Like a Good Neighbor
For the first time in a long while I fell asleep on the couch in front of the television. Now, sometimes this is a gentle and relaxing sort of sleep, indicating the busyness and work of the day pulling my consciousness away before I had a chance to get up and wander to bed. The gentle lull of a favored show or movie massage my cares to silence, my eyelids grow heavy, my body slumps against a pillow, and even my ears no longer can keep up with the plot. A few hours later I wake up, the lights still on, the dinner plate still next to me, and I happily move from living to bed room.
Usually, it’s nice. Last night I didn’t fall asleep watching an old movie, or a drama, or one of my Rocky and Bullwinkle DVDs. Instead, at some point I turned the channel to the news. It must have been between the coverage of minor global events and the sports coverage. I remember seeing the smiling sports anchor talking about what he was going to say about USC and the Lakers’ new season, but I don’t remember hearing the report.
The unconscious should not be listening to the news while it is drifting away from rational consideration. The inner life doesn’t fly. It drags along on the ground, meaning if it drags through the mud it takes a while to get back into presentable order.
I fell asleep on the couch and I had a dream, a vivid dream. Here’s my dream.
The day was beautiful and I was enjoying a wonderful walk through the hills, surrounded by all sorts of blooming Spring flowers and the olive trees were filled with their ripening fruit, much of which had already tumbled to the ground. It wasn’t any place familiar to me, but as with such dreams, the peculiarity of the location didn’t stand out. I felt comfortable, happy, strangely at home as though I were walking in my backyard.
I continued my walk for a while, watching the birds flitter from branch to branch all around me. It was a wonderful jaunt, full of peace. I needed such a walk, even if only in a dream.
After a short while I began to hear a muttering of sorts. It seemed to be coming from off the trail, somewhere deeper in the woods. I thought I would keep going, but my curiosity got the better of me, and dreams don’t really offer too many real choices, so I turned to my right and walked up the hill towards the muttering. The closer I got the more I realized the muttering wasn’t a bird or beast but a person talking out loud. There was only one voice, a fact which made me a bit more cautious. You never know what kind of person will be talking to themselves in the middle of the wilderness.
The brush was thick, and sharp branches scratched my arms and legs as I made my way up the hill. There was likely a better route but this was the most direct, and of course it was a dream which I followed not wrote, so I had no choice but to brave the cuts and gashes.
After about a hundred feet the groundcover began to clear and I saw an open glade, filled with lush grass waving in the cool Spring breeze. In the middle was a fallen tree and on this tree was a man. He was talking out loud. I couldn’t hear the words but it nothing seemed particularly troublesome so I came closer, trying to be quiet so as not to interrupt.
Of course, thinking about being quiet made it entirely impossible to actually be quiet. I think it was a root that caught my foot. Whatever it was my attempt at stealth was destroyed by my tripping, gasping, falling and tumbling into a small thorny bush, the only bush in the glade, right behind the muttering man.
He turned and looked at me. I looked back up at him.
The man was youngish, the kind of youngish which looks older than it is, but not quite convincing enough to make one think the person is older than they are. His short black hair and beard were neatly trimmed and seemed to fade into his dark skin. The off-white robe he wore contrasted sharply with his heavy dark features.
“Hiya, Patrick,” he said.
“Hiya, Jesus,” I replied.
It was Jesus.
I knew who he was, not for any particular reason, only because this was a dream and we always tend to know the details in dreams, so as to skip the boring bits and move quickly to the action.
“Give you a hand?”
“Sure,” I replied. Jesus was very nice and held out his hand and helped me up off the ground. His hand was rough, and very strong, making me feel like he could crush the bones in my hand had he the desire, which of course he didn’t.
“Yeah, it’s a beautiful day and I enjoy being away from the crowds on occasion,” he replied.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll get going, I don’t want to interrupt.”
“No interruption at all. I’m glad you stumbled by,” he said, and laughed at his little joke. Oddly enough he seemed sincere enough about not being bothered.
I spent a moment trying to get the bits of grass and brush and dirt off my clothes then sat on the log next to Jesus. We shot the breeze for a good long while, talking about the weather and the trees. He seemed to know all the names for the flowers which were blooming and the various birds which flew around.
The conversation continued, drifting here and there as purposeless conversations are apt to do, until we somehow arrived at the topic of justice.
“You know, Jesus,” I said. “A lot of people are talking about justice these days. It used to be that this meant having strong laws and putting people in prison and whatnot. Now, a lot of folks I really respect are meaning social justice. Now, there’s people on one side saying the Church should be doing this and others saying the Church should be doing that. What should we do?”
