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4/26/06

loving (y)our neighbors...

My wife and I were not good neighbors when we lived at our previous address. I don't mean that we blared loud music late at night or let our dogs poop in other peoples' yards or hit golf balls through peoples' windows; I just mean that we lived in the place for almost five years and developed absolutely no relationships with the people we lived around. Sure, we would wave "hi" if we saw someone outside and we were generally cordial, but I think the responsibility or being ambassadors for the gospel of Christ calls us to more than cordiality.

With that in mind, we vowed we would become better neighbors when we moved into our new house. I wouldn't say we're off to a roaring start, but we're doing a little better. The thing is--relationships are difficult. I think most only develop relationships for two reasons: they have to or they want to. For example, you have to (generally speaking) develop relationships with people in your family or people you work with. We can usually tolerate those types of relationships because, even if we don't like the person, we have some sort or common ground with her and we have a common interest in making the relationship tolerable. Our other relationships are usually the ones we want to have; they are with people who are like us or have something in common with us or we admire them or we want something from them or we are are otherwise drawn to them.

I think the beauty (and the difficulty) of the calling of Christians is that we are to develop relationships with anyone, often including those with whom we would not otherwise choose to do so. That is (partially) what Jesus was getting at when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question posed to Him was: Who is my neighbor? and by extension: Whom should I develop loving relationships with? (Because we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.) His answer could be interpreted with a few different nuances that leave us with the same result, namely: whoever needs us, whoever we encounter, whoever we are able to give our love to. That is why it is a tough calling. Because I'm selfish and arrogant and proud and a host of other rotten things, I don't want to develop loving relationships with about 97% of the people I encounter in my life. It takes a lot of work and a lot of not relying on myself and a host of other things that are difficult because of all the rotten things that are true of me.

The good news for me (and you if you can relate to any degree with the struggle I'm describing) is that Jesus is the best Neighbor ever because He has perfectly loved me and you and will ever do so no matter how bad a neigbor I am. I also believe that He loves me enough that He will continue to influence me by His Spirit to become an ever better neighbor--i.e., by His grace He will continue to cultivate the fruit of love in my life as I continue to trust in His love.

At the same time, I have a good friend who has often lovingly reminded me that not only does belief influence action, but also action cultivates belief. By that, I take Him to mean that if we just jump in and begin to do the things we say we believe-even though we cannot do them perfectly yet-our ability to believe, or maybe our ability to understand that belief, will grow. This brings me back to my wife and me and our desire to be good neighbors. We know we're not the most loving people and we're not the most skilled at being neighborly. But, we're trying to jump into this "being neighbors" thing and we'll see where God takes us. Our first shaky steps have been tough.

Last weekend, some folks we've met in the neighborhood invited us over to hang out with them and some friends they were having over. We were tired after a day of errands and had planned to spend a quiet evening together after a long and tiring week. But after some stalling so that we could discuss the offer, we decided it was a chance we better not pass up. I don't want to go into details, but let me say that it was a difficult relational situation for us. Because of our personalities, it was going to be difficult anyway, but the way the people there were trying to foster relationships was, in my view, more destructive that beneficial. After a short but reasonable amount of time, we thanked the hosts and excused ourselves. Our main goal with these new neighbors was to communicate to them that their invitation was valuable to us because we valued them. We wanted to make sure we didn't contribute to closing a door to relationships that hadn't yet had the chance to develop. So, now the ball is in our court. We've been talking about how we can take the next step by inviting them to our home and offering hospitality to them. It's not just about having them on our turf so we can develop the relationship on our terms. But I think there are healthy ways to foster relationships and others that are less than so (that idea could take up a whole other post).

I don't really have a lesson here. I think it's clear that I'm not writing this from the position of an expert. But I think most of us are trying to sort out what it means to love our neighbors. For Christians, it might have a particular meaning, but even those who are not Christians or religious at all I'd wager are struggling with the same issues. For me, I'm glad I have both the example and teaching of Christ to encourage and instruct me in the matter. But I'm also glad I have the gift of his life, death, and resurrection accounted to me so that when I fail it's not an utter failure. His perfect love gives meaning to my weak, shaky, self-conscious, imperfect attempts to love.

If anyone has insights on the matter, I'm more than willing to learn. It would be neighborly of you to share.

2 comments:

W Sofield said...

You've made me curious about the unhealthy way of relating. But please don't feel obligated to share. A few thoughts on understanding and action.

It's true that understanding and action have a dynamic relationship. I have found them not to be equal, however, and different for every person. For example, I usually start with understanding and then my actions follow. My brother starts with action and begins to understand later.

Also, each informs the other. When I begin to understand that hospitality is a good thing, then I invite people to my home. When I do that (action), I begin to undertand more. Greater understanding leads to better action, leading to better understanding.

Both rely on faith. Both are initiated by outside sources that must be trusted.

The most formative time in my life was my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). During that time, I spent every afternoon with sick people in the hospital (action) and every morning talking with other pastors about my (and their) ministry experience the previous day (understanding). This constant and intentional rhythm of action and reflection is very important I think for those of us who want to grow and mature in any endeavor.

Practice does not make perfect, but perfection does not come without it.

Mark said...

Yeah, my problem is I take so long getting my understanding right that I might need a whole 'nother life to live accordingly (to paraphrase Cardinal Fenelon).


I'm particularly interested in the concept you mention of being un-neighborly and trying, by the power of Christ, to be a neighbor. What does that look like for introverted people? Could I write them letters instead of speaking with them?


Wow, you're right, this is a very good thing to pray about!

G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."