We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
ROMANS 15:1-2 (ESV)
When I was a freshman in high school, my best friend Chris and I were looking to make some money. Caught in that middle ground between being too old for an allowance pay rate but too young to get a real job, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We looked around our respective houses and realized we didn’t have many options. We couldn’t drive, we couldn’t buy anything to start a real business, and we didn’t want to give up our weekday nights. In the end, one option checked off all the boxes for us. We started a neighborhood lawn mowing business.
It made almost too much sense. We didn’t have to pay for equipment. We’d get to work together, which meant that work could actually be enjoyable. And most importantly we’d get paid. At the time our neighborhood consisted largely of retirees, so we figured there was a good chance that work would start coming in pretty quickly. We made some flyers and left one at every house within a comfortable walking distance.
After just a few weeks, we found a groove. For “normal” lawns it was pretty simple. Chris would mow one yard, I’d mow the other. Whoever finished their lawn first would get to the weed-eater to start edging. Whoever finished their lawn last would start clean-up. Nine times out of ten we’d be out of there in less than two hours, leaving a pristine lawn behind us as we carried our equipment – and our cash – back to our houses.
Every once in a while, we’d encounter a challenge. Occasionally we’d get to a house and see lawns twice as big as we expected, or we’d walk into a backyard and see a ton of stuff that needed to be cleared for us to start. Sometimes our equipment would fail on us or we’d forget something important at home, like gasoline or the edger. Challenges like these could make for a long day, but they weren’t the kind that made us want to quit.
Over the next few months we mowed dozens of lawns, and nothing really shocked us anymore. That is, until we got a call from someone who lived just five doors down from me. I had waved to her before, as Southern hospitality requires, but we had never spoken. The woman asked if we were free to do her lawn and inquired about our fee. She seemed hesitant, and just when I was going to offer a discount, she said she’d double the number I gave her. I was pretty shocked by this development, but the dollar signs in my eyes had grown too large for me to see any red flags.
Chris and I showed up to the house and looked over the front yard. Nothing too crazy there. Weeds, overgrown bushes, ant piles, stuff like that. I remember looking at him and laughing. I can’t believe we’re getting double for this, his wide-eyed smile seemed to reply.
She waved us around to the back yard, and we very quickly realized why she was so hesitant on the phone. We opened the gate and felt like we were walking into another world. The weeds were as tall as our shoulders. There were objects in there shining in the sun, but they were too overrun to give us any idea what they were. Every couple feet that we trudged, we’d suddenly find ourselves a foot lower or a foot higher than the step before. Mounds and holes were everywhere. My jaw must have remained open for the entire tour because the woman again asked if we were sure we could mow her lawn.
Some part of us relished the thought of taming this beast for her. It stopped being about pay at that point. That backyard, with all its shocking overgrowth and forgotten objects, was saying quite a bit about the woman speaking to us. It told us about her time, her family, her resources – a backstory we couldn’t fill but knew was heavy. How could we not help her out?
That backyard also told us a lot about us. This woman lived five doors down from me, and all the while this sun-bleached forest stretched out behind her house. I had never had a real conversation with her, even on the mornings I was outside mowing my own lawn. She wanted to hide a big need from the world, and I was content to let her.
We spent a whole day at that house. We went through gallons of gasoline cutting it all down. In the overgrowth of that backyard we found a broom, old newspapers, a weed-eater, soda cans, and even a small pool (!) we hadn’t noticed before. Chris also broke his parents’ lawnmower discovering one of the yard’s random three-foot dirt mounds.
Chris and I eventually got real jobs and gave up the lawn game for good. I’d love to tell you that we went on to strike up a unique relationship with that woman, but the truth is we let the cares and concerns of our teenage years kind of rob us of perspective. I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know if the yard is getting mowed now or if it’s again become a hidden, shameful need. But I do think about that Saturday often. When I come home in a rush and I’m too tired to speak to anybody, when I jump to close the garage door as soon as I park – I hear again the slight shakiness in my neighbor’s voice asking for help. And I see again the smile on her face when we left her, for the first time in years, with a clean yard.
I’m sure there are needs just like hers hidden in my neighborhood. I have my own, truth be told, and I can understand why it’s sometimes easier to tuck the overgrowth out of sight and leave it be. But we were not made for such false comfort. We were made to see and to know one another. We were made for work that heals, sweat that helps. This is our holy obligation as children of God. We shouldn’t settle for a wave when a conversation will do.
God, I confess that I often put pleasing myself above bearing burdens for the people You’ve placed around me. I have accepted my weakness as an excuse even though I know I have Your strength. Open my eyes to the needs of my neighbors, and open the doors for me to meet those needs. Give me boldness today to lay myself down and build my neighbors up. AMEN.
Talk to a neighbor today. Don’t wait for the opportunity to present itself. Put yourself in a position to see people and learn about them. As they speak with you, consider how you might work for their good. Whether that looks like earnest prayer or an odd job, your work will bless them and glorify God.