As I sat down to right this piece, the image that came to my mind was that of my next door neighbor, so let me describe her for you. First, I would be remiss if I didn't say that she is an absolute sweetheart. She has curly white hair and thick brimmed glasses. She is short and fairly petite. She is constantly on the go, walking our dangerously busy street to cook for events, clean, and attend her church, visit neighbors, and to check-in on her brother who lives a ways down. She has left homemade salsa on our door step, watched over our property while we've been on vacation, and has invited us to her church every single time that we've ever spoken to her. She is the perfect neighbor and is very easy for us to love. If it was ever necessary we would defend her from harm, and when we remember, we keep her in our prayers.
Now, let me describe our former neighbors. At our first house, we had neighbors on both sides. On one side was a large Hispanic family. I only spoke with them once and they were friendly enough. I was told by a mutual acquaintance once that they thought I was a bit of a prick. I don't see myself that way, but I can't say that I ever did anything to change that perception for them. I put up a metaphorical barrier between me and them early on for several reasons. They had dogs who were incredibly loud and obnoxious. We shared a driveway and they filled it with as many cars as they could fit every single day. They listened to some awful Latin hip hop very loudly outdoors at the most inopportune times. And they partied EVERY weekend. And during party nights, they filled their side of the driveway and mine too. Never asking if it was ok, never thanking me for being cool about it, never apologizing for overstepping their boundaries. (This is giving me anxiety)
On the other side was a single lady who we never met. She had a pen filled with hunting dogs that hated the other neighbors dogs and kept a barking battle going in perpetuity. Occasionally an ominous man would show up and terrify the dogs into submission. While it was nice to have a bit of peace from them, I always felt bad for them because they were so obviously terrified of this mysterious person. Once when we were on vacation he had a drunken standoff with the local police after they were called to respond to a domestic situation. (I'm sorry we weren't around for that). These neighbors were not perfect, not even close. And they definitely weren't easy to love. In fact, they made themselves very easy to avoid altogether. I'm ashamed to say now that they were not on my prayer list.
And that's how neighbors go. You have no control over who chooses to live near you. You can try to insulate yourself with research, but people are people no matter what zip code or street you move to. Some will be pleasant, some won't. Moreover, you cannot choose who is around you everyday as you go through life. At the store, on the road, at our job, and so on, we're constantly surrounded by people and we have absolutely no control over who they are, and yet, all these people, by simple proximity, are our neighbors.
So what are we called to do with them? Jesus himself answered this question for us when asked what was the greatest commandment. His answer is famously documented in Mark 12:30-31, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And the second is this: love your neighbor as yourself."
This is among the most quoted passages in all of scripture and as I read it and think on it, I cannot get over what it is really saying. I should do an inventory on how I would ideally treat myself. Here are some things I do for myself in love. I feed myself. I cloth myself. I pray for myself. I buy treats for myself. I take time to do things that I want to do. I make sure that I have what I need. I protect myself. I clean myself. I help myself in anyway that I see fit. And so I see that we are really called to love all of those we could ever call neighbors, the good and the bad, in the very same ways that we love ourselves. That includes those that we choose and those that we don't choose. We are called to love, pray for, protect, feed, clothe, shelter, spoil the loud, rude partiers just like we would the sweet Sunday School teacher; the dangerously ominous man like the little old lady with the salsa. We're called to love the person who cuts us off in traffic, the person who cuts line at the grocery store, and the person who cuts our tires in the parking lot. We're called to intercede on their behalf, witness to them, bless them, smile at them, wish them well, and pray Jesus come into their life. We are called to love each of those neighbors just as Jesus loves each and every one of us.
Let's all take time to identify our neighbors and then, even if we don't want to, let's show them the same love that we would like to be shown. That's are hard love to grasp. Its a hard love to accomplish. Its inconvenient love...But its the kind of love that will change the world.