Religious Blog

Who Is My Neighbor?

Amos 7:7-17                                       Luke 10:25-37                                     Psalm 82

I think we all know that we need to love the neighbor.  The question is very real, though, as to just how our neighbor is.  That was the question of the expert in Jewish law.

The question of the expert in Jewish law is valid.  When Jesus asks him what he reads in the Jewish law, the expert refers to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  For this talk, the passage from Leviticus is our special interest.  The expert in the law had real grounds for asking who the neighbor is.  Leviticus seems to say that only the people of Israel are the neighbor.  That is, the neighbor is the same tribe that you live in.  Let’s look at the Leviticus passage.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:17-18).

See the wording.  The first line says not to hate your own kin, your relatives.  The next line says not to take revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people.  Then it says to love your neighbor as yourself.  So the context in which the command to love your neighbor appears is one of family and tribe.  The expert in the law knows this, and legitimately asks just who the neighbor is.

Jesus frames His answer in stark terms.  In His answer, Jesus shows that the neighbor is everyone.  He shows this in His story by making Orthodox Jews look uncompassionate and by making a member of a hated foreign tribe—the Samaritans—the example of love for the neighbor. In Jesus’ story, a man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, in the nation of Israel.  He is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  A Jewish priest not only passes the man by, but he crosses the street to avoid him.  Then a Levite, from the priestly tribe in Israel, does the same thing—he crosses the street to avoid the beaten and robbed man.  What is striking in this story, and ironic, is that the priest and Levite cross the street because of their Jewish religion.  According to Jewish law, contact with a dead body rendered the individual ritually unclean.  Leviticus 22:4-7 dictates that coming in contact with a corpse renders a person unclean, and a priest cannot perform rites and sacraments in the Temple while unclean.  In fact, a priest cannot even eat the food in the Temple, which they lived on, while ritually unclean.  They would remain unclean until sunset and after they had washed in water.  So to prevent ritual uncleanness, the priest and the Levite cross to the other side of the road to avoid contact with what they took to be a dead man.  So the leaders of the Jewish religion avoid the beaten and robbed man.  But a foreigner, from a heretical tribe, who were hated by the Jews, shows compassion and becomes the example of love for the neighbor.  By the end of the story, it is not the religion of the Jews that is the example of love for the neighbor, it is not even the status of a foreigner that is the example of love for the neighbor, but it is the capacity of compassion, which everyone can possess.

This is a uniquely religious message.  I think that most people show compassion to their friends and family.  This is a kind of self-love.  One’s friends and family belong to them.  They are extensions of self.  They exchange love for each other and they care for each other’s welfare.  But what about other people whom one has no special connection to?

Ethics philosophers have written much about this.  They talk about care for “near and distant” neighbors.  Who deserves our care most?  Is it our friends and family first?  Is it the people of our city?  Is it our Province?  Do we take care of our Country first?  Those would be considered near neighbors.  They are close to us.

But what are we to do with distant neighbors?  That is, people with whom we have no special connection.  Strangers.  People of different countries.  People we don’t know.

I would like to tell two stories about these issues.  One story is about me a long time ago at Urbana University.  The other is about an experience Carol and I had in Chicago, not even a week ago.

I was very rule-oriented when I was young.  I had principles I followed.  I had strict interpretations of Christianity and ethics.  One of my principles was that I treated everyone equally.  I had no room for particular recipients of good.  I showed good-will to everyone equally.  At least that is what I tried to do.  Well after I had been at Urbana University for a year, at the start of the next new semester a Swedenborgian student enrolled.  One of the Swedenborgian professors who knew her and her family, asked me to take her under my wing, and show her the ropes in order to make her feel at home at this new school, new place.  Well, due to my philosophy, I said that I would treat Debbie the way I treated everyone else at the University.  I had no room in my ethics to give Debbie special attention.  Kind of heartless; but that was how I saw things back then.  Distant neighbors deserved the same kindness as near neighbors.  The professor and everyone else didn’t get my ethics.  And, of course, now I would do things much differently.

