Oh, What About Those Neighbors?

The Neighbor Over the Hill, Lubec, Maine

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall “ deals with the difficulties of neighborliness. Frost and his neighbor had different philosophies about the stone wall separating his orchard from his neighbor’s pine grove, but Frost pointed out how unnecessary the fence was, “My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.”  Despite Frost’s further observation that even nature didn’t like the wall (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,/And spills the upper boulders in the sun”), his neighbor insisted that “Good fences make good neighbors“, a mantra his father taught him. (“He will not go behind his father’s saying,…” /And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors…’ )

In a Freudian world, adherence to that maxim is more about protecting a fearful, insecure, bruised spirit than about maintaining boundary lines. (“He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” “Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top/ In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed..”) In some ways, Frost’s neighbor is reminiscent of Bette Midler’s “The Rose”, a popular early 80’s song about romantic love, which poetically addressed the hesitancies and fears of opening up one’s heart to another, of a “heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance”; of a dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance”; or of those who won’t take because they “cannot give”; or of the “soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.”

Relationships can be tricky! As Midler sang, “Some say, Love. It is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed.”  We are flawed and wound each other, but healthy relationships are what we want most in life. That requires effort but also may require some “fencing”, discerning the extent that we will allow others into our lives, in order to protect us from the harm we can do to ourselves or each other and for maintaining personal integrity. Some influences and associations pull us away from cherished values, break up good relationships, or violate our consciences.

Christian thought about neighborliness is an elevated but risky view. Loving your enemies! Praying for those who abuse you! Turning the other cheek? Going that “extra mile”? After Jesus had said that the moral Law contained two principles (loving God with one’s whole being and loving one’s neighbor as oneself), someone asked him to define “neighbor.” He responded with the “Great Samaritan” parable, which illustrated that a neighbor is any human of any creed or race within our scope of influence who has a need  we can help meet. Neighborliness is an act of the will to treat others with care and kindness and compassion, to put aside self-interest for the benefit of another. Jesus did more than teach that. He did it! He lay down his life for mankind so that we could have peace with God and each other. Scripture tell us that he has broken down the walls that separate humans from each other. There is equality at the foot of the cross. (Ephesians 2:14 (NLT2)

In “The Question of God,” a wonderfully written and thoroughly researched book comparing and contrasting the spiritual journey’s of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis, Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr., a Harvard psychiatrist quoted Lewis, as saying, “There are no ordinary people…” He said that no one ever talks to  “a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, exploit…..your neighbor  is the holiest object presented to your senses.” What a dignified, encouraging view of humanity and its potential for redemption!

Neighborliness is not about proximity. Our neighbors may exist beyond touch or sight or sound. They are not just in the house down the path or half hidden over the hilltop. They reside in mansions and ghettos, in cities and bayous, in Appalachia and Beverly Hills, in the mountains and the deserts and refugee camps and wherever  our scope of influence reaches whether it is to the educated or illiterate, to the bejeweled or those in rags.  

What an I to do with my neighbor? Jesus, our greatest Neighbor, said to go into all the world with the Good News of God’s love. Whether in person, by some action, by a contribution, or by prayer, we can reach across borders and oceans to neighbors in the remotest, darkest recesses of our planet. Love has no boundaries! Whenever and wherever God’s love is experienced, others needs will be recognized, and the caring for one’s neighbors will implicitly and explicitly accompany it .

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