Jesus replied, “‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Matthew 22:37-39
When we first moved to Michigan, this city girl felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Our “little house in the big woods,” was a beautiful setting that Marty adjusted to quickly, having grown up in rural Illinois.
(When Marty is in the city, he wonders, Where are the woods? the lakes? the creeks? When I’m in the country, I wonder, Where is everybody?)
We lived at the end of a dirt road that had three houses at the time, and we could only see one from our front door. It was hardly a setting where one would expect challenges in neighbor relationships.
I learned quickly who lived in that house across the road, when as we were still unpacking, the woman who lived there came to visit, bringing something she had baked and enthusiastically welcoming us to the “neighborhood.” How nice, I thought. She stayed and talked a while, and I learned all about her and her husband. They were both retired, and while he seemed to keep to himself, Vicki clearly wasn’t used to being without people around. She seemed downright giddy to have a neighbor to talk to.
And talk to … and talk to…
She was a retired hairdresser, and her specialty had been elderly ladies. She told me numerous times about the “senior citizens” coming in on certain days and getting a special discount. I learned all about perms and body waves and what might look good on me. Vicki told me about her dog Sandy, a large, undisciplined German Shepherd that was always running off into the woods. I already knew about “Sandy-Bandy-Boo-Boo,” as Vicki regularly stood at her door calling him, seemingly oblivious to the fact that despite her shouting, he would come back when he was good and ready.
It was not only Sandy’s perpetual absence that brought out Vicki’s booming voice. Even in our visits (In those early days it was two or three times a day), she shouted. The moment she yelled, “HI ANN!” I would greet her back at nearly the same level, assuming she was hard of hearing, and the volume would either remain or escalate as the conversation went on. Usually by the time she left, I was a bit hoarse and totally stressed.
I was a young Christian in those days, just learning to have regular, uninterrupted time with Jesus every morning. Before long I was having that time even before Marty got up, in order to be “prayed up” before any surprise company arrived. Soon I joined a women’s Bible study that met one morning a week, got on the board of the local Christian Women’s Club, and signed up to substitute teach at the local high school. The substitute teaching led to my having an informal “youth group” in my living room one evening a week. I did like to be involved, but I think at least part of my eagerness to get out of the house involved escaping my loud neighbor’s constant visits.
I was keenly aware that Jesus commanded His followers to love others, even those who were hard to love. I had always assumed this referred to people who were unkind to us. When someone insulted us or ridiculed us, or even persecuted us, we were to “turn the other cheek” and respond to their hatred with His love. We were to love those who didn’t love us, who abandoned us, ignored us, or treated us as dispensable.
It hadn’t occurred to me to apply that command to the neighbor who wouldn’t leave me alone, who was so overwhelmingly friendly day after day after day, and whose baked goods were piling up on my kitchen counter, as if they were the price of admission for an hour of companionship.
I realized that Vicki, was one of those people – the “least of these” – that was hard to love. And while I wanted to delve into the deeper things of God, to become a more mature Christ-follower, I knew if I hadn’t yet mastered the grass-roots concept of “love thy neighbor,” I was a pretty pathetic believer.
I knew Vicki was profoundly lonely, that she needed Jesus, but whenever I had tried to talk to her about Him or about my church, I had been interrupted or shouted over, and the conversation would go back to baked goods and perms and dogs and senior citizens, and I would give up. Now I wonder if I gave up too easily – if deep down I was just reluctant to have her and her loud voice join my church or Bible study.
It also occurred to me that I had never actively shown Vicki the love of the Lord. She had always come to my house. I had never once initiated a visit, had never even seen the inside of her house.
I had tolerated her, but never really loved her.
As usual, Jesus was not content to leave me at that shallow stage of discipleship. But knowing that I wasn’t exactly a spiritual giant, the lesson had to be quick, simple, and profound. And it was, evidence by the fact that over forty years later I still remember it quite clearly…
(To be continued …)
Prayer: Lord, You are infinite in Your love and understanding, and we are limited in both. We find it hard to love, not only those who don’t love us, but even those who do love us – who need us. We are selfish creatures. We need to be needed, but we don’t want to be tied down. We don’t understand others, and frankly at times we don’t want to understand them. Lord, bring us out of our self-centered bubbles and open our eyes to see the way You want us to live. Fill us with divine love, not merely human tolerance. For only then will we experience true joy that we can pass on to others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.