Fast-forward 40 years.  Carol and I are schlepping our big suitcases down a sidewalk of downtown Chicago.  We were trying to get to the subway, to catch a train to the airport.  In Chicago, almost all the doors are revolving doors.  We tried to get into an office building because they had an elevator down to the subway and we didn’t fancy lugging our heavy suitcases down a flight of stairs.  Well the particular office building we were going into had one of those revolving doors.  I stumbled and lurched in the revolving door, trying to get me and my suitcase around in the narrow partition of the revolving door.  A security guard in the office building saw my difficulty.  I managed to get through, but he saw what a struggle it was.  Carol was still outside.  He told her to hold on a minute, and he opened another door—a regular door—with his keys, and got her into the building through a secure door which he opened for her.  Then he used his key to access the elevator for us.  We didn’t know that the elevators weren’t for the general public!  This was amazing for us.  He didn’t know us.  It was obvious that we didn’t have business in the building.  We were clearly tourists from distant parts.  Yet this security guard went out of his way to help us get into the building.  He was being a real neighbor to us.  Distant neighbors.

We got into the elevator and down to the subway turnstile.  The attendant there helped us use the handicap doorway to get our luggage through to the train.  Then we looked at the tracks and saw a long stairway down to the train tracks.  We weren’t ready for this.  Well as it happened, a Latino man and his daughter were going down to the tracks, too.  And the man stopped Carol, took up her suitcase and carried it down the stairs for her.  He didn’t know us, would never see us again, and he helped us, anyway.  And Carol wanted me to add that he and his daughter earned a hug from her for this.

The security guard and the Latino man were good neighbors to us.  I wasn’t much of a good neighbor to Debbie at Urbana University.  Situations to be good neighbors present themselves to us all the time.  We help our friends and families without a second thought.  But when we help someone who isn’t friend or family, it is entirely that they will become friends.  There is a man in my condo complex whom I have seen in the halls.  I say, “Hi,” and sometimes get a, “Hi,” back.  But recently someone had jammed some paper in the door lock into the complex to keep the door unlocked.  The guy I had met in the hallways was picking at the paper with a key, trying to get it out of the door.  I went back to my car and got out a dart I kept there for when Carol and I used to play darts.  The dart worked well, and the man got out all the paper.  That one moment bonded us a bit.  We now have a closer connection that we had before.

The neighbor is everyone, everywhere we can do good to.  Do you know who the closest neighbor is?  It is God.  God is the greatest neighbor.  Whenever we do good, we are doing good for God.  Jesus said, “When you have done it to the least of these brothers of mine, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  With God as our spiritual parent, we are all children of God.  So from a spiritual perspective, everyone is a near neighbor.  Care for distant neighbors doesn’t prohibit us from care for near neighbors, too.  Our friends and family are natural neighbors.  God and the people around us are spiritual neighbors.  Let’s keep our eyes open for the privilege of doing good whenever it presents itself to us, to everyone to whom we can do good.

 

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GOOD LOVE

You know me in my higher aspirations

And when I’m in a trying, troubling mood

In either you maintain loving relations

For which I feel eternal gratitude

 

The love we know and our fidelity,

The good life our love creates together

Gives us each a place of stability

In a world of inconsistent weather

 

I am pledged to you and you to me

In joy, in trials, and in confidence

We’ll be together to eternity

And live the timeless now as lovers and as friends

A CIRCUIT OF CONNECTIONS

Love

Connection

Support, community

Parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents

Home

When it all works

 

And then

 

Vocation, relocation, isolation

Alone, unknown in a strange town

The whole wide world

Strangers, business associates

Stabs at connection

Church, gyms, bars, gangs, the streets

Alcohol and drugs and one-night stands

Unaware

Screams at connection

 

And then

 

Incredibly good fortune,

or Providence

“O Lord thou pluckest me out”

Intimacy, soulmate, conjunction

Love

Mutual

Family again

Support

Connection

Home

After so much

A friend to the whole wide world

THE SUPPORT YOUR LOVE GIVES ME

With you—your support—I can handle anything

If it feels, and it does at times, like the world is at me

In frustrations, failures, and yes, attacks enemies bring

In it all, your constant support holds me steady

 

As in Tristan and Isolde’s sacred Love Grotto, living on bliss

So our bliss blesses the world which our love weaves of times and dates

And the outside world whirls way away from our kiss

The world into which our love radiates and action penetrates

 

And when I err, and I do, and wander awry

You turn me back and straighten my direction

You move me to what I ought, and to all the projects I love to try

And in weakness and apathy your own will gives power to my motivation

 

In my life, what matters most is us

We are solidity and salvation in a world of change and sin

An anchor in uncertain seas that can turn tempestuous

When I became we, then did my life begin

 

It is a holy gift to have a love like you to care

In a world too often marked by indifference

Having you in my life is an answer to prayer

And having you in my life has made all the difference

Moderating Rage: Trump’s Antics

I am appalled and galled at Trump’s antics.  Lately, I am sad that 800,000 government workers are facing life issues because Trump won’t pay them.  I am worried that the US government is closed for business.  And there’s so much to do.  And, finally, I am troubled at how many people still support Trump, and that those people are fellow Americans, citizens of my own country.  (However, I am somewhat relieved that lately only 34% of Americans support him, meaning that 66% don’t.)

