Saturday, March 8, 2008

Who is My Neighbor?

I remember it was sunset. I remember seeing my lost dog racing home through the newly sprouted field of rye. The black dog. The purple light. The green rye. I remember giving up. I remember falling to my knees in the gravel beside the barn, asking God to forgive me and to help me come Home to Him, safe like my lost dog. Giving my oath of fealty to Jesus Christ, as my dog gamboled about me, licking my face.

I remember checking myself, after I stood up... was I different now than I had been before? Nothing. Yes. Everything. Yes, I finally decided... yes, I could sense a seed there now, that I hadn’t felt before. Now, I supposed, I would have to wait for it to sprout green like the rye. That was the beginning.

My first call, after I had promised Jesus that I would follow Him anywhere, so long as I got to follow Him Home at the end, was to go to church. It was this small constant pressing at the back of my mind. Church? Insistent. But I’m busy on Sundays. Nagging. Do I have to? Pushing. I remember giving up. I chose a church almost at random from the town directory, and showed up for worship on the Sunday after Easter. A pew-mate quietly coached me through the service. And it was right and good to be there. And I kept coming back. And I listened and tried to learn. And waited for the seed to sprout.

It didn’t take long for me to realize something. I have nothing in common with these people. What am I doing here? I mean, they’re nice and all, and they’re friendly, but our interests and concerns seem so different. They’re older, mostly. They play golf. Maybe I should go somewhere else. Maybe I should look for people I have more in common with. What am I doing here? And the answer came back... You’re learning how to love.

Oh.

I thought about this answer for a while. Learning how to love. Learning how to love. Didn’t I know how to love already? Didn’t I love my Mom and my Dad? My sister and brother? Didn’t I love my husband? My friends? My dogs? But Christ told us to love everybody. Not just our family and friends. But doesn’t my heart already go out to those suffering, here and in other lands? Doesn’t my heart break to think of the little children with nothing to eat and nowhere to go? But Christ told us to love everybody. Not just the general mass of humanity. God, you mean I have to learn how to love These people? Yes. I had to learn how to love individual people with whom I had little in common. I had to learn how to love individual people who really really annoyed me. I had to learn how to love individual people with bigger houses than mine. I had to learn how to love individual people whose actions seemed to conflict with what they said every week in church. I had to learn to love golfers. For the sake of God, who loves these people, I needed to learn how to love these people too. And it was right and good to be there, learning how to love. And I kept coming back. And I waited for the seed to sprout.

Some years later, I ran across a passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which I recognized immediately from my own experience in those early days. The devil Screwtape is writing a letter of advice to his subordinate reporting devil Wormwood, who has been assigned to bedevil a person (the “patient”) who has just converted to Christianity:

“When he goes inside [the church building], he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real–though of course an unconscious–difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like.”

Ah, it was good to discover that my own experience was not unique! Many of us, it seemed, had to learn how to accept that the “church” is made up of ordinary people, with all the foibles and idiosyncracies and failings that ordinary people have. Sometimes the only thing we have in common is that God loves us. And that’s enough. For the sake of Christ, who loves us, we learn to love each other too. That, I think, is the purpose of the church. Learning to love each other.

I have had the opportunity to learn to love people in three congregations since I became a Christian. The one I am in now, I believe to be my permanent home, although I understand that God sometimes has other plans. In some ways, I have more in common with these people than my first congregation. In other ways, we are just as foreign to each other. But these are my people. And it is good and right to be here, learning to love each other. Learning to be patient with each other. Learning to be kind to each other. Learning to allow other people their foibles, and being grateful that they allow me mine.

Lately, I have been stretching my understanding of the “church” beyond my local congregation and small group of affiliated congregations. I have been privileged to participate in an email forum that has given me more opportunities to practice loving people around the world, as we all discuss topics of interest to the group. My husband will tell you that this has not always been easy for me (He will be glad to tell you that I have always been more willing to try to learn how to love, than I have been successful at actually loving!)... But when I find myself incredulous that someone could think something so foolish–and write it in public too!–I remind myself that God loves that person. And am I not a fool, too?

I have also begun to think about those “other” denominations, lately. Fundamentalists. Liberals. Conservatives. Evangelicals. Orthodox. Catholic. The church stretches out through eternity, terrible as an army with banners. All those who love Christ are in her ranks. We all have our own stupid forms, and our own mistaken beliefs, and our own worn-out traditions–it is easy easy easy to mock each other and cut each other down and point out the others’ failings. But aren’t we all fools? How much better to build each other up by sharing our strengths with each other, by recognizing and encouraging those good things about each other. By allowing others their foibles, and being grateful that they allow us ours. It is right and good to be here. Learning to love each other. Helping each other to run Home through the green rye in the purple light.

I think that seed might be beginning to sprout.

6 comments:

kevin roberts said...

About time.

Robin M. said...

Amen.

Chris M. said...

Thee was well favored, Shawna.

Shawna said...

Thanks, folks. I appreciate you stopping by to take a look at this new baby of mine. Now Kevin is pestering me to write something else. I wrote ONE thing... you mean I need to write MORE?
Thanks again!

forrest said...

“We confess to being fools and wish that we were more so ... What we would like to do is change the world -- make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended..."

[Dorothy Day]

Shawna said...

Thank you forrest....
I like that quote.
We fools are in good company.