GOOD NEIGHBOR

                Today is the Feast of Saint James.  I know that only because I went to mass today and learned.  Hearing this this was enough to raise in me reflections on my past.

                Saint James is the name of the parish where I grew up.  Though I would not call myself an especially devout child, mass was a weekly opportunity to share time with my family: parents, sister, grandparents, and aunt and cousins when they came down.  Aside from mass, memories of fellowship from my upbringing are not exceptionally holy, but they are good.

                In high school, I helped serve most months at a food kitchen in Kansas City, KS.  I would go with my grandfather, who received much of the meals from parishoners that delivered cooked foods to his truck between seven and nine o’clock masses.  The food kitchen was one of the things a doesn’t know any better high schooler begins for shallow reasons like “service hours” for Honor Societies and college applications, but the more I went, the more I grew to enjoy being part in an act of service to another.  I returned for the gratitude for opportunity I felt in helping others and holding witness to the everyday good we all can affect through little acts, the giving of ourselves, and our time.

                Two winters back, my grandfather passed.  I never returned to work the food kitchen with him again after leaving home for school and my life that followed after, but those times are memories I will forever value. 

                In attending mass, and the more focused I become when participating in its celebration, I grow ever more amazed at the ability to receive deep and personal insight from leaving myself open to God’s messaging and signs. 

                For two Sundays, I had listened to readings and homilies of community and fellowship.  This past Sunday, I went with my father back to Saint James, just the two of us as we left my wife and mother to a household of little children fully wound from a cousin sleepover at Granny and Papa’s.  In the notes at the end of the mass, Father gave mention to the food kitchen where my grandfather and I had served. 

                The message made me think of him more and touched in me a desire to help again.  Next, as if in direct addressment to my private thoughts, father continued, “Also, we are still looking for volunteers to help with the One City Café this coming Monday at four.  That again is tomorrow, and it is a family style kitchen designed to be more welcoming to all.”

                One City Café is a new food kitchen, nearer to where I now call home, and after mass, I thought and prayed about it.  Like a good farmer—and always aware of weather forecasts—I spoke to my wife and decided, should we be rained out from the field tomorrow, I would go.

                “Would you like for Matthew to go too?” my wife asked.

                “Sure!”

                “I think that would be good for both of you.”

                That afternoon, my answer came in a perfect rain, at the perfect time.  More than once, I caught my wife rolling her eyes as I looked out the window staring, smiling, and sometimes laughing at the rain knowing what it meant to our crops, our pastures, and our potential for prosperity from this year’s bounty. 

                Of the early corn, the rain would finish it out.  Of the later corn, the rain would return its leaves to full leaf from the tight curls of stress it took on in the weeks of heat and parching ground.  The early soybeans would shoot and quickly canopy, those after wheat—evenly emerge—and the hayfields freshly cut would green and return to growth, avoiding the season of brown that so often shows when the heat holds and rains stays away.

                For all we do as farmers, especially dryland farmers, at the end of the day, our provisions come down to God.  Without light, heat and rains, we have nothing.  For all we toil, the greatest work is still done through God and nature. 

                In that rain, God provided for us.  With his rain, he put future food on my family’s table and grew reserves for darker, colder seasons.  In gratitude, I wanted to act in good faith for the gift I had received.

                My son and I made an afternoon of it.  We drove to the city, and together we served salads and bowls of fruit, bringing them out to the tables.  We engaged in easy conversations with those whom fellowship brought us together with while in the actions of our service.  Whether farming or living on the streets, we could all smile and rejoice in the way the rain broke the burden of the heat that had been beating on our backs. 

                When diners would finish and new arrive, my son and I bussed dishes and wiped down tables, making every spot welcoming for the next and repeated our cycle of bringing food and cleaning up for everyone that followed.  I met old Marines, talked for a long while with another man who had watched the Big Three Basketball tournament that played in the city the day before, and of another, I listened as he talked about a gunshot wound and coming surgery after we asked about his cast and how he was.  For all, it was a chance to tell their story—or listen—to share something of their selves, their memories, experiences, or enjoyments.  Their words were gifts to me, a chance to better learn of another whom a moment before had seemed a total stranger.  I listened not in sympathy but with respect and gratitude for the company I enjoyed.

                Of service, I think too often our perceptions of it miss.  The positive sense of service is not about going out and helping those less fortunate to see where they come from and thereby leave feeling better for our own condition.  The joy of service comes in doing good for another regardless of circumstances because such is living out goodwill.  The joy of service comes in engaging with other spirits as equals—with respect and dignity—no matter our lots in the living and ephemeral present.  Goodwill and fellowship are the rewards of service and the source of joy we sense from such, and they do wonders for our spirits. 

                Two weeks ago, our gospel reading was the parable of the Good Samaritan.  How many of us think we know it?  And how many of us miss the finer points?  How does the story start? 

                A clever man tries to catch Jesus in a rhetorical trap.  Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbor as yourself.” 

                The clever man sees and knows such is true, but the answer is not enough, “wanting to justify himself [the clever man] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  The clever man would rather be right in words than works.

                And so begins the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

                How many times in our own lives do we know the simple and right answer, but—when such answers fail to align with our own desires—we add caveats and conditions to justify ourselves and our dissention from what we know to be right? 

                If we are truly open to God’s message, to living and sharing God’s love, we do not choose our neighbors.  We do not choose who comes into, out of, and fleeting across our lives, but we live receptive to the conditions and circumstances in which we are placed and the opportunities we are given to live God’s love. 

                Goodwill and love are not conditional, and if we treat them as if they are, should we be surprised that division, resentment, and enmity remain in our world?  To change such conditions, we must open ourselves to engagement with others.  Improving ourselves is the first—and only controllable step—to improving the condition of our world around us. 

                When my son served with me, he did not see the more nuanced details that stand out to older eyes.  He did not see the signs of some addictions. He did not know why some lingered longer with tired eyes, not wanting to return to the street, nor know that many whom we served did not have a home.  He did not see anyone differently than he does in any of his youthful first encounters to a new soul and the truth is—he shouldn’t.  Life condition is not a mark of character.  It is merely an accent to the character within.  We all have our struggles, our sins, and hardships.  We all carry upon us marks from past wrongs, but we are all capable—and most of us do—change. 

                We are all worthy and deserving of love, dignity, and respect, and though it shouldn’t be, how often do our perceptions of self begin from the projections others cast upon us?  For better or worse, our treatment of another ever shapes that person’s expanding perception of self, and if this is so, shouldn’t we be building one another up? 

                As we left the food kitchen, I thanked God for the chance to present for this experience, for the signs and call to serve that even I could see, and looking down the street, I saw the gray stone church through which the food kitchen was associated.  I read a sign near the street—another Saint James—and I felt even more at home. 

                “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbor as yourself.” 

                “But who is my neighbor?” 

                We are all neighbors to one another, to whomever God may bring us near and call for us to play a part in the manifestation of HIS designs. 

                I am grateful to the neighbors throughout my life: whether near or far away, whether family, lifelong friends or mere Samaritan that aided me when I was down.  I am grateful for my neighbors that guided me to the sense of self and love I know today.  Thank you for building me up, and may we all better sense the way God guides us into and from other’s lives and to be the neighbors we feel ourselves called to be: whether for a lifetime or a single fleeting act of love in the shaping of another’s life.

                Today is the Feast of Saint James.  I celebrated on Monday with my neighbors, and for that I am grateful.    

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