"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
who comforts us in all our troubles,
so that we can comfort those in any trouble
with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)
Pain doesn't seem to play favorites. The brokenness of life is everywhere and some days I feel so tired. Some days I feel pain in my own life, and some days I deeply sense the pain of others around me. Sometimes I can't help but feel distant from others as I experience the wide chasm of isolation among people caught between worlds, cultures, and perspectives. Sometimes my faith feels weak even though my hope is sustained in the One who has been here all along—the Divine Neighbor.
Years ago, I met a man named Steve. He was in his mid-forties and dying of cancer—the doctor had recently told him he had only a few months to live. Steve reached out to me as a pastor, but we quickly became friends. We met nearly every week, and sometimes we met several times a week. One month turned to another month, and then several more months turned into a year. Steve spoke into my life, prayed for forgiveness over pain he caused in his family, and grew in compassion for those closest to him. He didn't use churchy language and he grew to love God with an honest love, one that only comes from God.
I remember the Tuesday afternoon when Steve asked me to share about Jesus at his poker tournament. How could I turn down the opportunity to speak at a poker tournament? The next thing I knew, I was standing in the middle of a packed open bar with a mic in my hand. The energy was electric and the soul of my five-minute message was focused on the essence of relationship. I told the story of the time I played basketball at a tournament in Ivory Coast. The African arena was filled with about 5,000 fans. We knew we were in trouble when we learned that our little hodge-podge unit of former college grads was playing their national all-star team. These guys were good. Really good. One player literally jumped over me for a fast break dunk. I've played ball in many big cities, and I've seen some players. This guy? I saw the bottom of his shoe flying over my head.
As soon as the game was over, several thousand people rushed the floor and a small riot began to break out. It felt like our team was about to get trampled by the pushing and shoving and celebrating fans. The police arrived with machine guns and billyclubs and began beating people. That was the moment our team grabbed each other's arms and formed a circle. We held each other up against the wave of the crowd around us, and it was then that I knew everything would be okay.
As I finished the story in that bar, everyone locked arms and surrounded our friend, Steve. Somehow the Divine Neighbor met us that evening at a poker game in an old building off the beaten path, where hard-working people stood beside a man and his family saying, "No matter what happens, we're with you."
Sometimes loving our neighbor is allowing our neighbor to love us.
Not all stories end like that though. I have had to face my futility in the face of incredible pain more often than I care to remember. Like the first funeral I officiated. It was for a stillborn baby of friends of mine. They exemplified a spirit and grace and forgiveness and depth rarely discovered among families. Then there was the moment when a woman from our church called me to share that her husband had committed suicide. What could I tell her? There are no words. And then there was the time a man was crawling around my office floor oppressed by some kind of demon, scratching at the carpeting near my desk with his eyes rolled back. There was the time when my pastor decided to leave everything he knew, including his wife and children. And I can still envision the time when gunfire filled the air in front of my living room, when my neighbor was searching for a place to live and only had a few days to do it, and when my friends experienced racism and somehow found a way to respond with peace and grace.
I could go on and on. The list of stories never really seems to end. Some days I still feel pain that I forgot was there. Why do I still struggle? Why is this same old thing resurfacing after all these years? Crises abound and our ability to breathe takes a concerted energy. I have no easy answers. Most of the time, I will never fully understand the extent of the pain people feel all around me, much less my own. Yet I do know that God knows my pain and the pain of others, more than I could ever begin to fathom. I do know that there is hope and healing and forgiveness, and that I have much to be grateful for as I experience new mercies at daybreak.
There are times when we need to step back and observe what's happening within us and around us. Sometimes we need to slow down and wait, allowing the quiet whisper of the Spirit to rejoice over us with singing. For some of us, we need to be still. We need rest. We need the God of all Comfort to heal us, mending us back together, allowing the Divine Neighbor to love us first. Somehow, God seems to absorb our pain. He meets us in the most obscure moments when we have nothing left, when we don't feel like laughing, or when the well is empty and dry. But Christ doesn't offer the absence of pain. He offers himself. Christ extends a hand as our neighbor as we grapple with the extent of the healing that we need. He also invites us to stand with each other so that together we can discover that, while some experience pain or poverty, others are experiencing joy and celebration.
Joy and pain are more closely related than it seems—the two live side-by-side. They too are neighbors, living in the same zip code, on the same street, and even find each other bound up together in the same home. In all the extremes of life, Christ kneels down and enters our world. In joy and sorrow, we can experience God as the ultimate neighbor, a Divine Neighbor within us and with us at our side. Somehow, the Spirit of God continues the process of healing me when I least expect it, when I discover that another layer to the onion is about to peel back toward the center of my heart. And I come to understand that God hurts with me in my deepest moments of discouragement. I learn to become a neighbor with others when I embrace God as the first and ultimate Neighbor in my life. As I choose to receive the unending love and grace of God, then I am able to show love to others and receive it from them.
The brilliance of Jesus awaits fresh discovery in the open places of our hearts where we find that there is plenty of room for love. It is a relentless love that brings strangers together in strange places like poker tournaments and churches, streets and offices. We in the Western church are one small expression in God's kingdom, and our moment in global church history depends on our smallness—one risk at a time, one breath at a time. One small choice to love leads to greater opportunities to love.
May we be people of action, serving one another with such passion and endurance that the most trying of tasks and the most difficult of times would seem like only a few days to us. May we never stop showing the grace and love of our God to each other. In humility, may we regard each other as better than ourselves, determined to be people of hope in the midst of personal and global crises.
Jesus is leading us into our neighborhoods, standing ready to embrace us in the unknown of our pain and joy. Are you hearing the tune that is being sung for us? When the fullness of God's new song crescendos, joining all of creation with that chorus, " . . . members from every tribe and language and people and nation . . ." then we will know why the law and prophets hang on a command to love—to love God and our neighborhood as ourselves. Let us dream up new ways to live and share and lead and love.
The Divine Neighbor awaits us with open arms.
"Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls."
Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)
Download: The Divine Neighbor (.pdf)