Love Thy Annoying Next-Door Neighbor

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Or how about not. How about some nice Matthew 5:45 instead? Photo credit: Kirk Kittell (flickr)

I remember donating my allowance to PETA back in eighth grade. I remember the first time I gave blood back in college, dizzy with excitement that I’d dared to do it. I remember walking out of a bakery one time in Greece with two loaves of bread in my bag and handing one to the beggar at the door. I tried to act cool as I walked away, but his smile burned into me for blocks.

Yes, giving is a rush sometimes. And rightly so, I think. Acts records the words of Jesus: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” I think we get joy from giving because God made us that way. Science has now discovered the “Helper’s High,” feel-good chemicals our brain releases when we do something charitable. We are wired to like it.

But if I’m going to be honest, I have to say one thing: sometimes it feels easier and better to help strangers than people who are much closer to me.

Weird, since Jesus said “love your neighbor,” that sometimes I find my neighbors hardest to love – especially the ones who make too much noise upstairs or set the fire alarm off again. Strangers are still a mystery, their annoying habits as yet unknown, often more likely to win a smile from me than someone who sits near me at work with whom I’m acquainted all too well.

This reveals something else about humans: we naturally feel good when we give, but we’re also naturally reluctant to do it – especially when we suspect the recipient might not deserve or appreciate our gifts. And sometimes the more we see someone, the easier it is to suspect this. And gradually, our relationship shifts from open-handed to close-hearted.

There’s so much evidence of this in my life, geologic layers of it. Piles of never-answered emails in my inbox. Dozens of lackluster, barely conscious exchanges each day (“How are you?” “Good…”). So many mundane tasks performed grudgingly instead of lovingly. So many offers of help and opportunities for listening left unexplored out of fear of seeming awkward, fate worse than death.

I can’t help but bring this back to Jesus. In love, no one could beat him for endurance. Behold his disciples bugging him, not getting it, and generally acting like morons on every page of the Gospels, and then abandoning him in his hour of need, falling asleep when he needed them emotionally and denying they ever knew him at the first sign of trouble.

Did Jesus let himself grow cold toward these people? Did he gradually trust them less? Did he ever seem to feel it wasn’t worth it? Sure, he got frustrated with them, sometimes exploded in anger, but stop loving them? Never. After he suffered and died a lonely death and come back to life again, he cooked them breakfast and hung out with them on the beach.

That’s the thing, I guess, about believing that you and everyone you know will live forever. There’s no reason not to be loving. There’s no reason not to start flexing your muscles now for life in Heaven, where we will live shoulder to shoulder with all these other imperfect, messed up people with whom we once felt mutual annoyance and, God help us, we’ll all enjoy ourselves. Or it won’t be Heaven.

I need to pray for the ability to love with endurance. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.” Always. Not just when it feels good. Not just when it comes with a tax write-off or a sticker that says “Be Nice to Me” – or even just when it comes with gratitude. I need to pray for the ability to love like God loves, like God’s rain falling down on all the thirsty people, those who praise him and those who don’t.

Because a good feeling is not enough of a reason to love. The only real reason to love is because he loved me first, because I deserve it least of all, because I lived in the desert and now I’m dancing in the rain.

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