So shall I pass my time galled, appalled, worried, and troubled?  If I do, Trump is getting me.  He’s pushing my buttons from his luxury resort in Florida or in the White House–way, way far away from where I live.  So I have a dilemma.  Shall I go about my business and not care about my home country’s problems?  That kind of callous disregard strikes me as un-Christian, and unbecoming.  I care for my fellows.  Yet, I’m not strong enough to stretch my concern to the whole world.  I have sufficient concerns in my personal life, and in the world I touch.

I’m re-thinking Voltaire’s concluding line from Candide.  “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”–“We must cultivate our garden.”  In Voltaire’s novel, after innumerable calamities which were explained away with a metaphysics that said we live in the best of all possible worlds and all things work out to the best that they can, the small group we follow through the story finally ends up tending a garden they collectively own.  When the metaphysician tries to explain why ending up tending a garden is the best possible outcome in the best of all possible worlds, then we get that line, “We must cultivate our garden.”  What that means, I think, is that we have enough to handle with the immediate problems we tend to in our lives.  Whether we live in the best of times or the worst of times, all that really matters is what we can manage in the life we live in and the lives we touch.  I did act with passion in my 2018 vote, in absentia, reading the instructions, printing up the ballot from the emailed copy sent me, mailing it snail mail to the district in which I vote.  And that is all I can see that I can actually do about the troubling matters in my home country.

There’s another quote relevant to this issue.  “Turn it over.”  While I have limited power to care about the whole, wide world, there is One who does have the power to care about it.  I do wonder, at times, what that One is up to in this world.  But that One does know what He/She/It is up to.  Where does that leave me?

What I am finding is that I need to come to terms with my own passions.  I didn’t like George W. Bush.  I couldn’t watch him on TV.  I didn’t, however, feel outraged and appalled as I do now.  So am I going to ruin my present getting mad at politicians I don’t agree with?  The real issue is how I come to terms with those things I disagree with.  I have come to a decision.  I will no longer watch MSNBC and wallow in gall, and drive around town perseverating about all the bad things Trump is doing to the US.  My heart and soul matters more than that.

My own heart and soul is the garden I must cultivate.  How I spend my now, my eternity, matters to me.  I have cultivated peace in relation to my personal enemies.  I now need to do that in regard to my disagreement with Trump’s antics.  There were people appalled with Obama, too.  I can remain in the ready in relation to my vote; I can stay informed about the political development in my home country; I can act in my immediate environment for the good of the world I touch; and I can remain personally at peace.  There are heights I can ascend to in my soul–joy, peace and love.  There are broken individuals I can buy a sandwich for at the convenience store near where I live.  And these things matter more to me than going about my business appalled at Trump.  “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

Parliament 3–The Star Teaching

For an hour and a half, I was afforded a glimpse into the world of First Nations.  I attended a talk about the Star Teachings from an elder of the Mi’kmoq Nation, David Sanipass.  When I went to the seminar, I thought I was going to hear some ancient First Nations lore and stories.  I was waiting the whole time for the Star Teachings.  Instead, his wife opened the seminar by telling a story.  She said that David had encouraged her to go to the bank with a twenty-dollar bill she had, and change it into single dollars.  Then she was to start giving away the dollar bills.  That proved more difficult than she had imagined.  She went to a grocery store and tried to give the cashier a dollar.  But the cashier exclaimed, “I can’t take that!  I’d get fired!  But you could go to the next cash register and give it to the woman in line there.”  So she did.  Then she went around the store giving out the dollars.  In the long run, giving these dollars out got people talking about why she was doing it.  It transformed the whole atmosphere of the store.  While she was telling her story, I was waiting for the Elder to start talking.  And I was waiting for the Star Teachings.

