I’m a member of Servant Partners. We’re an organization of crazy folks. We actually take psychological evaluations (most of us) to be officially accepted into the organization. We like to say we need to be crazy to do this, but not all the way crazy. Just the right level of crazy to be willing to do stuff that a lot of people consider…insane. Or at least not smart, safe, or lucrative.
I’ve already talked about God’s wisdom and human wisdom. Let me say again that I don’t consider us more righteous than anyone else for what we do. Honestly. I’ve lived here almost six years and probably failed more here than in the rest of my life combined* (that’s too easy of a shot, don’t take it) and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that we all have our challenges and shortcomings and God measures our faithfulness individually. He’s not judging me by his standards for you nor you by his standards for me. For someone fighting a heroin addiction, faithfulness might be a day of staying clean. For me, sometimes faithfulness is keeping my head above water for another hour. God has us all and none of this would be possible, for any of us, except by God’s grace. None of it.
With that as my starting point, I’m going to tell you that we are trying to 1) follow Jesus and 2)see her.
How many people live in poverty in the world? Is that your problem? Would you say that God considers it your problem, or partly your responsibility, or nothing to do with you whatsoever?
The lawyer who came to debate with Jesus how to be righteous and get into heaven asked that famous question, “And who is my neighbor.” He probably expected Jesus to start in with the dialectic about precisely how far someone must live from you to fall within the boundaries of being your neighbor, and from there they might have debated specifically what responsibilities one bears for one’s neighbor in God’s eyes: when, how, why.
Jesus gave a really different answer than expected. How is that for understatement? Jesus told a story, a story about which most people in Western culture still have some awareness, by which I mean if you talk about The Good Samaritan or call someone a Good Samaritan or use it as a reference, I believe for most there remains at least a glimmer of recognition, even if they don’t know the whole thing word for word.
Who is my neighbor? In one sense, that is the central question of discipleship to Jesus once we have recognized ourselves as having done things wrong (I sin) and asked for help (forgive me). Jesus’ claim on our lives, a claim which we voluntarily give–or refuse to do so–comes down to two commandments: love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.
Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor?
I’d say if we spend the rest of our lives answering those questions and digging ever deeper into the answers, we will have lived well. We will have invested our precious days wisely. I’m teaching a class of seniors about who God is because they have no idea, but I have no idea, either, compared with the actual answer. I know a tiny sliver of a hint of a notion of this Almighty, Eternal being who is three “persons” in one, and not for lack of effort or interest. I believe when we imagine that we have the plumbed the depths of God’s mysteries and know all the answers, we have committed to our blindness by pretending that we can see everything.
Love my neighbor.
To do any of these, I need to know whom I am loving. To love well, we must know the beloved. Otherwise, we are simply loving a projection we have of the other, which often ends up looking a lot like doing only what we find convenient for ourselves. Other times, we go to monumental efforts that leave the beloved feeling loved not at all. This is also not fruitful.
One of the more profound truths I’ve learned about Christianity is this: my neigbhor must be a specific individual. I can’t remember who first told me, “If everyone is our neighbor, then no one is.” When we imagine that we love the entirety of humanity but never narrow that down to the person who needs a ride to the clinic or someone to watch a runny-nosed child for two hours or simply a non-judgmental ear to listen to how horrifically the ex- (whom we may have suggested they not marry in the first place) is behaving in the custody battle, we are absolutely fooling ourselves. Jesus does not tell a story about feeling love for everyone, he tells a story about active, costly, inconvenient and potentially dangerous love for an assumed enemy. Jews hated Samaritans, and it doesn’t take that much being hated to hate right back.
Who is your neighbor?
Here’s what makes Servant Partners our own special degree of crazy: we move to find our neighbors. We move into poorer neighborhoods. We live in some sketchy places. We practicesome audacious hope that these poor, sketchy neighborhoods might be transformed by the power of God’s love. We even came up with 9 signs that this transformation might be taking place. Those signs all relate to seeing the miserable conditions of the neighborhood improving for those living there (here).
I don’t know how you should go about loving your neighbor, nor even whom your neighbor is. I do think, maybe even know, that you would do well to ask those questions and seek to receive the answers with an open heart. Jesus had a “bad” woman, a woman categorized as sinful by her not-neighbors, come and express her love for him with an outrageous action: she cried on his feet and wiped them off with her hair. I’m guessing his feet weren’t clean. The host of the party thought, “If Jesus really were a prophet, a man of God, he would know what kind of vile woman this is and not allow her to make contact with him.”
