Rambling On and On About Hospitality

Please bear with me as I mutter and ramble a bit.  It is the middle of the night and my mind is troubled by a number of things that rob me of sleep.  And though I try to read, research, talk about and contemplate BIBLICAL HOSPITALITY in recent months, my daily life has become so hectic that some days I barely read three pages on the topic, and sometimes that is interrupted ten times.

Point being: I am trying to formulate coherent, meaningful thoughts on the matter while attending to the circus of modern life and then wishing I could say something in a meaningful presentation AND finding that all hard to do.  So I am posting some thoughts from the soup of my rambling mind in the quiet of the middle of the night with a bright moonshine pouring down on my back yard.

Hospitality.

I find it to be the magic bullet of theology these days.  The allusive, missing link.  The red pill.

Take your Bible, start reading and looking for HOSPITALITY under every rock, AND THERE IT IS!  Just waiting for you to find it or plug it in, and everything makes fresh new sense!!!

Yeah.

I grew up in a particular Christian heritage that thought you could do that with “Baptism”.  Then I went to school and found “Community” there under every stone.  I read N.T. Wright and found “Kingdom” and “Image” under every rock.  Then I dove into Christian ministry and found “Communion” – the Eucharist Meal – to be the lynchpin that held IT ALL TOGETHER.  Yeah, baby!

And now I am finding HOSPITALITY to be the magic bullet.

Hmmm…

Almost seems like you just run around remaking Jesus after your own image all the time.  I found the Pearl of Great Expense.  It was Baptism… no wait… it was Church… no wait… it was God’s Sovereignty… no wait… it’s all there in the Manna!

And just about here… my “…no wait…” meter is wearing down.

Is HOSPITALITY really where it’s at?  Or am I just abuzz with the next big buzz even before it catches on with the next best selling Christian author???

It feels a little vain.

I mean, maybe if I could get my thoughts in order and get a hearing AND get a good publisher, THEN MAYBE I COULD get the next 15 minutes of fame for the next 40 days of purpose.  And MAYBE my flash in the pan would finally satisfy me and God and usher in the AGE TO COME in all it’s glory.

but probably not

Hmmm…

Yeah.  So I am finding HOSPITALITY under every stone.  And I am not kidding about this.  I really am.

But I find it to be the setting for Eucharist.  And that was the buzz I was on just previous to this.

Eucharist.

It’s not just a pinch of cracker and a thimble full of grape juice.  It’s not just the Body and the Blood.  Though those things are important, maybe even central, we have been so dangerously reductionist about Eucharist, in my estimation… in my experience.  Both the prophets of old and Jesus lay claim to the messianic banquet of the ages as some symbolic way of talking about God’s utopian dreams for his creation.  Some day all the saved will sit at the King’s Table and dine with God.

And if you start sniffing for Dinner With God under stone after stone all through the Bible, the Bible will not disappoint!  You will find the celebration meal expanding your mind like LSD only wishes it could!  You find it on that desert mountain when God gives Israel the law; you find it in the Passover when Jesus sets out a New Covenant and the Last Supper.  St. Paul finds this meal proclaiming (revealing) Jesus’s death until he comes, and St. Luke shows us the church sharing this meal every time these people assemble.  And then we recall that King David had proclaimed a table prepared in the presence of his enemies.  And we find Jesus feeding 5000 in the desert and recall Moses and the Manna.

Have I covered every instance with this list?

Hardly.

The Kingdom of God is a PARTY.

And then we recall that this meal is a PARTY, and sure enough like Deuteronomy 14 and 15, we find party theology overwhelming Luke 14 and 15 too.  And it starts to feel like the PARTY is the red pill that changes everything… the party in which the Eucharist is shared.

Who knew a meal could be SO DEEPLY CENTRAL to the salvation of the world???

But then … come to think of it… it was a meal at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil way back in Genesis 3 which set all the devastation in motion.  A MEAL did all of this to us (a party where humanity disinvited God) and so sure enough a MEAL (God’s Party) will play a central role in getting us out of our mess!  A messianic banquet of the ages!

And what is the setting for this party?

…drum roll please….

HOSPITALITY.

Yeah!  Hospitality.

