We pastor-types should be teachers in Israel on how to love our neighbors as ourselves. However, every now and then the Lord takes me back to remedial school. He puts someone in my life to remind me I have a long way to go. Such is the case with Gail.
Gail is our seventy-six year old neighbor who lives across the street from us. In the five years or so we have lived here in Western Pennsylvania, Gail and his wife Joan became our friends. In late spring, summer, and early fall evenings they could always be found on their front porch, chatting with one another and always ready for someone else to join them for some conversation. Hearing stories of local history, of how Gail grew up in a family of eight without a father, or of his work in the steel mills were standard fare. As Christians, our conversations would often turn to spiritual matters as well.
Gail and Joan have always been neighborly. They would drop off fresh fruits and vegetables they had picked up at the farmer's market. If he thought an article or book would interest me, it appeared at our doorstep. If he saw me out working in the yard, he would come and lend a hand or a tool or both. When the winter weather came, Gail would often be out snow blowing our driveway before I had gotten to my shovel.
But in 2017, we wondered what would become of Gail. After tending devotedly to Joan through a serious illness for several months, he saw his beloved wife succumb and pass away in the fall of that year. Shortly thereafter, he was up on a ladder cleaning his gutters of leaves (he never asks for help) and fell, injuring his shoulder and requiring surgery. He had some other hard, more private providence afflict him as well. Without children and no family except for older siblings more limited than him, for a time Gail's loneliness and helplessness overwhelmed him. Sitting in his recliner recuperating, he felt useless and questioned out loud in my presence what God's purpose for him was now. He often expressed just wanting to go home to be with the Lord.
Yet here's where my real training began. For in the depths of his dark thoughts, the Spirit of the Lord used Scripture to ignite in Gail a new sense of purpose and calling as a widower. Without realizing it, Gail has been teaching me three key lessons regarding what it means to be a Christ-like neighbor.
See difficult providence as a new way to serve the Lord. By God's grace, Gail began to see that the energy, time, and resources he had given to caring for Joan could be redirected to benefiting others. He especially began to pour himself into finding ways to encourage the youth. He employed my children who needed work to paint his home. When he learned that the children of a young widow in our church wanted to go to a summer camp, a gift appeared at the church office for them. Gifts and cards for young people's birthdays, weddings, and other events started flowing from him. I cannot keep up with all he is doing.
It's relatively easy to be Reformed in seasons of good providence. Yet when things you rely upon such as companionship, health, work, etc. are stripped away, trusting in God's sovereignty is much more difficult. Yet ultimately God's providence, in whatever form He chooses to send it, should become our hope and direction. I have seen that displayed vividly in Gail's life.
Look eagerly rather than reluctantly for ways to love. Though Gail belongs to another church, he found out we have evening services. So he began attending, and he has been schooling me a bit on worship as I watch him in action.
He listens to prayer requests and announcements, and if he hears of a need asks me or others what would be a proper way to help. He has noticed some with special needs in the congregation, and found ways to quietly encourage them. Every week, though we do not even take an offering, without fanfare he slips an offering into my hand and I find a deacon to care for it. This is not even his church, though he certainly has become an honorary member!
Beyond that, he finds ways to serve in the community. For instance, for over two decades he has served as a voluntary chaplain at the local hospital. He goes weekly to visit with patients, praying and reading Scripture with them. It's easy to sigh and tell God you are tired when you hear of yet another need; instead, Gail seems to kick it into high gear at that time.
Give generously in faith without expectation. Gail has been blessed beyond only possessing the widow's mite. But he gives wholeheartedly like she did. He found out our seminary has an annual support dinner, and wanted to rent a small bus to take people in our area down to Pittsburgh to participate in it. Thinking this was a bit too ambitious and unnecessary, I tried to dissuade him. Instead, he challenged me to ask more churches to participate and ordered a larger bus. His faith filled the bus, and during the trip down he provided water bottles and mints to the riders to boot.
Our Bible study participants have been blessed regularly with vegetable trays, ice cream, or delicious fruit pies (he always tries to get the kind he knows we like) provided by Gail. On two occasions, he has even treated our group to a catered dinner at a lodge, complete with table arrangements that he gave to families to take home. He just wants to "give the ladies a night out," and he also quietly has me invite others who may need some "extra encouragement." The Lord instructs us to invite the least and the lonely to our feasts (Luke 14:12-14), and here is one inviting us instead. His joy in giving in this way radiates from him. How humbling and instructing all of this is.
And the lessons do not stop. Waking up to newly fallen snow this morning, I had to hustle out the door just to at least look like I was trying to shovel before Gail arrived with his snow blower.