“You’ve read the Law and the Prophets, right?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard this bit before, Love God and your neighbor right?”
“The hearing isn’t the hard part, it’s the doing.”
I nodded in agreement. Like I was going to do anything else.
“But what does that mean?”
“Yeah,” I said, with a bit of excitement. “What does that mean? I know the Samaritan story, so I’m supposed to be willing to put aside my present concerns to help someone in need.”
“That’s it,” he said.
“Hmmm,” I said, and just like that too, very distinct and exaggerated. “Hmmm.”
“But, that doesn’t quite seem enough,” Jesus said.
“Well no. I mean it’s Scripture so it should be, but that doesn’t help the present questions, what with the war and so on. People have different views on what this means.”
“Hmmm,” he said. “You’ve heard the one about the Samaritan already?”
“Yeah. I even remember the flannel board characters.”
“Ha! Whatever happened to those?”
“Technology most likely,” I said.
“Likely so,” he replied. “It’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?”
“So a certain man was walking through downtown and he decided to take a shortcut through an alley. Have you heard this one?”
“No,” I said, “Keep going.”
“Well, this wasn’t a great neighborhood and this man happened upon a group of thugs, who proceeded to ask for a few dollars. It turned out he actually only had a few dollars so they got mad at his affront and began to hit him and kick him.”
“Ouch,” I replied, feeling the man’s pain.
“Yeah. Did I mention this was on a Sunday morning?”
“No. Interesting. Go on.”
“Well, Church was beginning soon, so people were out walking in order to get to their various services. Soon after the thugs began hitting the man an Episcopalian decided to take the shortcut through the alley and he saw the activity, paused a moment, then hurried past, leaving the man to his attackers.”
I said, “He didn’t even try to call the police? Why would he do that?”
“Well, he didn’t know all of the details of what was going on and was worried if he stepped in the attackers would be offended at his interference. He hated to offend people, you know.”
“Ah,” I replied.
“Well, not long after this a Quaker man walked by. He saw what was happening and began crying at the horror of it. He saw the blood of the man begin to pour out through cuts and saw the rage of the attackers.”
“What did he do?”
“He took a seat on a trash can nearby and continued to watch.”
“Obviously once the thugs gave up the beaten man would need help, so the Quaker was waiting to tend to the man’s wounds and take him to the hospital. He also prayed that the rage of the attackers would lessen.”
“Right after the Quaker got settled, a Baptist minister came through the alley.”
“The man is still getting beat up? They must be doing a number on him.”
“Yes, yes they are. Well, the Baptist minister stops, rolls up his sleeves and takes stock of the situation. Then he decides he won’t get involved and walks away.”
“Why didn’t he step in?”
“Well, the man getting beat up was known in the community as being an unsavory fellow. The Baptist knew he was getting what he deserved so let the thugs do the work which would hopefully help the man turn from darkness to light.”
“And likely walked away feeling very self-satisfied.”
“Likely. Well, by this time the man wasn’t looking too good. The Quaker was thinking he might have to call for a paramedic. Then a Presbyterian came sauntering by whistling one of his favorite worship songs. He saw what was happening and knew something should be done.”
“So what did he do?”
“He quit whistling and began running.”
“To his church. As soon as he got there he grabbed all the other leaders who were present and immediately formed a committee in order to discuss the appropriate response to this situation. Three weeks later a team was formed which came to the alley in order to provide assistance. The alley was empty by this time, however, so they reported back their findings to the committee and congratulated themselves on their rapid response.”
“Yes, usually it would take several months to go through committee and commission a team. Well, soon after the Presbyterian left to form the committee another man came into the alley. He saw what was happening, picked up a steel pipe, and started swinging at the attackers, knocking a couple off their feet.”
“He kept it up until the thugs either were unconscious or had run away. Once the danger was over he pulled out his cell phone and called for an ambulance. The beaten man was now quite beat up, with a broken arm, several broken ribs, and gashes all over. He was still breathing, though barely, when the ambulance arrived and hurried him to the hospital.”
“What church did the man with the steel rod attend.”
“You know, I don’t know,” Jesus replied. He then smiled and got up, then asked, “Do you understand a little bit more about justice now?”
“There’s no peace without it?”
“Something like that,” he said. “Be a good neighbor, Patrick.”
Loud ringing sounds echoed from the trees. I thought it must be a choir of raucous angels or something. Then I woke up. It turned out my alarm had gone off.
The dream stayed with me all morning, and with it the lesson it so clearly illustrated. Never fall asleep on the couch with the news on.
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What about the Quaker? Did he just up and leave? Things to ponder...