It’s not the center of the meal.  No.  The meal is the center of the party and the party is hosted in HOSPITALITY.

And so I go turning biblical stones and finding it EVERYWHERE!

At first I found it in that very mysterious verse: Hebrews 13:2.  But quickly I found it in Genesis 18 when Abe and Sarah hosted the Angels unaware.  But that story leads into the one about the Angels visiting Lot and his family in a really twisted twist on our theme!  But it’s there too.

But, and at first this feels like a stretch…, it’s also in that story where Abe sends his servant to find a wife for his son.  Yeah… think about it carefully.  The servant shows up at the well to water his animals and starts praying for God to send a girl to him to take back to his master’s son.  And this kicks off a romantic wedding story by God sending a girl alright, a girl who invites the servant back to her father’s place for a meal – a meal at which the servant REVEALS God’s will for everyone who eats there together.  And this story goes on to provide a backdrop for so much more deeply theological and prophetic stage production put on by Jesus when he too meets a woman at a well and then gets married to a church much later in John’s Gospel.

And believe me.  I am just scratching the surface here.

I have not mentioned at all yet how John Walton pops up in my research in recent years with all his work on the “Lost World of Genesis” where he claims creation was God’s idea of a cathedral in which to be worshipped.  And so we have this Carpenter building a home in which he then hosts a party for these creatures he made to bear his image in the world, an image that once seen causes creation to react with SHALOM.

And so with Walton’s observations all this stuff becomes highly complex and cosmic in scope.  All encompassing to say the least.  But it’s firmly anchored in God’s creative love, and thus we now are in a position to feel fully justified in finding it under every stone.

AND THEN suddenly it dawns on me that this REVELATION at the MEAL a revelation which started at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and which continues to be revealed in the meals all through the Bible, not least in the desert, not least in Luke 14-15 or 24, not least with St. Paul and the Corinthians or with Abe’s servant when he meets a girl at the well, but a revelation that is revealed mysteriously every time we PARTAKE of that scant piece of cracker and that tiny thimble of grape juice, that God LOVES us and is creating his image in us and has plans for us and reveals what they are – that they are wedding plans and a coronation (the very things we find in Genesis 1 and 2, btw).

And so I am reading Joshua Jipp’s work on John’s Gospel and plugging it into all the overwhelming mysteries I have found there over the years (and did I mention they are overwhelming to me?) which suddenly thematically ties it all together with HOSPITALITY.  Yes, that first sign we find in John is a WEDDING PARTY where Jesus turns the water to wine.  And it is a first sign placed in the second book in the Bible to open with the words “In the beginning….”.  Yes, John is talking about New Creation all through his Gospel, and the opening prolog is not the half of it.  But I won’t go into all the details on that here just now.

I won’t mention that John does not name the garden of Gethsemane.  We know that is the name from the other Gospels, but John ambiguously leaves it unnamed – probably so we won’t block Eden from our minds as we think about what happens in that garden.  And on the first day of the week when Mary Magdalene bumps into the risen Jesus and fails to recognize him (much the way the disciples in Luke 24 fail to recognize him) she mistakes him for “the Gardener” – which is exactly what the first Adam was!  And that fits nicely with St. Paul’s declaration that Jesus is the “last Adam”.

Okay… so without mentioning those tantalizing details (ha!), Jipp points out that Jesus starts with talking about wine at a wedding, then begins talking about living water, then about bread from heaven, and later about washing feet.  These are all elements of… drum roll please… HOSPITALITY!!!

God, the carpenter of creation, built a home and invited us to come eat in it with him!  He is hospitable to us and wants us to be hospitable to him!

And, by the way, I have recently come to see that most famous of homeless-ministry passages (Matt. 25:31-46) describes HOSPITALITY to the stranger who it turns out is JESUS who may be revealed to us (like we find in Luke 24) or may not (like we find in Hebrews 13:2).

Okay…

I have said enough now to demonstrate why I am so excited about this study, I hope.  But it all feels a little vain too.  It feels like I am just toying with the next big buzz in Christian marketing before its time or something.  I mean, in the big ho hum of pendulum swinging fashions in ministry and theology, we are still swinging in the direction people like Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton have us going.  We don’t want to overly help the poor because that only hurts them.  And I have spent most of the last ten years pointing out to a church that desperately and cruelly shuns me for pointing it out that this crap just ain’t biblical.

