Love Thy Neighbor

Jack stopped me while I was mowing to introduce himself and talk to me about the property line. I didn’t have the land surveyed before we moved in and he no longer remembered precisely where the line fell. The border might not be exactly where he stopped mowing. It could be up the bank or in the ditch but if I wanted to put up a fence, I should probably get it surveyed beforehand. It turned out that neither of us cared where the line was and neither wanted a fence. He continued to mow down the bank and I picked it up at the ditch.

Once or twice in our lives, if we are lucky, we meet someone who is meant to be a genuine, hundred percent friend. On a summer day in 2017 my youngest son Jacob found one of his. While we chatted, he snuck around behind Jack, tapped him on the leg and then jumped to hide behind the bushes. Jacob instinctively knew this stranger would appreciate his brand of humor.

What in the world makes a man in his mid-eighties and a four-year-old who aren’t related and not much alike want to be friends? The endless energy of Jacob propelled him towards activities like repeatedly ringing their doorbell and then hiding. Not really the kind of hobby that should endear him to a man 82 years his senior.  And you wouldn’t think that a high energy, ready to rumble boy would hang out long enough to build deep friendship while watering tomatoes. Soon all of Jack’s friends knew about his friend Jacob and everyone Jacob knew had heard about Jack and Shirley. He called Shirley “Jack’s mom”. A few who knew Jacob were confused when told Jack had broken his hip because they had assumed the two were the same age.

Our last conversation before Jack broke his hip was a few feet away. For the last time he interrupted my mowing to let me know how much he and Shirley appreciated and valued my boys, and how much they enjoyed Jacobs daily visits. Visits that wouldn’t have started if a fence had divided our yards. In the time between those conversations he had stopped me many times, always to talk about my sons and always especially Jacob.

“Love Thy neighbor” doesn’t need explanation in the south. We all know the story, know Jesus said it and who he directed it to. Its an innocuous, uncontroversial statement that everybody agrees with until we sit down to define love and discuss who is my neighbor. Humanity hasn’t really learned all that much in two thousand years after all. We’ve placed so many caveats in the conversation that we still haven’t learned that the second greatest commandment when practiced is less demand and more gift. We look around to find a neighbor to love when sometimes that neighbor is right next door.

Career and yard work fill up almost all space and the little time remaining is spent trying to recover for the next project. If the hamster wheel slows down enough to see the world waiting as life rips by going nowhere, I may realize a neighbor needs love and wish there were more time. But friendship and love are only for those who get off the treadmill and throw their arms around another.

An 86-year-old man and a four-year-old boy have limited adventures. But for three years, adventures they had. With all their differences one commonality was a contentment found in needling the other. I fussed at Jacob for squirting an elderly man with a water hose until I found out that not only had Jack not shown anger, he had participated. What started with worrying about this precocious, ferocious boy harassing the neighbors ended with all seven members of the two families listening as Shirley recited “The night before Christmas” late last December. Friendship all around, love for neighbor all around, peace on earth, goodwill toward and between man. All because a little boy found a couple he would care about, and an old man decided to love young fire.

Friendship didn’t cure pandemics, end racism, or pay off the national debt. But an old hand and a preschool hand reached across a vague property line and made two families into one. Three boys, a mom and dad, and a man and his wife.

We are convinced that Jack swung by to say goodbye last week on his way to heaven. He looked in on his three young friends to offer his regret on not being able to discuss the completed treehouse together or catch any more episodes of SpongeBob. He is done for now answering Levi’s questions, teasing Nolan, and picking with Jacob.

He looked in the master bedroom to tell Jacobs parents for the last time how much he valued their sons and what it meant to him when they visited, especially Jacob. Then he took the outstretched hand of a patiently waiting Jesus and was gone. But across the ditch and up the bank we hold hands and wait for a day when differences and death don’t divide and love is all that remains.

Good fences don’t make good neighbors, love does.


Something Special

There’s something special on the other side of this moment.

                And its about what you and I decide

                And its important for you to remember we did this together

                And finally, they’ll know the story of our lives.

Pharrell Williams, “There’s Something Special”


A tattered old ugly memory occasionally sneaks into the room in the middle of the night. He climbs up on the bed and taps me in the throat with one clawed finger. I wake up to find him gleefully squatting on my chest ready to chat about a twenty-year-old event. He is there to remind me that tomorrows stress is nothing to what a real failure I was yesterday. He loves to tell me that if anyone knew the real me they would turn away or worse yet, they might tell everyone else.

I eventually fall back asleep, after drifting around alone a while on the sea of loserness. Hopeless, it’s hopeless. That’s the middle of the night message. “Remember that from twenty years ago and add this from last month and know that you will always be caught up in the mess. You could run from all these problems but wherever you go you will be there to screw it up again in the end. Look at yourself and despair.”

I have millions of ragged little memories, shames, and not so tiny insecurities that create in me a default hopelessness. “That project won’t get done because you know you don’t finish what you start. Your marriage won’t make it because you know she can’t carry the weight of the real you. The kids are doomed to failure because you work too much and don’t spend enough time with them. Remember your brilliant contribution to that conversation yesterday? Hoo boy! That was soooo dumb.” Shame builds entire structures on top of tiny pieces of truth and then condemns me to live in them.

A couple of weeks ago, during a continuing series of brutally difficult, death-defying conversations, I told Hannah that story that wakes me up at night. For a couple of years, we have talked about being more vulnerable with one another, being transparent about ourselves and genuinely curious about the other. Or I should say, she has talked about these things. The dam between us broke last month and for four weeks there has been a flood of this talk in our house. We are finding that shame is a devil who can only work in the dark.

