Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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September 18, 2020

Claude Armstrong

Drawing Near to Christ Draws us Near to Each Other


For the first time in the 17 years since moving to Virginia from Kansas City, MO, I have grass! Green, green GRASS! This momentous occurrence has visited me in large part because of one man. Ken was our next-door neighbor to our first house in Missouri. He was in lawn care for many years before illness caused him to “retire,” and he spent many a patient day with me as a young homeowner demonstrating the finer points of yard care. I learned much about how to be a good neighbor from this plain-spoken sage, his wife, and his family.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Ken had a precocious grandson living with him whom our three-year-old son, equally precocious, befriended. They grew together, riding bikes, bouncing between each other’s houses, and playing in our backyard, each becoming a fixture in the other’s home and being treated as an additional child or grandchild.

There were only two things that broke up their harmonious rhythm: where they slept and how they were educated—we homeschooled our son. In fact, Ken’s wife later told us it was only after our move to Virginia that they realized how much their grandson’s schedule had been synced to our son’s homeschool schedule to allow them to play together.

One day while playing, my wife overheard a conversation between our son and his buddy. The latter was admiring our son’s new birthday bike and expressing a desire to have a new bike also. Our son casually informed him that all he had to do was pray and ask God. His young friend responded, “Who’s God?” Our son replied, “Ya know, the guy who lives in heaven that made everything!” What a priceless conversation.

Did I mention that Ken and his family were white Midwesterners and ours a cross-cultural Black family? Oh, and did I forget to say that, as we understood it, we lived near a former hotbed of KKK activity which would have made these interactions unlikely at best and dangerous at worst just a few decades before? How times have changed. Even so, this exchange might not have taken place had we allowed our superficial and even ideological differences to keep our families from interacting.

This reminds me of a subtle lesson I see in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. In the parable, Jesus was asked a question by an angling lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ’s answer speaks volumes to us today and cuts to the heart of our society’s ills. It both illustrates and instructs on the necessity of proximity.

Proximity means, in simple terms, to be in position or near enough to know someone or do something. It is at the heart of being a neighbor, and you can’t be a neighbor without being near spatially, temporally, or relationally. As we become more proximate, connections happen that otherwise might not exist. In answering the lawyer, Jesus uses an illustration. He describes to all listening that to be a neighbor one must first decide to help, whether or not the person is different or disliked.

Positioned for Hospitality

But why get close? What would be our motivation for intentionally sharing space, time, and interactions with people who are not like us? Have we suddenly realized our lack of black or white friends or that we don’t know any people of color? Have we recently become painfully aware of historical and life narratives we’ve never heard of before? Is it guilt over the fact that we’ve never even thought or considered these realities? These and many other motives can be good reasons to step out of our comfort zone and have our worldview challenged. However, these reasons can also smack of a guilty conscience or an attempt to solve a problem rather than pursue life-giving experiences with someone.

The common element we can all relate to in the story of the Good Samaritan is that of recognizing our position near to the people in our world around us. Do we acknowledge our ability to help or our opportunities to simply care for someone right where they are, in their situation, irrespective of why they hurt, who they are, or where their hurt came from? The Samaritan demonstrated honest concern for the hurting man even though this care was disruptive to his plans and could have reflected badly on him socially. He chose to not cross the street and walk around him when the religious leaders did, avoiding their responsibility to this fellow human. Through Christ’s parable we see what it practically means to “…look carefully as you walk”, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, verse 15 (RSV).

This instruction comes just before we are told to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. Through this tandem of ‘human awareness’ and ‘Spirit prompting’ we can choose to put ourselves in a position to encounter people of different cultures and life circumstances than our own.

The beauty is that this choice, or intentionality as we say today, is a ‘result’ of something, not simply a ‘means.’ The first step is to simply pay attention to the interactions and relationships we have and to take time to be aware of the opportunities they present. Our resolve may be tested because it takes a long time to build relationships of understanding. But doesn’t everything worthwhile take time to mature? The rewarding result is hospitality—something quite ordinary, though increasingly rare. We come alongside to get to know and help our neighbor.

Christ calls us to live a life that is interested in others in the same way that we steward and care for ourselves. We see this beautifully heralded in Paul’s call to the Philippians to “not be interested only in your life but [to] be interested in the lives of others” (Phil 2:3, ICB). A beautiful freedom emerges that enables us to be who God has made us to be, opening us up to see others as God sees them—marred but still created in His image. This awareness causes us to draw nearer to Him to know Him better so we can live out, in practical ways, the hospitable life of a neighbor.

