In The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, Pastor Mark Labberton devotes many pages to the “neighbors” we could be helping. He cites Scripture after Scripture to support the fact that Christians should devote their efforts to helping those in need. Of course the Greatest Commandment in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 bolsters his claim as Jesus says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
What gets in the way of loving your neighbor? Labberton says over and over it is the words we use to describe our neighbor. Those words can really get in the way. Labels we place on people create distance between them and us; refugee for example is so far away from our culture in America, not so far away if you encounter Syrians fleeing their war-torn country for Turkey and Iraq. Refugees could use our help. Destitute and impoverished people can be seen in our community but you may not feel that comfortable working with them. Maybe the best you can do is writing a check to the mission center. They could use your help but you feel too distant from them for direct contact.
All this brings me to the question: have you ever had a label applied to you, a label that made you very unhappy, a label you wanted to change, maybe a label that shamed you?
I am going to get personal. This has happened to me.
As a result of a serious accident requiring me to put my life on pause for several months, I felt the effect of being labelled. My doctor said that I had to sit or walk with a walker for about three and a half months as my body healed. I was not allowed to drive a car. My wife had to take care of me most of the time, until my doctor said I was healed and could start taking steps again. Essentially, I was disabled.
The day I felt the label “disabled” most was when my family went to the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. They wanted to get around at “normal speed” and I could not keep up with them on a walker. I also knew I did not have the strength to put my weight on my arms and use a walker all day. I had to be wheeled around in a wheelchair. It just made sense.
What was difficult is the fact that I wanted to be with my family but I did not want to be a burden. What was also difficult was the reaction I got from people who felt compelled to help me. I was used to being mobile with no encumbrances but here I was, unable to live my life without aid.
The whole day, I had to depend on the kindness of strangers, whether I wanted to our not. The chief wheel chair pusher was my son and he was so pleasant but getting down the street was a challenge, getting into restaurants was a challenge, getting into and out of the car was a challenge. More than once I felt people looking at me, maybe having pity for me.
I took it in stride but I was not used to this type of sympathy and I did not crave it. I was jealous of all the people I saw who could take steps unaided.
What was I feeling? I was that “disabled guy” in the wheelchair.
I was a problem.
Why did I not stay at home, so everyone else could have fun unimpeded?
I wanted to be normal. I wanted a normal life. Normal was not my label. Disabled was my label.
Life can provide very interesting circumstances. A couple of days ago a man crashed his antique motor scooter into my mailbox. I saw him coming down the road and then walked away from the window. For some reason, I returned to the window to see him sprawled on the ground, his motor scooter on the ground and my mailbox flattened. My first thought was to go and help him. He was disoriented, very shaky, a bit embarrassed and bleeding badly from both hands. He was so apologetic but I did not care about the mailbox. I truly found myself wanting to help him get his scooter upright and get him somewhere to take care of his hands. I think he assumed that I would be irritated but that was not in my heart at the moment. He did not want my first-aid, but I did help get the scooter upright and I got him back home. I called our neighbor to have him watch the scooter since I knew it was valuable.
After retrieving the scooter in the night, the man returned to our home the next day with his wife. My wife and I had a good conversation with them and in the conversation he said “I knew when I met you that you were a Christian.” My wife said, “Yes, he is a good Christian man.”
I tell you this story not to be self-righteous or to brag, but Christian was a label. It made me feel good to have it applied to me. I truly hope I deserve it. It was a very different label than disabled but it was a label nevertheless.
Pastor Labberton has penned a book that suggests that we need to earn the label “Christian” by our actions.
We need to earn that label by helping our neighbors; loving them as we would love ourselves.