But now I am seeing the whole package coming together for the much more exciting (but risky too) study of opening our churches, our homes, our lives, and our VULNERABILITIES up to the stranger(s) God would have us host so he can unfold his revelation to us.

And all I can say is that God has given this treasure to little ol’ inadequate ME.  And I will share it with anyone who will come and sit for a sip of coffee and maybe stay for dinner.  And I will continue to read and research even just three pages at a time some days and try to prepare a presentation of all of this for a world that buys ADT services and locks for our doors at ever increasing expense.

Behold.  I stand at the door and knock.  And if you open up, I will come in and party with you.

(How’s that for a ramble?)

The Love of God

This Just In…

The Love of God is a cross-carrying, self-sacrificial AGAPE.

Did I over state it?

Or did I under state it?

When God so loved the world (most famous of all Bible memory verses), he gave his only Son.  And anyone warming a church pew surely knows that means Jesus died in a saving act in which he takes your debt and pays it off for you (Col. 2:14) with everything he’s got (Phil. 2:7-8).

You did nothing to deserve this divine kindness.

And for generations of Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and practically every mainline Protestant church, this observation is the very center of the faith.

So why on earth would Evangelicals, today’s descendants of those groups, swallow the message of a book like When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert or like Toxic Charity by Lupton?

Does the helping hurt?

It certainly hurt Jesus.

Does that mean we need to rethink, revamp, and undo the salvation of the cross for a more “effective” way?

Think about it.

When Church Doesn’t Want You

(Disclaimer: The following post in no way seeks emotional therapy  for the writer.  This blog is not intended to function as the shrink’s couch.  There is something wrong with the OTHER people described here.  Not the writer.  And the writer is not confused about it.)

Those who know me very well know I PREFER to be “biblical” – in fact, I am quite conservative about it and prefer to be strictly biblical – about the things I preach and espouse.  Bible interpretation and submitting one’s life to Jesus are both done best (I believe) when we seek God’s word first, foremost, and entirely.  Though it is a discipline that takes time and perhaps is never really exhausted over the course of a lifetime, the fruit of following the Bible and of letting the Bible interpret the Bible is always more exciting than what you think about it, and the depths that open up are far richer and deeper when viewed through this lens than through the lens offered by farmer Brown, mechanic Mike, or even systematic theology.

Nevertheless, either through limitations of this method or limitations of discipline in those who seek it, sometimes these lesser preferred lenses still manage to illuminate or maybe help open up our imagination.  Today’s post is like that for me.  And though these opening paragraphs will stand behind everything else I have to say, they have nothing to contribute directly to it.  But I want to make clear that I am just speaking from my heart today.  And the things said here are not necessarily founded on God’s Word (perhaps in the tradition established by Paul in I Corinthians 7).

Have You Ever Been In Love?

How did you know?

(This is a theme – even a question – often repeated and repeatedly pondered in many a television drama or sitcom over the course of my life.  And the answer???  …drum roll please… “You just know.”)

How do you know?  What are the signs?  Is there a specific set of signs, like a universal check list?

I don’t think so.  But there is a flush of feelings, of emotion, that make you want to “be with” that other person.  Like the song says (and I am not a fan, btw), “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?”

Is this “love” the REAL THING?

Well, maybe; maybe not.  Some marriages start with two sixteen-year-old kids sharing a feeling like this and last well past the seventieth anniversary.  Some.  Actually, just a few.  Statistically speaking, this experience is neither necessary nor sufficient, and by itself surely does not constitute the REAL THING.  Yet somehow it nevertheless seems important to those who share it and to nearly every country music song writer and all those legions of fans (soft rock/easy listening too).

I happen to believe it is an important feature of life in God’s creation.  It is not the full measure of AGAPE.  No.  But when God made you, he intended for you to be HUMAN.  (Not that you currently are, strictly speaking, fully human, but it is what God intended.)  And he made humans sexual ((male and female) not in itself unique to humanity) AND to thus bear God’s image in the world.

