The first thing you'll probably hear when you walk into The Sandwich Shoppe in Rutland, Vermont is Dave's voice. From behind the counter he cuts through the dull murmur with his loud thick New England accent. You'll know for sure its him when he calls you “brother." “How are you doing today, brother?” “Thanks for coming in, brother.” And then you order, and he goes to work, talking the whole time like you’re an old high school buddy he hasn’t seen in 20 years. When you finally sit down and he moves on to the next customer, you realize it’s that way with everyone.
“I think he knows everyone in this town,” my wife commented.
“You don’t have to know someone to be friendly,” my sister replied.
And that’s when I realized we were onto something. Dave wasn’t afraid like most of us are. Most of us are scared of each other. We’re scared what they’ll think or how they’ll react. Scared to take a chance and make ourselves dependent on someone else’s response. What will they think? Will I seem weird, or overly friendly, or flirtatious, or fill-in-the-blank? So, we sit up straight, we speak softly, we don’t point or make any sudden movements. It might be good advice for church, but it’s terrible advice for life.
Jesus talked about relationships more than almost any other subject. In Matthew 5, he gives six examples of what “fulfilling the law” looks like, and all six examples deal with our interpersonal relationships. In Matthew 22, he names neighbor love as one of the two greatest commands, implying that our love for God is most tangibly expressed in the way we treat others. Clearly, this is important.
The problem is, however, that we often think of these relationships in negative terms. Don’t do this. Don’t say that. Don’t be rude, don’t forget your manners. But this isn’t how Jesus talks about them. Jesus speaks of our interpersonal relationships almost exclusively in positive terms. Do love your neighbor as yourself, do extend mercy and compassion. Do forgive those who hate you and pray for those who abuse you. Do feed the hungry, visit the sick and care for the marginalized. Even the golden rule – which we often think of as negative – was really given in the positive: Do for others the things you would have them do for you.
Being guided by negatives is easy. If I can avoid certain words and certain actions, I can fulfill any prohibition I could ever possibly dream up. But relating to one another in the positive is different; it takes initiative. In the negative, I can just let the world come to me and try not to react too badly to it. But if I am going to fulfill Jesus’ positive vision for my relationships I have to step out and take a chance. I can’t love passively because love is an active verb. It requires me to seek people out, to take the initiative.
And that brings me back to Dave. He didn’t wait for me, he just acted. That takes courage. What if I didn’t respond in kind? What if I was put off by his overly friendly demeanor? What if I just didn’t want to talk to anyone that day?
Relating to one another in the positive requires courage. It means there will be times when someone might misunderstand my intentions or might not know quite how to respond. In our culture, true kindness has become weird, and no one wants to be weird. But what am I so afraid of? It might not feel like it in the moment, but embarrassment usually fades quickly.
We’d all like to live in a kinder, friendlier world, but what am I willing to do to make that happen? We all get lonely sometimes, but most of us are usually surrounded by people, some of whom need to hear a kind word almost as much as we need someone to share a kind word with. Maybe it’s time we stopped being so afraid of each other. Maybe it’s time to find that kid down the street who needs a mentor, or the home-bound widow who goes weeks at a time without speaking to another human being. Maybe it’s time to reach out to that person at work or at school who doesn’t seem to quite fit in, to take a chance and try to see Jesus in another person. Maybe it’s time to put away the strategy and gimmicks and just get to know another human being simply because they are a human being and they are worth knowing. It would be a kinder, friendlier world if everyone thought like that, and we can. It just takes courage. So, what are we so afraid of?
Jason Koon is an ordained minister who lives in Morganton.