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Prickly Neighbors

 You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 
But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… 
that you may be known as the children of your Father in heaven. 
Matthew 5:43-45
Have you ever wondered about God’s creative genius? Why did God create mosquitos, or mold, or poison ivy? I have a whole list of questions that I plan to bring to heaven… so curious about the ‘whys’ of God’s creation. This past week, as Greg and I hiked in Arizona, my list of questions grew- why did God adorn cacti with spines? After a few run-ins with those prickly plants, inspired by a few painful scratches, I decided to do a little research. I discovered that cactus spines are actually modified leaves. The body of the cactus has taken on the task of photosynthesis for the plant, leaving those spikey protrusions free to perform other functions.

1. Cactus spines prevent cacti from losing water by reducing air flow around the plant. As the spines break up air flow, they reduce evaporation, surrounding the
cactus with a buffer zone of slightly more moist air. 
2. Cactus spines collect the moisture of early morning fog, allowing those droplets to fall to the ground at the base of the plant to be absorbed by the roots. A dessert receives less than 10 inches of rain a year, so any amount of conservation matters in the fight for survival. 
3. Cactus spines provide a bit of shade… all be it small… but in a desert, every little bit counts! 
4. The most obvious benefit of cactus spines is protection from desert herbivores desperate for the water-filled flesh of the plant, though the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and pack rats seem relatively undeterred by the spines.

 All this research on prickly cacti has left me wondering about prickly humans. Why do some people adopt a bristly nature, making them rather unpleasant and sometimes a bit dangerous to encounter? We usually shy away from our prickly neighbors hoping to avoid a disagreeable encounter. We seldom stop long enough to ponder the origins of those spines. We may have heard some gossip along the way that would give us some clues… but we dare not go to the source to discover the real origins of that spikey personality. Is he grieving? Has she been hurt along the way- now fearful of letting anyone in? Is he struggling with health concerns that leave him always on a razor edge of pain? Is she lonely? Has all the anger in our larger society poisoned his outlook on the world? If we knew why our neighbor is so prickly, we might be a bit more compassionate. But Jesus teaches us not to wait for compassionate inspiration, we are called to love even our enemy as He loves us.

One of our members recently told me a story from his youth… of a time when he was a bank teller trying to earn enough money to begin his college journey. This was back in the day when people did their banking in person, expecting a friendly teller to help them with their weekly transactions. He was the new guy on the block, working with a group of seasoned tellers who knew the regulars by name and personality, so when Bud came in, they sent him down the line to the new guy. This new teller did not know that Bud had a reputation for being a grouchy old man, but the first encounter confirmed what all the other tellers already knew. Bud was difficult at best. For whatever reason, he came to the bank with a demanding nature, and no matter what service was offered, he was seldom pleased. The next week, when Bud came to do his banking, the seasoned tellers once again passed him down the line to the new guy. Quickly, the new guy realized that Bud would be his weekly challenge. At that point, the new guy made a decision to be ‘actively nice’ to Bud, no matter how he responded.
“Good morning. It’s so good to see you. How can I be of service?”
Week after week, the new guy (now not so new) treated Bud with kindness and respect. You already know what began to happen- Bud’s prickly demeanor began to soften… there were even a few smiles along the way. In time, the other tellers noticed the change and were willing to take their turn serving Bud. At Christmas, Bud brought a box of chocolates to thank them for their service. No one ever learned why he presented such a prickly nature, but they learned from the new guy how to love their prickly neighbor well.

Is it possible for us to learn how to be ‘actively nice’ to the prickly people in our lives? Jesus not only calls us to love those who are challenging, he offers us that same kind of grace-full love. May we step out in faith to answer the call today.

With you, learning how to love my prickly neighbor, 
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