The Unexpected Joy of Loving Your Neighbor

The Unexpected Joy of Loving Your Neighbor

Almost 10 years ago my life profoundly changed for the better. I took my first trip down the Amazon on a riverboat called the Discovery and nothing has been the same since. All that the Lord showed me about Himself and His people in the jungles of Brazil has surprisingly impacted every area of my life here. Ours is just a different jungle. Perhaps the most significant realization for me is that while I was happy to help the poor in the Amazon, I’d neglected to reach out to the poor, hurting, lonely right in my own community. It would require some sacrifices and inconvenient moments, but it would also bring a great deal of joy of fulfillment I’d been missing out on. The write-up below contains a handful of excerpts from my book, Wherever the River Runs, describing how these gracious people helped me learn the unexpected joy of loving your neighbor.

To set the scene, we’re jumping into a story where my friend April was deciding whether or not to buy a computer for a family in our community who couldn’t afford one.

The Inconvenience of Loving Your Neighbor

“Ok, here’s my dilemma…” April looked down for a second and then slipped me a nervous smile I know like the back of my hand. “What if I help them with the computer and then they start needing me?”

“Well, heaven forbid you help someone who might need you.”

“But you know what I’m saying? I mean, what if she starts calling me for things and it all gets inconvenient.”

This was a reasonable concern. I understood. It’s one thing to enjoy helping someone on a definitive, short-term basis where the output is minimal and the gratification is immediate. It’s another thing altogether, so entirely in its own category, to actually engage in relationship. It’s the difference between a quick act of service and actually sharing your life, which is what the gospel requires of us—which is also what has caused me, at times, to panic.

Our conversation took me back to an afternoon on the river when I pulled up my chair next to John [the one who first invited me to the Amazon] and rested my feet on the sky-blue slats of the Discovery while the thick jungle with endless hidden treasures and possibilities rolled by. Having John next to you was like having a bedside tome of yarns, wit, and wisdom. He saw things through an interesting lens, and he could thread a story that kept you inching farther and farther toward the edge of your seat until you’d almost slid off either from laughter, disbelief, or both. He could also be comfortably quiet though, occasionally breaking the silence with a thought or insight you rarely saw coming.

“You know,” he mused, “God sent me to Brazil and wrecked my retirement plans.” I knew that before visiting the Amazon he’d been considering his future as a post-record company executive, dreaming of places where he and Juliet could travel and vacation, sipping the rest of their years through a silver straw. “But I’m so glad He did,” he continued. “You know, how many beaches can you lie on? How many games of golf can you play before it’s just meaningless?”

The Convenience of Loving Someone Else’s Poor

I was going to realize that Jesus’ specific call to love my neighbor was going to be, in some ways, more difficult than loving the people across the ocean with the exotic wildlife. Loving the poor for a week at a time with your family and best friends on an exquisite adventure is rather different from slogging through the complexities and choices that surround the suffering and needy who dwell in your own community. As Mary Katharine once put it to me, it’s almost always easier to take care of someone else’s poor. For one thing, our own poor have problems that remind us a troubling amount of ourselves. And for another, they’re always right there—you don’t get to fly home and leave them after a week.

I remember when the founding director of a local organization for women newly released from prison asked me if I’d like to teach a weekly Bible study to half a dozen women now living in a facility near my neighborhood. It’s one thing to teach on the weekends as part of your living, listen to women, pray for them, and then jump on a plane home. It’s another thing entirely to offer yourself to people with all manner of addictions and problems and complaints who might also call you the following afternoon to chat. I was afraid of what giving up a night of the week might require of me and wondered if I had the capacity for more relationships. But when I really examined my life, while I was a good friend, pursuing the things of Christ, living uprightly as I understood it, I couldn’t say that a significant amount of my time was spent pouring into the lives of others, not to mention the poor. But after witnessing the great need in the Amazon, how could I turn my back on a group of women equally in need, only two miles away, toward whom I felt the Lord nudging my heart?

