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Who Is My Neighbor Now?By Jane Patterson
The other morning, I was picking up the newspaper and filling the birdfeeder before dawn when I sensed someone quite near, staring at me in the darkness. When I turned to look, I saw the dark mass of a deer with a huge rack of antlers, frozen in place, staring intently in my direction, ears cocked, muscles tense. Behind him were two smaller deer, elegantly picking their way down the street, acutely aware of me but not risking a direct gaze. Seeing deer in the early morning is no longer a rare occurrence since a large apartment complex went up on one of the last remaining wild areas nearby; their habitat shrunk to basically nothing besides the greenway for telephone poles that snakes through our neighborhood. Sometimes, when I see them racing across lawns and backyards, I try to imagine the neighborhood from their point of view: their intimate familiarity with dense bushes to hide in, the exact height of fences that might have to be jumped, alleyways, tender leafy greens, puddles to drink from. I haven’t known a neighborhood in that borderless way since I was a child, oblivious to ownership.
Of course, the deer are not supposed to be here, not supposed to be dining off my Hawthorn bushes and the new growth on the Yaupon holly, not supposed to be drinking from the birdbath. Their presence is the result of calculated decisions about urban development that never took their well-being into account. The same is true of the fox, who has taken up residence in the wild back corner of our yard, near the place where I stack branches and weeds until the next city pick-up. The deer and the fox family are my newest neighbors, but they are not the most problematic.
Election season brought a whole new sense of neighbor, as Beto and Cruz signs sprung up along with the mushrooms throughout this rainy fall. Every day, another rain shower and a couple of new signs. Yesterday, when I was out walking, I saw an enormous Cooper’s hawk just standing on a lawn, not moving, directly behind a Ted Cruz sign. When the hawk flew off, I went over to see what, if anything, he had been eating, and when I moved behind the sign, I saw that someone had taped a picture of Penelope Cruz and her name on the back, facing the front windows of the house: wry evidence of protest.
Reporting since the election has shown us other ways of seeing and thinking about our neighbors: as clusters of blue and clusters of red, swing states and entrenched-party-line states. A map tracking people’s voting patterns over the last decade showed blue moving from here to there, red moving from there to here.
Having new animal neighbors hasn’t been all rosy: walking into the backyard at night with a fox in residence has required a level of wariness I wouldn’t ordinarily associate with my backyard; I found the Cooper’s hawk sitting on the side fence, lazily eying the buffet before him at the birdfeeder; and my hawthorn bushes are just a mass of sticks from being browsed nightly by deer. But the animals are only doing exactly what they should do. The need to change a situation or an attitude is entirely on my side.
But what about my human neighbors? What do I owe them?
It has become clear that, to some extent, our differences in values have existed for a long time. But it is also clear that strident public voices are shifting and fraying the habitat we share. As Ray Suarez said when he was with us for the Blandy Lectures last week, our “public space is being degraded” by a situation in which “we can’t reach common cause, common wisdom, when people don’t believe each other,” when “emotion, opinion, vehemence, and feelings” take the place of truth, the place of simple facts, in our deliberations.
In the midst of this turmoil in our public life, my students and I have been poring over the letters of Paul, line by line, word by word, trying to figure out how the earliest Christians managed some of these same questions in their own fragile context. Week after week, we have added to the complexity of the kind of love these forebears of ours were trying to live into: love that can discern what is worth suffering for, love that insists on the truth, love that suffers and yet persists, endures, hopes. Much of our own hopefulness has come from the assurance that this love is not something we are generating out of our own substance but is a habitat of God, awaiting our discovery. Like the deer and the foxes, we have been pushed out of the familiar. But this uneasy new neighborhood may be precisely the place where we discover how to step into the complex love of God that precedes and outlasts us.
Twice last week, I got to join a small group of humans out late at night, gathered at one of the picnic tables in the motte at the seminary, to pray the Great Litany and Compline, by lamplight and cell-phone-light, under the moon and stars and planets, as we anticipated the election and then tried to understand its results. By the light of prayer, we are trying to find our new habitat, a home not of our own making, the place where God’s love for our neighbor impels us to be.
Who is my neighbor now?
What practices of love are my neighbors helping me to discover?
The Rev. Jane Patterson, PhD, is Associate Professor of New Testament and serves as Director of Community Care. She joined the full-time faculty in 2013 after teaching part-time and serving as Interim Director of Theological Field Education 2003–2005. She is the author of Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (SBL Press, 2015). In biblical studies, her academic interests include the intersection of literary, political, and theological study of the scriptures. She also teaches in the area of Christian formation, where her work focuses on vocation and Christian practice. She serves as Co-Director of St. Benedict’s Workshop, a ministry devoted to helping laity live their faith in daily life, and serves the Diocese of West Texas as Missioner for Adult Formation and as a member of the diocesan Examining Chaplains. She is active as a preacher, teacher, and parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.
BA, Smith College
MTS, Perkins School of Theology
CITS, Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest
PhD, Southern Methodist University
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