And Who Is My Neighbor?

But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told her a story.

A man was going down to Des Moines,* and found himself surrounded by bullies, who taunted him with words like “bigot” and “fundamentalist” and “out of touch.” They couldn’t hear, or didn’t believe, the real struggle he had undergone, the real relationships he had tended, the hurt he had experienced in being misunderstood and marginalized. They walled him off, shut him down and went away, leaving him feeling half dead.

A woman was going up to Des Moines, and found herself surrounded by haters who questioned her right to be who she was, the way she was, her place among them, her very existence. They struck her with words like “Biblical” and “tradition” and stripped her of the sense of self, and the sense of call, that she was wearing. Then they went away, leaving her feeling half dead.

Now by chance a pastor appointed to an extension ministry passed by this man and this woman, and saw them both. But she walked on by, fearful of getting involved with either one of them. Who might be watching? Whose support could be forfeited?

So likewise a leadership development minister, when he came to the place and saw this woman and this man, passed by without stopping to talk or offer support. This dispute was outside his job description. He had people waiting to talk to him.

But a ___________________ came near these two souls, and upon seeing them, was moved with love. This individual came close to the one and then to the other, looking deeply upon who they were, at their integrity, at their efforts to be faithful. “Come and sit at my table,” said this stranger, making room, and pouring out wine and setting out bread that they might share at their table and beyond. As they ventured to eat a morsel, followed by a sip, a bit of conversation began among them. They began to be clothed with the stories they shared, of where they had been and what had shaped them, what they had been through and where they had seen God. “Take care of these friends,” said their host to those nearby. “Join in this conversation. And you will be repaid.”

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man and the woman who fell into injustice?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed them mercy.” Jesus said to her, “Go, and do likewise.” (adapted from Luke 10.29-37)

Who might you place in that blank? A candidate at the early steps toward ordination? A brand new lay member? One of the young people serving as a page? More important than who fills that blank is Jesus’ charge to the rest of us, who will almost certainly find ourselves tempted to walk right past pain and division, as if it isn’t our place to respond. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. This week.


*Perhaps these travels were to attend Annual Conference, the gathering of United Methodists that happens each June in Iowa.  This year it starts on Saturday, June 6 and concludes on Tuesday, June 9.  More than a thousand clergy and lay members will come together, from every United Methodist Church around the state.

Neighbors We Don’t Pick

IMG_2249With Memorial Day upon us, I was in the cemetery this week to place flowers on family graves. I found myself wondering about the people who end up being buried next to us. They won’t necessarily be friends. We could find ourselves stretched out for eternity next to a rival, an enemy, someone for whom we hold utter disdain. Or maybe just someone who once memorably (and isn’t it always memorable?) criticized our housekeeping, our fieldwork, the style (or lack thereof) of our dress, or (heaven forbid) our children.

Surely that happens, too, in our Memorial Day ceremonies, when we remember those who didn’t come back alive from war. In a small town, some of those fallen heroes probably knew each other. A range of differences, squabbles and annoyances likely separated some of those names, if only we knew (or remembered) their stories. Yet they are eternally and peaceably linked on civic plaques and in lists that are read each year with great solemnity.

I planned a funeral last year for a long-time resident of the prison, and asked our choir to sing. Some of the deceased’s friends balked at the idea that V—who had spent decades at the prison alongside the deceased—was going to be among those singing. “They never got along. K hated her.” I wasn’t about to honor this posthumously expressed enmity. “We don’t get to pick who comes to our funeral,” I said, and V sang alongside her sisters that day.

The truth is: we don’t pick the neighbors that will lie alongside us in perpetuity. I suppose some have tried. Mrs. Anderson perhaps asked for a different location when she realized that the Barneses held the plot next to the one offered. But by the time those spaces were occupied, perhaps the Andersons and Barneses had reconciled, but a tiff had emerged with Mr. Schmidt who lay near Mrs. Anderson’s chosen resting place. One can only assume that these dynamics have played themselves out many times in many towns.

Yet the years pass, and flowers are placed at those graves—until they aren’t. Tears flow, and are dried, and over time memories fade, so that, all too soon, who can say whether the Andersons and the Barneses and the Schmidts were mortal enemies or bosom friends? Those tragic soldiers who never got along in school are, in the end, united more by their shared experiences than they were divided by the petty differences that kept them at odds through the years.

There’s a reminder here for us with our neighbors of all sorts whom—in actuality—we never choose. In death and in life, our common humanity binds us together beyond our perceived slights and real differences of opinion. What if we could walk among our living neighbors with the benign respectfulness we manage as we move through a graveyard?

Holding On

On a recent Sunday I had the pleasure of holding a baby, for a good long time. She had been baptized that morning, surrounded by the well wishes and affirmations of dozens of new sisters and brothers. During the fellowship time, I saw an opportunity and seized it, and her, and held on against all comers for a good (and I mean good) half hour.

It’s a pleasure I have always been happy to claim, as pastor. I inherited this particular joy from my mother. I used to call her, after a Sunday morning in which a new parishioner had made his or her debut, and I’d say, “I got to hold a baby this morning.” She often had as well, as a senior member of her own congregation, so we would compare notes on those babies. “Four weeks old,” she’d say. “Mine was just ten days,” I’d answer–winning!–with deep satisfaction.

The pastoral prerogative of baby-holding is forfeit upon becoming pastor of Women at the Well. We don’t have babies inside the prison in Mitchellville. Our women who are pregnant give birth in Iowa City and relinquish their babies before returning. I never see them, except in the photos that I am given the frequent privilege of viewing. Out in your churches on Sunday mornings, I’m a relative stranger to most of the young families, so I only get close enough to glimpse babies in their carriers, or in a family member’s arms.

