Sunday, June 19, 2016

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Someone in an online prostate cancer support group that I'm a part of posted a meme last week that talked about how, when times are tough, you find out who really cares for you. Many responded to the post, because everyone in that group can relate. When you get cancer, you find out who your friends are. And who they aren't.

I was reminded this week of the Parable Of The Good Samaritan. Most of us are familiar with it. Even those with no church background or interest in the Bible have heard the term "Good Samaritan," and understand what the term means. Someone who helps a stranger in need out of the goodness of their heart is called a Good Samaritan. But if you didn't go to Sunday School as a kid, and have no interest in Christianity, you might not know the whole story.

It's not my intention to turn this post into a Bible lesson. I just want to show how the story has played out in my cancer journey, and that of many others. If you want an in depth analysis of the story from a Biblical perspective, I recommend my Bible blog post on Luke 10:25-37.

When Jesus told this story, it was in answer to a question. The person asking knew that Jewish law required him to love his neighbor as himself. What he wanted to know was, who was his neighbor? In other words, who was he required to love, and who was he allowed to ignore, or even hate. So Jesus answered his question with this famous story.

To loosely paraphrase, a man was walking from one city to another, down a well traveled road. But in the ancient world, bandits on the road were a common danger. Some bandits attacked the man, robbed and beat him, and left him for dead. While he lay there, a priest walked by. The priest ignored the man, and passed him by on the other side of the road.

Then a Levite, who worked in the temple, also passed by on the other side of the road. Pretended not to see the victim lying there, just as the priest had.

Then a member of a hated minority, a Samaritan, came by. He was the last person that someone in that culture would expect to stop and help. He was someone that none of Jesus' disciples or listeners would have helped. But the hated Samaritan bound up the man's wounds, put him on the back of his own donkey, which meant he walked the rest of the way, and paid for the man to stay in an inn until he recovered. He stayed with the victim for the whole night and took care of him to make sure he was OK.

After telling the story, Jesus asked which of the three had been a neighbor to the victim. "The one who had mercy on him," the guy said. Hence the term, "Good Samaritan."

I've heard this story my whole life, and have studied it extensively. But until now, I always saw myself as one of the three who walked by the victim. I hoped that I would be like the Samaritan. I hoped that I would be a neighbor to those in need. But most of the time, I wasn't. In fact, I was much more like the Levite. I worked in the church. I led worship. That's the equivalent of a Levite in Christian churches. And like the Levite in the parable, too often, I passed by on the other side of the road.

But now, I no longer see myself as the Levite in the story. I'm not the Samaritan either. I'm the victim. And like so many in need, I have watched in amazement at those who stop to help, and those who pass by on the other side of the road.

Friends I thought were members of my inner circle disappeared when I told them I had cancer. Even the one who I thought of as my pastor at the time (the equivalent of the priest in the story) abandoned me in my hour of greatest need.

But I deserved no better, because of my own lack of concern for the needs of others for so many years. For decades, I had been like the priest and the Levite. I had my own concerns, and they were my priority. As my good friend said recently, I seemed to only care about myself and my music.

And this is where grace comes in. The priests and Levites in my life were few. As it turned out, I had a whole multitude of Good Samaritans that I knew nothing about. Neighbors. You loved me as yourselves. In spite of the fact that I had not loved you in the same way. Grace. Undeserved favor.

Unlike the victim in the parable, my wounds are not temporary. They require ongoing care, and will for a long time. So my neighbors keep stopping to help.

The victim in the parable and the Samaritan were not friends. In that culture, that would have been unthinkable. Likewise, many who never met me personally have volunteered to help, both materially and emotionally. Most of the friendships I had before my diagnosis have deepened since. Some relationships have taken on new life and meaning.

I received a generous gift of support from a partner in ministry just two days ago, totally out of the blue. I've received friendship and love from people who I never expected to hear from. And I learned what real friendship is from a few. When I think about them, I realize that just about every one has gone through a terrible trial in their own lives. When you're the victim, you learn how important it is to be a neighbor.

Since my diagnosis, I've learned who my neighbors are. And I've watched those who passed by on the other side of the road. If they read this blog, they'd know who they are, but of course, they don't. If I was still a Levite, I wouldn't be reading a blog like this either. I'd be too worried about making good time getting where I was going.

I'm trying to learn to be a neighbor to those I know who are in need. Even when you're still a victim, you can find ways to be a neighbor to someone.

I used to really want to be a Levite. A big shot in the church. A well known worship leader. Now I have no interest in being that guy. I'd honestly rather be the victim, lying battered and bloodied by the side of the road. What really gets me is, many of you were a neighbor to me when you knew full well what I was before I got attacked by a bandit called cancer. But you loved and supported me anyway. That's what grace is. That's what love is. That's being a neighbor. In the words of Fred Rogers, won't you be my neighbor? #waroncancer

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