Free to be in Position

Despite having grown up in African-American congregations, at some point in my Christian walk I began experiencing the freedom that allows me to walk into any congregation that names the name of Christ and be at home. This is not color-blindness, but an awareness of how unlimited God is, a result of influences and experiences that have shaped my perspective on race and culture.

Over thirty years ago one such influence came from a famous African-American preacher, Tony Evans, who shared a message that echoes in our day as recently as a July 2016 Washington Post article. To summarize, a key point in the article states that our faith must define our culture not the other way around. I’m glad I heard this at an early stage of my Christian life.

This premise has shaped my view of self as an African-American more than anything else, enabling me to see that even negative experiences of proximity can yield beneficial outcomes, if we persevere with the right motive and with a heart of hospitality.

Back in the summer of 1985, at 20 years old, I was a man on a mission! I would not be driven back to school! I was going to drive myself back to school in my own car by summer’s end.

A good friend, Dan, had heard me talk of this goal and knew of my subsequent search for a job. He immediately enlisted me to join his crack troop of waiters in Ocean City, MD. It was an amazing experience of growth over that summer, with experiences that were life-changing, sobering, and eye-opening.

Not long after starting, Dan and I found ourselves leaning on a boardwalk rail one balmy summer night, hanging out, just people-watching and ‘jawin’ about nothing in particular. Out of nowhere a white guy about our age walked by us and called us the dreaded N-word.

I was immediately ready to dismiss it, writing him off as an insecure and ignorant fool for such an unwarranted attack. However, my state champion wrestler friend Dan would have none of it! Before I could complete my thought, he had jumped off the railing and had run towards the guy shouting “You got somethin’ to say? You got somethin’ to say?”  I ran to him as he began striding toward the cocksure man. Jumping in front of Dan, I tried to hold him back. The two exchanged more coarse words, nearly coming to blows before Dan calmed down and the moment passed.

By itself, this would have been just a sobering reminder that some will only see skin color. However, when three more occurrences of young white males going out of their way to accost my co-workers and me happened over the next two months, I woke up to some harsh realities about my life as a black man in America. They were ignorant, they were insecure, but it wasn’t isolated, and it was directed at me!

These unpleasant exchanges are also fostered by proximity. In each situation, the individuals had to move close enough to my friends and me for us to hear their epithets and homage to weakness—I don’t say simply “homage to hate” because hate is as much a result of something as it is a cause. When I was called N- at the beach I didn’t think of the question that should have flowed naturally from the circumstance: why would someone who doesn’t know me, my background, capabilities, or aspirations, try to degrade my humanity with such a word?

I was not a Christian when all of this happened. I knew nothing of worldview, philosophies, and definitely not theology. I was still young and not thinking profoundly about social issues. But from this question came a decision that eventually shaped my future understanding of race and culture. Later, when I became a believer in Christ, it came to the fore. The answer set a trajectory for how I would relate to those like the hate-filled young men from the summer and others who looked like them.

Later that fall, as a new Christian, I reflected on those experiences at the beach, then looked at the back of my hand. It was brown. I recognized that no matter who I was on the inside I would be identified and judged by the color of my skin. Right there, sitting in the car I bought with cash from that summer job at the beach, I asked God to use my skin color as a tool in His hand to bring Him Glory.

May my faith define my culture, not the other way around!

The Gathering In to Follow Close

Though there are wolves and predators trying to scatter us individually and societally like useless chaff, I take comfort in Christ our Good Shepherd who draws us into Himself.

Whatever our culture of birth, Christ wants to define it. Over, under, and within our backgrounds—not in spite of them—He wants to define how our culture is expressed and lived out.

As a shepherd gathers the sheep into a secured and guarded place at night, for protection and care, so God draws us together. We see a practical example of proximity as we imagine that same shepherd leading the sheep out for water or into green grassy pastures. The sheep are not near to each other because they necessarily want to be; they are mainly trying to be close to the shepherd as he walks them along the often-difficult paths to pleasant places.

Like sheep pressing around the shepherd’s feet, we are brought into close contact with others with whom we would normally not choose to be close. Our proximity is the result of our desire to be with Him in what He is doing. Are we willing to pay the price of that proximity and go where He leads?

The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden.  You can see more of Aaron’s remarkable images here and here.


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