It started when the fence blew down.
We’d been casual acquaintances with our next door neighbors for some years at the time, close enough to chat in the driveway when we saw each other, but not intimate enough to know the inevitable struggles and joys that went on after the garage door slid closed. We knew they had dogs, saw them walking them, so when it came time for us to adopt a rescue dog of our own, they were supportive and kind.
Then, during one fairly typical windy Colorado afternoon, the fence between our backyards blew down.
As typical house owners, we gathered over the wreckage and mumbled about how much it would cost to replace the fence, what kind of work it would take, what an eyesore it was. My husband and Rob* tore the flimsy remnants down and as the dogs frolicked over their newly doubled territory we came to a realization: we didn’t need a fence between us, after all.
So, instead of rebuilding, we chopped the weathered wood into usable pieces, and flung it into their backyard fire pit. We sat long into the night over beverages and fence, watching the barrier burn.
Years ago, I would have seen this burning as Jesus’ invitation to evangelism, a clear path to converting my neighbors to our way of relating and being with God. Years ago, I would have seized this “opportunity” as evidence that their souls needed to be saved, and that I was the one meant to do the saving. (Evangelical hero complex, anyone?)
Today, as with the day the fence blew down, I only see the invitation to learn to love more, and more deeply. Instead of seeing souls to be saved, I saw God asking me to share space in a way that most suburbanites don’t do, their properties protected by privacy fences and gated communities. Instead of a mission field, God was beckoning me out into my own backyard.
Over time, the torn down fence became symbolic of tearing the walls of relational intimacy between us. We learned more of their story, and they, more of ours. Hurts and illnesses, celebrations and losses were shared over our newly spacious shared ground. When they went out of town, we readily looked after their pooches, marched across our elongated backyard and into their home in pajamas and boots for morning feedings and late night rescue missions. They returned the favor. We built a few raised beds for vegetables, and shared both the watering and the crops as the years went by. Eventually, they installed a dog door, and each morning our eager pup makes his way from our living room into their kitchen to say good morning over a cup of coffee. We jokingly refer to our arrangement as a “dog co-op.”
This new neighborliness didn’t come without its cost. As an introvert, I like to power down when I get home, to crawl into my much-needed cave of solitude and silence. The wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am theology of converting my neighbors instead of loving them sometimes felt simple and appealing on the nights when I’d had a long day at the office only to come home to Lisa* sitting silently by the fire pit, clearly in need of an ear and a friend. But the call of love is always louder than the call of convenience, and I would wander out to see if she needed company, sitting to listen and talk even when dinner would have to wait. Like the monastics, I began learning that stability in community brings out the rough edges not in the other, but in me. The ground that I’ve covered interiorly over this time is much larger than the length of our combined back yards. I’m not proud enough that I can’t admit there are still days when I see one of them crouching over the veggies and step back from the windows so they can’t see that I’m home. I’m not perfect at loving, and I don’t get it right all the time. But I’m learning to love both of them (and their dogs) as I would love Christ.
Rob and Lisa and their two dogs have taught me to love when it’s not convenient to me, theologically or emotionally. Today, they are dear friends for whom I could ask for a cup of sugar or a pound of flesh. When either they or we are in crisis, we end up in each other’s kitchens, talking it through over a cup of tea. They know we love Jesus, and they respect our faith. When other factions of our politically conservative town cause them to scratch their heads or, worse, break their hearts, we end up back at the fire pit, talking through the way of Love.
A few years ago, Lisa returned from a vacation with a gift of wine and a thank you note for once again caring for their furry twosome. Lisa grew up in a Christian home, and we’ve had more than one conversation about how crazy the conservative Christian culture makes her, how little she wants to do with those ways ever again. I can’t say I blame her.
This evening, though, as she leaned against the back of our couch, she misted up slightly at the reality of our shared space and shared lives.
“You know,” she said haltingly, “I’ve never understood that ‘Love your neighbor’ verse until you guys.”
Me, neither, I thought quietly to myself. Me, neither.
*Not their real names.
Tara M. Owens, CSD is a spiritual director and supervisor with Anam Cara Ministries, where she accompanies people in their journeys of faith. She’s also the Senior Editor of Conversations Journal, a spiritual formation journal founded by Larry Crabb, David Benner and Gary Moon. She’s looking forward to the publication of her first book, Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh and Bone, through InterVarsity Press in December 2014. She is honored to steward a thriving spiritual community on Facebook here, and you can follow her on Twitter here and here. Tara is a fan of Dr. Who, red velvet cupcakes and warm thunderstorms. She, her husband Bryan, and their rescue dog, Hullabaloo, live in Colorado.