November 28, 2014

Neighbors

By Chaplain Mike

The man’s tears were unsettling. There is something about a man crying uncontrollably that shakes me. His dying wife was in the bed across the room, speaking occasionally, but mostly lying with eyes closed, comfortable but waning. He cried for her. He cried for himself. He cried for the fact that he was losing the life they had shared for decades.

In particular, he was anxious about finances. Long the family provider, he now saw bills filling the mailbox day after day, from the usual utilities to the extraordinary medical bills, and he knew the funds in his bank account were insufficient to cover them. The one area he had always controlled was now beyond his control. As for other matters, he knew he was in over his head. He knew he had to trust the doctors and medical experts with regard to his wife’s condition. And he didn’t worry much about his kids any more. They had grown and were taking care of their own lives now. But the money—he had been careful about that. These should have been their golden years, when the money he had earned and they had saved together would support them in a life of modest comfort.

Instead, he found himself with a futile finger in the dike, water leaking and spraying around it into his face, the wall bulging and threatening to overwhelm him with a torrent of flood waters any moment.

I didn’t know what to say to him. Thankfully, I’m part of a team and we have wonderful social workers who are creative and knowledgeable about sources of help in time of need. I made a note to call his ASAP. As for me, I listened to this sad man, prayed with him and his wife, put my hand on his shoulder and tried to encourage him as we sat together, the oxygen concentrator humming away in the little bedroom of their humble house.

As I left, a story he told me during my visit grabbed hold of my heart and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterward. It both saddened and inspired me. As I meditated upon it, I realized that this man was not only upset about his money situation. He was losing his life. A way of living and relating to others in his community was passing away. However, there was still a heartbeat, still a bit of breath, still enough life in the old neighborhood to give one hope.

My friend and his wife were in the habit of patronizing a little corner store and cafe down the street. Over the years, they rarely missed a day sharing a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup for lunch. That’s where they read the paper, saw their neighbors, caught up on the latest news and, ahem!—gossip. This is where the people in their world bragged about their kids’ exploits, argued about local politics and school issues, complained about the weather, and played the roles they had adopted among their friends.

They loved that little restaurant and gathering place. It was as much a part of their life together as their own living room. However, when his wife got sick, it became more and more difficult to go. Finally, they had to stop altogether.

The man felt bad about this. He felt so bad that one day he called and talked to the owner. Told him he was sorry they hadn’t been by for awhile. Expressed his regret that the store had to lose their business. Apologized. As if it weren’t right that the business should suffer just because his wife got sick.

If my mouth didn’t drop when I heard that, I don’t know why. Who does a thing like that these days? Who goes out of his way to make a phone call and say “I’m sorry” to the owner of a business when he and his family can’t afford to support it any longer? Come to think of it, who still thinks of shopping or eating out as “supporting a business” and its workers? Who considers merchants personal friends? Who sees life in the community as so intertwined and organically connected that one thinks he needs to apologize when he can’t do his part because of difficult circumstances?

I thought it was an extraordinary act of grace.

Then he told me more. He shared how just recently he heard a knock on the door. Leaving his wife’s side, he answered it and was greeted by a young woman who worked at that corner store. She carried a big paper bag in her arms, filled with food. Along with it, she handed him an envelope that contained a get-well card and a couple of twenty dollar bills. A small token of love. Probably about all that a struggling inner city shop owner could afford to send to help a neighbor in need.

The message? Apology accepted, or rather, apology not necessary. We understand. We’re in this together. Thank you for being part of our lives. You still are—whether you can buy our stuff or not. You live down the street. We try to take care of each other around here.

As I climbed behind the wheel of my car and pulled out, I shut off the radio and drove in silence. In an old neighborhood where few travel, where the sidewalks are crumbling and the streets are uneven, where on some streets grass grows unmown around boarded-up houses, where people have lived and worked and raised families since after World War II and some have never left, an old woman lay dying, a man wept, and I caught a glimpse of God’s image in a simple story. Grace. Neighborliness.

It took my breath away.

Comments

  1. Thanks, CM, for sharing this. You have captured with eloquence, the reason I live in the small, rural, Ohio town that I do. The manager of the store where we buy our groceries has a child in the same marching band as our daughter. His wife bid on our children’s turkeys that they raised for 4H and showed at the county fair and the back wall of his store is covered with pictures of the animals he bought and the kids who raised them.

    And that’s just one bit of the community. We don’t say, “We are going to the drug store.” We say, “I’m going to see Larry,” when we pick up our prescriptions. We know we are always going to get a lecture on drug interactions and whether to take it with food or not. And if our prescriptions run out, we can generally expect a phone call to see if we’re OK. My wife went to school with the owner of one of the local pizza shops. My brother-in-law fishes with the owner of one of the local gas stations and has his mower repaired at the other one (who happens to live right around the corner from us). I could go on, but the connections are too many to tell.