I might have never put it like this, but in some ways, I’d been living on an island with those who looked like me, pretty much voted like me, shared my same interests, ate at the same restaurants, sang similar worship songs, and made comparable incomes. Every so often, we’d cross the bridge via a church outreach to the peninsula of prisoners or the isle of drug addicts, maybe the reef where the homeless were trying to stay above water. We’d genuinely serve and love these communities of sufferers and societal outcasts, but soon we’d be back in our homes, snuggled into our comforts, going on with our lives. I was happy to serve, just so long as it was an occasional activity, an accessory to my faith and not a primary characteristic of it.

I thought about the jungle pastors I’d met along the river who thought nothing of rowing their canoes for several days just to deliver a creel of fish to a widow or preach a sermon or lay their hands on a sick child. They wouldn’t have even had a category for our definition of “inconvenient.” For them, oaring their families across choppy waters on their way to a church service through a blinding rainstorm while a water cobra circled their canoe is inconvenient.

For them, oaring their families across choppy waters on their way to a church service through a blinding rainstorm while a water cobra circled their canoe is inconvenient.Click To Tweet

April had seen everything I’d seen in the Amazon, so when she encountered a needy woman in her own neighborhood, she was able to recognize her responsibility more clearly. She realized that the very thing she was terrified of, the very thing I was terrified of— being inconveniently needed—happened to be Jesus’ second most central command: love your neighbor as yourself. He wasn’t asking us to fix everyone’s problems, but He was asking us to give our hearts, or as the apostle Paul put it so poignantly to the Thessalonians, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8).

“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” 1 Thessalonians 2:8Click To Tweet

When it came to being a friend to the poor in my community, I was afraid of the same thing April was. I was happy to minister overseas because there’s this measure of novelty while you’re there and a safe distance when you’re gone. But befriending the sick, suffering, and spiritually needy in my daily environment is neither novel nor safe. It’s just hard. Essentially, I wanted to help people but only if I didn’t have to get all tangled up in ongoing relationship. I didn’t want people close to home needing me, calling me. And it wasn’t just what I was afraid to do; it was what I was afraid to give up. It can be painful relinquishing a few precious comforts while making time to serve. After agreeing to teach the Bible study at the home for recovering addicts, I freely admit I wasn’t happy that it cut into one of my favorite nights to be with friends. You’d think I’d committed to leading a small group in Afghanistan the way I coaxed myself out the door, begging God to help me while I drove all of seven minutes away.

April ended up buying the computer for Rachel and her family, and they did end up needing her, and eventually they needed me, too. But what April and I soon discovered was that, in some ways, we’ve needed them more.

The Responsibility of Loving Your Neighbor

I couldn’t have understood this more clearly than the day I was throwing a football in my front yard with six-year-old Randy Jr., the third of Randy and Rachel’s four children. Suddenly the most perplexing riddle hit him, and while winding up for another big pass, he yelled, “Hey! How come you live in a house with three bedrooms and you’re just one person”—I watched the ball sail through the air feeling like something more than a ball was coming—”and we live in a house with three bedrooms and we have six people?” Well, now, this was a very good question. Randy Jr. was doing the math, and the number of people in each home compared to the number of rooms wasn’t totaling up to anything close to fair, or even practical.

As I tossed the football with Randy Jr., I realized no one else in my life could have asked this question in a way that so convicted me as this little second grader with his crooked glasses and high-water pants. Through his simple yet profoundly complex question he reminded me that there’s not so much an answer as there is both a great truth and a sacred responsibility. The truth is that I was once a slave, yet because of God’s grace I am now awash in freedom. But this freedom spawns responsibility, which requires giving freely of my time and myself.

It’s become increasingly clear to me how much more God wants for me, how He longs for me to experience the kind of joy Paul wrote about when he said to the Thessalonians, You are my joy and crown.

It’s become increasingly clear to me how much more God wants for me, how He longs for me to experience the kind of joy Paul wrote about when he said to the Thessalonians, You are my joy and crown.Click To Tweet

Whether I was giving myself to the river people of the Amazon, throwing the football with Randy Jr., or getting to know the brave women facing their addictions, I’d been discovering unexpected joys. Unexpected crowns. Just like God had wrecked John and Juliet’s retirement plans, He was wrecking some of my American Dream. But in John’s words, “You know, how many beaches can you lie on?”

