April 8, 2020 by Tim O’Connor
In August 2017, I moved to Waco, TX. Just ten months later, I unexpectedly moved back to Bloomington, IN, buying a new house but otherwise picking up where I left off, including at my old job and church. The process of going forth and coming back was hugely disruptive and costly. But it also had significant benefits, one of which was that it afforded me the opportunity to re-think some aspects of my life here. Twenty-four years in the same basic job and almost all in the same church had laid deep life grooves, with optional ongoing activities and responsibilities acquired along the way. Having left it all behind, I had the opportunity on my return to decide which to resume, which to cease, and which new ones to pursue.
In theory, I could have made a fresh start at any point. But life doesn’t usually work that way. We are creatures of habit, and this extends to our dealings with one another. We have communal habits – set patterns in the way we engage (or not) the people who are part of our daily or weekly rhythms in our homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods. It usually takes unexpected disruption to get us to see new and better possibilities, let alone to expend the energy to pursue them through awkward and stressful baby steps.
We find ourselves in a collective disruption, involving (extraordinarily) every other person who figures some way in our lives. It is costly – for some, grievously so. For many of us, it is also an opportunity to be seized to prepare for small new beginnings. As always, the first step is to turn to God. We should ask Him to direct our thoughts to relationships in need of a re-set and to help us see, in faith, new and better possibilities for them.
In Matthew 23, we read that the second greatest commandment of loving my ‘neighbor’ as myself is inextricably linked to the first, loving God. My neighbor is made in the image of God; failing to love him is failing to reverence the divine image he bears. He may be bad-tempered, impolite, lazy, or foolish – more so than I am, even! But, by the grace of God, he may one day be transformed to become like Christ, a dazzling splendor such as I have yet to see in human form. Do my dealings with him honor that divine calling on his life and express patient hope? Or have I settled into a pattern of polite distance and inward disdain, thinking of him only as a problem to be gotten around? Have I – Lord, have mercy on me! – ‘judged’ (= condemned) him? (Luke 6:37)
It is no simple matter to understand what love requires in some cases. We know it can involve speaking words of rebuke or even separating ourselves for a time. We need to pray for insight and seek counsel from those who have acquired wisdom through their own difficult experience. But in many cases, the obstacle is simply our dulled imagination resulting from bad habit. The first day I meet my difficult ‘neighbor’, after a hiatus of a month or more in which both our lives have been deeply unsettled, will be a great opportunity for me to look more closely, see the divine image, and respond in love: a reinvigorated greeting, asking about a child, a word of appreciation for some small favor or task well done, taking the risk of humbly sharing a personal challenge. Where the initiative goes we leave to God. What falls to us, right now in our Lenten waiting, is to open our hearts afresh to his transforming love, to yield to His loving command to love as He loves – not only a select few, but each and every bearer of his holy image.