who IS my neighbor?

I heard a story on the radio the other day (yes, sorry… I am a HUGE National Public Radio fan) about the very robust health of small-town weekly newspapers. It said that contrary to the national trends we are seeing, small-town newspapers are more popular than ever and are actually making money.

If you are still one of the staunch minority who still subscribe to your big city, hometown daily newspaper you have no doubt noticed that it keeps consolidating, getting smaller and bringing less and less news to your doorstep. The speculation in this story was that most folks prefer to get their news electronically… whether by the TV or internet. By the time a news story has been reported, written, typeset, and printed on sheets of newsprint, it is as stale as yesterday’s toast.

So why are the small-town papers doing so well while others struggle?

The primary theory proposed by the person being interviewed was that people love the COMMUNITY created by those newspapers. The stories they carry are about the local high school football team, the winners of the “largest zucchini” competition at the county fair, the comings and goings at the Baptist Church ice cream social and the little scandalous bits of news about the calls the local police department responded to… news stories about people that people know and care about. In contrast, a story about a murder or fire or an earthquake in Chile doesn’t create nearly the same level of interest in the casual newspaper reader.

No doubt this is the same dynamic that is behind the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace and other social media. These are avenues that allow us to stay abreast of the events in the lives of the communities we care about most… the community of “people I know.”

As we each think about the news events that most capture our attention and contemplate our call to Christian discipleship, the question inevitably arises, “Who is my neighbor?” Or to ask the real question Jesus intended to pose, “Who are you and I called to care about?”

We are certainly called to care about the people nearest and dearest to us… beginning with our family and then radiating outward. But just how far “outward” can our compassion radiate before it becomes strained and weakened and ineffective? We ask ourselves, “Can I realistically care about everyone?”

And of course, we can’t. We are not that strong. We are not that compassionate. Most of the time, left to our own devices and inclinations, we are really not even that nice. That is the exact moment we come face to face with the need to be empowered by something that is distinctly “not us.” It is not just the addict or the alcoholic who faces the need to “surrender my life to God.” The need to be fully surrendered… to earnestly pray, “Not my will, God, but yours,” and really MEAN it is the faith challenge each of us face every day.

This is why we worship. This is why we gather in community. We come to meet God and we come to hold each other accountable to be the willing and surrendered disciples God calls us to be. I pray that God continues to work with each one of us and draw us into that bond of AUTHENTIC discipleship every day.

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