Chatting in the wee small hours at a party recently we fell into conversation with a psychotherapist. When a friend helpfully revealed I was at ‘vicar college’ , her reponse was immediate: ‘Change to psychotherapy while you have the time, if you are a vicar you’ll have to love your neighbour and that is too difficult.’ Had it been earlier in the evening I might have pointed out that as a Christian psychotherapist or Christian anything I would remain obliged to at least try and love my neighbour, however difficult.
Loving your neighbour is one of those principles that is generally accepted to be a good thing in theory. But I have to admit in practice it is quite hard. We have reasonably near neighbours who between their kids, pets, electric tools and loud phone-calls outdoors make our garden pretty much unusable. We are on nodding terms but underneath the thin veneer politeness there is a (probably mutual) seething hostility.
Last night at an event hosted by Islamic Relief to celebrate their 30 years of work and launch Ramadan, Professor Timothy Winter gave a brilliant exegisis of Surah 41 with a particular focus on verse (or ayah) 34: “And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend” Or as the Bible says is 1 Peter 3 v 9: “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it.”
So just as Professor Winter urged Muslims to respond to Islamophobia with mildness, kindness and patience so to I need to work on my response to my actual neighbour (who are clearly not evil, merely inconsiderate). I don’t know why it is as hard as it seems to be to put the theory into practice.
When we first moved in here our Muslim neighbours whom we now know quite well – offered us food and friendship before we offered them anything. They had no knowing what attitudes they might encounter from us but they were prepared to take the risk. I hope they feel that risk paid off!
I wonder what I can risk in order to offer some genuine friendship to the family down the road? How do you offer friendship when you don’t feeel friendly? Do you need to like your neighbour in order to love them?
Thinking over these questions during a night of caffeine-induced imsonnia, it dawned on me that the answers probably lie in Jesus’s commandment to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (If the constant sound of a dustbin lid being banged on concrete counts as persecution.) Theologian Ann Morisy says prayer is a rehearsal for the moment we are called to perform so I hope if I can pray enough, I might have the lines I need when the opportunity to perform arises.
But if not, it is good to know if I don’t sort out the relationships on our street – at least I can become a psychotherapist!