by Bob Lupton
I feel so very far away from the colorful mix of urban neighbors that once enriched my life. This morning in the predawn hours, I pulled out a book of my old memoirs, letters I wrote during the earlier days of ministry when I first moved into the city. Memories, many of which I had forgotten, came flooding back with a power that startled me. The faces of forgotten friends reappeared like grainy 35mm films and with them resurfaced a montage of emotions – joy, pain, elation, grief, fulfillment, guilt.
I remembered the intensity, the stress, the pressure of personal encounters with desperate people grasping like drowning victims at floating debris. I recalled the block parties, the laughter, the work (sooo much work!), the boisterous neighborhood kids. This morning, settled comfortably in my leather recliner in my warm suburban home, I felt a sense of relief to be free from this daily drama, though I must admit that those pressures carried with them a deep sense of satisfaction. But mostly I experienced a sense of loss.
I struggled mightily in those early days of ministry. Over my materialism. And privilege. And self-protection. And prejudice. Surrounded by a swirling sea of human need, yet living in relative financial security, there was no way to avoid these internal conflicts. The tensions were always in my face. And there was never a permanent resolution; neither was there an escape. I was trapped by my calling, a spiritual growth trap that forced me to face my darker side.
But those tensions are largely gone now. No longer does my doorbell ring at night, no desperate parents pleading for shelter, no wives appealing for bond money. Here in this idyllic golf-cart community there is quiet. Blissful quiet. Neighbors push strollers, walk their dogs, mow their lawns, smile and wave. People here are friendly. Mostly they mind their own business. The civility is heavenly.
So why am I feeling a loss? I should be feeling gratitude that in this autumn (or winter?) season I am free from the relentless stresses of urban life. This peaceful place is ideal for my writing – which has become an important part of my calling. But my stories lack the immediacy, the visceral gut wrenching on-the-scene potency that they had when I was immersed in urban life. I must now write from my memories or from the experiences that younger visionaries report.
What bothers me most, however, is not the lack of fresh writing material. Most troubling to me is the spiritual ease I experience in this tranquil environment. There are no homeless beggars on the corner holding up guilt-provoking cardboard messages. Sunday food-pantry collections reassure us that the needs of the poor are being taken care of. There is enough cultural diversity to make this majority white community interesting but unchallenged. Racial attitudes are cloaked with ample veils of political correctness. The schools are good, the streets are clean, the speed limits are enforced. The biggest controversy in recent months is whether to permit gas-powered golf carts (noisy and polluting, critics argue) or license only the more environmentally sensitive electric models. What’s not to like about this peaceable life?
Would I really want to return to the tumult of the city? Is my 73-year-old constitution ready for that much bombardment? I tell myself that were it not for Peggy I would indeed move back, realign my geography and my theology, re-enter the fray. But in reality, Peggy is a convenient excuse for remaining right where I am. I stay here for her sake, I convince myself, as an act of love. And maybe it really is the loving thing to do. Is my sense of loss not a worthy sacrifice to offer her – the woman I have pledged to love as Christ loves the church? It is an honest question.
The truth is, I like this low-stress world. I like the peacefulness, the convenience. But I can’t help wondering if my soul, without the regular discipline of dealing with demanding moral, ethical, spiritual dilemmas, has begun to atrophy. Am I “at ease in Zion” (as the prophet Amos adjudged indulgent Israel)? At ease in Peachtree City? Is that what I am being lulled into?
I have often told others that what you view out your front window shapes your worldview. I am now learning just how true this is. I look out my front window into a bubble that shields me from much of the ugliness of the world. The Peachtree Bubble (our social media Facebook site) posts upcoming community events, restaurant reviews, city council decisions, scheduled road repairs, and an endless stream of citizen drivel on everything from barking dogs to under-age golf cart drivers. Hateful or obnoxious posts are quickly removed. Even local politics retains a modicum of civility. I find this new normal to be very appealing. I know this is not reality – it’s not the way the outside world functions. Nevertheless, there is something quite pleasing about viewing the world through a rose-tinted lens.
What I am discovering, however, is that if I listen carefully, hidden pain is concealed beneath the surface smiles and polite manners of the people of the bubble. Breast cancer strikes terror into the hearts of women here, just as it does in every culture. Parents experience the heartache of children diagnosed with autism. Alzheimer’s steals away retirement dreams and replaces them with tedious confinement. The bubble does not shield people from life’s personal sorrows and tragedies. There can be a deep private loneliness behind the gracious smiles.
Even in the bubble there is need for neighbor-love (especially in the bubble!). Autonomy and independence may offer the illusion of confident self-sufficiency, at least while the sun is shining. But they provide precious little comfort when the dark storms of life roll in. Isolation and privacy are not effective shields against the inescapable heartbreaks of life.
The bubble, with its promise of insulation from the troubles of the outside world, can end up isolating neighbors from each other. Intimate, caring relationships, it turns out, are what make troubles tolerable. Even those who guard their privacy sometimes need the personal love of caring friends.
Perhaps my life in the bubble is not so distant from my urban mission as it first felt. The front window view is certainly different, but there are unmistakable similarities. Both the materially “poor” and the “poor in spirit” experience a sense of powerlessness when calamities befall them – misfortunes over which they have no control. Both feel helpless and alone in their pain. Neither want pity. Neither want their privacy invaded. Yet both deeply desire the love of someone who knows how to perceptively care.
Actually, sensitive neighbor-love, regardless of socioeconomic status, is very similar to (if not synonymous with) loving God. The needs of the materially poor are often more out in the open - money for rent or transportation to a job interview - whereas the poor in spirit may rely on affluence to camouflage their needs. But the need for love is universal. So is the need to retain one’s dignity.
If I am to spiritually survive the bubble, if the Great Command is to remain a bedrock of my faith, I am probably going to have to sharpen my listening-and-responding skills. Unlike the trauma-trained reactions I learned as a crisis responder, I must now learn to decipher more subtle clues. I am becoming convinced, however, that no matter where I reside, no matter the view out my front window, that loving my neighbor is not an optional activity if my faith is to remain alive.