Blindsided! That’s how I felt when the Lord gently but firmly pointed out to me that I was blind to something profoundly important. I had loved and served those far away, yet I hadn’t even said hello to my actual neighbors—the ones who lived on either side of us and on the first floor of our apartment complex. In fact, I didn’t even know my next-door neighbors.
During the five years my husband, Shawn, and I were in graduate school in Rochester, New York, we had co-directed our church’s junior and senior high youth groups. Every year, at my insistence, we stuck with the same youth group theme: “Know Jesus; Follow Him.” After all, I reasoned, If knowing and following Jesus is most important, why change the theme from year to year? Shawn and I had lifted the theme straight from John 17:3, “Now this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth,” and from John 3:16, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
In addition to these verses, we sought to teach the kids the essentials of discipleship through our words and through our lives. What are those discipleship essentials? Jesus tells us, “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets” (matthew 22:40) are summed up in two commandments—to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (see matthew 22:36–39). And from the parable of the good Samaritan we learn that a “neighbor” is anyone with whom we come into contact whose needs we can meet—which certainly includes our literal neighbors. Loving God and our neighbors is Christianity at its core. It’s the essentials, the basics.
The most meaningful experiences from our youth group’s attempts to live out this love of God and neighbors were our disaster relief efforts. Twice we embarked on trips with larger groups from our church to help repair and rebuild the homes of the rural poor who had lost everything to floods. We spent time in solitude and silence, prayer and work, and in fellowship as we served our neighbors side by side. We grew in love for God and for one another. Eleven- to eighteen-year-olds, those in their twenties, thirties, and above, and even those approaching their eighties, all put in long sweaty days of back-breaking work to love and serve neighbors who lived three hours away.
We enjoyed every minute of our youth group days. (Well, except for the time our bus broke down on the way home from the annual youth retreat.) Our days were full of studying, spending time with the kids, or planning for youth group meetings and trips. Shawn and I were away from home most of the day and often into the evening. After particularly long days and nights, we’d cross the threshold of our apartment and tumble into bed. Moments later, I was fast asleep. Washing my face, brushing my teeth, and changing my clothes could wait until the morning. Exhaustion had me reversing the order of personal hygiene.
Those long days and nights, as meaningful as they were, prevented me from encountering—much less getting to know—our neighbors around us. I passed them like ships in the night, or the day, depending on our schedules.
During that time I felt the gentle nudge of the Lord about missing something—more properly, someone. Even as I encouraged the kids to love their neighbors, I didn’t know the first thing about my neighbors—the ones right next to me. I wouldn’t have recognized them as my neighbors if we happened upon each other at the grocery store or even at church. While I was busy loving our church neighbors, the poor in our larger community, those far away who were flood victims, and the hungry throughout the world, I unwittingly neglected our literal neighbors.Eyes to see
You see, I was nearly completely blind to them. And in the kingdom of God, seeing is of utmost importance. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:22–23, “Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!”
Seeing our neighbors is the first step in loving them. I hadn’t intentionally avoided them or averted my eyes. But my blindness had led to a woeful failure of love. I simply didn’t notice my neighbors or stop to consider how God might already be at work in their lives. I didn’t look to be an ambassador of God’s grace. I was kneedeep in ministry to other people. And so these beautiful human beings made in the image of God faded into the thin walls of my apartment complex. They receded into the background of my life like unnoticed scenery. In failing to see them, I unknowingly and unintentionally dehumanized my neighbors. Lord, have mercy!
Thankfully God saw them and loved them. And he invited me to do the same.
That night when the Lord nudged me and alerted me to my failure of love, he opened my eyes to see and commit to loving my closest neighbors wherever I live.
It would be nice if I was alone in my blindness, if I was the only Christian who struggles to be a neighbor to those closest to me. But I’ve found my struggle to be one many followers of Christ wrestle with.
Let’s explore some ways in which we can love our literal neighbors. In doing so, I am assuming that most of us are gladly giving our time, energy, and resources to our regional and global neighbors as well as our local churches. However, I am also assuming that some are like me: loving all sorts of people, including people online, yet failing to show love to our closest neighbors (maybe even our family members), which naturally will demand much of us. And maybe some of us are somewhere in between.