Part of the “View From The Parsonage” series.
“I’m calling the borough council,” were the first words I heard out of her mouth. I recognized the animated little lady standing next to us as being one of my neighbors. She is a bit of recluse, and has always given me the vibe that she wanted nothing to do with the residents of our parsonage on the corner.
A disadvantage of living in a parsonage is that everyone automatically knows I’m a pastor and whatever impression they have of pastors and pastors’ families is quickly applied to us before we’ve even introduced ourselves. This is the main reason I don’t tell people what I do when we first meet, because I want them to get to know me and being known as a pastor tends to inform every relationship I have before it even begins. I’m pretty sure this lady had an impression of me even though we had never spoken.
But this story is multi-layered and sort of odd. It all starts with the United States Postal Service, budget cuts, and mail boxes. Our little borough used to have its own post office. It was directly across the street from the parsonage, and everyday we walked over to check our mail box inside the post office. The borough P.O. didn’t offer home delivery, and everyone in town went to the post office to get the mail. Eventually it was decided that it was too expensive to operate an office in our little town when there was another one about a mile away in the neighboring – and larger – borough. It was decided that each home would have to put a mailbox on a post next to the street so that the already existing delivery person could drive the route. We were losing our post office, but we were gaining home delivery. Seemed like a fair trade off to me.
It happened that the borough office, our parsonage, and the other parsonage owned by our church were assigned the same corner to put our boxes, and they were supposed to be placed in a row. We thought it might look better if we all pitched in and built something that would hold all three mail boxes, and it would look a little more uniform.
We agreed on a plan, a couple of the borough workers got some materials, and the three of us put the thing together and mounted all the boxes. Aside from each of us purchasing our own mailboxes, the rest of the materials cost about $10.
Just as we were finishing up our neighbor came storming out making all kind of threats about getting the borough workers in trouble for using her tax dollars to build something for the church. Her exact words were something like, “You can’t use my tax dollars to help a church. Nobody helped me, and they don’t even pay taxes!” Her outrage so surprised us that none of said anything, and she went shuffling off to the borough office. I felt badly for the borough employees. No one was trying to cause a problem, we really were just trying to put in something that wasn’t an eyesore.
My neighbor comes across as very bitter. She has a bit of a reputation for shouting at kids who are playing outside. I don’t know for certain what happened to make her hostile toward the church. It is very possible that we’ve unknowingly hurt her in some way, but I’ve been told that she was once married and that her husband died while they were both younger. She has lived alone for decades. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t have much family.
Her words, “Nobody helped me,” actually stung and stuck with me. At the heart of it, this was the problem. Nobody helped her. It might have been a long time since anyone helped her. The stated problem is almost never the real problem. Maybe she was angry at God for her loss, and was taking it out on any Christian that riled her up. Maybe she was feeling abandoned by everyone, and Christians make an easy target because we are supposed to be compassionate and often are not. Whatever her reason, she wasn’t really angry about taxes.
After our brief but blustery interaction, I decided to keep an eye on her and find a chance to serve her. I didn’t have to wait too long. Winter around here can bring a lot of snow. Not Rocky Mountain high kind of snow, but pretty constant nonetheless. Anyway, we got a big snow, and I went down the street to shovel her walk.
She was totally surprised to see me, and came out in a bit of a rush. You know that moment when you’ve caught someone completely off guard? Well, I accomplished it. She tried to pay me. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t smiling on the inside.
The way of being that produced the complaint about tax money was expressed in her desire to pay me for shoveling her tiny little walk. If she had ever seen grace, she couldn’t accept it and she couldn’t give it. Hers is a world of transactions. God owed her something (in her opinion), and she isn’t about to owe anybody anything. Hers is a world of self-sufficiency and self-justification, but she is trapped by her own words, “Nobody helped me.” She knows what she needs, but she won’t allow herself to rest in the grace of God given through Jesus.
One lesson from the parsonage on this day was that we can never be certain what hurts people are carrying with them. We have to tread lightly in the lives of others. I was reminded that grace can break the cycle of transactional living, tear down walls, and build trust. But to live in grace is risky. I had to take a chance and go to the home of a woman who told me off in the middle of the street. This is what grace does: it risks.