The guy was wrong on all available counts. Jesus knew exactly who and what this woman was and not only would he “allow” her to express her adoration for him in this manner, he held her up as an example of gratitude, of love in action. First Jesus asked a simple question about two forgiven debtors, one who owed a little and one who owed a ton. Which would be more grateful?
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asked. Basically, Jesus said, “These are the things one does as a host; you did none of them. She, on the other hand, went over the top (in a good way) with her actions. Why? Because the one who is forgiven little loves little, while the one who has been forgiven much loves much.”
This is a teaching both about love and about sight. True forgiveness, given and received, leads to deeper love. If we think we’ve done nothing or very little wrong, then we have no sense that an enormous weight has been lifted from us, no sensation of having dug ourselves into a pit deep beyond our ability to escape and then being lifted out. “I thought I was going to die down there, but now my feet are on level ground. I’m free.” According to Jesus, the woman felt forgiven and wanted to express her love extravagantly. Because she was forgiven much, she loved much.
The host saw none of this. If I read his tone correctly, he didn’t particularly like to have it pointed out to him. “Do you see this woman?” Nope. Not in the way Jesus saw her.
Do you see your neighbor?
When we lived in the mountains outside Wenatchee, Mileydi and Juan Carlos were not our neighbors. Their daughters Ansieliand Kristine were not our neighbors. We didn’t have vague, fuzzy love feelings for them because we didn’t know of their existence. They’re our neighbors now. They may be better neighbors to us than we are to them, but I (even I) don’t think that’s a competition. We don’t have a lot in common with them. Our backgrounds are extremely different and we have vastly more resources available to us than they do or likely ever will.
Likewise, though we don’t live in the same city here, we are neighbors with Juan Ramon and Amada. We are invested in each others’ lives. They, especially, have made living in Nicaragua possible for us in more ways than I can list. We have been able to be part of their going forward with God’s call for them. My life would be drastically poorer if I didn’t know them.
We’re their neighbors because we moved here; we moved here to follow Jesus. They weren’t going to be moving to Wenatchee. We didn’t move here to help or fix or even save them. But we moved here, it now seems clear to me, to be their neighbors and to have them become our neighbors. There are many more reasons, of course, not all of them so obvious, but this is a big one.
Who is your neighbor? What say do you give God in answering that question? Will you ask God to give you eyes to see the answer?
Servant Partners, long before I joined them, decided that people living in poverty in the world’s inner-cities are our neighbors. These are not obvious neighbors, but the decision came in response to Jesus’ commandment to love “the least of these” (those society deems as least, values the least) and to this simple statistic: One out of every six people in the world today lives in an urban slum, with very few churches among them.**
Again, this doesn’t make us more righteous or godly than anyone else. I’m describing our corporate decision to seek Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I tried to describe in my last post some of how we, Kim and I, got here/how we became the people who would do what we’re doing now. Another big part of the answer is that we have friends in Servant Partners and felt that God wanted us to seek our neighbors the way they do. Even saying that, we’ve done Servant Partners very differently than most members, trusting that God is directing our time and energy here, trusting that God is giving us eyes to see our neighbors and directing us which ones to love with our time and attention.
I’ll end with this: it’s possible that your neighbor–the specific one for whom God intends you to offer active, costly, inconvenient love–lives right next to you, or down the street, or has kids in your kids’ school (or is in your class in school) or works alongside you. He or she may take the bus and live twelve steps below you on the socio-economic ladder. You might be doing an awesome, faithful job of loving this neighbor. Or the neighbor God has in mind for you to love might live halfway around the planet. Or might have fled that place and lives near you now.
Our neighbor is not everyone, but it could be anyone. Obviously your neighbor is not just one person and I’m simplifying here. But Jesus’ story, Jesus’ answer to the question, is radical.
Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”***
*Trust me, I’m not being falsely modest or humble here. Plenty of folks in Servant Partners could verify this…and love me, anyway.
**Obviously I’m not giving the exhaustive history of Servant Partners here. It’s a much better, and messier, story than this.
***Remember, the views expressed above reflect my personal opinions and are not intended to express the official position of Servant Partners and may, in some instances, be downright embarrassing.