Note: This article is excerpted from Small Things with Great Love.
For months, as I drove back and forth between my house and my church, I noticed an elderly woman collecting tin cans from curbside recycling bins. She wore simple slacks and an overcoat. Walking along the side of the road, she stooped at each blue recycling bucket to fish out cans and drop them into her own white garbage bag. Was she a sculptor of tin? Did she collect those little metal tabs? Did her new cardio workout require intermittent squats? I had no idea.
One day while taking a walk, finally liberated from my minivan, I was able to chat with this woman. I learned that Miss Sarah was unable to make ends meet while living on a fixed income. She was gathering aluminum cans to be recycled for change in order to supplement what she received each month. It was a scenario I had not imagined.
Although I saw her on a regular basis, I had no idea what life was like for my neighbor until I stood next to her and heard her story.
For too long, my neighbor was a stranger.
Facebook Followers and Cyberstalkers
Though I'm not proud of it, more often than not, this is my story. I want to follow Jesus toward the beloved stranger but I'm slow to do it. An unfortunate vocabulary situation around the word follow only reinforces my naturally self-referenced bent.
When we follow people on Facebook or Twitter, we end up catching some of the random thoughts and links they toss into cyberspace. When we follow their blogs, diligently or intermittently, we might learn even more about what makes them tick. When we follow them online, we get to know them a bit better.
And because most of us know what it means to follow someone online, it's understandable how we might accidentally roll that definition over to our spiritual lives. As followers of Jesus, we catch some of the random thoughts and links to the Hebrew Scriptures that he tosses out. We learn what makes him tick. We can peek to find out where he grew up. If we're cyberstalkers, we'll even scroll through his photos and watch his videos.
What we don't do when we follow someone online, of course, is actually follow them. We don't physically follow them throughout their day. We don't hide behind a trash can in the alley behind their garage and wait for them to go someplace in their car. We don't track them as they duck in and out of grocery stores, laundromats, and gas stations. We don't tail them on Saturday nights when they go out on dates. That would be weird.
People, it is weird.
Specifically, following Jesus—and encountering the same people he does—is going to look extra weird, because following him everywhere he goes inevitably leads us into relationship with strangers. For instance, some of the people today who follow Jesus into the homes of notorious sinners end up spending less time holding hymnals at church activities and more time holding cold beverages at parties. Some of these followers, like me, now spend less time in climate-controlled minivans and more time walking on actual sidewalks. They spend less time with people who look like them, think like them, talk like them, and earn like them in order to spend more time with people who are just … different.
How Much Time Does Jesus Spend at Target?
But since these days we really can't see Jesus or hear him or smell him in the same way his first disciples did, literally following him can feel a little subjective. I mean, what are we even talking about? For instance, who's to say that you might not follow your Jesus across the border to the slums of Mexico while I sense mine leading me to the Target across town?