His shirt was seldom buttoned and didn't always cover his expanding belly. For some unexplained reason, his face was often cherry red, and more of his teeth were missing than remained.
I was never sure why, but he always called me "Sister." Never "Dr. Hollis" or even "Leanna." Just Sister. He was so gruff that I was afraid of him at first. He never believed a thing I told him, and he argued with every instruction I gave. I was never sure why he came to see me in the first place, unless it was for the free samples.
I came to like him pretty well, but I sure never thought I was his "sister." More often than not, he smelled like stale beer. I wasn't sure he could read, and, as far as I knew, he had never held a job.
When my farm manager got sick, I was up to my knees in manure, struggling to do all the work myself - just to prove I could. Late one afternoon, my gruff patient showed up in an ancient, rattling green truck. "I come to put out a bale of hay for ya'." I headed to the barn on foot, but he stopped me. "Ain't no sense in walking. Hop in, you can ride with me. I just vacuumed it out this mornin'." I hesitated briefly, then opened the door, moved a variety of lids and tools, and climbed inside.
Once at the barn, he rejected my late-model Ford tractor in favor of a 40-year-old Massey Ferguson relic. He hopped on board, cranked it up, and headed out. "I'll be right back," he said. I watched from the horse barn as he drove to the hay barn, struggled to load a big bale, and headed back. Several times it looked as if he would mire down in the mud, but each time he managed to guide the old tractor through the bog.
As I watched, I thought about how kind it was for him to give up nearly two hours of his day and wade through mud to put out hay for someone he didn't know well. That Still Small Voice whispered in my heart, "Almost like family, isn't it?" Instantly, I was ashamed of all those times I had resented being called "Sister." The truth was that I had thought I was better than he was. I was too good even to be his sister in Christ, yet he was wading through mud and manure for me. It looked like he had a better understanding of God's family than I did.
He didn't slow down once the bale was in place; instead, he headed straight to his truck. As he opened the door and climbed inside, he called back, "Hey, Sister, you need me, you know where to find me. You better call me, you hear?"
"I will," I said, smiling as I waved goodbye to my newfound brother.
My heart changed that day. I became more genuine in my concern for those different from me - more willing to reach out and more willing to welcome in.
How do you see people in the body of Christ who are different from you? Do they look like brothers and sisters to you, or something less than family? Are you anything like I was: friendly on the outside but condescending on the inside?
Take a look at your heart. Ask Jesus to make your heart more like His, especially toward those who are different from you. You may find that your "family" begins to grow in the most unexpected ways.
This article first appeared in Physician magazine, July/August 2004