I had every detail organised.
It was a high precision, military-style operation.
Two days earlier, February 12th, I’d sneaked a Chocolate Orange into his desk drawer. Close enough to Valentine’s day that he’d understand the significance of the gift. Far enough away that he still had time to get me one in return. I’d had to send a friend to buy it, to avoid suspicion from my parents, or worse, my big brother.
I’d done all I could. Now the moment was here. As I edged towards my desk, barely breathing, I was convinced that this was the most significant moment of my nine years of life so far. My trembling hands pulled the plastic tray from under the table and there they were, shining with a splendour like no other box of Cadbury’s Crème Eggs ever had.
Never mind the less-than-romantic note he’d scrawled with them (“My dad said I had to give you these”), I could have cried with happiness. I just knew those 6 eggs were a secret message, a code between the two of us that meant he loved me.
Any old self-help style, ‘Relationships For Dummies’ type book will tell you that love has to be communicated well to be effective. There are volumes written on how men and women misunderstand each other, whole libraries on how to interpret subtle signals.
According to author Gary Chapman, there are 5 ‘Love Languages’, ways we each give and interpret love, including acts of service, quality time, and physical touch. Chapman’s message is that when two people are speaking two different ‘love languages’, they risk feeling frustrated and unloved.
Whether or not the details of Chapman’s hypothesis work out in practice, I think the general point is fair. To show love well, it’s got to be in a way that is meaningful for the recipient.
So what does that mean for Jesus’ command to love our neighbour? What does that mean in our globalised world when our neighbour is no longer just the beaten and left-for-dead man we pass on the road to Jericho, but includes millions of people across the planet, who we’ll never get to meet?
It’s easy to imagine what can go wrong, when we try to love our neighbour but we’re speaking the wrong ‘love language’.
It’s easy to assume we know what people across the globe need, and try to love them according to our own preconceived ideas. It’s also easy to assume that as we’ll never meet most of the world’s population, we’ll never know what they need, and so not to bother. Neither is very loving.
To love our neighbours, we’ve got to listen.
One of the things I love most about Christian Aid is that we work through hundreds of brilliant partner organisations across the world. Partners who are part of their local communities, listening on the ground, responding to immediate needs and working for long term solutions to help communities lift themselves out of poverty.
Those needs look different around the world. When I visited Christian Aid partners in Colombia, the communities we met made it very clear what they needed. They wouldn’t have been interested if we’d turned up with food parcels (or indeed t-shirts).
What they needed was their rights.
What they wanted was a voice.
What they asked of us was to stand with them in solidarity and speak out with them against the injustices they were facing.
It’s those partners who make sure that my desire to love my neighbour globally can be translated into meaningful action. It’s no use me sending roses or poems or t-shirts or even Chocolate Oranges to try to show my love. It’s no use me sending my leftovers to Africa. If I want to show love, I need to listen.
I’m so grateful for Christian Aid’s partners who do that listening on our behalf and let me know how I can love. The challenge for me is to take the time to read, listen, watch, and act.
So whatever I end up spending on Valentine’s Day this year, I’ll challenge myself to match in support for Christian Aid’s partners. That way I’ll know I’m speaking a language that will mean something to the neighbours I want to love.