The word neighbor always arrives set to music.
Canonical children’s programs situate the word within sing-song melodies, as winsome and innocent as can be. Barely able to pronounce all our words, each of us grows up engaging in antiphony.
Answering a kind-hearted call, we affirm the grace of living this particular day in this very neighborhood. Inherent in the song, the idea that a place’s beauty is tethered to its people.
Another show starts and its carefree soundtrack considers exactly who composes our neighborhoods. They’re the people that we meet each day—there to offer a smile, a moment’s aid, to exchange kindness and make our little worlds worth inhabiting.
We can’t recognize it as kids, but these songs sound out the shapes of Scripture’s most pressing concerns. Gentle Fred Rogers builds a hymn around the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Simple Midwestern charm accents each note as Bob from Sesame Street wonders, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Adulthood changes the key. We invoke the word neighbor and hear the orchestral hits of a TV melodrama. New questions—like leading tones—hang in the air, struggling to be resolved. What might the neighbors be up to? What actually happens in the house at the end of the block?
Our childhood catechisms stray from the tips of our tongues. In their place, we recite other words—powerful enough to reshape our way in the world. I wonder how many other catechisms we lose to time and doubt.
Wedding songs sacrifice their shine after a few seasons and a few dozen moments of naked revelation. Once we rehearsed Peter Gabriel’s testimony of finding salvation in our lover’s eyes; now shame and discord train our eyes toward the floor. He saw the doorway to a thousand churches; the doors appear shut and boarded to us.
We never stop acclimating to a culture; every day, we choose something or someone to massage our affections into shape.
Other songs like statements of faith sound strange on our lips. Bono sang, “Love is a temple,” and our instincts answered, “Love the higher law.” Survive enough denials from the Peters in your life and love resembles a locked room—more confining, less holy. The Irishman sings and our words trail off. Love ... ?
Even the rhetorical answers grow obscured. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Saint Mary Oliver rises to ask.
And the congregation replies as one voice: “Hell if I know.”
Our chapped, wind-beaten souls forfeit confidence in songs and statements that once animated our lives. But we never lose the rhythms of catechism. Instincts of safety and self-preservation shepherd us toward other teachers. They ask different questions and supply prefabricated answers.
Love songs yield to formless tales of marital malaise and mistrust. Talking heads with plywood worldviews hush poems shot through with mystic hope. Mr. Rogers’ melodies fight to be heard over anchormen speaking in scare quotes.
Well-meaning elders warn us of the dangers of being catechized by “the culture.” But they leave out—or simply fail to see—something crucial. We never stop acclimating to a culture; every day, we choose something or someone to massage our affections into shape.
Sometimes we pick from the positive, actively inching toward becoming. In other moments, whether living from fatigue, heartbreak, or fear, we follow an instinct to protect and be protected. So we embrace narratives based on the ones we wish to avoid.
Some want to miss every appearance of evil. They scrub their lives of four-letter words and love scenes only to die still worshiping security. Or living behind privacy fences that never let love through. They pick stories like whitewashed tombs, never noticing how the corrosion comes from the inside out.
Others lean into catechisms that confirm biases pointed at themselves. They rehearse loneliness and self-loathing, fulfilling the same prophecy over and over while God whispers undignified sonnets from the wings.
Either way, we’re always choosing stories to live in, stories to mold us. And this happens everywhere we worship.
Choosing certain catechisms, we forego the feast.
Some of us cut teeth on tales of a good shepherd, and spend our youth humming “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” We trace the strange, compelling contours of the good life in the Beatitudes and water the seeds of a childlike faith.
But somewhere along the way fear sets in. Fear of being stained by the world, losing the plot or disappointing God.
So we run ourselves through endless purity tests or ignore Paul and pick sides named for teachers. We rehearse passages about gender roles, memorizing every break and bend in the sentence in case someone presses the matter. We wrench grace into law, ensuring the i’s all reach for heaven and the t’s all look like crosses. Choosing certain catechisms, we forego the feast.
While today lingers and staves off the next sunrise, we still have a chance. We still may step into a deeper, wider stream of art. One where the songs and stories ask more excellent questions. They might not always supply their own answers or even happy endings. But they leave space for God to come by, whispering. In all their language, color, and melody, they lean toward love, grope toward faith—in something—and revive the hope that it is good and right to be each other’s keepers.
There’s still time to be catechized by the two great commandments, rehearse the rhythms of the Psalms—living in lament and doubt, then turning to praise—and adopt the mind of Christ, laying down our rights to enter someone else’s story.
Give me melancholy novels that spur compassion, dirges that lift my eyes to the hills where my help resides. Grant me a lifetime of poems that cherish the holiness of trees and paintings that affect the coloring of my wife’s skin. And let me mouth along with passages about neighbor love, God’s breath, and all the ways the cross devastates our divisions.
Sifting through catechisms lost and found, I want to save the ones that keep me rehearsing how it feels to really live. And I want to leave my house whistling songs that echo the greatest questions.
Who is my neighbor? Could you be mine? Would you be mine?