    Neighborhoods are a great place to raise children because they are raised with stories. We don’t need Garrison Keillor to go on about Lake Wobegone because we have our own stories. Everyone is connected. My children come home with a stories about their school friends. We contribute to the conversation with stories about their friends’ parents when they were in school. The connections run both through the neighborhood and through time. It is a sublimity that fills us with both privilege and responsibility.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes. We can still be this for each other, one person at a time.

  3. That is a touching story, Chaplain Mike. And I know this can get us off-topic, but it points out again that in America people should not lose everything they have financially because of a sickness. Here is a man who worked all his life and now on top of the sadness and agony of losing his wife, he has to agonize over not being able to pay his bills. It is not right. It’s just not right.

    • You’re right, and so this family’s Christian brethren have failed – except for the restaurant owner. Oh wait- you meant something else. ;)

      • In fact, medical care would be much cheaper if the government had not intervened so much since the 60’s in all areas. Competition and Free Enterprise bring the prices down across the board…even on advanced medical care.

        We are finding out now in snippets that Obamacare is going to not only be more expensive but will have to be rationed.

  4. This is a wonderful essay. Thank you.

    And, I must tell you another one. My son recently bought one front tire. The salesman pointed out that his other front tire was also in bad condition. My son knew that, but said he couldn’t afford another one at that time. He and his wife then went to a nearby coffee shop to wait for the tire to be mounted. When they returned, his truck had 2 new tires, not one. But, the bill only listed one. When my son asked about it, the salesman said he and the manager knew that the other tire was unsafe and they didn’t want him driving like that. So, they gave it to him.

    • wow….what kindness. It’s good to hear these things, when everything we hear in the news seems so bleak. Glimpses of grace …

  5. Rob in Oregon says:

    My sister recently had her car repossessed. She call us broken and in tears just after the bank sent someone to drive it away. We were scrambling to help her pay the back payments when a close friend gave her a car to use “as long as she needs it.” she called again in tears because of the kindness of one of her “neighbors”…and we cried, too…
    When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “…and the second is equally important. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Matthew 22:39 It is a wonderful thing to see people, believers and non- believers alike expressing the heart of the Lord…
    Thanks for this reminder..

  6. Prodigal Daughter says:

    Keep the stories coming! They are so beautiful. We know Christ reigns, but it is difficult to see Christ and his kingdom unless others reveal it to us or we reveal it to others.

  7. This is a perfect example of how we should live, as an Advent people, waiting on Christ’s return, living out the Kingdom until the King arrives. My prayers for this gentleman and his wife. What a beautiful story. Thanks, CM…

  8. Thank you for sharing this story. It was very touching, and reminds me to keep keeping my eyes open for how I can help those who are right here in my neighborhood.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Come to think of it, who still thinks of shopping or eating out as “supporting a business” and its workers?”

    I think this is more common than you imagine, but for some bizarre reason, nowadays it tends to be conceived of as a liberal trait. The locavore movement is a clear expression of the idea (albeit with other ideological factors mixed in). The idea of shopping and dining decisions as part of one’s role in a community is pretty mainstream in lefty circles in a way which isn’t really compatible with the ideal of individualism.

    • I would humbly suggest that conservatives – like myself – think about this too. In fact, the Chamber of Commerce says it all the time. Methinks the “locavores” are primarily preoccupied with other considerations.

    • Some people look at me like I am crazy because I pay a few cents more per gallon of gas to buy from a friend who owns a local convenience store.

  10. Mike, Thanks for sharing this. We pastors often get to be a part of situations like this. No one tells us this when we are in school, do they?

  11. I believe things like this happen everyday in middle America. It’s not liberal or conservative, it’s justneighbors.

  12. Randy Thompson says:

    Thanks for this. It was beautiful.

    My wife and I make an effort to patronize businesses and restaurants that are local and locally owned, where we know the people who work there as not-quite family and not-quite friends but as a bit of both. You can’t possibly have a relationship with a MacDonalds, or an Applebee’s or a Chili’s, but you can, in our town, with Dom’s Eatery, Windsor 75 Diner, and Nate Hayden’s.

    This is a Wendell Berry novel or essay come to life. If you’re not familiar with Wendell Berry, this story serves as a wonderful introduction to a wonderful writer’s vision of the way the world should be.

    • Even thought McDonald’s and others are chains, the people who work there are local and depend on our business to keep their jobs. I’ve actually been able to meet and get to know many people at my local McDonald’s and feel that is where God wants me to minister in my community.

  13. Denise Spencer says:

    Wow. Thank you so much, Mike, for sharing.

