Be the Neighbor

It was over 11 years ago I first walked into Papa’s Haven, a coffee shop near to where I was pastoring a local church. Dreamed into existence by a guy named Jerry and his wife Jane, as a second career this place was perfect for me. I began to come there for most of my office hours. My church office was not an easy place to work at the time, and this vibrant, noisy, warm, congenial and welcoming environment was great. I could have side conversations, meet people from the community, share the gospel a bit, write, email, answer phone calls and texts and get other work done.

So, if you didn’t know where else to find me, I’d be working there. Perhaps with a book in the corner chair, or plugged in at the corner table on my laptop. Jerry would drop by my table and talk ministry or life or sometimes we had in-depth theological conversations. Some days I would open a tab and buy drinks for those with whom I met.

One day, Dylan and Jesse and their mom, Lisa, were my guests. Dylan, 8, was so impressed I had a tab and he could get anything he wanted. “When I grow up,” he told his mom later, “I am going to have a tab too, just like Pastor Brian!” A couple years later, Lisa told me, she was driving past Papa’s Haven and Dylan shouted out: “Hey mom, can we stop at Papa’s and get something on Brian’s tab?”

She laughed, saying, “That’s not exactly how it works!”

Together, Jerry, Jane and I, began a Saturday evening times of prayer and worship in the after hours coffee shop. It ran for several weeks. It never took off, but we shared some sweet prayer times.

Over 11 years, I literally spent days at those tables. I met people for counsel. I prayed with people. One young mom asked for my thoughts on the decision of whether or not to return to work after her second child was weaned. “What do you think I should do?” she asked. I turned the question around, asking, “What is your heart telling you?”

I’ve hosted meetings. I’ve shared tears and laughter. Last winter I met with the pastor who followed me in my place of ministry over coffee on several early mornings.

You’d find me there on frosty, cold early mornings and sometimes at closing time. The place had been central in so many aspects of my ministry life. Jerry’s son, Nate, took over for his dad and renamed it “Haven Coffee” about five years ago. Jerry and Jane still worked some shifts. For a few years they had talked of remodeling the space.

So, when coronavirus hit, they closed for the remodeling. After 11 years, as of mid March I stopped going. This felt tough.

Recently, I heard they had reopened, so set two appointments for there. Even after remodeling, I expected everything to feel the same. Nate and I had talked about their plans on multiple occasions.

But everything had changed.

The tile floor was gone. Now, just treated concrete. The eclectic ceiling was gone. The lighting had changed. The walls had been painted a color which, to grieving me, did not evoke the same sense of home. Because of the pandemic, all that was within the place was the enlarged barista bar, no tables. The few chairs remaining were not available for seating. There was a single bench around the perimeter of the space, however, you could not sit there to drink your coffee inside. You could sit on the bench and read or work, but must remain masked.

They still had three outside tables and a couple benches near the parking lot. The tables sat near the four-laned, busy street. They were not very conducive to conversations.

Masked, I walked up to the counter, greeted Nate and could not order. I was too dumbfounded.

I wanted to shout, “What have you done?”

I knew he was just following Oregon protocol, seeking to “be safe” as everyone seems to say. I felt robbed. It was like someone had broken into my house, ransacked it and had taken all I most valued.

After chatting about the changes, and receiving his assurance they would again have tables inside, I managed to order. Disoriented, I exited the “enter” door, greeted my friend Kevin standing six feet from the person ahead of him. I violated the distancing too. Then, picked up my tea and sat at one of the outside tables.

While waiting for Kevin to get his coffee, I texted my wife.

Haven has no interior tables…only outside seating. It feels awful. I won’t be back for a long time. So disappointing to me. It doesn’t matter what is said. People choose what they believe. And I exited the wrong door. So strange. Have we changed planets? Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

This was Kevin’s first visit to my coffee place. So, he felt no loss. He was so joyful. “I love this coffee! This is a great place,” he said. And he relished the cool, Portland weather. He had been stuck, quarnantined in California during the first four months of the restrictions. He was filled with joy, even though the California camp he directed had lost $700,000 in income this summer because of this pandemic of fear. We ended up in a meaningful and deep conversation. The whole time, I felt shellshocked.

My second appointment was with a dear friend, Wendy, from my previous congregation. She had bought masks with “Love Thy Neighbor” on them. After asking if I would like one, she had gotten one for me and we were meeting to reconnect and for her to deliver my mask. You might recall how I feel about masks in general. This gift came out of a long, productive texting conversation we had carried on for two months at the start of the pandemic. From our opposite viewpoints we had written out our perspectives, shared articles, and listened to one another about our thoughts on what was going on in the world.

Outdoors, unmasked, Wendy and I laughed, shared stories, caught up on one another’s lives and enjoyed this refreshing time together. After our hour together, I decided to leave the coffee shop, work from home before leaving for my afternoon appointments. By evening, I had forgotten the loss I had felt that morning. Karen and I shared about our days over dinner. By bedtime, I felt winded. That’s when Karen said, “Don’t be too quick to discount the loss of your coffee shop.”

Indeed. I was quick to move on and forget how losses like this one — so minor, I know, on the scale of what many others are experiencing — can impact much of life. Had she not said this, I would have just gone to sleep on the emotion still packed into my system. Instead, I sat and journaled it out. It felt stupid, actually, to have any feelings about a place. But places matter, don’t they?

Do you feel impacted with the closure of favorite restaurants, coffee shops, mom and pop grocery stores, parks and play areas? I have to fight the urge to rip down the barriers, every time I see play equipment at a park closed with “Danger” signs posted. Let’s say it: Play is not dangerous.

