If you ask me, the weather today here in Northeast Ohio was perfect. Give me a choice between an 80 degree sunny beach and a 60 degree cloudy day, I’ll pick sweaters and gloves every day. Part of it might be the nostalgia of high school football games associated with such weather, and part of it might be that my birthday is in a season with similar weather, but I like the steely-blue clouds and brisk breeze.
My sister and I took our dog, Mandy, out for a walk this afternoon to enjoy the weather. (Or maybe I should say Mandy took us for a walk since she was pulling us along the whole way. She’s still young and mostly untrained, so any smell or dog grabs her attention like an ADD kindergartener).
Coming around the corner at the front-end of our street, we passed that house. You know, that one house in the midst of a decent neighborhood that appears to have been abandoned for quite some time, maybe a broken lawnmower or car in the front yard, high bushes to keep the neighbors out. It seems like most neighborhoods built before the invention of the housing development have a house like this one. It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen by any stretch, but it stands out to me primarily because my family looked to buy the house next door for a while before moving into the house we’re in now. I was too young to remember at the time, but my dad said that the first comment the realtor made to them while touring the house was, “So, how do you like the neighbors?”
So today as I walked by, I took a closer look at the house and wondered. What kind of person lives in a house like that? Maybe the kind of person that would end up on a TLC show. It takes a special kind of person to be on TLC.
But then I had this thought: rather than asking what KIND of person lives there, my real concern as a Christ-follower and even as a true human being should be what PERSON lives there. Inherent in asking what kind of person lives there is a defining of a person’s existence by categories, rather than allowing their humanity to give them worth.
We categorize things both instinctively and by training. I don’t know much about how our brains work, but I do recall from the psychology classes I’ve taken that part of how our brains function is by categorizing and compartmentalizing, breaking things down into an organized system of brain matter. But apart from the way our brains naturally work, our modern society survives on categories, titles, and group distinctions. We identify ourselves and others as Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, black or white or Indian or Hispanic, hipster or jock or prep. Your local music shop sells rap, hip-hop, or R&B, metal or hardcore or screamo (all of which are more marketing niches than actual genres). You can shop at Hot Topic if you’re a hardcore or emo kid, or American Eagle or Aeropostale if you’re a preppy kid, or Goodwill or Salvation Army if you’re a cash-saavy cool kid (maybe I am a bit biased). Our lives are defined by categories and demographic information, branding us with artificial labels and a society-imposed identity.
The problem with my question was that the thoughts associated with that kind of person revolved around my judgment of them based on how well they keep up their house. I pictured an unkempt old man, gravy-grizzled beard and wife-beater, stumbling around half-drunk while looking for a job or one of those pack-rat hoarders you see on those TLC programs. I wasn’t wondering about the occupants for the sake of knowing them, only for the sake of my own curiosity and the human fascination for oddities.
I’ve been studying through the book of James for a class this semester, and interestingly enough James has a lot to say about this sort of thing. The tendency to judge on exteriors and labels was just a prevalent way back then as it is for us today. “If you really fulfill the royal law,” James wrote, “according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (2:8-9) Later he went on to condemn those who judge and speak against others because in one breath they praise God but in the other they “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (3:9).
The biggest problem in all of this is that judgment, categories, labels allow us to think we know someone when all we really know about them iswhat we think of them. We know that our neighbor down the street voted Democrat last election because of all of those annoying politcal signs that were in their yard for half that year, but do we know his story, how he ended up down the street from us, or why he seems to live alone? We know that the people we share a backyard with are type-A socialites because they are always hosting loud parties at all hours of the night, but do we know that they sit in an empty house after the guest have all left and wonder what the point of it all is? We weren’t made to be identified by labels or group distinctions. We were made to be humans living among other humans, all made in the likeness of this good God we were made to know intimately.
Donald Miller wrote about this idea in Searching for God Knows What. He’s trying to wrap his mind around why Moses emphasizes that Adam and Eve are naked five times in the first three chapters of Genesis. Moses is trying to tell us something, he finally figures out:
“Man is wired so he gets his glory (his security, his understanding of value, his feeling of purpose, his feeling of rightness with his Maker, his security for eternity) from God, and this relationship is so strong, and God’s love so pure, that Adam and Eve felt no insecurity at all… If man was wired so that something outside himself told him who he was, and if God’s presence was giving him a feeling of fulfillment, then when what relationship was broken, man would be pining for other people to tell him he was good, right, okay with the world, and eternally secure… We all compare ourselves to others, and none of our emotions – like jealousy and envy and lust – could exist unless man was wired so that somebody else told him who he was, and that somebody was gone.”
We label because we want to be labeled. And all of this labeling and dividing based on hair color or music choice is all because we are all judging from a place of brokenness and confusion. When I ask “what kind of person lives there?” I am standing on the pedestal of my trim yard and painted shutters looking down at a human being who fails to live up to my standards of housekeeping holiness. I place myself in the position of landscaper god, judging the frail creatures as they fail to follow my will. The same happens when I judge the alcoholic who stumbles into the back of our worship service, or the evangelist who falls to sexual sin. But in the midst of all their moral failures, I find myself with my own moral failure: idolatry. Placing myself in the position that only God has claim to. (Check out James’ warning in 4:11-12).
Ironically enough, later today I drove past the house again. Only this time, the lady who lives there was out at her mailbox, talking to a lady walking her dog. In the past thirteen years that I’ve lived on this street, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or noticed her outside of her house. But then again, maybe I was too busy looking at the condition of her house to notice her getting her mail or talking to a neighbor. And strangely enough, as I noticed her humanity and not her house for the first time, she didn’t look like a terrible TLC-kinda person after all.
She looked human.