If loving our neighbor is our #2 priority in Christian service, how are we doing? Dan over at Cerulean Sanctum has been blogging about community. Because I think it's a worthwhile topic, I'll pick up on it here. My main focus is on how our choices of where to live affect our efforts to love our neighbors and our families, and what message we send if we do not know our neighbors.
Have you ever moved from one town to another? People do it all the time. Sometimes we move for family, sometimes for job or money, sometimes for education or other reasons. But if we move for job and money, that says something about our priorities in life. Are friends expendable? What about family? Sometimes we've done so badly at healing old wounds that we'd almost like to get away. Is moving a polite excuse to abandon a messy cleanup job in the family? How close is that to abandonment?
I am not saying that moving is always bad; but on some occasions it is bad, ordering our lives around money or prestige, and we shy away from facing that honestly. Whether moving is good or bad in a certain situation, it is always a disruption to our lives and the lives of everyone who cares about us where we are. That should be weighed as a legitimate consideration. "I can make new friends" is fairly dismissive of the old ones and whether they really mattered to us. Some moves come uncomfortably close to saying "My career is more important than the people I know." It doesn't always mean that, of course; but sometimes it does. As Christians, we say love of money or prestige doesn't call the shots in our lives ... but does it?
Have you ever read about places where everybody knows everybody, and the families have known each other for generations? It's because they stayed put for generations. I hear from people who have lived in those places that they are definitely not a cure-all for society's problems, so don't take me wrong there. But there is a depth of caring, of knowing when your neighbor is distressed, that is much easier in a community where people know each other.
Try a thought experiment: imagine that your children grow up and start families and live within walking distance of where they grew up. Imagine you stay in the same neighborhood. Imagine that everyone in the neighborhood has children who, when grown, make their own home in the same neighborhood, and encourage their children to do the same. Fifty years from now, there would be a real community in that neighborhood. Everybody would know everybody, and would have known each other from time immemorial as far as the youngest generation was aware. Putting down roots means to stop moving. Belonging in a place means to have been there and made it home. Loving your neighbor involves knowing your neighbor. That's easier with time and continuity.
Of Gnats and Camels
I think, in trying to transform our lives, renewing our minds in the image of Christ, we generally start small. Sensing our lives' brokenness, a certain percentage of people become obsessive about rooting out sins, and typically this seems to be obsessive about rooting out little sins, or things that may not be sins in the first place. Smoking, cardplaying, gambling, makeup -- I would compare this fixation on small things to someone who buys a home that's a fixer-upper, and begins by vacuuming and dusting. There's nothing wrong with vacuuming and dusting; nothing wrong with chasing after small problems ... unless it's keeping us from taking care of bigger problems.
Sooner or later, bigger problems come to light. Unkindness to various relatives, impatience, resentment, arrogance, coldness, bad self-control, apathy, short-temperedness, even an unwarranted or aloof distance from those who might hope for our kindness, these are the next things that often catch our eye as needing our attention. After we have the small things in our lives in order and we're casting around for more we can do, there is a nasty temptation to overlook the deeper problems in our own lives and settle on fixing someone else's sins instead. We easily recognize Jesus' comments about the person with a log in one eye trying to take a mote out of someone else's eye. We are told to first take the log out of our own eye, first reconcile with our brother, and remember God's desire for our mercy towards each other.
Loving our neighbors is our #2 priority in service, right behind love of God -- and it's a necessary extension of loving God. I'd like to make love of neighbor higher on my own priority list. I think the New Testament writers were correct to put hospitality as one of the signs of a true community leader and a true servant of Christ. We have to create the occasions where we're going to get a chance to know our neighbor. And it's good to remember that we're called to love and serve them as much as we are to let them know about Christ; in fact serving and honestly caring are probably the best "show me" evangelism.
For some innovative ideas along those lines, if you're not familiar with Dawn Treader's Pigfests, those are worth a read.
I'm only saying one obvious thing here: Our love for our families and neighbors includes remaining (or becoming) a part of their lives. Our choice of where to live matters for that. Of course we're called to make all people our family and treat all people as neighbors. But that's no excuse for us to treat the ones we know as if they did not matter. Just the opposite: it's reason for us to treat the ones we know that much better.