Jesus said the most important thing is to love God, and then to love our neighbor. It seems like a pretty simple thing, at least until we step back and assess how well we are doing it. Most of us at that time admit we need some help if we are to actually do what Jesus said was basic to our faith.
One of the difficulties in following this commandment, apart from our hesitancies to fully give ourselves to God, and our prejudices toward the folks around us, and our dislike of having to something we don’t necessarily want to do is that our neighbors seem to have all but disappeared. Where have all the neighbors gone?
We have our families, at least the ones who are alive, around us, and still speak to us. The fortunate among us have a handful of old friends. And then there are the people we spend time with at work. All these are the folks that are more or less close to us.
And then we have our acquaintances. These are people we think we know — on Facebook they are called “friends.” We “like” what they post, and we “like” their friends who then become our friends. Our aquaintances include the pharmacist who gives us our pills at the drugstore. Is her name Rosemary? Or is Rosemary the nice lady who sits two pews behind us in church? She, too, is a an acquaintance. Or is she a friend? Then there is the gentleman in charge of the monthly meeting for civic advancement. He’s such a friendly and competent person. Good to know him.
Where have all the neighbors gone? Missing are the people who fill the middle group, the “neighbor” role. Neighbors are folks who aren’t as close as family or co-workers, but who are still far more significant to us than the Facebook “friend” we barely know. They are the people next door or across town whose names we do know, and whose kids’ names we know. They are people we actually sit down with once in a while over a cup of coffee. Neighbors are the people who notice when we need help, and offer a hand. They let us watch their house while they’re gone, and help rake the snow off our roof. When we are sick they bring us chicken soup, and when they lose a loved one we bring them a casserole.
While people have always had family as a basically close group about them, we are seeing rapid changes to the structure of the family itself. Relocation from the family homestead, the constant alteration of relationships, and the flexibility of individual lifestyles all help make the contemporary family something a little different than families have been in the past.
And then the group farthest removed from us — the acquaintances — has expanded greatly for people today. Whether we count the 250 people who have “friended” us on Facebook, or the rapid ability to zero in on interest groups that catch our attention and fulfill our immediate needs, such as providing health feedback or dissecting the Red Sox’s coming year, there is no doubt our most distant relationships, that of fringe acquaintances, has grown drastically.
So where have all the neighbors gone? Where are the people who provide stability in daily life and human connection when family fails us and perhaps even an affirming arm around our shoulders at a critical time? Perhaps the answer is found within ourselves. Perhaps it’s we who haven’t been all that neighborly. Neighbors don’t just happen but are grown, cultivated. Neighbors take investment, and our behavior and attitudes have an enormous influence in the development of this crucial middle group of folks around us. It’s far more difficult a task to relate to a real neighbor than to “like” someone in cyberspace. Our neighbor’s lawn gets far too unkempt, they vote for the wrong person, and their dog is truly obnoxious.
These pesky neighbors are the people Jesus singled out for us to love. Family usually takes care of itself with more or less a comfortable level of love. Those on the outskirts of our lives are easy to love, since they are too far removed to have irritating faults. If a fault does appear, we "unfriend” them. The neighbors are more complicated. It’s the neighbors who are hard to love. Yet it’s the neighbors Jesus pushed us to love, and then stirred the pot even more by suggesting it is even harder to love God without seeing him, than it is to love our neighbor, who is sometimes too visible. Are we sure Jesus really knew how much effort it would take to love our neighbor? What are we going to do about it now?
As we all know, February has been the snowiest month anyone can remember. Conversations with people from other parts of the country invariably begin with, “Is it really as bad there as it looks like on TV?” The answer always is, “Yes! It really is!” My family from Louisiana had planned to be here for winter vacation week. That didn’t happen. We were all so disappointed. It was a trip long planned for and anticipated but many flights were cancelled and plans had to be postponed.
But there are some lessons that I have learned from the snow:
1. We have to work together and depend on each other. Neighbors and family have helped each other. I hate to be dependent on others, but in this situation it has been absolutely necessary. Those who are able have helped those who are not.
We are part of a community. A community of being fellow sufferers binds us. We all have the same problems with the snow and ice. We can just look at each other any emphasize. We know it’s hard. We feel connected with those who share the same difficulties with us.
2. We have to have patience. Waiting is hard. But things of this magnitude can’t be rushed. The snowplow guy will get to us when he is able. We just have to wait. Learning to be patient is a difficult but valuable lesson. We remember that “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” So we wait for better weather and for that promised strength.
3. We are blessed beyond measure. It is cold out, but we have warm houses. We have coats, boots, and gloves. Our pantries many be less full because we can’t get out to the grocery store, but we have food to eat. But there are many who don’t have these things. We are called to help and comfort those less fortunate than us.
We are blessed, above all, that we have received the knowledge that God loved us so much that He sent His only son to die for us. Many don’t know that. Again, we are called, as believers, to tell others that God loves them and that we do, too.
