When my doorbell rang last August, Michelle was the last person I expected to be waiting on the other side. I’d only met her a few times in the four years we had lived on the same street, and none of those times had been particularly noteworthy. I made an effort in the beginning, dropping cookies off at Christmas and greeting her by name when she visited our church a couple of times. Though friendly, she kept her distance. (This, too, is part of neighboring, recognizing everyone has different boundaries and doing our best not to force our own upon the guarded or resigned.)
It was only a week into a new school year, and the August air outside hung in damp sheets. Breathe in, breathe out; it felt more like swimming. Rivulets of sweat coursed down her temples. In a profound act of God’s goodness, I remembered her name.
“I’m so sorry to have to ask you this,” she said, “but I don’t have a phone right now and I just got this notice in the mail. They’re going to shut off our electricity, but it’s a mistake. Is there any way I could borrow your phone and call?”
I waved her in out of the heat and handed her my phone. I still remember the tension in the air as she laid bare all the things weighing her down to the customer service operator on the other end of the line while I tried to look busy. So often, I have gone to some lengths to sweep any minor life issues beneath the rug of my optimism, my work ethic, my has-it-all-togetherness. Being left with no choice but to listen in as a woman I barely knew begged to be heard and apologized for mistakes she hadn’t even made was just another example of the pride that still separated me from the people I most wanted to love.
She handed my phone back, her discomfort as real as the ballad of the cicadas sailing the humidity. “You can use my phone anytime,” I promised. “It’s no trouble at all.”
In the weeks that followed, I saw her most days. She was hard at work ironing the kinks from a series of misunderstandings that hovered with its finger over the switch. My friendship with Michelle grew as she was repeatedly left with no option but to ask for help, and I did everything in my power to flatten any division this dynamic might have built between us. I jumped at every chance to hang out with her, not because it made me feel useful, but because I enjoyed her company. She made my days better.
Our conversations never lasted long, but we began to inch past small talk, portioning out slivers of our personal lives and passing the fork. Each of us had a child starting middle school, so we shared the relief of stewing together. She loved her family. She was a little on the shy side. She longed for connection. She reminded me so much of myself.
Fall swept through. Eventually, though, as her life regained its footing again and the immediacy of the crisis passed, the length between our visits stretched.
I was putting groceries away one day when her name popped up on my phone. “I was wondering if you’ve had lunch yet, but I’m sure you have…” she said, her voice trailing off.
I told her I hadn’t.
“I have a coupon for Burger King, and I thought maybe we could have lunch together?”
I put the rest of the groceries away, my mind in overdrive. What on earth will I order? What was the best way for me to position myself at the register as payer?
My heart held nothing but kindness, but my mistake, as usual, was the assumption that she needed my help. I should have known better.
When we got to Burger King, I made sure to be the first in line and reached for my wallet after we ordered two Whopper Extra-Value Meals for ten dollars, as the coupon offered. “Oh, no,” she said. “This one is on me.”
For the next hour, the two of us sat in a booth under fluorescent lighting, cable news screaming at us from the television bolted to the wall. Our political views didn’t match any more than our life experiences did, but we were still two moms with fountain Cokes, worrying about our kiddos and dreaming our own dreams. I lined up tiny paper cups of ketchup on my plastic tray and dunked those fries with gusto. I ate every single bite of my Whopper-with-everything-no-cheese. I swallowed down the truth for the umpteenth time that the path from neighbor to friend only feels long when we watch each other from a safe distance.
When we share our actual lives, swinging open the door to the details that define us — our preferences, our favorites, our fears — the atmosphere draws closer, and the world feels smaller and far less lonely.
As we walked back out to the van, I thanked her for my lunch.
“I’m glad we did this,” she said. “I’ve been saving that ten-dollar bill for a special occasion, and when the coupon came, I knew I’d found it.”
We parents do our best to teach our kids that it’s better to give than receive, but we hide a secret behind our backs — not only is giving better, it’s often easier. We’re conditioned to repay kindness almost reflexively, quick to balance the ledger, preferably with interest. But when generosity is tossed back like a hot potato, can we really call it generous? Oh, how we hate our own poverty. Yet the benevolence of Christ leans toward kinship, where we take turns being filled with the feasts of wanting and relief. Here, we begin to identify with the King who came to save us through the thin chatter of a child, all naked need and wide-eyed expectation, palms open, no status to be shaken.
Without the weariness there is no thrill of hope. Without receiving, we miss the richness of giving. Without accepting what we do not deserve, we miss Emmanuel in our living rooms and all around town.
Original editorial written for Faith.Full by Shannan Martin, author of The Ministry of Ordinary Places.
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The ministry of friendship is a life-changer. We can be a part of changing the world for Jesus with pure, ordinary community — becoming the Body of Christ and living in God’s goodness — and in so doing, we can also be changed. So, who are you going to invite to Burger King? Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full