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Who is My Neighbour?

Today I went out for a “pastoral visit” to an elderly couple who came to church this past Sunday.  They hadn’t darkened the door of a church in at least a decade, and came now mostly, I think, because they are just really lonely people who don’t have a lot of human contact.  They have no children, no living siblings, no nieces and nephews that they are in contact with, no friends at the senior’s centre, no… anything.  There were no pictures of family on their walls, no mementos, no heirlooms, nothing.  Just two old, frail, lonely people existing in the same space without anyone to care about them in any way.

In some ways it was a heartbreaking visit and I left feeling very heavy.  I’m still finding it absolutely bewildering that as a pastor people entrust you with their stories, their pain, their fears, their whatever because you are a “minister” and you’re supposed to know what to do with these things.  It’s a bizarre privilege/burden—one that’s going to take some time to get used to.

So what does it mean to be a “minister of the gospel” to two people who are much closer to death than life, who are lonely, probably a little confused, almost certainly unaware of/uninterested in most of the things I’ve spent the last decade or so studying in some form or another?  What kind of news would be “good” to these people?  To discover that their sins are forgiven?  That Jesus loves them?  They they’ll go to heaven?  Maybe.  I don’t doubt that (with enough qualifications and elaborations) these are important things to communicate.  But I think that they were looking for another, more concrete kind of “good news.”

These people had no idea what denomination our church belonged to or anything like that, nor did they seem to have much interest in “spiritual” matters.  They came because the sign said “Neighbourhood Church” and they were a part of the neighbourhood.  I guess they just wanted needed someone to act like a neighbour to them.

In Luke 10:29 the expert in the law asks Jesus the famous question: “Who is my neighbour?”  It’s a question borne out of a desire to fix limits around the extent of our obligations to others—a desire Jesus exposes, in the story of the Good Samaritan that follows, as wrong-headed and as missing the point.  Of the many things that this parable might communicate, I think that at rock bottom it means that “good news” has to go beyond “saving information.”  “Good news” for the man on the side of the road came in the form of a neighbour who was willing to help him in his pain, to share his burden, to meet his need.

I suppose that today I was a neighbour, in a very limited way.  I responded to a request for a visit.  I did my job.  End of story?  Well, no.  I think that these people needed (and continue to need) more than a one-time “pastoral visit”  They need neighbours, someone to meet them in their trials, to listen to their stories, to give them a ride to church so they don’t have to pay money they don’t have for a five-minute taxi ride, to try to get them some help taking care of their house, to listen to their stories again…

Naomi’s going to pick them up on Sunday so I’ll (hopefully) see them and get a chance to talk to them again.  They’ll probably be sitting off on the right side of the sanctuary (she’s deaf in her right ear and can’t sit in the middle again) struggling to see the words on a screen they can’t really read, listening to songs that they’ve never heard before and are probably too loud for their liking, listening to prayers and a sermon that likely seem fairly foreign to them, and generally going to a fair amount of effort to put themselves out there in a group of total strangers.

And all because they saw a sign that said “Neighbourhood Church” and because they need neighbours.

May God help us to be the kind of people and places where the least of these—the lonely, the weary, the frail and beaten down, the frightened, the confused, the bitter, the angry, the hopeless find the neighbours they need.  May God help us to be good neighbours.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. It strikes me that the DELIVERED nature of the gospel (of religion in general) brings an intriguing tension to the vehicles used in that delivery. Your example here highlights how much is expected from those we would claim to ‘reach’. The institutions of our religious activity seemed formed in such a way as to maximize conformity to an aesthetic from those who the gospel would try to reach. This actually transforms our institutions from agents that act in their world to ones that react. This certainly has huge implications for the health and sustainability of these religious vehicles but as you have so aptly pointed out it reveals a far more disturbing aspect – the expectations that are placed on the ‘reached’.
    check out:

    October 25, 2008
  2. I think you focus on an interesting aspect of the post Dale. I’m not sure that these people felt any pressure to conform to any “aesthetic.” I didn’t get the sense that they felt any expectation at all – they seemed just glad to be with other people for an hour or so.

    But I think that the post you linked to and your comment here do point to a genuine problem in our society. We tend to think that everything we need (or think we need) ought to involve little more than consulting the appropriate “experts.” Whether it’s cars or community, we just go to the people and places that specialize in these things and expect results. As much as I lament this, I know very well that I am active participant. I suppose the church ought to be a place where this isn’t the case (or at least not to the same extent) but I have no penetrating insight to shed on the matter at the moment…

    October 25, 2008
  3. Whether an individual is conscious of the ‘pressure to conform’ or not can’t be a good (dis)proof of its existence. But I meant no challenge to your perspective on the situation or the conclusion you drew from it. Your plea, however, for us to be the neighbor we ought to be is a complicated one. I am suggesting that we have structured the function of church (the vehicle) so that individuals who wish to engage with the church must not just compromise but actually conform. So as you say people, “generally (go) to a fair amount of effort to put themselves out there in a group of total strangers”. For as long as we see that the burden of confromity should be borne primarily on the backs of those who would choose engage with the church can we truly say we are being good neighbors or are we something else – something like a what Paul might call a resounding gong or clanging cymbal…

    October 27, 2008
  4. Ah, I think I understand better what you were getting at now…

    For as long as we see that the burden of conformity should be borne primarily on the backs of those who would choose engage with the church can we truly say we are being good neighbors or are we something else – something like a what Paul might call a resounding gong or clanging cymbal…

    I totally appreciate what you’re saying here, although I suppose there’s no way of being all things to all people. I think that most churches would at least pay lip service to being “welcoming” places, but I suppose the best people to ask would be those coming through our doors. I can only say that the people that were the subject of this post speak very positively of their two experiences so far, and have found the church to be warm community. Would the next person through the door draw the same conclusion? Who knows… As you say, it’s complicated…

    October 27, 2008

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