The Public Nuisance
Tim ChalliesTim Challies, a self-employed web designer, is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere, having one of the most widely read and recognized Christian blogs anywhere (www.challies.com). He is also editor of Discerning Reader (www.discerningreader.com), a site dedicated to offering thoughtful reviews of books that are of interest to Christians. He is author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, published by Crossway.
- 2008 Dec 17
Elizabeth is a public nuisance. Her status is not official yet, but it will be soon. The local police have encouraged the families in this neighborhood to fill out the paperwork that will fulfill the legal requirements. It’s probably the best thing to do. When that paperwork is complete the police will no longer be forced to respond to her every call. And she calls a lot. When a car parks a little too far into the road, she calls the police. When she believes someone has trespassed on her property, she calls the police. When the children are playing outdoors and a ball rolls into her yard, she calls the police. She has the reputation of a person who must sit by the window with phone in hand. Nine and one are already pushed and she’s just waiting for a reason to hit the one again. She was one of the first people we were told about when we moved to this neighborhood. “You’re going to have to watch out for Elizabeth…”
Everyone in the neighborhood knows who she is. Her yard is easy to spot as it’s the one that is completely overgrown. In most cases people who do not care for their yards have it cut by city hall and receive a bill in the mail. In her case she’s managed to convince them that this chaos is a gardening style. Her house is over an aquifier she says, one of the few in the area, and that is why the trees grow so well and why they remain so dense. She’s the one who hands out apples or oranges on Halloween. She’s the one who has lived in the neighborhood since before many of the rest of us were even born and long before the other houses were built.
One morning last winter Aileen came into the house and told me that Elizabeth was out shoveling her own driveway. She is definitely too old to be doing this. So I put my coat on, grabbed my shovel, and walked up the street to her home. She had propped herself up with a crutch under her one arm and was holding a broom in the other, trying to sweep the snow away. We had seen a good ten centimeters fall and it was wet, heavy snow. A broom wasn’t going to cut it, and particularly so along the edge of the driveway where the plows had pushed it into hard piles at least a couple of feet high. I asked if I could help her and she hesitatingly agreed. She gave me a few pointers on how to best shovel and told me she’d be pleased if I’d just deal with the big piles close to the road. She asked if I would like to be paid and I said, “Absolutely not.”
I got to work while she headed indoors. I cleaned up the piles and then got to work on the rest of the drive. A few minutes later she emerged from the house to chat. She told me that the driveway had been widened many years before and they were able to fit at least eight cars in it. That explained why I was winded. She told me about her broken leg and then about her sons, both of whom live in the area, I believe, and both of whom seem quite well-to-do. She seemed perfectly pleasant, even for a public nuisance. She was grateful that she was going to be able to get out of her driveway that day, because she had a schedule with a physical therapist. When the job was done I told her to get in touch with me anytime and headed home.
Since that day we had several snowstorms and learned that we were in the midst of the snowiest winter in years. At that point we had seen 142 centimeters and that was three storms ago. We were in the midst of another one that day. The schools were canceled and it was as good a day as any to just stay off the roads.
Whenever the snow begins to accumulate, I cross the ditch and shovel her out. There was one time that I somehow forgot but she called a neighbor (she didn’t have my phone number) and asked him to come and knock on the door. He passed along the message and I hurried right over. By my count there are at least twelve or fifteen neighbors who are closer to her home than I am. They drive by while I’m shoveling or they use snow blowers to get the snow off their drives at the same time. But none of them help her. I don’t know if she has burned all of those bridges or if this is just a symptom of the times we live in. Even the neighbor who came to knock on my door didn’t offer to help.
March 5th of 2008 was my son’s eighth birthday. Eight years ago we had brought him home from the hospital and we were wearing shorts and t-shirts. But this day it was well below 0, we had already seen 15 centimeters of snow, and it continued to fall. “In like a lion, out like a lamb” is what they say about March. I was hoping that old adage proved true that month. The last thing I wanted to do was shovel out a long driveway covered in 15 centimeters of heavy snow. I grumbled to Aileen, saying “I picked quite the year to start helping Elizabeth, didn’t I?” She lovingly scolded me and I went on my way. Though it was his birthday, I told Nick to come along and to help me out. He did so quite willingly, despite having some new toys and games to play with and Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii demanding his attention. And off I went, perhaps a bit resigned to my fate.
We got to work, chipping away at the driveway. After a few minutes of hard work Nick piped up. “Daddy, this is what the Bible says, isn’t it? That anyone who has a need is our neighbor?” And he was right—that’s exactly what the Bible says. But Scripture also makes it clear that any good things I do are utterly worthless when I do them with a grumbling spirit. In that moment I saw that I had been going about this all wrong. My little boy (who really isn’t so little anymore) ministered to me that morning as we cleared the driveway of our neighborhood’s public nuisance. My boy is a blessing to me in more ways than he knows.