So the last few years I've been trying something new—new for me, anyway. It started with a neighbor, or at least I think it did. It's sometimes hard to put your finger on the beginnings of the often long process of God's patient attempts to shift our hearts toward His. Perhaps there were many other moments He intended me to take note of, but I remember this one. We had a neighbor, a young single guy, who for three to four years lived right next door to us in our apartment complex. His door was literally a few feet from ours. I don't know his name. We would greet each other politely when we passed. One day on my way out the door, I saw him loading his furniture into a moving van. I think I stopped and asked the obvious, “are you moving?” I didn't really have much to say after that beyond a generic “good luck.” I didn't know him. I remember feeling like I had completely wasted the years that I had lived in such close proximity to this guy. I wasn't a good steward of the time or the space we shared or, most importantly, of the Gospel with which I had been entrusted. The whisper of the Spirit was not condemning, though. God was instead welcoming me to view my neighbors the way He does. He was inviting me to follow him into the terrifying and exciting realm of actively loving my neighbors, seeking to bless them however I could, and pursuing them the way He pursues me.
I quickly realized that before I could love my neighbors I would have to first meet them. This obvious initial step can be an Everest of an undertaking for an introvert such as myself. How exactly does one meet one's neighbors anyway? I had to think on it for awhile. Our first attempt to meet the neighbors came about near Halloween. I had been conspiring with the Holy Spirit for a few weeks to devise a plan to meet everyone in our complex. Finally, He gave me the idea of doing what we ended up calling “reverse trick-or-treating.” We bought a bunch of candy, dressed our seven-month old up in her cute little Disney's Stitch costume, had a quick family prayer, and off we went. I gotta tell you, it was terrifying. Just knocking on doors and talking to strangers is really tough for me. Having an adorable baby as your wingman definitely helps, though. Family, and particularly kids, can be awesome ice breakers. We introduced ourselves, passed out some candy, and let people know where we lived. No big deal. These initial introductions eventually lead to a weekly neighborhood BBQ and a growing community within our previously guarded apartment complex.
I wish I could tell you it was all an easy ride from anonymity to instant community—that we didn't have any obstacles or heartaches. Getting to know people, earning the right to peer into their lives, and becoming vulnerable by welcoming them into your life can be a messy business. There really isn't any other way to go about it, though. The good news of Jesus' incarnation is best delivered incarnate, face to face. If He can leave Heaven to become Immanuel, “God with us,” then we can cross the hall to love the folks in the next apartment. The first door that opened to us belonged to an older woman who was desperately afraid to leave her apartment. She was addicted to painkillers and had burned all bridges to her remaining family. It was into this darkness and despair that Jesus invited us to shine His light. She eventually came with us to our weekly church gatherings, and we gave her rides to the grocery store and her doctor's appointments. She had some profound emotional/psychological wounds. Sometimes she loved us, and sometimes she was inexplicably angry with us. To be frank, it was often an extremely taxing relationship. Even so, I am grateful that He trusted us with her.
There were many encouraging moments, new friends, and redemptive glimpses of the kingdom of God breaking through. One notable highpoint of our time at the apartment complex was meeting a young family who later became our good friends and ministry partners. They were really great at inviting people and helping us put on our neighborhood BBQ every week. They were kind of shy like us, introverts set in motion by the power of the Gospel. Just like God to intentionally use our weaknesses to emphasize His strength. They opened doors to a bunch of Spanish speaking and Filipino neighbors with whom they already had ties (their kids being in school activities together and such). I remember the husband later telling me that he had been crying out to God to show up in his life, to offer some hope, a way out of his addiction and depression. He saw our knock at the door as God's answer to his prayer. As he spoke, I remembered back to when God was stirring in my heart and calling me out of my comfort zone. It's a beautiful thing when He gives us a brief peek into the bigger picture.
I'd say the biggest factor in this whole journey toward loving my neighbor thing was the new perspective that God gave me. Instead of simply “doing my laundry,” for example, I started actively looking to meet people and start conversations in the communal laundry room. In my previous life, I had learned exactly how long the machines took at each stage of the process, and I would drop my clothes off only to return briefly when I needed to move them to the next machine. With my new outlook, however, I started bringing a book, so I could stay in the shared space and visit with some of my neighbors if the opportunity arose. Going to get the mail became a trek across my mission field, greeting neighbors by name, and learning to notice the heartbeat of the neighborhood. Just being outside where you can be seen and become known by your neighbors is a huge part of the process. I would often play with our daughter on a shared patch of grass outside our apartment where we had our BBQs. We went for a lot of walks around the complex and to nearby shops. Our everyday tasks, stuff we are already doing, have the potential to be conduits of the Gospel. These are mundane activities that can be utilized by God if we are willing to seek His kingdom first in all things—even while washing a load of smelly socks.
I'm excited about this next chapter in our new neighborhood. We've been renting a house for a little over a year now, and we're eager to get to know everyone. We've especially been praying about and on the lookout for some other believers living in our neighborhood who would be interested in partnering with us. We try to use holidays and hospitality to foster the initial introductions. We've had an awesome neighborhood Memorial Day BBQ and a Halloween costume party. My wife made some great banana bread for Christmas that we recently passed out as a family. I've also been frequenting a local coffee shop within walking distance of our place. Whenever I meet one of my neighbors, I write their name down in my notebook (my memory is pretty pathetic). My goal is to pray for them and hopefully remember their name the next time I see them. Even doing yard work can be a kingdom activity. While I'm raking the leaves or cutting the lawn I'm also observing the neighborhood and praying for the families I've met and asking God to facilitate introductions to those I've yet to meet. I've already met a few neighbors while working in the yard. If we set out to merely rake the leaves, then odds are that's all we'll accomplish.
Ultimately, meeting the neighbors and seeking to bless them is about more than just expanding our social circle. We currently have all the friends a couple of introverts could ever want. However, the heart of God compels us out of ourselves. He is a perfectly content community within Himself, and yet He makes space at His table and welcomes us wandering orphans into His family. This missional DNA is transmitted to His adopted children. Play-dates, Superbowl parties (even if you don't like football), BBQs, and neighborhood game nights become the highway on which the Gospel can be delivered. As His ambassadors, we are to both declare and demonstrate the good news of God's kingdom. So I try to learn the story of God well—to know what He is up to in the world and in my neighborhood. I'm convinced that the declaration happens best in our living rooms or over coffee, and the demonstration happens most effectively and authentically in our Gospel-centric, everyday lives. Community is the unassuming and organic means by which God frequently advances His kingdom, so we seek community with Gospel intentions. I wouldn't want the reader to conclude that we're even close to proficient at this exciting endeavor. We're still awkwardly trying to figure this new way of life out, but I'm happy to report that it's a genuine pleasure to love our neighbors. My longing to see redemption in our neighborhood and city—for His kingdom to come—has been an incremental gift from God. Furthermore, I find that my commitment to God's global mission grows in direct relationship to my commitment to the folks living next door to me. I'm inspired by good friends who have left the comfort of the U.S. to make their home in Thailand (They also gifted us with their BBQ before they left!). They pursue their Thai neighbors with the love of Jesus in simple and profound ways, faithfully obeying the command to love neighbor as self in a cross-cultural context. Wherever you live, I can assure you that there is profound brokenness behind every door on your street. Our innate hunger for Christ manifests in a myriad of different fallen ways that end in death. Depression, addiction, abuse, empty pursuits of pleasure and things, hurting and broken families dwell in darkness behind white picket fences and nicely manicured lawns, awaiting the good news that has miraculously found us on its way to them.
“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).