Monday, April 10, 2017

Does God Call Us to Prioritize Which Neighbors We Serve?


I find my seat against the back wall of the central living room in the retreat lodge. I settled into the hard plastic chair, scanning the cramped room around me. 25 or so of my dear brothers in Christ from our church are gathered. Despite the tight, uncomfortable quarters, the mood is light and filled with anticipation. The men chat jovially, and when it comes time to join in worship, we sing full-heartedly. The excitement and fellowship in the room is so tangible that it surrounds me like a warm, comfortable blanket. Who cares about sitting on this rock-like plastic chair for the next couple of hours. Our church’s annual Men’s Retreat is one of my favorite weekends of the year, and judging from the mood of the men around me, I am not alone in this sentiment. We are all looking so forward to studying God’s Word together and growing in Christ together!

A reflection of this is the group approach to the messages shared. We have not invited a guest speaker these last couple of retreats. Instead, we have men from the church step up to deliver messages. It gives us commonality that way, a close bond of growing together and speaking truth to one another in love. Tonight, it is our dear brother Mike Aust presenting a message. Our theme for the retreat is “Loving Your Neighbors”, and I knew he would tackle that theme head on in his message. Mike is that kind of guy. He is quiet, but confident. A man who seems to think before he speaks, but then speaks with authority what he thinks.

I’m not disappointed as I listen to his message. It flows straightforwardly, if a little sporadically thanks to some technical issues and the heavy amount of scripture he asks for volunteers to read. He asks us, “Who is our neighbor?” And after a pause, thanks to the common wariness of a trick question, Dr. Williams on my right shifts in his hard-plastic chair and says, “everyone.”

Mike nods at this and affirms that that is what he would think too, but then we begin to investigate the heart of God to learn who our neighbor is. We see clearly from verses like 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 5:11 that God has a heart for the needy and the lowly. We learn in Psalm 12:5 that God will arise and help the needy and set him in the safety for which he belongs.

At the same time, we learn of the opposite category to the needy in other verses: the arrogant. What is God’s heart towards these neighbors? We see a prayer in Psalm 72:4 to “vindicate the afflicted of the people, save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.” We see clearly in Psalm 138:6 that “God regards the lowly, but the haughty He knows from afar.” What is more, the wounded man on the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan is clearly needy and the one who is provided for, while the arrogant Priest and Levite are nothing more than a sad footnote in the story—an example of who not to be. God exalts the humble, but opposes the proud, is the main sentiment buzzing in the room at this point.

The challenge Mike leads us to as a result of this study is: does loving our neighbor include service to the arrogant? If we are made in the image of God and should seek to portray him, do we serve our arrogant neighbors the same way we serve our needy neighbors?

Now people are shifting in their seats, as if it has just occurred to them that they are, in fact, very uncomfortable. The anticipation has swung to a growing feeling of tension, of confusion in the eyes of the men. As Mike’s presentation winds to a close, it is Stephen Johnson, a man I have worked for and respect a ton, who sparks the conversation we all have been left wanting. As if the tension in the room was a gas vapor that had just found a flicker of flame, the conversation explodes among us men.

“Who then is our neighbor?” Stephen asks.

That is the question in all our minds. It would seem, mistakenly or not, that Mike just asked us to seek to reach those who are needy rather than those who are arrogant. The response this provokes is varied and quite possibly volatile, if it weren’t for the committed love and commonality we men of Shoestring Valley Community Church have for one another. The first response that grabs my attention is from Monte Bainbridge, a worship leader in the church, who points out that we all are arrogant, to varying degrees. It is not a question of reaching out to the needy over the arrogant, for such a notion would force us to split each other in half, to try and minister to one side of us while ignoring the other. We are all both needy and arrogant.

Jeff Oien, a logger and self-described “simple man”, chimes in, agreeing with that sentiment. Everyone around him is his neighbor, obviously, and should be reached out to the same whether they are arrogant or not. In fact, the arrogant are very needy, just in a different way.

Mike responds that “okay, well if you want and that is what God has called you to. But I’m warning you, you won’t have a ton of success.” He shares a couple times he has tried and “failed” to reach the arrogant. The men of the church are quick to point out that when you share God’s Word, it is never a failure. You can plant seeds in the heart of the arrogant even if it doesn’t look like they have responded in any meaningful way.

I watch my dad. He keeps raising his hand to speak—but not far enough to be obviously seen. He gets about as far as ear-level with each raise of the hand, and then usually ends in scratching the back of his head. My dad, ever cautious to create a scene, clearly has something to say. I think at first that he is going to confront Mike’s line of reasoning, but I am surprised by what he says when he gets a chance to speak.

It is in context with Forty Days for Life, which is to be expected since our world has kind of revolved around the campaign this spring. My dad shares how though we pray for the arrogant Cecile Richards, leader of Planned Parenthood, to come to faith in Christ and would share the Gospel with her if we ever got a chance, it is the needy women being victimized by abortion that we are primarily seeking to serve. It’s the needy that deserve our devoted attention.

Mike agrees, “I heard once,” he says, “that the arrogant deserve our prayers, while the needy require our service.”

Jim, who has a last name I can’t attempt to spell out correctly and who is about as quirky as his last name (in a good way), shares how Jesus spoke to all, the Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners. This strikes me as untrue, because Jesus clearly responded in a different way to the arrogant Pharisees, saying some pretty harsh things to them and veiling the truth from them in parables. As I have listened to the back and forth, my thoughts have slowly formed around another example in Jesus’s ministry.

I finally get a chance to speak up near the end. “What I hear Mike saying,” I say, “is that we are to have priorities in who we seek to reach. As much as we would like to reach the world, we can’t. I was thinking about how when Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to share the good news of the Kingdom, he told them to shake the dust off their sandals in towns that wouldn’t receive them and move on. God doesn’t call us to keep wasting our energies to reach people who won’t receive us. We should primarily serve the needy who actually desire our help.”

There are some nods of agreement, and Mike says that was a great example of what he was talking about. I feel weird aligning myself more towards the “priorities” side of the aisle—because honestly, I agreed whole heartedly with what Jeff had said about everyone being our neighbor. And I can see some brothers disagree with what I said. Is there a way to love everyone as our neighbor, I wonder, while still recognizing our specific calling to serve the needy?

Pastor Dean closes the discussion time by emphasizing how much he appreciates that our church can have these discussions. It’s a sign of a healthy church to seek out truth together, and to express our opinions in a way that will not cause division, but to help us grow. I can’t agree more. While the conversation was tense, it never became divisive. We all appreciated the chance to wrestle with this interesting perspective on loving our neighbor. It is a great way to start the retreat, and the lodge’s living room is still a comfortable place of fellowship and anticipation. I find that I don’t mind at all the soreness from sitting on the hard-plastic chair for the last couple of hours. It was well worth it.