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?
Although I can't say for certain that you won't find Jesus in Target, if you're following any deity who's leading you to retail outlets without leading you toward people, you might want to do some sort of an ID check. Jesus is all about people. He was even pretty clear that following him might lead people away from their blood kin, and it almost always lands them among beloved strangers. When we follow him, that's where we end up too.
"But Margot," you may protest, "Jesus was with Bible strangers. Aren't those particular people, with whom Jesus consorted, lepers from two millennia ago? And aren't they overseas?"
That would be handy, wouldn't it? Then, if we didn't know any lepers, we'd sort of be off the hook. Or if the people Jesus loved were just out of chronological reach, then, conveniently, we'd be freed up a little bit for other stuff. Or if today they were geographically segregated to India or Ethiopia or Haiti, then we'd have a legitimate excuse to avoid the strangers Jesus loves. Clearly, if you're scheduled to coach Little League this Saturday, then you simply cannot be crossing any roads or oceans or language barriers to follow Jesus toward the ancient people with whom he just naturally rubbed elbows.
If we equate Jesus' ancient neighbors—lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and other unlikelies—with the neighbor we wave at in the next driveway as we're hopping into our fuel-efficient sedans, we've also misunderstood Jesus. A respectable first-century Jewish man would no more naturally rub elbows with any of those unsavory folks than you would in your cul-de-sac. Jesus was, however, taking his cues from and following the lead of Another.
Jesus had studied the speech and gestures and expressions of his Father. He had watched him move toward the hungry, the captive, the naked, the homeless. He had paid attention when his Father reached out toward the poor, the prisoner, and the brokenhearted. Because the heart of his Father clearly dwelled among these, Jesus moved toward them. His eyes rested upon them. His feet crossed roads to be with them. His hands touched and healed and fed them. Jesus' body literally tracked, followed, and embraced the ones who dwelled in the center of his Father's heart. In this, his Father's own became his own. As we physically follow Jesus with our bodies, the stranger becomes our own as well.
Cross the Road to the Beloved Other
If you think that the poor and weak and brokenhearted aren't residing in your daily orbit of influence, I'd challenge you to take another look. Although you might not have any clinically diagnosed lepers, I promise you that there are others—sick, lonely, poor, shunned—who are closer than you think. In Friendship at the Margins, Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl invite us to open our eyes to the beloved strangers in our midst. They exhort, "Every community has people who are invisible or overlooked, and each of us can move toward wholeness through the friendships we offer and receive."
Yesterday I was driving downtown and I saw a woman I call "Zacchaeus" wearing a visor and bright yellow shirt duck into a drugstore. I do not believe that Zacchaeus is her given name, but it's what I call her. "Z" (for short) is the town's meter maid. By my reckoning, anyone who does nothing all day besides troll around looking for cars to ticket has got to be just as despised by her community as the first-century tax collector. At least by me anyway. I scowl at her even when I'm driving right past her and my car isn't anywhere near a parking space. My disdain came to a head a few years back because, while my church friends and I would be enjoying a powerful lesson at our women's Bible study, she'd be creeping around outside ticketing the cars of those who'd exceeded the two-hour street parking limit because they'd arrived early to set out freshly baked treats. If that's not persecution, I don't know what is.
Still, when I'm in my right Christian mind, I am certain that Jesus would beeline toward this modern yellow-shirted villain. And not simply because he didn't drive a car. This is his girl, and she was meant to be ours. Who else, in your own local orbit—by virtue of their occupation or personality or smell or bad habit—is Zacchaeus-y? Who sort of repels more people than they attract?
This week you might encounter someone who lives with HIV/AIDS. Or another one of these low-visibility strangers might be the man who walks the short distance from his nursing home to Whole Foods for a daily cup of coffee. Another might be a neighbor who lives with dementia. Or there may be a faithful employee who cleans your church every week to whom Jesus is calling you. Perhaps it's a child in the neighborhood whose parents are divorcing. Maybe it's the new Latino neighbor whose loud polka music is the hot topic on the neighborhood listserv. These who neither command nor demand our attention are the kinds of modern-day strangers where we meet, and are met by, Jesus.
Social homogeneity was never a value Jesus embraced. Instead, he purposefully crossed the natural human barriers of class, race, religion, gender, geography, and age. As we begin to study his motions, and follow him with our bodies, we'll become barrier-crossers as well. My friend Bruce Main has identified this very movement in his book Why Jesus Crossed the Road. For Bruce, following Jesus across the roads that separate us from these beloved others transcends dutiful imitation and, in fact, ushers the road-crosser into authentic spiritual maturity. Maturity, for Main, means that we no longer separate the interior conviction that God is for the poor from a physical expression of that conviction with our time and bodies and resources. In this respect, followers of Jesus simply can't not be road-crossers.
Is crossing the road toward a beloved Other risky? Yes. Inconvenient? Terribly. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. If you leave your car parked on the other side for more than two hours, it can even get costly. And yet crossing the road to meet the stranger is the way we walk when we study and track and trail—when we follow—the person of Jesus. And while the risks of road-crossing are evident, the benefits might not be.
Cost Benefit Analysis
The perks of sidling up to the rich and famous are immediately apparent. We expect to get something from them. We hope for a little of their status to rub off on us, and we drop their names in enough conversations to convince others that it has.
The gifts of being among the poor and forgotten, however, can't be as easily anticipated. This isn't to say that they're not abundant, because they are. It's just to say that we can't control them the way we might like.
Heuertz and Pohl celebrate the way both parties are blessed when roads are crossed. Heuertz mentions opportunities he had to sit with Mother Teresa, explaining, "In meetings with her, she would frequently say, 'We need the poor more than the poor need us.'" Did you catch that? The big opportunity isn't for the weak ones, the vulnerable ones or the frail ones dying to be with a well-meaning American showing off a soothing waterfall app on her iPhone. The ones who receive, who are filled up in deep, unspeakable ways, are the ones who don't seem to be physically dying at all. Somehow, as we follow the person of Jesus, moving toward the ones with whom he spent time, we find life. This holy mystery is exactly what I'm talking about when I say that the gospel that's good news for the poor is good news for us too.
Please, don't take my word for it. Don't take Bruce's word for it, or Chris Heuertz'. Just try to prove Mother Teresa a liar. Read the Gospels and discover for yourself how Jesus crossed all kinds of barriers to encounter the beloved stranger, the Other. If we really did follow this guy with our bodies, we'd be embracing, connecting, tear-drying, touching, and throwing back a beer with people who'd make folks at our churches very uncomfortable. Those aren't metaphors. We'd really be doing those things.
—Margot Starbuck. Taken from Small Things with Great Love by Margot Starbuck. Copyright 2011 by Margot Starbuck. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.