Could I Love My Neighbor Who Didn’t Love Me?
"I can handle a lot of people, but I can't handle Evangelicals." Mary grimaced as I stood next to her at our block's progressive dinner. The party made me nervous. We had just moved to the neighborhood three weeks ago. I had this slight sweating problem, and I couldn't find anything nice to wear in the packed boxes piled in the basement.
"Christian is another word for uneducated." She rolled her eyes, brought a glass of Chardonnay to her lips, and took a sip. The opportunity to meet our neighbors had seemed like a good idea. But now, standing next to Mary, I wasn't so sure. Doesn't she know that my husband is the new minister of the church on the corner?
I shifted my weight and tried to breath in a pair of jeans that probably fit last year. A glistening smile held up my face. This move was a bad idea. Mary is just saying what everyone else thinks. A man changed the subject, and I ignored the urge to kiss him on the cheek. The rest of the evening I kept finding myself sitting in the corner thinking about Mary. She must be "bad soil." I did my best to avoid her.
Three years later, God called me out on my attitude and avoidance of Mary. Unfortunately, I acted like her idea of a stereotypical Christian before I repented of my sin.
I was watching my four-year-old daughter, Polly, tickle Lilly, my friend Stacy's baby, as she and I chatted outside my house. Walking on the other side of the street, Mary saw Stacy and started flapping her arms in our direction, like she was an air traffic controller. She looked both ways and crossed the street. My heart rate quickened.
"Hi, Stacy! I heard you put your house up for sale?"
"Yes, actually, it sold already."
"That's our neighborhood for you. Everyone wants to live here." A smile rolled across Mary's face. Her husband participated in the neighborhood association.
"And how is Lilly today? Hi, Lilly. Hi!" Mary oozed over Stacy's baby. My daughter, Polly, noticed and came close.
"This is Polly," I offered.
"Hello, Polly," Mary allowed. And then she picked up Lilly and practically put her to her breast. Polly fixed her eyes on Lilly basking in Mary's attention. Why the cold shoulder to Polly? Was it because of her four- year-old affiliation with Evangelicalism? Because I have to say, the verdict is out on that kid. She steals chips off my plate at lunch.
I scooped up Polly and showered her with kisses.
"You've been great neighbors! All the best to you!" Mary gushed to Stacy as she handed Lilly back. She waved an arm at me and darted away, her pink track suit akin to a bubble forced down the street by the wind.
"Stacy, I need to get Polly in for a nap," I said, gathering my things. We spoke our goodbyes, and I helped Polly up the stairs to our door.
Since moving here, I had done my best to love my neighbors through pans of lasagna for families with new babies, play dates, participation in book club, and running a mom's group every other Thursday at our church. But no matter what I did, Mary's words, "Christian is just another word for uneducated," tainted my efforts. On some level, I believed her. We weren't wanted here. That day, Mary had clearly ignored Polly and me. My heart hurt.
I could have talked to God about it. Instead, I called Amanda, another neighbor. "Mary nearly dripped all over Stacy's baby. She completely ignored Polly." Amanda participated in my mom's group. Earlier in the year, she had opened up that she was suspicious of Christianity but enjoyed our meetings.
My voice rose. Words sprung from my lips. I emptied my opinions and hurt out on Amanda, a friend I had been trying to point to Christ.
After hanging up, my satisfaction dissolved. Did I just gossip about a mutual neighbor? My hurt had clouded my original vision: to share the love of Christ.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus pointed out the two greatest commandments: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.' "
Instead of loving people in my neighborhood, I laced up fighting gloves, not in a "ready to battle for Jesus" kind of way but more like "if you say anything, I'll deck you." Instead of sowing seeds of grace and kindness in Mary, Stacy, and Amanda, I hid and gossiped and watered weeds of fear, rejection, and righteous self-pity that had sprouted up in me at that progressive dinner.
As Christian leaders, we need to keep in mind that it really doesn't matter what people think about us. Sure, it can be hard. It hurts. But it's simply not the point. There is a great work involved: kingdom work. God gave me the desire to forge friendships in my neighborhood. I took that desire and let one hurtful remark from a neighbor morph my ministry strategy to love people into a flimsy personal campaign to prove I deserved to be liked. It stopped being about Jesus. It started to be about me.
Thankfully, God rebuked and refocused my efforts. Pans of lasagna, play dates, book club, and moms' group are all worthwhile pursuits in God's economy, but only if the servant's heart, regardless of the leadership role she fills, is kingdom-focused.
"Love your neighbor as yourself." I washed my face, ate a spoonful of peanut butter, breathed out a prayer to God for help, and called Amanda and Stacy to apologize.
Gillian Marchenko is a wife, mother, writer, and speaker. She is still building friendships with Amanda and Stacy and others in her neighborhood, but hasn't built up the courage to take a pan of lasagna to Mary yet.
Note: Names in this article have been changed