When Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor,” I never thought He meant to love the person who lives right next door. So to help Him out, I defined who my “neighbor” would be: my relatives and/or the person in my adjoining cubicle that I went to lunch with every Thursday. But now I think Mr. Rogers was more in tune with Jesus than me. We all have beautiful neighbors in our neighborhood…it’s up to us to see the beauty in them.
37 Jesus said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” [I rarely quote the New King James Version but that’s how I first heard it as a child so it’s only right.]
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
Two weeks ago, I was playing fetch with Roxy. I usually chuck the ball as far as I can and she runs after it. This time she got preoccupied with what was happening three doors down so I ensued chase onto my neighbor’s driveway. The semi-stranger extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Teddy! Are you the new owner?” (We just sold our house if you didn’t know.)
What was I to say? “I’ve lived here longer than you and I’m sorry I haven’t taken the time to come over more often. I meant to bring you a new baby gift but now that your son is four, it might seem odd.” I was speechless and surprised.
As we began and ended (we stood and talked for a while) what could have been a glorious friendship, the neighbor from the other side of the street stopped his car in front of us, turned the engine off, and talked to me for well over an hour. He also lives three doors down from me and was one of the first homes on our cul-de-sac. Come to think of it, his wife brought a baby gift when Eli was born…
Again, I was speechless. Why was this man whom I’ve held a grudge against for years being so nice? You see, I think he complained to the neighborhood association when we put the trampoline in the backyard, and I think he complained when I didn’t store my garbage can properly. There are a few other things I’ve blocked out of my mind, but oh how I remember getting those notes in the mailbox. And oh how I remember the angst I felt when I’d see him walk to his mailbox wearing his hat that reminded me of Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. I will never know if he really complained, but I assume he did. Over the years I’ve even barked orders to the kids to keep the Frisbee, football, bike, chalk and dog out of his way because I assumed he didn’t like any of the above. Or us for that matter.
And at some point, I stopped loving my neighbor.
Last Sunday night he rode his lawnmower over and parked in our driveway. At first I thought he was simply happy we’re leaving, but I believed him when he said, “We’re really going to hate to see you all leave.” We may not have gotten Yard Of the Month, but we are good neighbors who have kept to ourselves while living at the end of White Court.
I wish I had gotten to know my neighbor these last ten years; I would have liked him a lot. This gruff ex-cop from Chicago spoke affectionately about his wife, even telling me about the fuss they’re in because he ran her cleaning lady off by discussing what she could do better. He told me about talking to our other neighbor who doesn’t take care of his yard, and how he offered to help him because he must be to busy to worry about weed prevention and mulch. I realized right then that he wouldn’t have called the HOA on us; if he’d had a problem, he would have told me to face to face. My neighbor wore a gold chain with St. Something-or-Other on it, talked about Jesus, cussed, cracked jokes, and reminded me again about his two granddaughters coming to visit. He even asked about our little dog (that I assumed he disliked) that always wound up in his garage when he’d get loose. I told him he passed away two years ago and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We love our dog, too.”
Then he brought up the time eight years ago that I needed his help with a dead battery because I had to rush my sister to the airport. He laughed and said, “That’s just what neighbors do!” I couldn’t believe he remembered so much.
On and on our conversation went. As we laughed—I’m talking oh-no-the-neighbors-are-going-to-hear-kind of laugh—I knew I missed the meaning of Matthew 22:39. I missed my opportunity to show the grace, mercy and kindness that Jesus would have shown. Like when the couple three doors down had their first baby, or when my new neighbor-friend’s father-in-law became quite ill, or by simply sharing cookies on a night when I baked too many. I had every chance to put the needs of another above my own but I chose to look the other way.
You know why this has affected me so much as we leave the neighborhood? Because I withheld the greatest message I know, about the greatest Man I know, due in part to worrying more about what to make for dinner and whether or not the piano was dusted. I mean, if I can’t obey the second commandment, how am I to make sense of the others?
We are moving today and will never see these people again. But I leave different, determined to never let my assumptions mask a beautiful neighbor again.
I offer you the same challenge I am giving myself. Find beauty right next door. Extend generosity and kindness. Smile and wave. After all, you have been given the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ and the people closest to you need to have it today.
Love thy neighbor. It can’t be any clearer than that.