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.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”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.” quote=”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.”]

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).

[click_to_tweet tweet=”“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 2:8″ quote=”“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 2:8″]

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.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”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.” quote=”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.”]

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.


A Saint in the Amazon

A few weeks ago I returned from Manaus, Brazil, what many call The Gateway to The Amazon.

I spent a week on the river with Justice and Mercy Amazon visiting some incredible villages along the river in some obscure areas, and then spent four days meeting with dear friends and jungle pastors in Manaus. (I had a phenomenal week, which is probably a story for another post.) While in the city I requested to see one of the most remarkable followers of Jesus I’ve ever met, a sixty-eight year-old Brazilian woman named Ana (name has been changed). I first met her at our First Annual Jungle Pastor’s Conference a few years ago, and I’ve made a point to see her every visit. Ana’s hard to get your hands on, though. Half the time she’s booked up teaching one of her three-hour classes on hermeneutics, working with her pastor at her church or temporarily living in another country in South America serving the poor. Last year she voluntarily dwelt in a hut, I believe in Peru, where she had to draw her own water, describing conditions I don’t even understand – she was there teaching the bible. And I think she had health issues at the time.

salon and hair stylist cooperation

But it’s her smile, her peace, her profound inner joy that in many ways defy the difficult life she’s had: a broken engagement years ago (Ana has remained single), two bouts with cancer, an accident that caused excruciating back pain and literal persecution for her faith. A person can’t fake the attributes her countenance and spirit beam forth. These don’t come from having more stuff or pleasure or entertainment. We hear these words a lot, but they are the fruit that comes from the Spirit. Ana’s peace, joy and radiance is what I want, I just don’t always want the road that unleashes them. But I’m also at the point where I’m not willing to miss Him for anything.

I had an hour with Ana sitting in a friend’s living room. Her grey hair flipped up at her shoulders brushing her cream top, printed with lavender roses. She was also wearing a jean skirt – I’m so sure: adorable. With all of you in mind and, selfishly, with me in mind I asked Ana a few questions about life, faith, her relationship with Jesus. Here are a few of the things she told me…

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

She was not wagging her finger when she said this. She was perched on the edge of her seat leaning toward me with an inviting smile the way a mother bends toward her child and says, you don’t want to miss this for anything in the world! Her zeal reminded me of Mary of Bethany: When you’ve tasted the person of Jesus – when you know Him – you will spill your all over Him with delight, even urgency. Instead of wondering how I could drum up greater sacrifice or employ more disciplines, Ana by her very presence reminded me that when you know Him, you will delight in loving Him.

“When God saves you, there’s a specific place for you in His service”, she continued. “There’s only one way to find this out: intimacy with Christ.” I wonder if you believe that about yourself. Or maybe the better question is do you believe that about God – that He really does have a place for you? Sometimes I wonder this, and the remedy comes through spending time at His feet…. listening (Mary of Bethany), or as Ana put it “intimacy with Christ.” The question becomes, am I spending the time?

Ana went onto explain how she talks to God just like she was speaking to me – She tells Him everything, discusses even the mildest of details with Him. She described how we can know His voice like a woman can distinguish her husband’s out of a thousand. She explained how she listens to the Lord by reading His Word – she just finished her 145th reading through the Bible. (But no guilt here – just take it with a spoonful of encouragement, because that’s how she dispensed it. That’s how I took it.) She talked about three qualities that help her discern His voice in any given situation: Peace, joy and assurance in accordance with His Word.

If your background is anything like mine, none of this is necessarily new. Spending time pouring over God’s Word, listening and petitioning in prayer, serving God through obedience are all things we know. But it’s not the “new” that’s going to change us, rather a recommitment to the timeless.

So much distracts us today, perhaps more than at any other time in history. The iPhone alone could be my undoing. I can’t imagine there ever being a time where I had access to more opinions, arguments, “comments” about everything, and yet Ana reminded me once again of The Voice, the One that matters above all others. The Voice of the Shepherd whom His sheep know (John 10:27). She inspired me to take back the time to hear Him. Not that I wasn’t reading the bible or listening, but to re-up my commitment. To really guard it. To silence the alerts and alarms. To protect the space.

Beyond what Ana said it was the serenity of her presence that spoke the clearest. She knows who she is; She knows what she’s supposed to do; She knows the One who goes with her. And out of that understanding flows a peace and a beauty as deep and attractive as the Amazon. This lovely woman didn’t offer me a “how-to” because relationships aren’t that clinical. But she reminded me that purpose, peace and knowing are all attainable qualities through intimacy with Christ. She reminded me the abundant life in Jesus is possible.