How do you process the impact of those losses?

I was struck how unprocessed emotions will come out. Over the long haul, as disease. Or, In the moment, as misdirected anger. I have too many examples of this from my own life, but I’ll spare you.

It was a couple days later, Karen and I left for an 8-hour drive to have the privilege of hanging out with our five grandchildren while our four daughters went camping for a couple nights together. It was their first campout as adults together. What an epic time for them and us. And, on this trip I discovered something remarkable about masks. They might hide our smiles, but they do not cover our ears.

I tried out my new Love Thy Neighbor mask as I went in to pay for my gas. I felt self conscious with it at first. That surprised me. As I put it on, I said to myself, “Your mask proclaims your connection to Love and Jesus, so live it out.” When the guy in front of me had the smile of Joker, the Batman rival, on his, I liked that mine simply proclaimed love.

Marla was behind the counter. I reached into her day. Asked how she was doing. We connected even while both working to hear one another through the masks. When I returned for change, we joked and laughed with one another.

At Starbucks, instead of sitting in the line of 12 cars in the drive-thru, I donned the Love Thy Neighbor mask and went inside. I asked the woman serving me at the counter, how she was doing with the changes and challenges of the pandemic, then listened. I loved the feel of being inside Starbucks again. She echoed this saying it felt so wonderful to people to serve instead of just those coming through the drive-thru. “It felt like a tomb in here then,” she reflected. I ordered and stood near a guy standing beside the overturned tables and stacked chairs.

We began to chat.

“I’m from Seneca. It is so small John Day feels large to us! We don’t even have a Starbucks.” He told me. “My wife does the Starbucks thing when she goes into Bend. This is my first time inside one!”

I told him, “You sir are unique!”

He laughed, “I know! I just asked for a large for I don’t even understand the sizes they have! I also had no idea of the menu, so, I just ordered for myself what my wife wanted and asked the ladies there to choose something my kids might like.” I find conversations refreshing with folk who come from more rural places. Seneca has about 250 people. He reminded me mine is not the only perspective.

His order arrived, I bid him a safe journey and waited silently since the others awaiting their drinks were spread across the open floor minding the six foot gaps.

That’s when another worker behind the hanging plastic barriers called over to me. She said, “I love your mask!” Somehow, I never expected this mask to be a conversation starter! “Thanks,” I responded. Then she said, “I keep telling my mom, we just need to love one another. If we remember to love, this will solve many woes.” This shouted conversation through masks, across the store drew attention and smiles.

“Amen,” I responded. “How’s your day going?” The conversation which opened up was life-giving.

We laughed, talked and connected.

What struck me was this: Sometimes when I have worn another mask I have been frustrated at having to wear it. My attitude hindered connections. I tended to gripe about masks in general and not connect to the person serving me or others around me. I made the mask into an even greater barrier. But when I let the mask inspire me to connect more, suddenly, conversations became more accessible.

Even though it is more difficult to understand people through masks, still, my ears are not covered. I can listen, and listen more intently.

Never has the skill of listening to others been more crucial than it is now.

First, like I wrote previously, we listen to our own hearts. Listen to what we are feeling and experiencing, and process those feelings. Like for me with my transformed Haven, processing loss is crucial in this life. There are too many expressing unprocessed losses around us already.

Second, we listen to others. Like I said, masks also do not cover our ears. It’s funny, however, even though our ears are not covered still we can close off our hearing.

We can choose not to listen.

Someone can be speaking and instead of listening, we are preparing or rehearsing our responses. Or, we can be silent but thinking about something else entirely.

To listen is to actually pay attention and seek to understand this other person and their perspective. It is to care for them enough to tune into their life, their stories and hearts. This is needed.

Today, friends, remember your ears are not covered by the mask. Ask questions and listen. Hear what another is experiencing. Be there to support.

Another way to say that is this: Be a neighbor.

In one of the most famous biblical parables, The Good Samaritan, Jesus tells a story in response to this question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells of a man traveling on a perilous road who fell among robbers, was left stripped, beaten and half dead. Three other travelers come upon him. Two religious leaders come. One just passes on the opposite side, the second, looks closer, as if to discover the half dead man’s lineage, then walks away. The third man, a Samaritan business man was from a people group hated by Jews of that era. This man is filled with compassion, stops, bandages the broken man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, cares for him overnight, and then gives the innkeeper funds to look after him. In addition, he promises to pay the innkeeper for any other incurred expenses upon his return. To this, Jesus asks the man who asked the original question this question: “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?”

What a question! Do you hear the difference?

The first questioner wanted to “justify himself,” we read in the story. To see if he had yet measured up to love. His question asks Jesus to identify the boundaries of love. “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps expecting defining parameters — only those of your political party, same color skin, your people group, only those next door to you, not these other ones — then, he could “show love” to those.

But Jesus turns the question on its head. Jesus asks “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus underlines how “loving my neighbor” is not about categorizing others, and showing love only to those who fit the category. But it is about “being the neighbor” to all we meet. It is about me expressing love toward the other, whomever it is. (Check out this story in Luke 10:25-37).

We need this so much today. Like the Starbucks’ worker proclaimed. We need to practice love more. There are divides all around us, families and communities torn asunder by differing approaches to this season.

Today, be a neighbor to someone. Show love. Stop and listen. Perhaps carry someone. Use those uncovered ears to help another feel like a person, to be heard, to feel loved.

Me with Young Mr G.

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