My Closest Neighbor

I can usually remember where I am when something is said that greatly influences me because I will stop and write it down. 

I was in St. Louis, in a class on a Sunday morning.  There was nothing new or outstanding about the class.  The teacher had just read Mark 12:28-31.

“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

I had read these verses many times and had thought about the meaning of loving God and loving people.  And, in my pride (isn’t this often the case), I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new that day. 

But then, the teacher asked a question that was so simple and clear that I wrote it down. “Who is your closest neighbor?”  He waited a few calculated seconds, just long enough for me to wonder where he was going with the question, and then he provided his own answer.  “My closest neighbor sleeps right beside me.  And my next closest neighbors sleep just down the hall from me.”  I continued to write as my mind was filled with new thoughts and implications.

Suddenly, loving and serving my “neighbor” was no longer an interesting theological discussion or even a complicated global missionary strategy.  No, it suddenly became highly personal, intensely practical and crystal clear. I knew exactly were to begin. 

Our closest neighbors are those living under our roof, or those who brought us into the world and gave us a home.  And guess what?  These “closest neighbors” can be the most difficult ones to love and serve.  We know their faults all too well, and they know our faults.  How sad, that the ones we know the best are the ones we are most likely to take for granted.

And so I would like to suggest an idea. Determine to put your closest neighbors at the top of your list of people to love and serve.  In one sense, they can be the easiest to serve because you know them so well.  You know their hurts, their needs, their fears, their temptations and their weaknesses.  In fact, no other person is better suited to offer them the kind of help and service that you can offer. And, they are right there, all the time, close enough to touch.  Here are a few places to start your thinking:

  • Each day, as you arrive back home, determine that you are not “off” but “on” duty for your family.
  • Give them daily affirmation, hugs and praise.
  • Ask questions about the day and listen without offering advice.
  • Call your parents and ask them what they did today.
  • Take your turn with the household duties.
  • Take a walk through the neighborhood with your spouse to talk and reconnect.
  • Sit in silence with that “closest neighbor” who may be hurting.  Let your presence communicate your love.
  • Pray with your family on a daily basis.

One day, when our children were small, as I was reading the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation, I noticed once again that between the two events there is this message from God.  Mark makes it a highly personal family message, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (1:11).  It occurred to me that Jesus had just made a decision to go to the cross (baptism) and Satan had just made a decision to stop him (temptation), and so God plants this wonderful message of love, confidence and affirmation right in the middle of it all.

I determined right then that if Jesus needed this message, then my closest neighbors, my wife and children, needed it as well.  From that point on, each time I tucked David into bed I gave him some form of: “David, you are my son, I love you very much and I’m so very proud of you.”  And then, I entered Jessica’s room, knelt beside her bed and gave her the same message.  I did this every day until “tucking in” matured into a phone call of encouragement or a text or email of confidence. My son is now married and my daughter is thinking about it, but they will always be my closest neighbors.  Along with Pam I will always feel a deep sense of “you are my wife/son/daughter, I love you very much and I’m so very proud of what you are becoming.” 

Jesus was only asked one question, “What is the greatest commandment,” but he in essence said, “I can’t give you only one answer.  I have to give you two answers because loving God always involves loving your neighbors.”

So, how do we love and serve our neighbors?  Let’s begin with our closest neighbors and what God teaches us there will help us move out through the circles of relatives, friends, work associates and strangers. 

The Ultimate Hero

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.” — Mark 1:40-41

PfauFew are willing.  It has always been that way.  And though the majority are not willing, they see the few who are as heroes.  One such hero is leprosy physician Dr. Pfau of Pakistan.  Dr. Paul Brand, himself a hero of leprosy research, told of his first encounter with her.

Long before I reached her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils.  It was a smell you could almost lean on.  Soon I could see an immense garbage dump by the sea, the accumulated refuse of a large city that had been stagnating and rotting for many months.  The air was humming with flies.  At last I could make out human figures – people covered with sores – crawling over the mounds of garbage.  They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump.  Sheets of corrugated iron marked off shelters, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water.  But there, beside this awful place … I found Dr. Pfau. — Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, 156

Pfau - LeprosyWhat makes her a hero?  A fearless courage, fueled by love and compassion, aimed at human misery.  All over the world people like Dr. Pfau are moving, at great personal risk, into the various forms of humanity’s plague.