The Elder did speak.  He opened with a 24,000-year-old story about Creation.  As he spoke, the Elder would pick up his flute and play tunes.  The story began before Creation.  There was a great bird who had the most wonderful song.  Since humans couldn’t speak, the bird was going to give them the gift of his song.  But his grandfather came to earth in the form of an old man and coaxed the humans into talking.  The bird got mad, thinking himself duped, and decided to hide his song in a cedar tree at the centre of a swamp.  He returned to the swamp later, but couldn’t find his song.  David asked his father if that was a true story, or just a legend.  His father told him to go to the swamp and listen.  He did, but a woodpecker kept pecking at the tree.  This bothered young David because it was interfering with the song he was trying to hear from the primordial Great Bird.  But when a woodpecker pecks a tree, he makes holes in it, like the holes in a flute.  Young David missed the song.

David told two more stories.  One about him giving last rights to a woman pinned in an overturned car.  When he was young, David had been authorized to give the Catholic Last Rites.  Once, there was a woman pinned in a car that had overturned from an auto accident.  David climbed in the car and gave the woman the Last Rites.  All the while, gasoline was dripping onto his shirt, and the First Responders tried to get him to leave the overturned car before it exploded.  “No,” David said.  He stayed with the woman until she went into infinity, back to the stars.

His last story was the longest.  It was about a bear hunt.  Feeling excluded from the other elders at a story-telling gathering, because he didn’t have white hair, David went to an elder for advice.  “Go on a bear hunt,” the elder said.  David decided he would shoot the bear with a camera.  Trying to photograph a bear, despite the dangers, occasioned many hilarious adventures.  The story ends with David running from the bear which he awoke with the flash from his camera, running through the forest and getting bent double by running into a fallen tree, climbing another tree to escape the bear.  But the bear sniffed and followed him through the field, climbed up the tree and stared him face to face.  The bear talked, “You lost your camera when you ran into the tree in the forest, I came to return it to you.”  So saying the bear climbed down the tree and walked into the forest.  Shaking with fear, David discovered that the film had all fallen out of the camera.  When he got home, David looked in a mirror and saw that he had white hair!  He held the whole lecture hall in rapt attention.  In the telling of his story, David had carried us all into a special collective experience of love and interconnectedness.  By the time the bear hunt story was over, we’d run out of time.

David said he would give us the Star Teaching.  All he said was, “Don’t let the moment end now.  Bring this message out into the world.”  I was left to wonder what the Star Teaching is.  What I came up with, and I’m not sure I got it right, was that David’s wife’s story about giving away dollar bills, and the story about staying with the woman in the overturned car, and the bear hunt were all the Star Teachings.  It is a teaching about love.  It is a teaching about going out of our way to bring love into the moment, onto earth.  It was about the power we have to make the world a more loving place.

I was personally and professionally transformed by my experiences at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  And I have more experiences to narrate in the upcoming days.  After the intense seminars, the guided Vedanta meditations, the Indigenous stories, the Nithya healing I underwent, I came away a different person.  It will take some time to integrate everything I learned with my own Swedenborgian faith tradition.  For learning something new, even personal transformation, doesn’t mean abandoning what we know about religion.  Rather, it means accommodating, and integrating it all together.

I’ve been practicing my understanding of the Star Teachings lately.  I’ve been buying food for homeless men, confronted convenience store clerks who didn’t understand why I was doing it, meeting the barrister at my local coffee shop, trying to make all my relations a real human interaction.  Spreading the message of love, the Star Teachings as I understood them.

I knew these teachings from my Christian background.  But for some reason, they never spoke to me the way they did when David Sanipass spoke.  Hadn’t Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:30-35).  For some reason, it took David’s stories to energize me to act.

With You With Me

She is everything that life can give me

Does she know how much she makes me happy?

I don’t always show her I adore her

Let her know I’ll always be there for he

 

When I’m with her I feel calm and blissful

She restores my soul and makes me peaceful

She inspires my feelings with desire

Lights my creativity with fire

 

Caught up in an artistic creation

I can wander from heartfelt connection

Still my heart is true and always loves her

And she stays true to me in my endeavor

 

Loving her I’m growing ever gladder

I’m for her for happier or sadder

Joyful in the two of us together

Learning how to love each other better

 

May this song, these words, begin to show you

How complete my life is now I know you

How ecstatic life is with you with me

I will always love you and you only

 

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