To read more, order Wherever the River Runs here.

When You Don’t Make the List

When You Don’t Make the List

When you don’t make the list—whatever “the list” is—it can be hard on your heart.

The bittersweet result of not being picked, while painful, can also reveal hidden pride or an oversight of contentment that comes from doing what the Lord has called you too.

The people of the Amazon always remind me of this—helping me find my way back to humility, peace and contentment.

I hope you enjoy this short excerpt from my book, Wherever the River Runs.

Feeling List-less

Not long after my return from the Amazon, once I’d settled back into the swing of this oh-so-normal American way of life, my friend Mary Katharine picked me up for Pilates. I climbed into the passenger’s seat, sliding a magazine out of the way that she’d brought home from work. When I went to toss it into the backseat, I noticed the front cover: a collage of the Top 50 Most Influential Christian Women in the country today. Intrigued, I glossed over the list and recognized a lot of familiar faces, none of whom were me. I found this so fascinating—you know, that they could get to fifty without me. Not that anyone ever thinks she will be chosen for something like this—or should be—it’s just an interesting feeling when so many women you know, who do things similar to you, are chosen. Before getting in the car, I didn’t even know the list existed, but I’d been made aware of its material presence in the universe, and now there was yet another guest list I hadn’t made, another ball where the slipper didn’t quite fit.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean for you to see that,” MK said, wincing. Well, I’d seen it, and I was pretty sure that she was responsible for whatever despairing, left-out feelings of hurt and jealousy that were now oozing out of me, as if seeing the magazine cover had created those sinking sensations as opposed to merely letting them loose. What was more maddening was that I couldn’t hate the list. It would have been so satisfying to find fault with this grouping of women, to be able to point out someone’s personality defects or wackadoo theology. (Because those feelings are Top-50-Christian-Women worthy.) But the truth was that these were beautiful, talented, dedicated, Christ-seeking women who were having incredible impact, which honest to goodness made the whole thing that much more insufferable. I mean, if I could find fault with everything I’m not chosen for, invited to, part of, included in, well, then I could dismiss everyone and their silly lists.

“You know what?” I said to Mary Katharine, “All I wanted to do was get in the car and go to Pilates, and now I am list-less.” I wondered if this was where we derived the term, from some Latin person who didn’t make a list and said, “After further thought, I’m feeling listless today.” Mary Katharine didn’t think so. I was getting the feeling that the problem wasn’t with the list but with me.

It’s strange how something as simple as a glance at a magazine can expose a host of other issues, like when you spill your coffee in your car and it seeps behind the dash, slips into the hundred pinholes of the speaker, soaks the floor mat, stains your sweater, and leaves a lingering smell that reminds you for weeks of the fateful moments the lid tore away from the cup. Suddenly, you have more problems than just having lost your coffee. I’ve had this happen so many times in my  life—when a single situation tips something over in me and out splash feelings of rejection, failure, insignificance, all running amok. It’s that moment when you think your heart is so blissfully pure and clean and content, and then, suddenly: the magazine. Or the blog comment, the Twitter feed, the email, the Facebook post, the Instagram of someone enjoying a superior life on the beach.

Where God’s Favor Rests

I suppose this is one of the reasons God comes down so hard on pride, why the Scriptures continually urge us to humble ourselves, to not let our right hand know what our left hand is doing, to take the lowly seat at the table. Pride is such an affront, not only to God’s glory, but also to the people around us. There’s just no way to effectively love and serve others while our gain and notoriety are in the forefront. I had to concede that neither my flesh nor my society treasured a humble heart for the prize it is: the place where God’s favor rests.

There’s just no way to effectively love and serve others while our gain and notoriety are in the forefront.Click To Tweet

The jungle pastors were helping to straighten me out in this area. Their lives were teaching me that what we do for the kingdom of God is not measured by the praise we obtain from men and women, but by the praise that comes from God. Not that praise from others is inherently wrong—it’s quite a nice thing, actually. It’s just not the highest thing. Which means that if we make the list or hit the salary goal, if we get to dance on the stage we always dreamed of, if our poem gets published and a bunch of people applaud, we can freely enjoy the praise—without making it our god. Without even making it our pet parakeet. This has kept me from begrudging others when I don’t make the list and humble when I do.