It is far too easy, in today’s terms, to objectify the woman (or the man) and thus the sex.  These male and female partners were not simply jigsaw puzzle pieces fitted together in erotic ecstacy, though that be a central feature of the creature(s), but they were made ONE.

HEAR O ISRAEL, YHWH God is ONE

And you shall LOVE YHWH God with ALL your heart, ALL your soul, and ALL your strength.

At the risk of being biblical here, I am saying sex is a GIFT from God.  But I am saying far more than that phrase suggests in a modern social atmosphere.  The idea that sex is a GIFT from God is not meant as a badly needed corrective against post-Victorian prudence (though that is involved), it is to say that God wants to be seen and celebrated by the whole of creation, and that happens in THIS CREATURE when THIS CREATURE becomes ONE in sexual glory.

It’s enough to cause the birds to suddenly appear when you are near!

Isaiah says that at the sight of God amid his creation the mountains bow low, the valleys stand up at attention, the crooked places straighten out, and the rough places become smooth!  It’s got all the innuendo of a bad country song, but it’s actually HOLY beyond compare – meaning we have been taking the image of God in vain and we should really repent!  Yes!  God’s sex is mountain-moving LOVE – full of trust, faith, fidelity, of celebration not just of beauty, but of vulnerability.  God’s peace – SHALOM – is had when this harmonious connection is made and the world SEES God.

So…

Let me ask again:

Ever been in love?

Yeah… my love life has been missing something too.

I remember once (actually more than once, but one time I got such clarity, so I will recall that one time in particular) I dated a female for a few months and got really excited about her.  The more time I spent with her, the more excited I got.  And every step of the way, I revealed a little more of my heart to her and she responded in kind.

Did she smile every time I entered the room?

Yes.  She did.

Was that necessary or sufficient?

No.  But it was an important cue.  I was being celebrated by her practically every minute of the day.  I would go to work, and when I got off, she would invite me to eat with her.  I found she prepared meals – extensive preparations.  We would talk and share dreams and plans.  We hosted parties with others too, and joined others often as a couple.  A lot of DOTING happened a LOT of the time.  And when we were apart, I carried a photo of her, and from time to time I could glance at it and just feel her love for me and wonder what she was cooking up for our next meeting.

This went on for months.  I began to think “She is THE ONE” since I dared not share this with another and since it seemed she reciprocated my feelings and since these feelings and celebratory acts just kept growing and deepening with time.

But then one day there was this little click.  A glitch.  I suddenly didn’t get the smile when I entered the room.  Not that it was necessary or sufficient, but in the scheme of things it was like a fly in the ointment.  I noticed.  I didn’t want to be a namby pamby baby about it, after all, it’s not likely two people will sustain such a rich attitude day-in/day-out for months and years on end without a hitch in the giddy up.  But it happened the next day too, and then the next.

I felt the erosion in the happy vibe building.  One slight after another.  We still went through the motions of the over all picture – I still came to eat, she still prepared a meal, and we still went out with friends who as of yet could not see a problem.  But I was feeling it.  Suddenly my jokes just weren’t really funny anymore.  Suddenly the birds were not appearing when I came near.  My feelings had not changed, but it was becoming more clear to me all the time (in this shared vulnerability we had going on) that the gears had become somewhat disengaged.

About two weeks later, shortly after one of the big parties we had planned was over with, I spoke to her bluntly about it.  It felt like I was nit picking because my complaint was that she didn’t smile when I came around, and I feared that just saying that would make me out to be a jerk.  But I forced the issue, and though she resisted my inquiry at first, it soon came out that she was having second thoughts about me.  And after that was established, it became clear that in fact she really didn’t like my nasally laugh (or something like that).

Hmm…

It took about fifteen minutes of this conversation, and though I felt enormous grief welling up inside of me, I could also see that our shared celebration was over.  I was mature enough to call it like it was, and we ended our little “relationship” just like that.  Civil, but over.  And I walked out only seeing her maybe three or four more times ever.

Wow!  Glad we didn’t get married!!!  Just imagine coming to that realization five years, 2.6 kids, a mortgage, and 3 credit cards later.

No.  Wait.  Most of you don’t have to imagine it.  You are surviving it.

Was I really being nit picky?

I don’t think so.