As I told her the story, the only time eye contact was broken was by me. The only time anybody said anything condemning it was me. The one who turned away to not see this train wreck was me. At the end, she hugged me and acknowledged that it was a humiliating story and that she was glad I told her. Somehow, I had only ever seen the shameful side and hadn’t thought about how unfortunately humiliating it had been. Each of our conversations has felt like smashing through the door of hell and finding that the other side contains nothing but grace and love.

I realize you can’t lay out all your business for the world to see, that’s why this is short on details. But I’m learning that I need a safe person, or safe people, and it was a lie to believe that the safest person I know couldn’t handle knowing all of me. The Imago Dei isn’t faces and fingernails, it’s the impossible, unstoppable love of Jesus shining in the eyes of someone who refuses to look away from your darkest shame. Amen. That sentence makes me cry.

The light of that kind of love burns up shame. It burns up insecurity and petty jealousy and all the other reasons to keep secrets and hide. With the shame and insecurity burned up the hopelessness doesn’t have anywhere to grow and soon little sprigs of hope begin popping up everywhere. If my most hopeless place grows a miracle then everywhere else can have one too. When Shame comes around running his mouth find someone safe and get that garbage out in the open and put some light and love on it. Because there is something incredible on the other side of this moment.



Blind from Birth

Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”. John 9:6

“Why God, would you do this to me?” I Stumbled along, cursing and groaning at the pain of the grit grinding and burning under my eyelids. With every stagger grains of sand and flecks of mineral clawed at my useless eyes. Tears ran down my face mixing with the drying spit on my cheek. Rage for the man who had done this to me and the agony of having the faintest hope shatter into another filthy trick played by hateful humans radiated from me. Shrieking children dove away as I crashed my way towards the pool.

“Go wash yourself in the pool”. How could he be so calm and sound so gentle while handing me the nastiest trick I could imagine?

The pain stabbed my eyeballs as I slammed into the corner of each familiar building, crashing into them instead of my normal cautious fumbling along. The scraping torture in my eyes blinded me to my bleeding knuckles hitting stone walls and shins finding every low obstacle. Inside the pain boiled an exploding confusion and fury at this man who claimed to be God but turned my hope for healing into torment.

When I finally felt the steps downward beneath my feet I dove recklessly towards any kind of relief. Anything to get the fire of Christs cruel spit out of my eyes. My elbow smashed into the stone corner as I splashed in, ignoring the laughter from the men sitting poolside.

I rested my head under, gently letting the cold water filter in and the pain soak away. Rest.

The first thing I ever saw was light. The sunbeams flirted in and out of the ripples on the surface and then drifted down to bounce across the stone on the bottom of the pool. Gigantic Diamonds of sunshine worth more than a cart of gold to a man who had never seen them.

The pain of the sand, the bleeding elbow, and battered, torn shins were forgotten in the beauty of seeing at last. For a moment under the water the God I had begged as a child and cursed as an adult held me close and washed away the agony of twenty-nine years of utter darkness. The lifetime of confusion, terror, frustration, and furious bitterness at my Creator sank down to burn in the flickering flames of the sun around my feet.

The moments after gasping up from underwater are a blur of racing through the streets, looking for a man I would recognize only by the sound of his voice. No desire to stop and soak in all the things I had only smelled, heard, touched, or tasted. Only time to rush headlong down those same paths seeking one face out of all the faces I had never seen. The recklessness of pain had been replaced by a reckless need for answers. The confusion of his shocking cruelty was conquered by shocked wonder at why one would do a miraculous work and then disappear.

“Why God, would you do this to me?”

The Thirtieth of April

What did you feel, Lord, when you came along and found me lying there in the shallow grave I hand dug for myself? Were you angered by the evil one chuckling there with my muddy shovel in his hand? He and I both smelled this death coming months ago and he had anticipated celebrating my funeral, finally confident in his victory. He saw you leap toward him over his shoulder as he bolted for cover.

Did you wince at the sight of the bloody smudge where my autobiographical eulogy was stapled to my chest? Could your eyes find the lies there in my obituary? Did you see all those slimy deceptions I heaped on myself until I suffocated under their weight? The shame, disapproval, and the loss of hope were heavier than the pile of dirt and gravel the devil had been so eager to scoop over me.

There were no folded hands or walnut casket, no piano playing Amazing Grace. Just filthy broken fingernails and scrabbled grass uprooted around the edges of my rut. I had tried so hard and failed to hang on to my tiny piece of earth.

She was standing there by my side, right where she had been all along. How had I lost sight of her there in the dark? You wept together over my open grave, your arms wrapped around her heaving shoulders and gasping lungs, her agonized tears falling in agreement with yours and intermingling in your beard. She heard you sing a quiet song of sorrow over this loss of life and love. My few friends stood by, each of you carrying one last time the burden of my failures.

What was your emotion as the old undefeated power began building within once more? Could you feel the voltage of your blood surging upward with every beat of your heart? What was the wattage of the sunlight burning in your heart for me? You never flinched as the lightning leapt from your outstretched hand and knocked me rolling from what should have been my final hiding hole. You laughed as the thunder shook the ground around us all and light exploded into a better day. Newborn hopes and ancient dreams blossomed instantly in soil recently tilled by my desperate fingers. Soft gray ashes rained down on the petals, fertilizer made from the strangling shame going up in smoke.

How can it be? Who is the God who boldly strides among the darkest tombs in the deepest night? Give way for this King of Glory strutting through the fading gravestones of the hopeless. Dance with him as he revels in bringing help to the helpless and light to the lost. His twin swords Love and Forgiveness are stained with the blood of shame and despair. The king has conquered death, defeated hell and has no fear in the dark. The victory has always been his and he will overcome. He is bringing new life again and again.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”