Which made that recent Sunday all the more sweet.

As the time approached for the second service, I reluctantly returned my charge to her grandmother. As I moved about the church, I realized that some of her delicious baby smell was still with me, lingering on my clothes, on my skin, in my nostrils. It was lovely, sacramental, that new life remaining with me even as I went on with my responsibilities of the morning.

As the morning drew to a close, I found myself in another embrace–less fragrant but equally holy. This time it was with a homeless young man dealing with addiction and chronic illness. We had chatted for awhile, and talked and prayed about recovery groups, reconciliation and the power of God. I hugged him as we took leave of one another,and the sweet baby smell from earlier intermingled with scents that were more raw.

Which is just like, well, life–isn’t it? Certainly it’s like the life I experience in prison–with the interweaving of sacred and profane, clean and musty, washed and broken. The sweetness of new life butts up against the coarse reality of efforts that fall short, of addictions that maintain their hold, of relationships not easily restored. Can we hold those parts together? hold tight to both? That’s our call, I think, and our prerogative. We are invited and allowed to hold both, with love and mercy, with all their odors.

Won’t you breathe deep with me of this aroma, and keep the faith with these sisters and brothers, wherever we find them behind or beyond bars, and in whatever way we’re able to hold on to one another?

Discovering Neighbors at the Fast Food Store

“This place has gotten @&#$-ing run down,” said a man in disgust, setting down a tray of paper-wrapped food at the table where his companion awaited him. He scowled and looked back over his shoulder toward the front of the store as he sat down opposite her.

“This place” was the McDonald’s restaurant where I had stopped, mid-afternoon, for a bathroom break and a snack on my way home from preaching in northwest Iowa. I had noticed nothing unusual about the quality of this standard-looking location, as I hurried toward the back. I did notice that the registers were clogged by several teenagers noisily hanging out up there, clad in blue and green t-shirts.

I don’t like it that I very quickly thought to myself that these were not your typical Iowa teenagers. Whatever that means. They certainly were not the mostly blond, blue-eyed teens of my small-town upbringing. None had skin like mine that won’t tan even under frequent sunshine.

Was this that man’s objection? Was he reacting not to the McDonald’s but to its clientele?

Arriving at the restroom, I had more time to reflect. Two of those teens were ahead of me, clogging that space as well.

As we waited for a stall to open up, I found myself pondering what they were. As soon as that question emerged into conscious thought, I recoiled at it. “What they were”? Of course I knew the answer:  they were young people, human beings, people like me! It is a vestige of my more homogenous, less open past, that those words even came to my mind in that way.

But were they Latino? or maybe a group of exchange students from more distant countries? Were they a team? or a youth group? Sadly, it did not occur to me to strike up even the slightest conversation, or simply to ask. There was plenty of time as we waited! My lips were stopped not by unwillingness but by scant imagination.

When a mom came out of the largest stall with her little girl, one of the teenagers spoke. The girl had skin even darker than the teens did, and long frizzy hair that framed her face. The teenager commented on her eager beauty. “I’ll take her home with me and have a new sister,” she said, smiling. The mom took this banter in stride, and laughed along as she washed her hands. This exchange brought an unexpected ease, lightening the space among us.

Back out by the counter, those teenagers seemed to have multiplied. I silently stepped around them. But now I heard their giggling, I saw the intricate dance of their movement through the lens of similar fast-food stops with my classmates decades ago. They acted like we had. They were as self-involved as we were then, equally inattentive to the presence of the grown-ups who inhabited that space with them. I imagine some of those grown-ups, back then, lamented how those spaces had deteriorated.

I hope, though, that others among them saw neighbors, emerging and energetic, whose presence was a promise of good already coming into being. Some of them surely had the open-heartedness to initiate a bit of conversation along the way. Next time, I hope I’ll be among them.

In the Event of a Mistake

IMG_1917A bell choir on a recent Sunday was running through its music before worship. I heard the director calling out measure numbers, a common help to keep the ringers together. She commented to me a few minutes later that they had a new member, a man who was a bit uneasy about this debut. She encouraged him by telling me, in his hearing, “I tell him, if he makes a mistake, just keep going!”

It’s good advice for all of us who dare to offer music in worship. If we make a mistake, we keep going. Beyond worship music, it’s good advice for living. I have this conversation often with my sisters in prison. “Do the next right thing.”

There’s another side to this, though. It works only—or at least most effectively—when the rest of us respond graciously to that person, glad to overlook and encourage through the mistakes. We do that pretty freely when it’s that clean-shaven bell ringer who has stepped up to an unaccustomed role. We smile and say “Thanks, Pastor,” even when her sermon is less than perfect. We’re patient—to a point—with that harried waiter who has been assigned too many tables.

But there’s a line. There are people to whom we don’t extend grace. Something about them puts us on our guard. They’ve fallen short of our expectations. We’ve extended too many chances already, and this is the last straw. We’re tired of hearing it. We want them to be better.

I sit often with women who find themselves on the far side of that line. “I’ve burned all my bridges,” one said, having forfeited the care of her family by her repeated descent into addiction. I don’t fault that family; of course they must set boundaries that protect their own well-being.

I do wonder, though, how the church can stand in that gap—for women like I meet in prison and for a myriad of others that we’re inclined to dismiss. When no one else will stand on the sidelines cheering while that sister tries again, let’s! We get to be the ones encouraging her uncertain, unsteady steps. We can’t ignore good boundaries any more than her family can, but we surround her as a whole community, and one not already worn out by past defeats. And we come with radical trust in the God who infinitely loves this precious child, and has plans for her welfare, for a future with hope (Jeremiah 29.11).

Or else we have to look in the mirror and admit that we’ll tolerate the wrong notes only until they spoil the song we had hoped to sit back and enjoy.