I think I was getting real.

I still don’t know what clicked for her.  I really doubt it was my nasally laugh (not actually my thing), but somehow or other she decided I didn’t fit her dream.  Maybe I didn’t have a good enough career.  Maybe my ideas about Jesus were just a bit too extreme for her.  Maybe she was just that flaky, and it took several months for that to surface.  I don’t know.  All I know is that the thrill was gone, and despite her willingness to rock along as if we were still celebrating each other when in fact we were not, that now I had the information I needed to make conscious decisions about our continued involvement with each other.

At the risk of being biblical (again), this is what I see in Jesus’s statement to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:44, “…you gave me no water for my feet…”.

There is a lot going on in that passage, but this one statement amid all the others captures and includes the same dramatic plot twist I describe in my own love life.  Simon was not LOVING Jesus when he invited Jesus to his party; he was tolerating him (and there is a difference).

Yes, Jesus was included in the party, but he was treated as a second-class prophet/messiah.  Simon, a leader among God’s people, allowed Jesus to come in and party with him and his other honored guests, and that has all the ear-marks of a right relationship to the disinterested eye.  But if Jesus really represents God in this party, then he is the ONE above all others who should be honored here.  Yet, Jesus points out that he didn’t even get the customary foot-washing afforded other guests.  (Effectively, Simon didn’t smile when Jesus came in the room.  And God noticed.)

As I said, there is a lot more going on in that passage – way more than I have space to explore here.  But we should not miss the fact that this tramp comes in and celebrates Jesus in Simon’s place for all she is worth (which ain’t much!).  And Jesus points her out to Simon.  As if she needed pointed out!  But where Simon sees a tramp, Jesus claims she is a WOMAN.  And this casts new light on Simon’s inner thoughts about Jesus too where he thought “If this man were a prophet…” (v. 39).  Simon isn’t loving Jesus; he tolerates him, but he doesn’t love him.  And if he had, he would have washed Jesus’s feet!  And if he REALLY knew who Jesus REALLY was, he would have washed Jesus’s feet with his tears AND set a place at the table for the WOMAN too.

I AM UNWANTED AT CHURCH

I have been knowing this for a few years now.

I have been calling it out for what it is too.  But think about it again a moment.

Church.  It’s a helluva place to be unwanted.

I am tolerated there, but not wanted.  I don’t FEEL the LOVE.

The congregation where I have membership puts on an excellent song service every Sunday.  I don’t believe any (except possibly one) of the musicians are paid staff, but they bring a professional performance every time!  AND EVERY SUNDAY, the band leader makes a poetic effort to welcome worshippers to our flock.

The preaching is well done too.  Our preacher is not exactly a rock star preacher, but he is a preacher teacher!  And he is very skilled at his craft, very biblically sound, and frequently amazing.  And he does an excellent job of extending the message of welcome, of love, of grace and forgiveness.

And the church’s mission statement is painted on the wall high above the great hall in massive bold letters which read: LOVE GOD AND LOVE OTHERS.  And the walls are covered in notifications of dozens of ministry opportunities this church is involved with all over town and around the world, and the boasts of all the missions we support financially and otherwise.  All of these things have the earmarks of the LOVE somehow denied me.

The congregation is made up almost entirely of white, middle-class and professional people.  The parking lot is full of Cadillacs, Lexus, Corvette, Hummer, Lincoln, and other fine and luxury automobiles.  But nary a homeless person in sight.  And I am shunned for pointing this stuff out.

One of our ministers operates a coffee shop which sends most of its profits to a homeless ministry across town, and it’s hard to speak against this.  After all, what is wrong with sending profits from coffee to a homeless ministry across town?  Isn’t that a good thing?  Saying anything against it feels… well… nit picky.

And I agree it is.  In fact, I am not against it at all.  I can easily imagine that is the thin extra layer of LOVE in God’s creation alright.

But what if it’s a front?  What if it’s a diversionary tactic?  What if under the surface of this supposed kindness, the real function is to keep homeless people across town and out of our assembly?  Where is the HOSPITALITY in that?  What if it’s pretty good at performing this function?  Is it even mere tolerance then???

