome, much less to feel like they have a genuine friend. I firmly believe that if we make an effort – any effort – to make a friend, Christ accepts our effort, magnifies our effort, and increases our capacity to love.
Great post Adam! I’ve been thinking about this for some time! We live in the country and main ward down below us! It’s gated here. Hard to just drop by. Used to be in RS Presidency so was in the know. It feels isolated even at church bc only a hello how are you? I drop by treats to neighbors.