The Ridiculous Value of Showing Up
I'm not sure how the tradition started. We moved into our existing home in January of 1996 though, and by that December, had come to know our neighbors a little bit. My daughters were 11 and 5 when we moved here, and as it would turn out, our neighbor had three daughters and the people across the street had two, all of them within this similar age range. Our first Christmas in our new home, we invited a couple of families from the church over to Christmas carol up and down our block. The neighbor girls joined in as well, and what we began 11 years ago has now become a neighborhood tradition. Even though the girls (see picture) are grown, everyone still gathers to carol. The same families who joined us the first time join us still. I don't pay attention to life details enough to know whether we've ever skipped year, but I'd guess it's been a tradition from which we've not wavered for a single year.
By now, the neighbors have come to expect it. Last year it was pouring rain on Christmas eve, but one of our neighbors was battling cancer and we didn't know if we'd have another year to sing to her, so we braved the rain to sing that one house. She saw, heard, smiled, cried. We hugged her. She was in our prayers throughout the year, and as she and her husband walked through that valley which was punctuated by some battles, questions, pain, and as well by the solidifying of precious memories and the nurturing of intimacy, until finally this summer she was gone.
There was something deeply special about 20 or so of us convening outside his house this Christmas eve and raising our voices in song, heralding the coming of the One who will fully and finally conquer death someday. His relatives came out first. They were expecting us, as if we'd become a regular part of their Christmas eve tradition. And then, just at the end of the first song, my neighbor came out too, tears in his eyes. We hugged, cried together, and shared a moment that can only be described at joy and sorrow intermingled so thoroughly that the tears were indistinguishable as to their source. Joy? Because we both know that to live among people who care for each other is a gift indeed in our increasingly isolated and alienated culture. Our street is filled with people for whom we have fond affection. What a gift! Sorrow? Of course. She's no longer with us, and there are perhaps few things in life more difficult than experiencing the first Christmas without your closest companion.
Year after year we sing. I'm sometimes quite tired from leading two Christmas eve services, but still we sing. I don't claim to be the best in the world at loving my neighbors, for more reasons than I've the time or the courage to articulate. But this little exercise in caroling has taught me the value of simply showing up and being present in people's lives. The caroling. The block party. Occasional conversations when we both happen to finish a run. Little hellos and updates on the kids. All these seemingly insignificant events add up to relationship, to being a neighbor, to loving one's neighbor. It's actually much easier than I'd imagine. All it requires is a little presence...but consistently.