My Mom In The Jungle And Other Ramblings

“And you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Never do these words of Jesus mean more to me than when I’m in the jungles of Brazil. I’m not sure what constitutes the ends of the earth, but if ever a region deserved this title, the jungle would have as good a shot as any for ends-of-the-earthness. I just returned from my fifth trip there in connection with a ministry called Ray of Hope. They’re a local, on the ground mission in Manaus that exists to serve the people who live along the vast and glorious river we call the Amazon.

My experiences there have forced me to rethink the various elements of my life, thus my Christianity as a whole. So here I am, attempting to blog about this latest trip while it’s fresh on my mind, while I can still smell the scents of the Amazon and my spirit’s still buzzing with the excitement of meeting people who are living the Christian life in ways I’ve scarcely encountered. More than anything, I want to write about the unrivaled joy of serving with my family, my mom in particular this time.

Yes, my mom came with us for her first time, the trip’s first miracle. How shall I put this? My mom doesn’t do bugs. She doesn’t do camping, roughing it, excessive heat. She really doesn’t do roaches the size of rodents, leaping tarantulas, or scorpions that lurk in people’s shoes (people meaning us). And when smartypants people say, “Well, most tarantulas aren’t dangerous”, I want to respond with, “Does this matter when the spider is the size of your face?” The whole Amazon caboodle is not really my mom’s cup of tea. Actually, tea is her cup of tea, as in Earl Grey in an English cup that’s perched on a coffee table inside someone’s home that has central heating and air. Going to the Amazon was a tremendous act of obedience on her part, one I don’t take lightly.

As the boat pulled up to our very first village, I turned to my mom, “Mom, I need someone to share a testimony for the families today, can you do it?” Mom gave me a mom-look that said something along the lines of I am bodily present in the jungle, can that be enough for now? But my mom is a quiet spiritual giant, and I knew how effective it would be if she shared how God had taken hold of her life as a young high school girl desperate for a relationship with a Savior she knew nothing of at the time, even if she was just settling into her surroundings. My mom is subtle and unapologetically what-you-see-is-what-you-get; when she shares how the Lord transformed her heart, you listen.

Please imagine the swell in my soul when I watched her share her testimony with the jungle village of Sao Tome while wearing her hot pink Living Proof Live t-shirt. Some of my favorite worlds collided in that one moment. Now imagine my joy when, after she shared, a man and a woman stepped forward to give their lives to Jesus. The young man had been someone Ray of Hope had known for years, but never had he expressed interest in becoming a Christian. Today was the day.

Having my mom in the jungle meant much to me on layered levels because I knew she wouldn’t have chosen this trip. She went in obedience to God and she went out of love for Him and her family. As Nehemiah mentioned being “very much afraid” in chapter 2 while approaching the king to request permission to help rebuild Jerusalem, so my mom had her fears but she didn’t let them paralyze her from seeing what God wanted her to see and doing what He wanted her to do. Had she stayed in her familiar and comfortable surrounding she would have missed an encounter with a young husband and wife with HIV. Through tears, the mother thanked my mom and dad for starting a church that would, on that day, help them build a home in a village that once shunned her family because of her and her husband’s disease. It was a moment of eternal joy. A memory no one can steal from my mom or me ever.

As my mom and I walked away from that village – I have no idea where my dad was, he tends to go off exploring unannounced – I thought about my parents’ legacy. How 38 years ago my mom agreed to move to a tiny, no-name town in VA to begin Reston Bible Church with my dad. 38 years, thousands of people, hundreds of collective mission trips, countless people who’ve come to Christ later, that decision blossomed in a village called Acajatuba where hard working saints from that same church showed up to build a house for a suffering, believing couple who otherwise would never have had a home. It was a memorable walk to the boat.

I don’t know if you have a family of your own. I am not married and without children so my blood family consists of my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and I count my two star in-laws in there as well. My chosen family is a few dear friends who I shudder to think of life without. These are the family members I am blessed to serve with, a joy more furious than the Amazon River itself.

I have no idea what God has put in your heart to do. I would never suggest it be a particular continent, city, or street, only that you seek Him hard for the people to whom He’s called you. I know He has inexplicably commanded us to love people, serve them, teach them, give to them in a way that points them (and us) back to His saving grace. He has not asked us to do this alone but in the context of community. Go get it.