Janelle Alberts writes pithy Bible synopses and is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. For more on Alberts visit janellealberts.wordpress.com.
For 33 years, Mr. Fred McFeely Rogers sweetly sang about being a good neighbor.
He encouraged kids that a good neighbor meant being true to their special little selves and also that they should be nice.
A lovely sentiment.
However, in real life, neighborly “nice” isn’t always reciprocated, and also being ourselves by living out a me, myself and I, can have the bad ripple effect of crushing you, yourself and yours, in the process.
Take Steve Jobs for example. His self-drive is the reason we can order takeout, check the news and listen to music a la the same personal, charmingly sleek, handheld device.
Inarguably good for the neighborhood. But. Some feelings were hurt along the way.
One of the team members who spent gruelingly long hours helping Jobs build the first Macintosh computer said, “I lost my wife in that process. I lost my children.” Of Jobs, he said, “His was a life well and fully lived, even if it was a bit expensive for those of us who were close…”
Good for the neighborhood? Depends on the neighbor.
Therein lies the rub. Mister Rogers and Steve Jobs cared about personal individuality contributing to the good of the neighborhood – one through decency and one through drive – two seemingly opposing sentiments that force us to choose.
Except, say Christians, for God.
Christians tell the world that God can marry neighborly decency and drive both, because it was God who planted the drive in your created self and also God who calls for decency to the neighbors whom He loves as much as He loves yourself.
Find that hard to reconcile? You’re in good company. So did David.
David was an Old Testament superstar whose drive saved lives and whose decency built lifelong friendships.
But, feelings were hurt along the way.
David started out with an ironclad sense of neighborliness. How do we know? Goliath. Enormous and shouting daily from a hilltop that he was coming for the Israelites, Goliath was decidedly not good for the neighborhood.
David, while professing the Lord would handle everything, picked up a stone. In fact, he picked up five. In fact, he first had to refuse the king’s offer for a bronze helmet and armor and whatnot. David handled Goliath his own way.
He embodied Mister Rogers’ decency and Steve Jobs’ drive and both of their mantras of “I gotta be me!”
David also knew God would have to do the heavy lifting. Every step that David took against Goliath was influenced by his trust in something outside of him.
Which is a little more Steve Jobs than you might think. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward…,” Jobs said. “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
Today’s generation faces lots of options on who and how to trust what’s best for the neighborhood. David’s life reflects a simple message: choose carefully.
Because David is a great character study in choosing God until he really, really, really…didn’t want to. In which case, David chose his own gut instead, to the tune of adultery, betrayal, murder.
Philosophers have passed down an idea that nothing is absolute, but in a neighborhood there is at least one: hurt. We know when something absolutely hurts. And we know when it is because of somebody else’s gut choice that feeds the self, but not the neighborhood.
Which circles us back to where we began.
Our “gotta be me!” better be a “me” that runs its moral plumb line, well, along an actual plumb line. And here the record scratches. Because what neighborhood is going to all together agree on what that plumb line should be?
There is a little-known saying that reads, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.”
It is referring to love.
It would have to be. It couldn’t be talking about most excellent self-decency or excellent self-drive or excellent self anything. As Mister Rogers’ decency and Steve Jobs’ drive and King David’s waffling between the two exhibits, being a contribute-to-the-neighborhood kind of excellent self is a moving target.
Sometimes our drive knocks down our decency. Other times, we use decency as an excuse to abandon our drive.
Sometimes we just pick the wrong five smooth stones.
It’s hard to be good for the neighborhood. It is contingent on our expression of self being buttressed against something solid.
How do the Scriptures say that you can uniquely love your neighbor as yourself in a most excellent way?
We can’t. Unless, while we imperfectly navigate the expression of the very drive and decency that keep a neighborhood going, we can somehow pay the expense for inevitable hurt feelings along the way. Somebody’s got to absorb that cost.
We don’t have that power.
However, Scriptures claim that we and the whole neighborhood are loved by a God who does.
How can we know if that’s true? Even for Bible elites like David, the answer was little more than, “You’re about to find out.” He knows you might doubt, might deny, might have been hurt and do not plan to try it His about-to-find-out way again.
But, this Easter season, He wishes you would.