During my first several months in Mali, the neighborhood carpenter had a shop along one wall of the house I was living in. We'll call him Joe, since his name currently escapes me. Monday through Saturday, sunrise until past sunset, invariably, Joe was at the shop—sometimes working, most times just sitting. In those early days, I spent a lot of time devising ways to avoid Joe. Not that Joe was a bad guy or mean or even particularly annoying, it's just that he was so friendly, or perhaps you'd say "neighborly".
In order to go just about anywhere, I had to exit my front gate and immediately go around the side of house, passing right by Joe's shop. Joe, in typical Malian fashion, would ALWAYS greet me. This was his fatal flaw, his unpardonably sin. If every other day he could just have pretended I didn't exist, we would have gotten along just fine. However, unable to sense my irritation and clueless to my American idiosyncrasies, Joe would call out the same familiar set of questions about my health, my family, and my work, EVERY time he saw me—three, four, even five times a day.
So being the mature adult that I am, I began avoiding him. I'd act like I was being called in for an emergency and didn't have time to greet. I'd try to leave at times when his back was turned or he wasn't there (rare). When I couldn't escape, I pasted on my best smile and greeted Joe with great gusto, as if I really liked talking with my neighbor first thing in the morning. Then I discovered that with just enough courage and skill, I could navigate the tiny path that led around the other side of the block. I was deeply annoyed the day Joe informed me that my sudden increase in flat tires was due to the fact that I was taking that little path. No doubt he was right, because it was a terrible path, full of sharp rocks and trash, but I was sure he knew I was avoiding him and he was trying to suck me back into greeting him 10 times per day. The two-hundred francs (40 cents) to repair my tire was worth it, and I continued taking that path every other day.
I'm not sure I could have properly expressed the reason for my annoyance at the time. In fact, it was today on my way home, while lost in a separate but connected train of thought, that it struck me clearly. I was passing by a small, roadside gas stand owned by the uncle of one of my friends. I threw up my hand in greeting but felt immediately that I should probably stop and spend a moment talking with the guy. Something inside me resisted, and instead of slowing to a stop, I pulled harder on the throttle, in a hurry to arrive…nowhere. In that moment, the reasoning of what I was doing—of what I had done to Joe—became so clear. If I stop today, I'll be obligated to stop again in the future, and that means that this guy has some claim on my time, however small. As there is only one road to the hospital, there would be no depriving him of that claim. Time is more than money to me, and I don't just go around handing it out, because after all, it is MINE.
Don't think me unaware of how ridiculous this all is. In the case of the gas-stand owner, we are talking about 5 minutes every couple days. Absurdity notwithstanding, I'm still selfish of my time and I'd prefer not to give it. I'm almost brought to laughter when I see the extremes to which I'm willing to go to enable my selfishness. I'm a man wanting to mock his moral short-fallings, and yet still strangely afflicted by them.
This was precisely my reflection at the moment I arrived at the gas-stand today. Despite being deeply convinced that a life of loving God and loving others is the only life worth leading, I find myself strangely, but markedly better equipped to do the opposite. Refusing to be neighborly is just the semi-comical tip-of-the-iceberg, I'm afraid. Deep down, I'm more capable of starting war than making peace, more apt at being fickle than faithful, more suited for force than gentleness, and more competent in greed, lust, hatred, and indifference than in love, charity, and generosity. And I'd like to think that I'm one of the good guys.
Thus, in the middle of working hard to correct injustices in this world, I pause again to confess that I am part of the problem, that I am a partaker of a human-race deeply in need of redemption and renewal. I am a man in need of grace and pardon only the God of the universe could offer. I'm deeply in need of His love, and to even begin to live up to my convictions, I need the empowerment of His Spirit.
Happily, if I will but give a moment of time and quell the tide of resistance within, these and abundantly more are mine for the… receiving.
Grace and Peace.