It was an ordinary Monday when Ana’s text buzzed across my phone: “Hi Shannan. How are you doing?”
It had been over two years since we’d last spoken, not because of an argument, or even because of the pandemic. Like so many budding friendships before, we fell victim to the tides of life. Jobs. Responsibilities. Appointments, disappointments, and dinner at six.
I was quietly drawn to Ana from our first connection at the elementary school where our boys shared a fifth-grade classroom. Fifty waved hellos through car windows eventually led to her sitting on my couch, and later, a trip to the market across town where she revealed the source for the freshest taco-ready pork.
The first time I sat in her kitchen, she served me a slice of toast and a cup of tea, her eyes shimmering with tears as she shared about a painful corner of her life.
She battled a health crisis. She moved across town. The years stacked up, unseen.
A decade ago, my family moved into an overlooked neighborhood and promptly fell in love. After spending most of our lives in spaces where everyone mostly looked, lived, and believed as we did, we found ourselves caught up in the dumb luck of discovering comfort in complexity. How could a place so unfamiliar feel so instantly like home? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
But we began gathering evidence along the way. I could tell you about the last-minute invitations to parties where a generous cast of mostly-strangers sang Happy Birthday first in English, so we could sing along. I could try to describe the perpetual blare of the trains that speed through a hundred times a day, and how the particular pitch of the horn has settled into a soundtrack of belonging. I could point out my bedroom window right now at the tiny neighbors zipping down the plastic slide my kids have long outgrown.
Or I could pare the story down to one simple truth: the people nearby taught me by example how to live as though “neighbor” truly is part of my spiritual DNA.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12
More specifically, everything I know about living as a neighbor, and loving my neighbors, I learned from Ana. She affirmed that every relationship starts with hello, and from there, it’s all wild speculation. Will we grow into the sort of friends who wind up rummaging through each other’s silverware drawers? Or will we simply be the sort who know each other’s faces and names, those loose but meaningful attachments that ground us to our communities? The good life is woven together with both.
Ana taught me there’s strength in asking for what we need and true generosity in offering what we can. She proved the wisdom of eating together whenever possible, especially when it’s unfancy and on-the-fly. Her worn kitchen table and dishes by the sink suddenly made mine feel company-worthy, too. This is real life, after all. There’s no point trying to hide that we’re living it.
She practiced listening more than speaking, and preached silent sermons about telling the truth. Maybe more than anything, she helped me cultivate hope that this world and our communities aren’t as fractured as they feel. We just have to get closer to street-level, where the good stuff grows. We have to learn to pay attention and remain available to the people near us, palms up, hair down, waiting to be wowed.
In Luke 19 we read the story of Zacchaeus to the tune of one of the most popular Sunday School songs ever written. The details are cemented in our memories: a small man climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus, Jesus calls him down from the tree, Jesus invites himself to the man’s house for dinner.
Sketched within the catchy melody is our roadmap for loving our neighbors in the midst of ordinary life.
Jesus presumably had other plans that day in Jericho. But, “he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” He lived fully attentive to his surroundings, eager to engage, unbothered by the possibility of scandal, and willing to risk the vulnerability connection requires.
Stories of intentional, proximate compassion form one of the throughlines of the Gospel. Embracing our calling to love, care for, and be loved by the people near us is the very heart of God. But we will never experience what God intended for our good and our delight until we commit to receiving from those who are near us.
We aren’t well-practiced in receiving. It’s so much simpler to position ourselves as the giver, where we are in control. Putting ourselves out there can be terrifying, though it gets easier with practice.
With one simple text message, Ana dissolved two years of distance. We took turns tapping short updates into our phones, catching up on the basics. Life is still difficult in more ways than we’d like. But now we’re praying one another through the details, just like we used to. Next week, I’ll sit with her again – same table, different home. We’ll hug for the first time in two long years.
“Hello.” “I’ve missed you.” “Here’s a cup of tea.”
The invitation awaits us, but first we must choose. Will we believe the loudest voices, which warn us to choose sides quickly, dig in our heels, and rely on our own independence? Or will we trace the steps of Jesus himself, who invited us into abundance through his living testimony as a neighbor, awake and available to God’s goodness in his own city streets?
This is no inconsequential enterprise. There’s plenty that holds us back. We’re shy, overwhelmed, lonely, afraid, imperfect, scared of messing up, nervous about rejection, and uncertain if this hope we hold is simply too big.
But on the other side of what holds us back is authentic, long-haul belonging.
We cannot love what we don’t know. And we cannot know what we don’t truly see.
So, here’s to one tiny step, one shared hello, one moment to look up at the beauty of creation, believing it all brings us closer to each other, and above all, closer to our friend and neighbor, Jesus.