But what is the root of the plague?  Is there a source of all the misery?  Is there an ultimate human plague?  And, if there is, who is the ultimate hero?

John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. — Mark 1:4-5

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”  Then John consented. — Matthew 3:13-15

John may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to raise the question.  Why was Jesus baptized?  We can understand John’s reluctance. He was baptizing for repentance and forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4). For what sin did Jesus need forgiveness?  What correction was required in his life?

For centuries the classic answers have proved helpful.  Jesus wanted to identify with sinners.  He wanted to set an example of obedience.  But still, John’s question nags.

Jesus knew the aim of John’s mission.  He knew the purpose of John’s baptism.  He knew what kind of people came to the river.  They swarmed the banks of the Jordan like lepers on the Karachi garbage dump.  Wounded by greed.  Diseased with lust.  Infected by selfishness.  Covered with the sores of human failure.  All of them … except Jesus.

I have often imagined how that day at the Jordan could have gone.  As the only one free of sin, the human plague, Jesus could have remained above the whole sinful scene.  Imagine him, standing high in the hills surrounding the Jordan valley, separate and distinct from the human failure below.  He could even have made an announcement:  “You are gathered down there because you are infected with failure.  I stand up here because I am free of failure.  You should be like me.”  Nothing would have been truer or less helpful to those infected by the human plague.

In fact, such an announcement could more easily have been made from heaven.  Why stand at the edge of the lowest point on the face of the earth when you can stand at the highest place in existence?  Why be born into a peasant family when your Father owns the universe?  Why shield your true identity in order to grow up in obscurity?  Why?  Because the ultimate human plague requires the ultimate hero.

Today’s heroes commit themselves to the victims of misery.  They risk their own health, but take necessary precautions.  They seek a solution, but pray for personal protection.  And no one expects the search for a solution to require more of them than an understandable risk.

Not so with the ultimate human plague.  Jesus knew that his commitment was more than risky. He knew that the only precaution he could take was to refuse the mission.  He knew that the only solution for the human plague was for him to take upon himself the sin disease of others … intentionally.

So he climbed down from his high point.  He joined the mass of failure-infected people in the Jordan valley.  He submitted to a rite of cleansing reserved for the terminally infected.  And it shook John.  It was so unusual, so unheard of, for even the greatest of heroes, that John “tried to deter him.”

John was the forerunner.  He had announced Jesus’ coming.  He knew of his power and his mission.  But he never expected this.  In fact, no one had really counted the cost of the human plague.  No one had looked that far ahead … except Jesus.

Driven by love and compassion, Jesus went to the root of our disease.  He aimed at the source of all misery.  His baptism was a personal and public commitment, not to research and treat the human plague, but to contract it and thereby heal it.

It was a difficult and courageous choice.  This is why the Father immediately affirmed Jesus’ decision:  “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  And this is also why Satan immediately attacked his decision.  “If you are the Son…”  (Matthew 4:1-11).

So, why was Jesus baptized?  So that John could identify the Christ?  Yes.  So that Jesus could identify with the human race? Absolutely.  To set an example of obedience?  Of course.  But, more than this, in a very real sense, Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins … but not his own.  His baptism was his decision to go to the Cross, the only permanent solution for human failure.

He began his ministry with an unavoidable baptism.  He ended it with an undeserved crucifixion.  It was his deliberate choice.  He was moving into the heart of the human plague as the ultimate hero.

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.  “I am willing.”

Worshipping Above the Slaves

img_1307-dIt was built in 1482 just a few years before our own Columbus story. It is a massive stone structure on the southern coast of West Africa, one of West Africa’s oldest standing structures. They call it Elmina, Portuguese for “The Mine.” They chose this name because this was where they stored all the gold brought from the mines.  They would collect the gold for months, and then the ships would come and transport it back to Europe.  But this is only the beginning of Elmina’s story. Over the centuries a more valuable commodity was discovered and stored in the lower chambers of Elmina’s walls. You see, Elmina Castle became a gathering station for the slave trade.