And if I ain’t FEELING the LOVE, and if the homeless are subtly diverted away so that they don’t get the opportunity to be LOVEd, then how do you think Jesus feels?

And this is a truly prophetic question, because when God sent Hosea to marry a whore and LOVE her, Hosea suddenly got a FEEL for what it’s like to be God in this relationship.  And those with the ears to hear and the eyes to see it can find the true conviction in it.

Unwanted in church?

Yeah.  A helluva place to be unwanted.

Ask Jesus.

 

An Encouraging Word

After my last (most recent) post about nothing to be proud of… I received an encouraging word from an old friend (and reader here).  The word came with a picture taken from a Bible study commentary which seems powerfully relevant to this blog.

See it here:

 

 

Thanx for this kind word.  Encouragement helps.

I Have Nothing To Be Proud Of

This homeless ministry in which I engage is nothing to be proud of.

I have not made a name for myself doing this – except the pseudonym “Agent X”, which is a name no one uses for me personally.  In fact, I only use it here, really, and I use it specifically to mute my identity and not call attention to myself or take credit for the “good deeds” I do.

I don’t get a pay check for this work.  On the contrary, I pay to do it instead.  I have never earned a dime doing it.  Nor do I have a big budget I can brag on.  Thus I cannot call this a million dollar ministry or say that I have spent a million dollars alleviating poverty; I have not.

There are no awards, monuments, endowments, letters of recommendation or any kind of memorial associated with this ministry.

I am happy to report that on a few occasions donors (some among the very few readers I attract here) have offered hundreds of dollars at a time to serve our cause.  Two times I got $500 donations, one time I got a $300 donation, and a couple of times I got a $100 donation – all this over the course of almost 10 years.  I am thankful for every dime we receive, but actually I don’t even want a budget – not a regular one anyway.  I prefer to see what God does with this work and not confuse it with what Mammon can do.  The simplest way to avoid such confusion is to limit the income.

I am happy to say that donors once bought a tiny travel trailer for one of my needy friends to live in, but other than that we make no claims about all the people we house or have housed or all the jobs they now work etc.

Instead we brag, if you can call it that, about the times we held worship in an alley, in a park, behind a liquor store or outside a locked up church house door in the middle of the night.  The one time we left our litter was to make sure the janitor at the church would plainly see that a communion service had been held in front of that locked door the night before the regularly scheduled services.  But (surprise, surprise…) they didn’t call the newspapers to report it.  I strongly doubt whether the pastor or any of the deacons there ever heard word one about it.

I do not have a regular office – not in a church building or a professional building of any kind.  No staff.  No secretary.  No honorific title like “executive minister” or “senior pastor” or ANYTHING of the sort.  No special parking space.  No name plate.  No retirement plan, healthcare plan or any other benefits.

I have two partners in this work.  Neither one owns a home or a car.

I don’t have the respect of my peers.  On the contrary, I am quite literally shunned by my church – and not for cussing, fornicating, drinking, looking at porn or any of the regularly forgiven things other pastors and ministers get a pass for all the time.  No.  I am shunned specifically because I insist the church open her door to the poor and just throw a party for them, like Jesus plainly instructs in Luke 14.

I do not attend scholarly conferences; I do not get on TV; the newspapers do not interview me, and I am NEVER asked to speak in front of ANY groups at church or in the academy.

Yet one of the criticisms leveled at me by those who shun me is that I am proud.

This by people who actually do have all the respectable things I just listed off which I do not.

Hmmm….

And finally, I have a regular readership here of maybe about 10 people.  Almost none of them local, but rather spread out in backwoods pockets all over this earth.  The influence this work has does not show any measure on any metric I know of.

Let’s face it: Fat Beggars School of Prophets is NOTHING unless or until God says so.

 

… And Who Is My Neighbor???

Every now and again, I write about HOME instead of homelessness.  The idea is largely to contrast the two.  I think that American society is basically homeless through and through really, even those of us who live in fine houses.  The “homes” we keep are far from the ideal, and sometimes talking about home highlights it.  This is one of those times.

I have described in the past how that I live in a firmly, white, middle-class neighborhood.  People here are not among the elites, but are nonetheless well established.  It’s a clean, neat area of town.  Many professional people live here.  Our streets are quiet; our yards are mowed, our flowerbeds have ADT signs, and our doors have “Welcome” mats.

