“Where is my neighbor?” Confessions of a Country Boy
By Dr. Terry Rosell, Professor of Pastoral Theology–Ethics & Ministry Praxis
READING: Luke 10:25-37 (NIV)
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
REFLECTION ON THE READING:
Recently a seminary faculty colleague sent an email to some of us. It read, in part:
I am writing to invite you to contribute a chapter to the first book that will be published through the Urban Missional Institute . . . . The book will be related to our inaugural event . . . . The theme of the event, and the subsequent book, will be “Connecting Faith and the City for Good.” You are invited to contribute a chapter . . . related to that theme. There is freedom in what you can write about, as long as it relates to the stated theme in some way.
I responded that it sounded like a good book idea, but that I needed to think about whether I had anything of value to contribute. I am still thinking.
That evening before drifting off to sleep, I jotted down on a scrap of paper some thoughts which likely disqualify me to contribute to a book about ministry in the city. I titled my preliminary thoughts, “Confessions of a Country Boy,” and wrote:
I have no love for the city. I have no interest in trying to make an ethical or theological or philosophical or sociological apologetic for why I ought to love the city. Furthermore, I am disinclined to apologize for my lack of love and disinterest in all things urban. I am a country boy, farm bred and raised, recently returned to country living, finally, after decades of living “in town”—as we used to say pityingly of those who couldn’t see the heavens at night due to city lights.
Yes, that is what I wrote. And I am still unapologetic.
In global perspective, I am a minority, since the majority of humans are now city dwellers, per United Nations statistics. Yet, I suppose that many of the world’s urbanites would jump at the opportunity to live where I do now—on a body of water, with trees and gardens, a blue heron some mornings and coyotes yapping each night. If so, I suppose also that I experience privilege. My privilege is not theirs. And so we live our separate lives despite our loves or lack thereof—those with less privilege in their cities or towns, and I in my country home.
This is white privilege more than blessing, I acknowledge, and one that I admittedly enjoy. Is it necessarily something to be given up for Jesus? Or might one follow Jesus from a place where birds sing and stars shine? Might one be a “Good Samaritan” out in the open spaces between towns, out where Jesus’ story is placed, or only back within the city gates? Might one do neighbor ministries, not in Jerusalem and Jericho, but in the rural area that lies between?
The Good Samaritan of Jesus’ story illustrates “connecting faith and the country for good.” This is of more interest to me.
So I am asking now, not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Where is my neighbor?” And does urban or rural have anything at all to do with being a Good Samaritan sort of neighbor to others in need?
There are some, like my adult children, who are products of privilege and nonetheless have chosen differently than their farm bred father. Thus far, they love differently and live as city dwellers, only venturing out to where stars are visible on Father’s Day and other holidays when we compel them to come visit their parents in the country. Then they scamper back to their city lives and loves. Why the difference between them and me?
Our different loves and lives arise as generational distinctions, in part. They are American millennials, Boomer Babies. The city is where it’s at. In my eldest son’s case, it is also an ethical commitment, a moral choice to live in the “urban core,” at the heart of Kansas City, and in community with others likeminded. He and they love the city, for reasons my Boomer brain can’t comprehend. What I know is that my son of privilege also actively loves his city neighbors, most of whom are severely under-privileged by reasons of mental health, socioeconomic disparities, and multiple “-isms”.
As much as I love country living, life in rural America is no panacea either. Sociologist Zandria Robinson of Rhodes College, an avowed city-lover and co-author of the new book, Chocolate Cities (with M. A. Hunter, University of California Press, 2018), was interviewed recently on NPR (www.npr.org/2017/10/01/554854469). She spoke of her own father’s character flaws as a result of his having come from the country, rural Mississippi, and not being raised in urban America. Southern rural racism may have been the biggest factor for fostering a father’s addiction and marital infidelity, a daughter speculates.
What I know for certain is that life in the rural Midwest is also fertile soil for all sorts of problems resulting in family disruption. I know of multiple cases of murder-suicide–male perpetrators against women–in idyllic Central Minnesota, where I grew up. I knew some of the perpetrators and their victims. It wasn’t necessary to move to Minneapolis, or Kansas City, in order to find gun violence, substance abuse, mentally disturbed individuals, and neighbors who were hurting.
Out on the farm in Minnesota, we knew our neighbors for miles in every direction. Even those we didn’t know, or not well–some having moved up from Minneapolis to escape urban life–were frequent recipients of my parents’ care and concern as a neighbor to new neighbors. If there weren’t enough problems in the country already, the newly rural dwellers often brought their city problems with them. I learned as a boy that tragic circumstances are found everywhere, and that Good Samaritans might be as well.
So the challenge of Jesus to would-be followers is not to love the city nor the country, much less the suburbs. The Greatest Commandment and its runner-up enjoin me to love God and my neighbor as myself.
Who is my neighbor, Jesus? And where?
It could be the crack dealer across the street or the meth-maker across the field. Problem people—neighbors—are found everywhere. They/we are as difficult or easy to love in the country as in the city. Our challenge is the same. I struggle to be a Christian where I live even as my adult children do where they live. The temptations to seclude or exclude are similar, also, regardless of population density.
There are relatively more neighbors to love in a metropolis, of course, at least per square mile. But we tend to limit focus and scope of human care to a manageable number regardless. In the country, one simply drives further to bring food or money or a helping hand or listening ear.
In later midlife I have returned to a rural context, but not with a lot of space between neighbors like out on the farm. I have next-door neighbors still where I live. I can hear a retired nurse neighbor on one side playing her piano, and the middle school boy on the other side practicing his trumpet. We have a homeowners’ association, a sort of village around our shared body of water. And yes, we learn about each other’s problems, and at least sometimes help each other out.
There is the family whose house burned to the ground last winter and was in immediate need of cash to buy necessities. A closer neighbor was injured severely by a distant neighbor’s runaway cow, and needed assistance for bills while she was off work to heal. A retiree has been in and out of the VA hospital multiple times just this past year, and is welcomed back home to the neighborhood each time with neighborly joy and relief. When a lost dog or cat is roaming, or a neighbor’s horses get loose, others help return the wandering animals back home. When there is occasional vandalism or a break-in, neighbors commiserate and vow to be mutually watchful for prevention of future incidents. Many households around our little lake have been grieving the deaths of loved ones in recent months, and are comforted by cards and calls from others of us who know what it’s like to mourn.
People live and love, lose and lament in all communities, rural too. While the majority of people now reside in urban areas, almost as many still live out in the country, out where the Good Samaritan neighbor went and loved a neighbor in need.
Ought not at least some of us go and do likewise?
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Hear our prayers, O God of city dwellers and those who live in rural spaces between. We confess too little love for God or our neighbors in need. We admit to loving self more than others, and too often passing by on the other side. Open our eyes and soften our hearts, God. May we follow Jesus in word and deed, as Good Samaritan neighbors indeed. Amen.