Lots of us don't even know our neighbors' names - much less how to love them in real life. Dear friend Alexandra Kuykendall opens up about how she's growing more "neighborly" - and how we can as well.
Loving Our Neighbors Well - Even When It's Hard
By Alexandra Kuykendall
Lately I've been asking people, "What keeps you from loving your neighbor the way you'd like?"
For some it's an easy response that spills out almost before I'm done asking the question. "His dog barks at 3:00 in the morning." "They play their music too loud." Or my recent favorite, "He drives on our lawn when he's drunk." I say this is my "favorite" because I can immediately feel empathy for WHY it would be hard to "love" this particular neighbor. These kinds of answers are quick to come to mind because we instantly know we don't like how our neighbor is behaving. That other person gives us plenty of reason to fume.
For others the answer to that question draws out a larger, more introspective kind of reply. "I'm afraid my neighbors won't like me." "I'm worried I'll say the wrong thing." "I'm plain lazy." These responses are filled with a more low-lying angst, that somehow we are doing life with our neighbors wrong. It's a mix of guilt and recognition of the overly busy schedules we keep and our reluctance to spend our precious time with people we don't know. In these answers we must deal with some internal barriers that are a bit more hidden to the outside world.
Jesus was clear: love God, love others. When it comes to loving our neighbors, we Christians know we're supposed to. And because it was at the top of Jesus's to-do list for us, we get busy with the doing. Our Protestant work ethic kicks in; loving more must mean doing more. So when we feel the inspiration (or the guilt) to love our neighbors, we are quick to pull out our notebooks and pens and focus in on all of the ways we will get'er done. Except that I'm not sure Jesus wanted us to love our neighbors by bulldozer method, but wanted us to do a better job of seeing and listening to the people right around us, so that we could better respond to their needs.
I define neighbors as the people within arm's reach. Those whose hands we can shake, tears we can wipe, and tables we can share. Why? There is something special about the incarnational life. God chose it when he stepped on this earth as a baby. He lived it with the disciples. He didn't shy away from the hard of it, in fact quite the opposite; he embraced difficulty on behalf of humanity. There was something about Jesus entering our physical space that mattered then and now. Given Jesus's clear directive on loving our neighbors, we can ask a few questions that may move us from anger or guilt to connection.
What if we didn't focus on doing more, but on the quality of interactions? What if loving our neighbors better means a more intentional type of care? What if we step over the things that have kept us from loving well in the past, and move forward with anticipation that the Holy Spirit lives between us? What if we ask a few people more questions? Listen to a handful of stories with more depth? What if we stay in a conversation or relationship even when it gets a little awkward?
Let this be our freedom call to not add "loving our neighbors" to our to-do list so we can bulldoze in with activity, but change our mindset to being together, learning from each other, and enjoying the image-bearers in our midst. We are not meant to be all things to all people (God's got than one covered), but we are called to love a few, those right in front of us, well.
"So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well." -Philippians 1:9 (MSG)
Alexandra Kuykendall lives in the shadows of downtown Denver with her husband Derek and their four daughters. Her new book, Loving My Actual Neighbor, is available wherever books are sold. Connect with her at AlexandraKuykendall.com.