But do those “Welcome” mats really mean it?

As part of my larger research into HOSPITALITY this year, I ran across the work of a noted environmentalist – Bill McKibben.  I found someone else citing him for claiming that the number of people dealing with addiction in this country has incidentally risen with the amount of average square footage of average American homes since the 1950s.  So far I have not been able to find the publication where McKibben says that (if a reader here happens to know, I wish you would point me to it), but I have found some of his books and articles talking about how in our society neighbors do not depend on each other for anything, and this translates into anonymity and a lot of wasted energy.

I remember as a kid growing up in at least two relatively small communities where people knew and trusted their neighbors – where converstions over the back fence were quite common.  But since growing up and living in big cities like Denver and Phoenix, and even a town like Lubbock, I find it takes great effort to break the ice with my neighbors, and even then we don’t warm up to each other.  I think McKibben’s observation is correct that in America today, you can live just feet away from a neighbor for years and not know their name, their occupation, or even if they died six months ago.

I have lived in this neighborhood most of four years now.  Being as Christian and West-Texas friendly as I know how, I talked my teenage stepdaughter into baking cookies shortly after we moved in and creating five little baggies full of them.  I wrote a short note introducing us, giving all our names (including the dog), our occupations, and a welcome to speak up to us if anyone needed a neighbor for help or if we do anything offensive (like too much noise or something).  Then we passed them out to the neighbors on both sides and all three across the street from us, and it seemed to be a hit!  But it was short lived.

I learned everyone’s names, but then we would simply wave when passing and never got a chance to use those names.  Most are forgotten now.

The two homes on either side of us are occupied by retired people.  To the west, a retired pastor and to the east a retired FBI agent.  You might think I would become close with the pastor, and no doubt he is the friendliest of the lot, but our friendliness manages to NEVER catch a meaningful gear – despite the fact that I trimmed his bushes once for him when it appeared his paid lawn crew failed to do it.  (Yes, I am bragging on my own generosity here, but I don’t know how else to tell this story to the fullest, and that is why I use pseudonyms for myself and others here on this blog.)

The retired FBI agent, though not nearly as friendly, is also much older and appears more fragile.  That first winter we lived here, Lubbock got a 50 year snow storm that paralyzed the whole city for 3 days.  I talked two of my teenage boys into grabbing shovels and joining me on this neighbor’s driveway.  At that time, I did not know he was retired FBI.  I just knew he was old and fragile, and except for the snow days, I would see him get in his fine, red Chevy truck and drive down to the market each morning and return about a half hour later.  It was his ritual.  He might wave; we might share a cliche comment or two about the weather, and then he would disappear into his house, and I would not see him again.

I recall seeing several cars gather around his house one day, and most of them stayed for two or three days after.  I managed not to see all the people coming and going at the time they were coming and going, but I figured they were his kids coming to visit for a special occasion.  Finally, at one point, I happened to be in the yard when this one middle-aged couple drove up, so I introduced myself and offered them my phone number saying if ever an urgent need arises, they could call on me to help… that I wanted to be a good neighbor.

Hard to say if it was just me or if it is typical of our American anonymity but even though that couple thanked me, I sensed I had overstepped my boundary by making such an offer.  I went home thinking on it and wondered what I must have looked and sounded like to them, since I didn’t think my offer was actually all that much appreciated.  It occurred to me that since I am a stranger to them, and since I am relatively new to the neighborhood, not at all an old fixture here like their parents, that possibly I appeared to be a social buzzard circling in the sky over this elderly couple hoping for a chance to muscle in on their personal business and property and take advantage of these vulnerable people.  That’s not the West-Texas friendliness I grew up knowing, but shrewd people of this modern age might well see my offer like that.  After all, when I was a kid, we left our doors unlocked, but ADT (and their competitors) have signs in nearly every flowerbed on nearly every street of my neighborhood.  We don’t have an abundance of trust here, despite our “Welcome” mats.

