TASTING THE PAIN (& GRACE) OF MY NEIGHBORS
As I stood in front of a large portrait of Adela (my neighbor), I took a deep breath and welcomed her family and friends to a day of celebration…a celebration of her 69 years of life. The last few had been quite difficult for her, and she desperately wanted to go Home. On several occasions when I visited her in the hospital, she would turn her weary head and whisper, “David, I’m ready. I’m ready to see Jesus.”
I’ve had the privilege of officiating countless funerals, but this one was like no other.
I met this dear woman and her extended family when my wife and I moved onto Lemming Street in 2003. That December, we went door to door introducing ourselves and delivering cookies…inviting people to our first Christmas service at the new church plant we were launching.
Within a few months, Adela’s 20-something son and his wife (who both lived with her) attended a Sunday service, and God began to slowly transform their lives. I’ll never forget that night in my living room as tears streamed down their cheeks, and this softhearted husband and wife made a life-altering decision to follow Jesus. Not only did I baptize them, but I eventually baptized his mom as well…the woman I was now honoring in front of the church.
Before you get too intoxicated with that warm and fuzzy, spiritual feeling, let me cut through to the harsh realities of life.
In 2008 when I left my wife to be with her best friend (a leader in our congregation), I disappointed more people than I even know…especially those closest to me…especially my neighbors. Not only had their lives and marriage been transformed, but they eventually became influential leaders in our church. In fact, they were helping to lead our marriage ministry when my own marriage imploded.
After resigning from the church and moving in with my ‘mistress’, I found myself all alone when she left me 40 days later and went back to her husband and family. I checked myself into a mental hospital and spent three days trying to get my head straight. After being released, I learned just how devastated my neighbors truly were. As I was loading some furniture from my family’s garage into a moving truck, the husband led a group of people from a birthday gathering down to my home.
His loud voice carried from the front sidewalk down my driveway. “Hey Dave, we heard your girlfriend left you! I hope you feel the pain a million times more than your wife does!” A sinister laugh echoed from the group.
This was the neighbor I reached out to. This was the man I cared for as he was struggling with his own marriage. This was the man I led to Christ and baptized a few years earlier. This same man was now mocking me.
“How much did you have to pay that doctor to sign you out of the hospital?” he jabbed.
I shook my head in disgust and tried to ignore the bitter taste of their pain as I swallowed my own words in silence. How could someone stoop to this level? How could someone I love attack me this brutally? Out of all the arrows that were aimed my way, this was the most painful…it came flying from the neighbors I had loved.
Months after I reconciled with my wife and moved back home, he emailed me to apologize. He explained his pain and disappointment, and he wanted to re-connect in person. Frankly, I had absolutely no interest in giving him a second chance. Sure, I ‘forgave’ him, but I didn’t want to have any sense of connection or relationship.
How ironic is that?
As the one who had disappointed and hurt so many through a public affair, I had the opportunity to extend a second chance to someone who attacked me in the midst of the darkest season of my life. Ever so slowly my hard heart began to soften over the months ahead.
A periodic wave as I drove by their home. A handshake at a school carnival. And, finally, an invitation to dinner at our home. A tearful apology (by both of us) and grace was extended.
A different relationship developed over time…less pastor/parishioner and more like neighbors/friends….more like a second chance for both of us.
A few weeks ago in the final moments of his mother’s life, he texted me to see if I could go to the hospital to pray with his entire family. I dropped everything, and I rushed down to be with Adela and remind her family of God’s incredible love and grace. I held her hand and leaned in toward her ear. With her eyes closed and mouth wide open, I softly sang one of her favorite songs, “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own…”
She quietly passed away that night.
Adela finally walked into the fullness of the Grace she longed for, and I simultaneously tasted the grace of her family…my neighbors…as they asked me to lead her funeral. Within a few days, I found myself standing in front of her portrait as I shared about her deep love for Jesus, and I basked in the second chances that had been both given and received.