4. We remember the promise that spring will come again. On our ride to church we pass a corner house that has a curved flower bed that we enjoy all summer with its bright profusion of colors of every flower imaginable.
When I see it now piled high with snow, I remember the promise of those beautiful flowers. I know that buried under that mountain of snow, bulbs are waiting to burst forth when the weather warms up. I recognize that that is God’s plan for the earth.
I know that the Red Sox are practicing in Florida. Surely baseball season will come again. Surely life will return to normal. May we use the slower pace of life that is called winter to reflect on those things that really matter. And may God have mercy on us!
As a pastor I have lived long enough to be sharply aware of our mortality. The past weeks have shown that the First Baptist church family is not immune to the weaknesses of being human. I also continue to have the strong conviction that even in the face of death and other losses, there is hope. Perhaps you or someone you know will find my suggestions about living after loss helpful.
1. It’s a real loss — feel it.
When we live through the death of a person close to us our whole world is knocked off balance. It makes no difference that everyone else who has ever lived has experienced their own losses. Ours is something that hits us alone, and we must go through the valley individually. There is no escape.
Because we had developed a relationship with the one who is gone, there is now a void. The type and depth of connection we had will partially help shape the emotions and behaviors we experience. It is important to know that our grief is probably entirely within the boundaries of what others who have gone through loss have experienced. We are not losing control. We are not going crazy. We are in grief that is real. The pain that dogs us is one of the signs that we are dealing with the loss. Help yourself heal by feeling it. Cry. Scream. Get busy. Do nothing. Beat the stuffing out of a pillow. You are reaffirming your own life in a world that is terribly confusing right now.
Don’t forget to allow yourself to find some balance, to find a little healing when the time is right. At first it may seem artificial to find joy in anything. It may seem forced, or even improper. Experiencing something that seems nurturing or positive may lead to feelings of guilt. Go ahead and do it. As you feed your own soul and take small steps toward embracing life it will not only bring healing to you, but also strengthen a new bond with the one you have lost.
2. Lean on others for support.
The feeling of being alone is often overwhelming. We are convinced that no one else has ever experienced what we are going thorough. No one else can understand. In a way, those thoughts are absolutely right. It is your grief, and only you can experience it. Only you know the relationship that once existed, but now is changed by death. Only you know the ins and outs, the ups and downs, the interesting contours that form when two lives touch one another. If your relationship has been lengthly and close, do not expect to have the loss erased easily. In so many ways, you are alone.
This is the time that you, as a person in grief, must ask for help. Is there somebody else out there who has also loved or known the person whose death has upended your life? Connect with them. Tell stories about the old times. Share memories and cry together.
It is important for you to gather yourself together and take the first step toward finding the other person. People do want to help. We are just awkward in showing that we care. Most of us are not experts in how to be around grief, and we avoid it like the plague. We operate under the false belief that even mentioning the loved one will reopen wounds. We talk about the weather, or anything else to avoid the topic for fear of hurting the living. What those who are hurting need instead is to hear the stories about the one we loved. Tell how Jack or Michelle and the kids built the incredible snowman that was so gigantic that it didn’t melt away until late spring. I promise — there will come a time when it’s easier to share the joy of precious times.
3. Settle up with God.
Sometimes the sense of loss even includes feeling the absence of God. Is God there? Does God really care? Does he know our pain? Have we been left alone in our darkness? If God really is in control, why wasn’t the cancer cured? Why did the plane crash?
If you harbor thoughts like this, please know you are in good company, and be assured that God is big enough to handle your feelings. God loves us just as we are, with all our questions, our doubts, and our anger. Even Jesus asked his Father why he had been abandoned as he hung on the cross. You are not the first person to need a God who is faithful and who has promised to walk with us, even when our own personal faith is quavering and threatening to disappear. Our God does just that.
The good news is that when our whole world has been knocked off balance there is the possibility of rebuilding it into a stronger and more beautiful place than it was before. Going through loss and the accompanying grief often provides the catalyst for new spiritual growth. We begin to know the depth of God’s presence with us, and the fierceness of his commitment to us. The Apostle Paul in the book of Romans gives us the conviction: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Have you noticed how communication methods are changing? Many people today chat online, text or use social media to communicate. Cursive handwriting is not usually taught in school anymore, but keyboarding is. There are both good and bad elements about how we communicate now. I can instantly see pictures of my family from where they live across the miles. Those in warm Louisiana can see our mountains of snow. Those in Illinois can see they have less snow than we do.
But I wonder if sometimes we miss things nearby when we focus on things far away. Yesterday I watched an online video of a man sitting on his boat texting while whales jumped in the waters behind him unobserved. A young mother told me about her 12 year-old's birthday party where the invited guests were texting others who were not at the party. She said she asked them to put their phones away three times before it happened. They were communicating with others while missing the opportunity to visit with those in the same room.
We desire to communicate the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we need to use any and every method we have to do so. It is daunting to those who grew up without all these new tools of communication. But we are trying. We have set up a new Facebook page for the church and we have a church website. May we use our voices and technology to proclaim Christ and Him crucified!