04_4228189-elmina-castle-0At the height of the trade 30,000 slaves a year passed through Elmina on their way to the Americas. This continued for nearly three hundred years. Even after slavery was outlawed, Elmina was a part of the illegal trade, and the dark windowless storage rooms that once held gold, now held people. Hundreds would be crammed into one small room. They couldn’t lie down, and they would live this way for months at a time. Separated husbands and wives would never see each other again.

Door-of-No-ReturnAs they waited for the ships, most of the people would die in their rooms and would not be removed. Those who survived were taken to a final holding room. I stood in it. Even centuries later it was dark and damp and smelled of mold and mildew. This room was called “the room of no return” because from it the slaves would pass through a very small slit in the side of the castle. It was only large enough for a single person to pass through directly onto the ships.

I have toured Elmina several times and I already knew that it contained an upstairs church. But on one visit, I noticed that the church was located directly above the room of no return. I immediately thought of Jesus’ answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?”  I thought of the position of these two rooms, the house of worship and the place of slavery. The vision statement of my own church is “Passion for God, Compassion for People,” because in addition to his answer to the first question, to love God, he volunteered a second commandment. He said it’s like the first – love people.

This is the irony of Elmina Castle.  In just one small section, on the northeast side, those who managed the castle tried to obey the first commandment while grossly violating the second. What happened on the first floor, in the room of no return, nullified the offering in the chapel on the second floor. As God said in Amos 5:

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies (v. 21)

Why did God say this?

“You trample on the poor … You oppress the righteous … You deprive the poor of justice” (vs. 11-12).

Elmina is a graphic illustration of why the first and second commandments go together. They need each other. They define each other. They express each other. Jesus put them together. Passion for God fuels compassion for people. I cannot walk with God without caring for people.

The Love Exercise

heart8xlIf you were to ask a follower of Jesus for the clearest, most complete description of love, you would probably be directed to 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.” It has found a place in wedding ceremonies, inside Valentine Day cards, and on counter-cross-stitch pillows. And while I am sure it is not best understood lifted out of its painful, real life setting, it is a powerful chapter all by itself.

Verses 4-8 describe love in terms of what it does, feels, plans, and desires. In fact, the description almost sounds like a living being.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Here are 16 direct statements about what love is and isn’t.  But does love really have to be thought of as an “It?” Is love inert, non-living, and inanimate? Does it make sense to say that love has no capacity for emotion? Could love be a living being?

Twice in 1 John 4 the text says, “God is love” (vs. 4, 16). And so, take a few minutes and go through this little exercise.

First, if God is love, then it is appropriate to exchange terms, so that the description in 1 Corinthians now reads, “God is patient, God is kind … God is not self-seeking, God is not easily angered, etc.”

Second, John 3:16 says that God loves the whole world. But his love is specific to each of us. He knows the number of hairs on my head (Luke 12:7). He knows the status of each bird (Matthew 6:26) but says that I am much more valuable. And so, since his love is so entirely specific to each of us, add your name to the end of each description so that it reads, “God is patient with Bob, God is kind to Bob … God is not easily angered by Bob, etc.”

And please don’t allow this exercise make you feel childish. Be honest with yourself. For most of us, it’s not difficult to picture an abstract concept of love. It’s easy to conceive of “It” with these glowing terms. “It” is patient and kind. For some of us, it’s more difficult to picture God in this way. We have to personalize the concepts. But, the life of Jesus, makes this much easier (John 1:14, Hebrews 2:14). But for many of us, it’s very difficult to put our own name down as the recipient of God’s love.

And so, third, make an honest note of the phrases that are the most difficult for you to believe or accept. You may find it easier to believe that “God is patient with you” than to believe that “God is not easily angered by you.” Do you believe that “God keeps no record of wrongs on you and that God always trusts you?” You see, our ability to accept a dimension of God’s love will affect our ability to extend it on to others.

Frederich Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking, has written,

“Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.” (53-54)

Do we believe that God loves us?  Until we give our consent, and open our hearts to his love, the deepest power of love will continue to elude us.