  14. Jeff Livingston says:

    Nice one Michael. And I agree with several commenters: this kind of Christian action is not the exclusive province of conservatives, liberals, or even locavores. :)

  15. Trying to catch my breath. Thanks.

  16. Chaplain Mike, what a beautiful depiction of the second greatest commandment. Thank you for spurring us on.

  17. For the past two years I’ve had to squeeze out a living as a pizza delivery driver. And every day I have the unique experience of being treated with an odd mixture of kindness, generosity, contempt, and indifference by an interesting variety of people from just about every walk of life. And through these experiences I have come to believe that the way people treat others really comes down to the lens through which they view them. I can tell when I’m being regarded and appreciated as a fellow human being. And I can tell when I’m being looked upon as a subhuman member of society’s servant class or as some kind of mobile vending machine. I can also tell when I’m being viewed through a lens of suspicion or habitual anger or deep-rooted bitterness. And it’s not something I measure by how well or whether or not they tip me. I’ve been tipped well by people who obviously regarded me as a lower life form, and I”ve been stiffed by people who genuinely apologized for not having the extra money to give me.
    And I don’t think people are always viewing others through the same lens. I think the kind of day we’re having or the way someone recently treated us can very easily color how we see the people around us — and therefore effect how we treat them. As Christians, I believe we are called to view others through the lens of God’s love as often as we can manage — to recognize our fellow human beings as children loved by God and created in His image. And we are called to act on what we see through that lens. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to get so caught up in our own circumstances that we slip into the trap of seeing those around us as just props on the stage of our own personal drama. It’s in those times that we need to be reminded to open the eyes of our hearts and really see people through the lens of love and compassion.
    Thanks, Mike, for the beautiful reminder.

  18. one more Mike says:

    I’ve been pretty much unemployed for the last 2 years. My neighbors on either side are both Roman Catholic. One sent us an anonymous Christmas card (but I recognised the handwriting) last year with a considerable amount of cash in it. The other catholic neighbor asked us to “please come empty their freezer since they’d decided to go “hormone free” and didn’t want what was in the freezer anymore”. I haven’t bought meat for 7 months. These are the people we are closest to and who hold us the most dear.

    My evangelical (SBC) bretheren? They tell me to send them my resume’, and they’ll show it to “some people”, with no results and apparently little actual effort on their part. They quit talking to us, and when we quit going to church, they never asked why, and several the families we attended the SBC church with live on our street and wave at us as we drive past. I guess they don’t think “God is blessing” what’s going on with us, since we don’t tithe or bring anything “to the storehouse” and aren’t fitting the “abundant living” model. Screw them. They have no idea what a blessing and eye opener this experience has been, and how it has (for me) shown where their hearts truly are.

    OBTW, we haven’t missed a bill payment and we aren’t in danger of losing our house. We have donated time and other resources to Habitat for Humanity and my wife has been shopping for Toys for Tots since the summer. I bought canned food this morning to give to the Catholic charities food pantry. We believe we’re living through a season and will find our way out of this wilderness soon and will be more generous to others because of the compassion we’ve been shown. But we will not emerge from this season of wandering in the wilderness as evangelicals.

    Martha, Joanie D, HUG, you may have me yet!!!!!!!

    • one more Mike writes, “Martha, Joanie D, HUG, you may have me yet!!!!!!!”

      Hi, one more Mike. I am glad I caught your comment. I have my settings so that I am supposed to get new comments in a “Feed” but it only gives me some of the comments and this week it has been particularly bad at giving me comments so I know I miss a lot. But I caught this one!

      I am glad to hear that your Catholic neighbors have been generous to you. That is heartening to hear. I don’t reach out to my neighbors anywhere near enough, I am afraid. If you are looking for your employment status to change, I hope it does. I am happy to hear you are not in danger of losing your house. Pray for us, that we won’t lose our house. We have a few months left before I have no idea how we will be able to pay bills. My husband hasn’t worked full-time for over 3 years now.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Mike, thank you for your eloquent story. Your neighbors sound wonderful, and the spirit you are displaying is humbling. Sorry about the other church. Some have forgotten the neighbor concept in our day.

  19. Wow…Bueatiful story. Its the small measures that really can reveal a person’s intentions. Those small measures speak volumes in today’s world. I used to work with the homeless in the metropolitian area that I live in, and in many ways it was a refreshing approach to the mega church in the suburbs. Hanging around people of the same ethnic, upper middle class background didn’t quite do it. But even today…long after having left the church I still get occasional calls from some of the homeless I used to hang out with. It’s been weird…and sad. Most of the time I let the voicemail kick in becuase I’m too embaraased to tell them what happened…why I can’t believe in God right now. Maybe I should..it’s more loving than what some of the people in the megachurch have done.