When neighbors become true friends

A Christian Science perspective: A response to the Monitor’s Upfront column ‘Old neighbors. Can they be friends?’

Recent steps toward reconciliation of the decades-long hostility between the United States and Cuba led Monitor columnist John Yemma to ask recently, “Can they be friends?” (CSMonitor.com). It’s a question with far-reaching implications.

It’s also a question that has special meaning for me. No, I don’t have close friends or relatives in Cuba; but I do have next-door neighbors who, over the past couple of years, have become friends in a way that I previously would never have imagined possible. More on that shortly.

As we pray to see all peoples of the world as our neighbors – our brothers and sisters – as Christ Jesus taught, it’s possible to start seeing a family in a way in which politics, race, color, religion, and geography become less significant. A friend of mine, a Christian Scientist whose work at one time had taken him all over the world, once told me how his travels had helped him realize that in God’s spiritual kingdom – the only true kingdom – there really are no “foreign” individuals, atmospheres, or principles. The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote: “Pilgrim on earth, thy home is heaven; stranger, thou art the guest of God” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 254). As God’s spiritual creation, made in His image (see Genesis 1:26, 27), we all dwell in His kingdom.

Our world today might make us feel justified in embracing only our friends and hating our enemies. Yet Christ Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the Mount challenge that approach. He said: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;... if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?” (Matthew 5:44, 47).

I’ve found that doing “more than others” means being willing to take the first footsteps forward, steps that lead to a change of thought enabling us to see how neighbors who earlier seemed to be enemies might start to become friends. And here, mere human civility and tolerance likely aren’t enough. Doing “more” is where prayer comes in. In heartfelt, sincere prayer we can affirm God’s love for everyone and recognize that there is a divine plan, God’s infinite goodness, eternally at work, even when human circumstances insist otherwise.

For nearly a decade, our next-door neighbors were difficult to deal with: They yelled at their dogs frequently, burned wood and trash in a fire pit whose smoke and fumes often forced us to close our windows and doors, and kept disruptively odd hours, to name just a few things. To us, they seemed like the prime example of bad neighbors.

Then, a couple of winters ago, I was unable to shovel the snow from our sidewalk. One snowy evening, as my wife and I were thinking about whom we could ask to help, we heard a snow thrower running outside our front door. We looked out and saw our neighbor clearing our sidewalk.

For some time, my wife and I had been praying to better understand our neighbors’ real identity and goodness as God’s spiritual children, to see Godlike qualities in them, and to discern what we might do to be better neighbors ourselves. We knew that prayer can stop arguments and misunderstandings by opening thought to the reality of man as God’s spiritual likeness; and as we looked out the window that snowy night, we gained a new conception of our neighbors: as unselfish, compassionate, willing to help even when they hadn’t been asked.

That winter proved to be the turning point in cementing a new foundation of friendship between these neighbors and us. Since then, we’ve helped in clearing each other’s walks in the winter, chatted over the backyard fence in the summer, and shared vegetables from our garden and fish our neighbors have caught.

Mrs. Eddy offered a prayer that has helped me see how to truly bless our neighbors. She wrote: “Each day I pray: ‘God bless my enemies; make them Thy friends; give them to know the joy and the peace of love’ ” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 220).

A spirit of true neighborliness, growing out of a desire for everyone to “know the joy and the peace of love,” opens the way for the kind of thought that enables us to progress together, and that fosters genuine friendship.

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