In the last three days I have been reminded by a series of unconnected people and circumstances of the importance of showing love to my neighbor. It seems like such a straightforward thing, really. And it is not a difficult concept to grasp or remember! And yet it continues to be the thing we fail at doing; it is the thing we would always rather replace with prayer or reading or church events in our longing to be spiritual people. Loving my neighbor is something that has risk and death (to self) firmly attached. No wonder it is something I avoid.
I love the question posed to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Inherent in this question is the assumption, dare I say the desperate hope, that there are people who are not. My brother-in-law was one of three individuals who moved into our South Central community here fresh out of college, immediately following the tragedy and destruction of the L.A. riots. The simple, single force behind his decision? A heart conviction that he did not truly know what it meant to love his neighbor. My brother-in-law believed that Jesus indeed had the words of life, and so he did what could only have been viewed by most as irresponsible, foolish, and insane. He obeyed.
The other night I pulled into my parking space at Ralph’s, and immediately noticed a young man on the side of the road with a disabled vehicle in front of me. The hood was up and he was sitting on the little wall that divides the parking lot from the sidewalk. It looked like he had been there a while and I assumed he was waiting for the tow truck or a friend. I went inside, did my shopping, and when I came out with my cart full of groceries, I saw that he was still there. Only now he was kind of pacing around a bit. By the time I got to my car, he was leaving his and making his way to one of the pay phones outside of Ralph’s. As I saw him fishing around in his pockets, obviously searching for quarters, I hollered out at him: “Do you need to make a phone call?”
He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me. He turned around to see who it was I must be talking to, and then pointed to himself. I asked him again. He stared some more, and then said, “yeah” and walked toward me. I reached into my purse and handed him my cell phone, then went back to my cart and started loading my groceries into my car. He made his call (I could hear him talking to his mom, I think, asking if so and so had left yet to come and get him), and when he was done came back over to my car and gave me my phone. He looked at me, suspicion and surprise still lingering in his eyes, and said “thank you.”
As I drove home I realized that for this young man, I represented his opposite: culturally, racially, socially. And his reaction to me and to my offer of help revealed how far we are from the life Jesus envisions. And I realized too how small, and in many ways simple, the steps are that we can take toward this life.
Tuesday night, Scot McKnight reminded us that loving our neighbor does not usually come in the packages we would choose: his neighbors do not ask him to help them with Greek exegesis (his strong and comfortable suit) but rather with shoveling snow or car repairs. And our response to those invitations, those acts of service we do not choose or prefer, is exactly where conversion is manifest.
When I saw my young man at Ralph’s and realized he may need help, I did a quick risk inventory in my head: there have been shootings and muggings in that parking lot, and Doug actually does not like me going there at night. It was dark but there were enough people around that I decided the biggest risk I was taking was losing my cell phone, and that was fine. And so I reached out. Again, the tangible steps we can take toward loving our neighbor are actually quite simple and small. But I was also reminded of when they are not.
I heard a great wedding sermon once where the preacher was talking about servanthood. He said that there are occasions where being a servant to someone feels good. Most of us are willing to serve as long as we remain firmly in control of when and where and how much we will be inconvenienced, threatened or displaced. But he reminded us that the “dipstick moment” so to speak is when we are actually treated like a servant or slave. That is when the true condition of our servant’s heart is revealed. I can say from my own experience and heart that this is most certainly the case.
I am not sure anyone says it better than this:
“The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down…Hand over the natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wickedâ€”the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
(From C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity)
That is the good news.