Neighbors in the Kingdom

We had a storm; big winds, hard rain and lots of falling twigs and leaves from the two big trees in my front yard. Yardwork isn’t something I enjoy, especially in the heat. However, the yard was a mess. For several hours I persevered; collecting fallen branches, leaves and twigs that were hidden in the patchy grass. I wanted to stop; I hated this work. I kept bending, gathering and piling the debris.

Even though we’re new to the neighborhood, as I began working, I recognized a stranger knocking on the door of the house across the street. An elderly lady lives there and he was persistent, even opening the storm door and pounding on the wooden door again and again. I considered she was home but she didn’t answer the door.

I found myself attentive to the situation. I wondered. Was she okay? Did she know him? He wasn’t someone who lived in the immediate neighborhood, he looked different than the white middle class folk on this part of the street.

Just a few days prior, the lady next door informed me there had been several break in’s in the area during the past year. She reported that even the mailman commented that there were a lot of strange people walking around. Another reason I thought I needed to be watchful—looking out for my neighbors and myself. The context of suspicion, fear, and assumptions about people that are different than me does matter here— just like the two that passed by in the bible story.

As I continued to work, the man greeted me from across the street as he started to leave the house. “Do you have any work?” He casually asked me as he made his way across the street.

“Sorry, I don’t have any,” I replied, conscious of his movement without making purposeful eye contact as I continued to pick up sticks.

He made his way on down the street in the opposite direction. I felt some guilt that I was obviously doing work that needed to be done. I didn’t know him; his motives, his reputation, his work ethic or skill. I didn’t have any cash to pay him with anyway.

That was Saturday. I had conflicting feelings. I felt right in looking out for my elderly neighbor even though all I did was watch. I felt guilty for saying I had no work, when obviously I was working. I felt suspicious of what I didn’t know: who are strangers and who are neighbors in my new town?

On Sunday, the man’s face became one of the characters in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the lectionary passage for the day. Not because he was in distress and I was passing by or even because he needed work and I didn’t offer to meet that need.

Joe, the rector where I visited on Sunday, said maybe Jesus described the man in need as naked because it took away many identifiers. Was he rich or poor? Educated or illiterate? From close by or far away? He was another human being in his nakedness.

In my suspicion, based on what I feared and didn’t know, I failed to encounter another human being. It really didn’t matter if I had work or not or the cash to pay him. It didn’t matter if I didn’t know his name or intention or background. Meeting him eye-to-eye, standing up and shaking his hand, sharing names would have engaged him as my neighbor.

Joe said something else that was new to me related to the Good Samaritan story. He said we might consider “neighbor” and “neighborhood” as more contemporary metaphors for the kingdom of God.  That kingdom is among us, when we engage people instead of fears and assumptions.

Treasures

I helped my daughter move, my uncle died and now I’m back to my regular life, back in real time—that doesn’t stand still like when you are focused on a different kind of time and place. In between those life events just experienced, I realize that unlike my daughter and her husband who are just beginning their life together, most of my life is behind me. Yet I find myself pondering furniture purchases, cautiously contemplating knowing neighbors and wondering how our lives will unfold in this new place we live.

It seems like I would be more settled in at this stage of my life. So reading Luke’s gospel’s words caused me to consider the thickness of my self—and seemingly selfish—considerations.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens; they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse not barn, and yet God feeds them… And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Luke 12:22-25

 Consider the ravens and the lilies… the bottom line for me is do not keep striving or worrying – it doesn’t add to my life—it takes away.

At all the ages and stages I’ve been through, the same admonition—Do not be afraid… where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 That is what is deeper than any measure of time I’ve lived or stage of life I’m living into—fear – of what is next or how I’m doing or what is missing.

I continue to struggle to know that truth. Figuring out what I think I need in this house is consuming. The delicate balance between comfort and aesthetics is a challenge I kind of want to bridge. I opted to take down the custom made pink drapes in the living and dining rooms that were functional (and even elegant in their day) for bare windows for now. The ivory drapes I ordered will also be functional and look good (I hope). The trouble is these decisions aren’t simply made for my over-thinking self. They involve pondering, considering, striving, and even worrying. Now, getting new drapes isn’t a transgression in itself but the amount of personal investment I use to make this decision might be. Even though these are decisions to be made; as Jesus reminded folks before the “don’t worry” part, one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, or even the color of those already hanging in the room.

So, in the midst of my dilemmas over curtains and paint and furniture, the actual Buechner’s words for today, July 8, in Listening to Your Life, were these…

I SHALL NOT WANT, the psalm says. Is that true? There are lots of things we go on wanting, go on lacking, whether we believe in God or not. They are not just material things like a new roof or a better paying job, but things like good health, things like happiness for our children, things like being understood and appreciated, like relief from pain, like some measure of inner peace not just for ourselves but for the people we love and for whom we pray. Believers and unbelievers alike we go on wanting plenty our whole lives through. We long for what never seems to come. We pray for what never seems to be clearly given. But when the psalm says, “I shall not want,” maybe it is speaking the utter truth anyhow. Maybe it means that if we keep our eyes open, if we keep our hearts and lives open, we will at least never be in want of the one thing we want more than anything else. Maybe it means that whatever else is withheld, the shepherd never withholds himself, and he is what we want more than anything else.

Watching and listening to the lightening, thunder, and steady rain from my front porch this evening, my focus shifted ever so slightly. What sustains life is not what might be hanging on the window but the vastness of the treasure that is beyond the window. If only I remember to look.