Love Thy Annoying Next-Door Neighbor


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.


Peacemaking with Joshua and Other Joshua

English: Joshua commanding the sun to stand still

They said a Mass for Peace on Sunday at my church. The day before that, Pope Francis called for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting for internal peace in Syria and against armed intervention.

And what am I in the middle of reading? The Book of Joshua. Blame my Bible reading plan, but really, can you get any more inappropriate?

If Joshua is not the most violent book in the Bible, it’s definitely right up there. The eponymous Joshua is an exalted Jewish military commander, literally on a mission from God to wipe out countless other cultures and take over their land. Here’s a choice quote from Joshua 6, the story of the famous takeover of Jericho: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.”

There’s a lot of that. Utterly destroying everything and everyone in sight, all in the name of the Lord.

This is the kind of thing that makes evangelical atheists super smug. Me? I love the Bible, but I freely admit this part of it confuses and disturbs me.

There is apparently some level of consensus among Biblical historians that archaeological evidence doesn’t back up the events we read about in Joshua. According to these historians, the book is not so much history as a rewriting of events as the authors would have liked them to go, and also, obviously, an object lesson about obeying God (See, here’s how you do it, and here’s how much God blesses you in return… get the picture?).

In reality, the claiming of Canaan may have been much more gradual and less violent than the book of Joshua tells. But whether you believe the Bible is literal historical truth or not, the question remains… why is this in there? Why is it important? What do we have to learn from it? These are big questions, but I think one thing we can learn from Joshua is what peace can cost.

The name “Joshua” means “the Lord saves.” All the violence Joshua apparently committed was for the sake of saving his people, preserving them from outside influences and violence, giving them a homeland of their own.

And yet, there is another Joshua in the Bible who also saves his people, a much larger group of people, in a very different way.

Jesus is just the Latin version of the Greek version of Yeshua, a variant of Yehoshua, the name of the commander. I remember how shocked I was to realize this for the first time. How strange, I thought to myself, for the Prince of Peace, someone who by all accounts never did anything more violent than kick a fig tree, to share a name with a famous conqueror.

I think a peace like Joshua’s, a peace achieved by militarism and violence, is what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “peace that the world gives.” Jesus would bring a different kind of peace at great personal cost and with no collateral damage. The only thing Jesus completely destroyed for the glory of God was his own body, and by doing so, he also destroyed the power of sin. The only innocent person harmed was Jesus himself.

Unlike world leaders and conquerors, Jesus never promised a peace that would give security or comfort. In fact, he said that those who followed him on the way of peace would have trouble, suffer attacks, and be hated by the world. But he also promised that following him was worth taking up that cross.

As a Christian, I know which Joshua has my heart. I know which one I ultimately need to follow.

I come from a powerful country, a country that puts a lot of faith in the redemptive power of violence. I need to reject that. In my life, I’ve passively accepted much violence, too absorbed in my daily life to care. I’ve enjoyed many blessings that were brought about and protected by acts of violence. I need to learn a better Way, to mourn the cost of that violence and do my best to make sure it is not repeated.

The Joshua who truly conquered the world was an innocent victim. When I think of someone suffering supposedly for the cause of peace, it’s his face I need to see.

What I Learned from Antoinette Tuff, Ordinary Peacemaker

I’ve thought about it more than once, how I’d react on the bad end of a gun.

Jesus said you never know when The Moment will come and it’ll all be over, and that seems truer than ever these days. The shooting that really got me was the one in a shopping center not so far from me, where people dropped the Christmas presents they’d just bought and dropped to the ground and prayed for their lives. A girl I know came to work the next day deeply shaken, telling us how she’d been locked down for what seemed like a lifetime in Bath and Body Works. I told my loved ones that I was okay, that I’d been nowhere near it, knowing next time I might be.

I wasn’t even sure what I’d want to do, what I could do in such a moment. It’s hard to know what to say to someone to whom life itself has become meaningless. Many who’ve tried to be instruments of peace haven’t lived to talk about it. That’s the thing: real peacemaking involves risk, at least as much risk as joining the fray. Turning the other cheek feels more frightening than either fight or flight, and that’s why examples tend to be few.

I’m so glad to have an example in Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper who averted a potential school shooting this week by convincing an armed young man to surrender himself to police before a single person was harmed. Listening to the full interview she gave shortly afterward, I realized that although her actions in that life-threatening situation were extraordinary, she is really just an ordinary person who developed her faith, compassion, and love of enemies into weapons that protected the innocent children at her school and helped a man who could have killed her. If she can do it, I can learn to do it too. Here are the practical tips for peacemakers I took away from her interview:

She used her everyday suffering to identify, sympathize, and build trust with her attacker. When he told her he had nothing to live for, she recognized the pain she felt and connected it to her own. She told him about the breakdown of her marriage, the struggles she went through with raising her kids, and how she’d wanted to end it all too. She did so with respect for the pain he was experiencing as well. As she chose to enter the space of his pain with him, she practiced true compassion.

She offered him a different vision of himself and his future. Ms. Tuff saw herself and her family in this suffering young man, and she desired the best possible future for him. She told him that despite all she’d suffered, she had turned her story around, and he could too. She used her vision for him to help negotiate his surrender, telling him he had not yet harmed anyone and could still save himself from the worst consequences, even offering to leave the building with him to show police he hadn’t hurt her. When he finally did surrender, she told him, “I want you to know I love you and I’m proud of you. It’s a good thing you’re just giving up. Don’t worry about it.  We all go through something in life.”

Finally, and most importantly, she kept peaceful herself by turning to God. Tuff told interviewers that through her fears, she kept calm by practicing a technique her pastor taught her in a sermon series which she called “anchoring in God.” My first thought was, I want to go to her church, meet her pastor, learn whatever that thing is! But then I realized what she was referring to wasn’t some new or exotic technique. It’s right there in John 15, one of my favorite Bible passages: remaining in God’s love. For me, living in the sure knowledge of God’s love is hard even on a normal day with all its minor disappointments and distractions, much less in a situation where I’m fearing for my life. Yet Ms. Tuff credits all her accomplishments on that day to staying connected with God. Clearly pursuing a closer and closer relationship with God throughout my life would benefit not only me, but the world as well.

Antoinette Tuff says she’s not a hero, and I want to believe her. Extraordinary as her response to this crisis was, it could be ordinary – if people like you and me rejected the choice between violence or victimhood and embraced the way of peacemaking. I am deeply grateful that I, my nation, and my world can learn from her and people like her.

What are your thoughts on how these events played out? Do you have any resources for aspiring peacemakers?