Neighbors are an important element of adjusting to a new community and calling a place home. Neighborliness generally comes easily for me but most of my neighbors through the years have been “good neighbors.” Neighbors. What comes to mind when you hear the word neighbor? Does it conjure up memories of sitting on the front porch drinking ice tea together, a home cooked meal dropped off when you are sick, or an extra pair of hands to lighten a task? Those were the neighbors of my childhood. Or is it loud music, arguments on the lawn, police visits, and borrowing or stealing from you? This is a bit more in line with some of my current neighbors. Though I do not fear my neighbors, I have been put off by their brokenness.
I say "their brokenness" as if I am not broken as well. I am not proud of my difficulty in embracing neighbors here; I have been ashamed. I am convicted when I consider what Jesus said about neighbors in Luke 10:25-37. A conversation between Jesus and an expert of the law ends with this question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with the parable of the good Samaritan (the Samaritans were a hated race) and ends His story with this question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert of the law answers, “The one who had mercy on him.” Then Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus didn’t tell the man who his neighbors were, He showed Him how to be a neighbor. Jesus seems more concerned with what kind of neighbor I am than who I call neighbor. Do I turn away when He drops an opportunity into my day to show mercy and kindness? Do I genuinely pay attention and show compassion? As expected when open to the Holy Spirit stirring up truth inside of me, a test is not far behind.
It was late afternoon and I was putting together a pot of chili. The beef was brown and I was adding the tomatoes and beans when it occurred to me one ingredient was missing from the pantry: a 4 ounce can of tomato sauce. Ugh! I did not want to make a drive to the store for one little can of tomato sauce; I was tired and running out of time to get things done before the evening closed in on me. I considered checking with my father-in-law since he is located closer than the grocery store. Bubbling up inside of me was the memory of neighbors borrowing from one another. Our neighbors have certainly borrowed from us but I have not felt inclined to beholden myself. This self-protective space I created was one of being needed, not needing. Being the one with, not the one without, choked out the possibility of humility needed to be a merciful neighbor in my neighborhood.
“OK,” I think to myself. I will ask the next door family east of us. I felt within my comfort zone asking them for tomato sauce. But the only person home at the time didn’t speak English. Walking back toward our drive and reconsidering calling my father-in-law, I see the neighbor across the street (the one who often plays loud music) digging in her flower-bed. I sensed the Spirit nudging me with these thoughts, “What if being vulnerable and in need is a good place for you to be a neighbor?” This seemed opposite of what the parable spoke to, but I knew the haughty attitude I had toward this neighbor; humility wouldn’t come without me being vulnerable and in need.
I made a sharp turn south and crossed over to this neighbor’s drive. I greeted her and asked if I might borrow a can of tomato sauce. She yells into the house for someone to look in the pantry. The can was handed to me. I thanked her and promised to replace it when I next went to the store. She said, "Don’t worry about it, that’s what neighbors are for.” Knife to the heart. Tears stung my eyes as I crossed back over the street, humbled by my noisy neighbors’ kindness.
Learning the names of the trees in my community is another way I have learned to form an attachment to a new place. Christie Purifoy marries the topics of neighbors and trees so beautifully in her new book Placemaker. She writes, “A tree within a forest is included in a special, protective ecosystem. Nearby are other trees who will feed it in times of injury or sickness and help buffer it in storms. Forest trees are united in maintaining the forest canopy; it is their shared shelter from summer heat and winter squalls. The trees know what we struggle to accept: it is right and good to love my neighbor as myself. My fate, and my neighbor’s fate, are bound up together. No human and no tree is an island.”
I desire to become a merciful neighbor – releasing my self-absorbed ideals and embracing the “made in the image of God” people in my neighborhood. I want to collaborate with them to create a safe space to leave a burden or borrow a tool. I want to learn from them – the neighbors west of us who landscaped their yard with edibles only, the neighbor who enjoys thumping, loud music seems positively resilient fixing her own car, the family on our east side making ends meet by renting out their garage, and others up and down the street. We are an eclectic group and I may be the oddest one on the block.
Christie Purifoy closes Placemaker with these words, “If peace is a state of harmony, if it is a kind of wholeness or completeness, then we will never find it by running away from broken things and messy places. . . . We achieve harmony not by walling ourselves off from difficult neighbors, but by reaching out to them and opening our gates to them.” I weep with sorrow for wasted time closed off from my neighbors and for the generosity I do not deserve from people I have misunderstood.
In what ways have you closed yourself off from those who are different? How have you learned from these experiences? Who has surprised you with their kindness? I would love to hear your stories.
Note: Placemaker by Christie Purifoy is available March 12 and can be pre-ordered through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.