“How far is too far?” I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately. It’s normally a question we ask while attempting to navigate the sexual desires and angst of relationships before (and regrettably, sometimes outside of) marriage. We have this internal awareness that there is a limit to how far we can go before we cross a point of no return, a threshold where the relationship changes from friendship to playful flirtation to something much more intimate and of much deeper consequence. And so, we ask ourselves – and on our good days, we might even ask others – “how far is too far?” How far can we go before everything changes?
That question has been in my heart and mind lately, only in a very different context.
We live 20 minutes out from the community that I serve as a pastor. We have our reasons for living where we do – economics, a desire for green space, trying to balance accessibility to the multiple communities that our family works and goes to school in. And so I make a 20 minute commute to the church office almost daily. It’s not terribly far, especially considering how many folks around here make the 1+ hour trek to and from Toronto five days a week. It’s not a ridiculous distance in this context. I can and do eat quite a few meals at the pubs and restuarants around the church. I’ve met with other pastors in the area and with a few of the neighbors. I’ve seen plenty of demographic information about the community. I have a good feel for the community and in some sense I can say that I know the neighborhood. Yet, each night, I drive 20 minutes back home to the community we live in. And I wonder if I live too far away. “How far away can I live from the church’s neighborhood and still be able to embody what it means to love our neighbors?”
I recognize that it’s a selfish question. Like the sexual question of “how far is too far?”, what we are really asking is “how much can I get away with?” How do I get as much pleasure as I can with the least amount of long term consequences or commitments for myself? The other person or, in this case, the other community is nearly irrelevant. How far away from the mess of the neighborhood can I live and still say I am living a missional lifestyle? What’s the least amount of personal commitment I need to make in order to justify saying I am engaged in mission and loving our neighbors? Or to ask it in a way that exposes the selfishness of the question even more: “How close to the mess of the neighborhood can I live without it becoming my mess?” When I am honest, I will admit that I like the buffer of a 20 minute commute. I like that at the end of the day I can go home – and that my home is out of the neighborhood. “How far is too far?” is a selfish question and it’s the question that exposes the reluctance of my heart to love these neighbors as myself.
I suppose that the easy response to this wondering is to say “Move downtown; get married.” And perhaps, that’s what we’ll end up doing. But living missionally involves a whole lot more than simply overcoming geographical distance. It’s possible to live in the neighborhood without ever being part of the community that is there, without loving our neighbors. My next post will pick up where this one leaves off, considering what a few acts of missional intimacy might look like and how understanding them can help us move away from simply, and selfishly, fixating on the question “How far is too far?”