But this wisdom came later. On the way to Pilates I gave Mary Katharine an earful about what’s wrong with Western culture and how we shouldn’t be trying to measure people’s influence and how popularity doesn’t always mean effectiveness. I swung between that very holy perspective and another one of my favorites, an approach I learned from one of the world’s great philosophers from the Hundred Acre Wood, Eeyore. This is where I sigh a lot and rehearse all the times I’ve been left out of things, dating all the way back to senior prom—which it may be time to let go of. Mary Katharine is very measured in her responses to me in these moments, usually letting me vent and bluster a lot of nonsense and self-pity about how I’m never chosen for anything, before quietly saying something like “Now, you know that’s not true.” And then she usually pats me on the shoulder. April, on the other hand, commences her thoughtful rebuttals by simply going bonkers. “Oh, who cares? Are you really going to lose sleep over someone’s made-up list? You of all people know there are bigger things to worry about out there, like all the starving people in the world.” There’s something to be said for both approaches.

The Wisdom of Miriam

While the jungle pastors had been a significant blessing to me—helping me recognize priorities, reminding me of what truly matters in kingdom living, and basically melting my heart—I still longed for the example and advice of another woman. I needed a model of godliness that could help me in moments like my magazine-cover angst. In other words, I needed Miriam, a seventy-year-old missionary and Bible teacher from Manaus, as beautiful as she is humble.

I’ll never forget the night she and I reclined on the veranda of the conference center after most everyone had nestled in bed. It was one of the few windows I would have to ask her about her life, so she obliged my late-night request, which meant Francie also had to agree to stay up and translate. Meaty jungle bugs swarmed the spotlights above us while the occasional bat zigzagged its way through our conversation, the view of the river having dissolved into the thick Amazon blackness. All was calm as I sat across from this wise and gracious woman, though few outside Manaus would have known her name.

God’s Miracles in Miriam

She told me about the time she’d been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, and how she’d learned to thank God, even for a life-threatening disease. She explained how He miraculously healed her, though she never intimated her healing had anything to do with whatever faith or belief or thanksgiving she could muster on her end, simply that He’d chosen to give her more time to serve Him here. And for this she was grateful. She also told me about a harrowing accident that left her unable to walk for a time until an angel appeared to her, touched her back, and enabled her to walk again. I’d never had a miraculous experience like this, wasn’t even sure if I believed in them. Miriam wouldn’t have understood this—angels and healings are in the Bible, she’d say. Even so, it wasn’t the divine healings that so moved me as much as her humble, gentle spirit. She embodied that intangible essence that Peter described as being of unfading and great worth in the sight of God. It wasn’t the stuff of magazine covers, but it was what mattered to God. I found this to be about as rare as any angel sighting.

Near the end of the night Miriam lifted her finger in the air as if to make a particular point. “If every woman believed what God has in store for her, every woman would devote her life to the service of God.”

“If every woman believed what God has in store for her, every woman would devote her life to the service of God.”Click To Tweet

And this is precisely where I’d gotten off track. It wasn’t just about pride or wanting to be noticed; it was also about unbelief. There was still part of me that didn’t believe that God as my portion was more than enough, that He really does satisfy, and that He’s set me apart for a specific purpose. If I could more fully embrace these truths, I would be free to prize Him above all else and, as Miriam put it, devote my life more fully to Him.

Finding Love in Him

I’ll never forget that night with Miriam under the stars. She was a woman who had found her life’s purpose in Jesus, because she had found her love in Him. We eventually said good night, and I crawled into a modest twin bed, pulling the thin white sheet over my body. I didn’t need the sheet for warmth, that was for sure, but I found it comforting to be lined in cotton, to have something that felt familiar to me in the jungle. I drifted off to sleep pondering Miriam, this rare saint whose silvery shoulder-length hair had shimmered in the moonlight, belying her age and embellishing her charm, each strand a testament to a life faithfully lived. I wasn’t sure what list she was on, but I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if someone could finagle me onto it.

To read more from Wherever the River Runs, order the book from Kelly’s online store.


Where the River Runs