I was working for the Lubbock County Sheriff when we moved in here.  I didn’t always wear a uniform that made me look like a cop, but a few times I did.  It was an exchange with the old man as he was backing out of his driveway one day when he saw me in uniform that suddenly really opened him up to me big time.  He could plainly see that I worked in law enforcement, and that is when he divulged to me he was formerly FBI.  I was thrilled to have this newfound connection, and it afforded us three or four rich conversations in the driveway over the course of the next year.

This is when I learned his name, though surely it was a nickname.  I will not repeat it on this blog, but as I recall, it was an odd name that I had to repeat a couple of times trying to establish if I heard him correctly.  Of course the old man was very old and bent, and I am not sure now if he really heard me repeat it to him.  I might have got it wrong, and he just smiled and nodded thinking … well who knows what he thought I said?

At anyrate, he was an FBI agent in San Francisco in the 70’s.  I was a bit slow on the uptake with that.  I have spent most of the last year and a half looking for an opportunity to follow up on that bit of insight.  I am willing to bet he has a lot of detailed information on the Zodiac killer that didn’t make it into the movie!  I would really like to buy this guy a cup of coffee and listen to his stories!

But sometime last year, I backed out of my driveway in time to see the firetruck and the ambulance pulled up in front of his house.  I figured it was not a good time for me to knock, but I could pray and go on with my business.  I didn’t want to assume the worst, but of course I knew it was serious.

Of course, on the other hand, we had a firetruck and ambulance respond to our house too just last winter, and though it was a legit emergency, it was certainly not some huge life-altering event.  We all survived without a scratch, and absolutely no damage to property.  So, it goes to show that you really should not presume the worst.

But then a couple of months ago, I was looking at Bill McKibben’s work and thinking again about how we American’s don’t depend on our neighbors… about how a neighbor might die and you wouldn’t know it for months or years.

And suddenly I had a sinking feeling about my old “neighbor.”

It just so happens that this spring I began to notice his yard is suffering neglect.  He has one of those zero-scape yards, so it really does not require much, but the portion in the alley is grass and weeds, and by April I could see he would get a ticket if someone didn’t mow them down for him.  So I did it.  And then two weeks later, I did it again.  And then again.  And my eye began all the more intensely watching for signs of life next door.  But I wasn’t seeing any.

Then two days ago, I noticed the garage door was up, a strange truck was in the drive, and I could hear a person rustling around in there.

I approached.

“Hey, neighbor!” I said, “I am wondering how [Agent FBI] is doing these days.  I haven’t laid eyes on him in a very long time.”

The middle-aged man emerged from the garage looking at me all quizzically.  It occurred to me that I was mistating [Agent FBI]’s name.  I could plainly see that I was speaking to one of his kids – perhaps son or son-in-law.  I repeated the name again, but he figured out who I was talking about and yet did not correct me.  But he did inform me that [Agent FBI] passed away LAST SEPTEMBER!!!!

Oh, man.  I feel bad for not realizing it.  Makes me sad to know it.

The man in the driveway informing me of his passing suddenly tried to comfort me about this news.  Yes, its sad, but he is in a much better place now.  The man I saw puttering in and out the last couple of years (he assured me) was not the man he once was before!  He suffered old age a long time and died a week after his birthday last September.

In his effort to comfort me, the man went on to say that [Agent FBI] spoke well of me to his family.  I had made an impression on him, and he had passed that on to them.

I guess I do take some comfort in that, alright.  It’s not like I did anything wrong.  I feel bad for not being a better neighbor, but the way we do society alienates us from one another, and in the short amount of time we had, I was not able to overcome that.  But then I didn’t exactly try real hard either.  Such a strange and delicate balance between honoring boundaries and being a jerk.  It’s hard to navigate that.  And here I am talking about white, middle-class people living in fine homes only 20 feet apart in a West-Texas friendly culture no less!  Shoot!  We even had that rich law enforcement connection that obviously had the old man jazzed, and had me really wanting to visit with him more myself – just of the novelty of learning about the Zodiac killer if nothing else.

I feel bad that we didn’t break though that ice.

But then step back and consider how alienated I am at church – RIGHT IN MY OWN CHURCH!

And why?

Because I insist that as a church it is our business to break the social ice between us and the poor and street-homeless folx on the streets of Lubbock – you know like Jesus tells us.

It has me asking:  Who is my neighbor?