Several years ago, I was pregnant with my third child and in the middle of a move. This required packing and transferring a household from one place to another with two toddler boys in tow. The trouble was, I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute or two without running to the bathroom (thanks, morning sickness). Progress was slow, to say the least.
One Sunday morning, my husband ran into a woman he hardly knew in our church hallway. Making small talk, she asked how we were doing—and he answered, honestly. It was a brief chat with a near stranger. But she took the information to her Sunday school class full of recently retired adults. A group of them showed up the next morning, packed up half of our apartment, and left hand-me-down bicycles for my boys.
For this faithful group, I was a neighbor—not because of where I lived or how we were related, but simply because I was in need. They poured themselves out to serve me.
This is the ongoing circle of faithfulness: We hold each other up when we think we can’t go on. We give of ourselves not only to meet our own needs but also to create life for others. And these others keep us going in turn, bringing us meals during a crisis, offering prayer and guidance during tough decisions, sitting with us while we cry in times of grief—being together, in all seasons. Physically, emotionally, spiritually—the load is too heavy for any one of us to bear. But when we look out for each other, taking on each other’s burdens, the load becomes lighter. We can make it, together. When we all share the weight, there is strength enough—and joy abounds within the labors as well.
This isn’t just a happy coincidence, a convenient symbiosis. The interdependence cultivated between people during seasons of toil and faithfulness is exactly what God intended when he made this world and invited us to create alongside him.
The book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, is a challenging read in a genre we don’t use or understand much these days. But I love the letters to the churches. A powerful and unambiguous theme emerges: You all, stay the course. Be faithful. He is coming! He is coming! Keep standing together! Stand firm. Stand, stand, stand. He is coming.
I had no idea, earlier in life, just how hard it was to stay faithful for the long haul, to maintain “a long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson says. Exhaustion kicks in miles before the race is over. We can’t remember why we’re on this path in the first place and begin to wonder what would happen if we just bowed out.
There is a reason the letters in Revelation are written to churches, not individual people: We cannot succeed in faithfulness on our own. Alone, striving to be the legendary lone-ranger hero, we will be lost. Life is a group project from first to last. And so, we join the community of God and take our vows together with these brave and ancient words: “We will, with God’s help.”
* * *
The Pharisees and Sadducees were tag-teaming, taking turns trying to stump Jesus and trap him in trick questions. Then a law expert came forward and asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?“
This cracks me up. It’s like the lawyer got nervous and blanked. Or maybe he threw a softball instead of a curve ball because he actually wanted Jesus to win . . . but couldn’t afford to let on. In any case, Jesus easily clears the hurdle by quoting the Shema, the centerpiece of Jewish thought and worship. Taken from Deuteronomy 6, it begins, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
The word we translate “strength” in Deuteronomy could be better rendered “muchness.” It doesn’t just mean physical or mental power, it means exceeding or abundantly. Love God, much-ly. This, Jesus confirms, is our primary duty, our greatest task in life. It is from here all other duties stem. Faithfulness is found in loving God abundantly: with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our muchness. If we remain faithful to this love, like a branch grafted securely to the strong, life-giving vine, we will live.
And then Jesus continues, adding the second-greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The older I get, the more I realize how profound this call-to-life is. Embodying abundant love is not a check-the-box sort of thing: Love-feelings for God? Check! Affection for neighbor? Check-check! Muchness toward God and neighbors requires dug-in faithfulness through the long haul, through thick and thin, better or worse.
If we lived in perpetual winter, I doubt I would ever get to know the people who live around me. But in summer, we all come outdoors, sharing swing sets and soccer balls, mowing each other’s lawns, offering excess zucchini, stopping to chat on walks around the block. We need this connection to neighbors—and the responsibility that goes with it. Humans were not created as islands, but as families, tribes, communities. We know, and become, and grow together. We are interdependent with neighbors in all their varieties—those across the street and, in today’s global village, across the world.
Neighbors come in all shapes and sizes, some of whom you wouldn’t expect. When Jesus said that one of the greatest commandments is to love your neighbor, the tricky questions got tougher: “Who is my neighbor?” someone asked. Instead of pointing to the house next door, Jesus launched, characteristically, into a meandering story of a man in desperate need of help. The people considered righteous couldn’t be bothered to lend a hand, but a person considered lowborn and detestable sacrificially poured out his time, money, and safety to see this man back to health.
“Which of these men was a neighbor?” Jesus asked. Cleary, the neighbor we are meant to love is whomever we encounter who needs a hand. And, the person to whom we reach out ourselves when we cannot go another step.
Excerpted from All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World by Catherine McNiel, released in August 2019 from NavPress.