Christian Short Stories

Who Is My Neighbor?
By Jim Cox

Jim writes: I'm a retired minister. My ministry now involves being active in the the arts. I write and perform original Christian poetry to "live" audiences, write non-fictional short stories, and paint landscapes and portraits. These abilities belong to the Lord, and I use them for His glory. The following is a true story.

The familiar saying “God works in mysterious ways,” has become a standard response for things we can’t explain, but I learned there’s a little more to it than that when I got involved in an exciting spiritual experience in the spring of 2007. I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of God’s plan for a time of special service that would unfold step-by-step before me.

I decided to stroll over and engage my new neighbor in conversation one Sunday afternoon after coming home from church. They had moved in about a month earlier, and were usually busy with family activities, so the only real contact between us had consisted of an occasional wave. The woman was a blond, fair skinned Anglo lady, while the man’s swarthy dark skin and piercing black eyes identified him as possibly Arabian or Syrian.

I had never spoken with a Muslim before and didn’t know anything about them, except that many, although they were American citizens, were treated with hostility and suspicion because of the rapid increase of terrorist activities at home and abroad. This fact caused me to mentally hesitate for a moment, as I speculated about the possible receptions my offer of friendliness might receive.

Seated on the brick patio in front of their white and yellow double wide unit, the man watched me silently as I smiled and waved while crossing the narrow asphalt street between our two units. I knew nothing about Muslim beliefs, and briefly wondered if there were any subjects that I should avoid talking about.

His inscrutable expression and formal manner made him appear unapproachable when they moved in a month earlier, but the way he sat slumped in the rigid metal garden chair now, gave the appearance of resignation, of someone feeling defeated and vulnerable. As I drew closer, I noticed his head was shaved and there was a look of sadness in his eyes.

I had been seeking the Lord about productive ways to serve Him during retirement, but didn’t recognize this as the answer to my earnest prayer for spiritual guidance. I thought my actions that day were probably a whim, and didn’t see it as a God given opportunity to share His love in a practical, down-to-earth way.

I introduced myself. His handshake was limp, but he seemed eager to talk. I soon discovered why.

His wife commuted to work in a nearby city so he sat around, heavily medicated for pain with no one to talk to every day. He’d been undergoing chemotherapy as a last resort to an advanced stage of inoperable brain cancer. His demeanor was that of a proud, hardworking man who suddenly finds himself unable to support his family any longer, and knows he doesn’t have long to live.

I was unsure of how to verbally offer comfort from the scriptures to someone with what I was certain were radically different beliefs than mine, but as we talked, I sensed that he needed something more tangible than words. I was at a loss until an idea hit me. My hard won artistic skills didn’t seem to fit into traditional activities or programs in the church. Maybe an act of kindness to a family in my community instead of service within church walls would be a step in the right direction.

Without stopping to think about the financial sacrifice involved, I offered to paint a portrait of the man and his wife free of charge as a gift to welcome them to the neighborhood. He began to weep. Incoherent, disconnected words tumbled out of his mouth like a monsoon rainfall. “…wife…paint my wife” he stammered, as if diverting attention from his own haggard appearance.

That night after she got home from work, I was invited over to discuss the details of the offer. I explained that the purpose of a quality portrait was to capture and enhance special moments in our lives so they might be enjoyed with each new viewing, and that the artist could capture subtle nuances of emotion which the camera could never achieve.

What they didn’t know was that art was only an avocational pursuit for me. I was self taught, with no real formal training of any kind. I felt a special burden of responsibility about this project, because I wanted the finished painting to meet some of their family’s emotional needs.

As a TV program in the Syrian language played in the background, I asked them for a photo that reflected a happy time they wished to remember, and I would go right to work for them.

The photo depicted them together in the cabin of a small plane, and was in clear focus, which would make it fairly easy to do the faces. I would have to construct a background from scratch that would provide a visual suggestion of the Lord’s love and concern for their situation though. It would be a task I was going to have to work at it, but trust God for the results, because this challenge could stretch my limited abilities to the breaking point.

After much prayer, I sketched out the faces, accompanied by the scratchy sound of charcoal moving across the textured paper surface. As I hesitated wondering what to do next, a flash of inspiration hit me. I would seat them in a warmly lit room, with a window looking out into a peaceful valley populated by a deep pine forest and a silvery tinted river. Last but not least, granite peaks would tower upwards into the heavens as a misty ray of sunlight broke through the slow moving clouds, to illuminate a section of the valley below.

I thanked God for His guidance and grabbed the charcoal to sketch it out. After laboring in the white hot flame of inspiration for a week it was done.

I guess Muslim folks have large, extended families, because there wasn’t even standing room in their house when I presented the painting to the man and his wife.

There were some emotional exclamations among the relatives, but I kept a close watch on the husband and wife. No amount of money could have purchased the expressions on their shining faces.

As I write these words, I’m so excited about an opportunity that has been placed before me through a phone call I just received. A representative of a missionary organization saw one of my posters bearing a portrait of Jesus that I painted several years ago, and asked if I would be willing to donate several hundred of them as gifts for students graduating from a Christian school near Port-Au-Prince in the jungles of Haiti. I gladly agreed to do this.

I’ve had other opportunities for about two years now, including the chance to paint a portrait of a nineteen-year-old Minister’s son who was killed in a drive by shooting in front of their home on a Saturday night. It’s such a blessing to minister this way. I’ve never charged a penny for time, labor, or cost of materials, because Jesus never charged for His ministry.

Maybe the old saying is true; a picture is worth a thousand words.

(© 2010 Jim Cox – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)

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