Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

When I was fourteen years old, a freshman in high school who was still trying to grow out my former bowl cut and convince everyone that the cool kids read apologetics books, I remember being crammed in an auditorium, watching the most melodramatic performance I’ve ever seen. It was trying to scare us all from poor life choices by showing us different horrible outcomes that will probably happen to you and everyone you love if you even think about doing drugs. Ever.

I was so uncool that I didn’t even know what half of the slang terms in the play meant. But there’s one part that I remember, one that probably had the deepest and most lasting effect on me (which is saying something, since the play also involved a boy who mutilated himself under the influence of a hallucinogen, and a girl wearing a rubber mask with severe burns).

A punk kid paced beside a dumpster onstage, telling us about how he became a heroin dealer. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, eyes accusing, looking right at me, the one who worked so hard to be invisible. “You feel sorry for me. But then you’ll throw some money into the plate for the poor white kid from the ghetto to buy off your conscience.”

And I thought, Yes. That’s me.

From that day on, little Amy, in all her determination and semi-self-righteousness, decided that she would not give to a cause unless she was personally invested in it in some way. And she did so with the best of intentions, because she didn’t want to be that Christian who appeased her conscience by tossing American dollars at heartbreak and sorrow and walking away unchanged.

Over the years, I accumulated other little prejudices about generosity, most of them somewhat logical: if you don’t volunteer or at least pray, it doesn’t count. Short-term mission trips are a waste and I won’t support them. I can’t care about all the causes, so I have to block some out and willfully ignore them. My heart can only break so many times.

There are bits of truth in there. But there are also some extremes that aren’t helpful. By putting up those barriers on generosity, I was limiting God. I was making up arbitrary rules instead of being open to what the Holy Spirit wanted me to give to. I was saying God couldn’t possibly give me emotional strength to handle whatever suffering he brought into my path.

I was saying that only a select few of the least of these—the ones I personally care about—can really be Jesus.

I had a long conversation with some friends yesterday about generosity and giving in our culture. The set-up was this: most of us also have the resources to give a lot more than we are currently giving, spending it instead on the milkshakes and movie tickets of everyday life. And, in a matter of minutes, we can know about almost all the suffering of the world. Every sex trafficking ring, ever natural disaster, every AIDS orphan, every persecuted minority barely escaping genocide. We can see their faces, not just their statistics, streaming by us, thousands of empty bellies and tumor-riddled organs and blank, hopeless eyes per second.

So what does it mean to love your neighbor in a global society?

Who is that beat-up person you pass by on the street, the one you could do something for? What will we be held accountable for doing or not doing because we both have so much and know so much?

It’s an incredibly difficult question, one that I’ve written about briefly before but haven’t really answered.

After this discussion, one of my friends posted this link to a fund for a girl who went to her college, a 24-year-old with one of the most painful diseases ever to come out of the Fall, who needed to raise money for brain surgery.

I don’t know this person. I am not emotionally invested in this cause.

But you know what I am emotionally invested in? Learning to be the kind of person who cares about others, even when they’re strangers.

All those years ago, little high school Amy felt convicted, and she should have. But maybe she had the wrong response to that conviction. Maybe, in an attempt not to be the high-and-mighty judgmental Christian who gave without feeling, she became the slightly selfish, experience-focused Christian, who couldn’t give without feeling. Who couldn’t give unless there was something in it for her—if she couldn’t pack the shoebox or write the letter to the missionary or see the face of the sick person she brought food to.

I was wrong. So I gave to Laura, and I'd love it if you would too, right here:

Laura needs it, sure. But I think we also need it. I did, anyway. I needed to be reminded what generosity is and isn’t. I needed to see what I’ve made it into.

I needed to give and remember that Laura is Jesus too.

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