Letting go of the things the things that, without even realizing it, limit my capacity to love my neighbors.
One day, upon leaving a store, my roommate Rebekah stopped to chat with a young couple begging for money. She learned their names, where they’d come from in the world before immigrating to Canada, and that they were expecting their first baby. She learned that money was tight and that they needed extra cash to pay for legal costs associated with their immigration process. I don’t know if she gave them money that night, but I do know she came home and told me and a few other friends about their predicament. Eventually we came up with the $1,000 they needed.
A few months later, the couple and their new baby came to dinner at our apartment. This wasn’t unusual for Rebekah and me. Over the 10 years of our friendship, first as neighbors on the 15th floor of our Toronto high-rise, and now as roommates, we’ve invited hundreds of people in for dinner, some friends, some neighbors, some complete strangers. Being willing to offer this kind of hospitality has been part of a long lesson God has been teaching me in response to a question I asked almost 20 years ago. What does it mean to love my neighbor? Why is this commandment so important?
On the night the young family came to dinner, we sat around the table and shared stories about our lives. We ate good food and enjoyed the gift of chocolates they’d brought to us. At one point, the young mother needed a place to breastfeed her baby, so I brought her down the hall to one of our bedrooms, settled her in and left. I never worried about whether she would steal from us, left alone like that. Besides, if she did, would it really matter?
At the end of the evening, Rebekah packed up food to send home with the family. Once again, I was glad to share the excess of what we had in our cupboards. And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I watched as Rebekah packed the food in a canvas bag imprinted with the name of a fancy cheese shop in our city. I’d received it once when shopping at the little boutique, likely having spent enough money to warrant a gift of their specially branded bag with its signature mouse and bold yellow and brown design.
“Not that bag,” I protested inwardly. “I love that bag.” But I knew enough to keep silent. I knew my protestation was selfish. Embarrassingly ridiculous. Even weird. Why was I so attached to a shopping bag?
Recently, I visited the cheese shop where they display those bags on the wall behind the cashier. I looked up and thought about the bag I no longer owned. I wished I still owned it, wished Rebekah had not so easily given it away. And then I felt ridiculous again. Why am I holding on to the memory of owning that bag? Why can’t I let it go?
It wasn’t until recently that I worked out the lesson God was patiently waiting for me to consider. Once again I am reminded that there is still so much for me to learn about what it means for me to truly love my neighbor and not to be satisfied with my own ways of engaging – to notice, to serve, be kind to, to encourage, even to invite home for dinner. How far does such love take me? Am I prepared to go beyond my own self-determined limits?
Why, I am now wondering, did that bag cause me to think about my own loss of a material possession rather than remembering that young family? Why did I equate the bag with something I had to give up rather than using it as a prompt to pray for the family and others like them? What kind of hold does a possession as small as a bag have on me and what does it take to let it go?
As is often the case with neighbors, the young family eventually disappeared from our lives. We interacted for a few months, and then they moved on. I don’t know where went or how they are coping. But as I’ve thought about them, I’ve sensed God asking me to practise loving these particular neighbors by praying for them. Not every day, but whenever I think about that bag.
I’m relieved by this invitation to pray. I suspect it will help me loosen my grip on the things that, without me even realizing it, limit my capacity to love my neighbors.
Lynda MacGibbon’s book, “My Vertical Neighborhood: How Strangers Became a Community” (IVP), releases March 30, 2021. She lives in Toronto where she works with InterVarsity Canada and blogs at lyndamacgibbon.com.