Monthly Archives: June 2015

The neighbor you've always hated

How to find harmony with that neighbor you’ve always hated

On Father’s day, I weeded my neighbor’s front yard; my wife gave him some zucchini from our garden. This is the neighbor with the giant monster truck, the two pit bulls, and the tendency toward loud raucous parties that go into the wee small hours. It is also the neighbor who smiles warmly at us whenever he sees us, who faithfully buys my daughter’s Girl Scout cookies, and who opened up to us when he lost two family members last year.

Everyone has a bad neighbor story, from the Sunnyvale couple whose dispute over trees literally escalated all the way to the California state legislature, to the HOAs fining homeowners who obey mandatory watering restrictions in the current record-breaking drought. The question is, what do we do with them? Christ talked quite a bit about “neighbors”, but we usually think of that in a sort of a larger, metaphorical sense. But when push comes to shove, do those same teachings still have any value when we are literally talking about the people with whom we share a property line?

Melting the ice

At a marriage retreat last year, the speaker (a pastor) shared a story about a neighbor whose response to the pastor’s kids, whenever they wanted to recover a lost ball, was always a flat “No!” From there the relationship devolved into petty passive-aggressions (did you know there is such a thing as hostile garbage can placement?), and ultimately a lawsuit over a shed built 5 1/5 inches too close to the property line. He confessed to feeling a lot of vengefulness, resentment and anger.

All that changed one day, when his kids were in a play and he had 10 free tickets. Standing in front of his house, he saw his neighbor next door in the garage and, as he put it, he felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit: “go offer them your extra tickets.” It’s a gesture that would cost him nothing, yet like Jonah being sent to Nineveh, he was, shall we say, reluctant. He did not want to do good in any possible way to the people who’d made him tear down his shed for no reason. Finally he did it anyway. They seemed indifferent, and he thought, “Well, there, you see: that was a waste of time.”

The next day, they discovered a basket on their porch; it contained every ball ever hit over the fence. (Each one had been labeled with the date and time and a description of what the ball had struck.) After that, the neighbors started dropping by to talk. Stories came out about a lot of personal pain, inappropriately expressed through anger. Through one simple act of not-even-that-kindness, the ice was melted and healing began. The point is not “invite your antagonistic neighbors to a play”, but rather, trust that God may be at work in the life of even the most obnoxious neighbor, and be open to the part he has for you to play.

Simple instructions, hard to follow

When Christ says to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he doesn’t go into a lot of rationalization and detail; he just says to do it. It is somewhat amusing to compare Christ’s approach with the way that some of us parents nowadays (myself included) resort to pleading intellectualization with our kids— “Now Colton sweetie, Mommy is on an important business call and she needs you to stop banging on the pot lids because if she can’t take this call, she won’t get paid for her job and it will be hard for us to buy you presents for your birthday next month. You like presents, don’t you?”— whereas I think Christ in the same situation would have simply said, “Stop banging on pot lids.”

The rest of the bible is the same way, and so it is that we have simple imperative sentences: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving people we emotionally recoil from is not easy, especially those who have harmed us. In one of the most controversial passages, scripture even speaks to those of us in the place where we cannot bring ourselves to wish anything good on our enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

There has been a time in my life where I was so angry at another person that the wish to heap burning coals on their head was the only emotional connection I could make to them. Mercifully, my “good” deeds toward them ultimately were healing and restorative for us both. Yet another illustration that the vengeance of man only leads to more death, where the vengeance of God leads, in the end, to redemption.

Practice makes perfect

In the final analysis, if we want to be people who practice Christ-like grace, it actually takes a lot of practice. A change in our outward behavior, hopefully toward greater fullness of mercy and love, starts with a change in our thought life. It is hard to rehearse our resentments privately, and then suddenly switch gears and be Christ-honoring with our public behavior. Luke 6:45 says, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” That is, whatever your heart is full of is what’s comin’ outta your mouth. The only way to change the output is to change what’s happening at the source.

How we control that is by choosing what we meditate on. Everyone has passing thoughts they can’t control, and some of them are ugly, and with those, it is best to simply let them go and watch them float away on down the stream of your consciousness. But when it comes to the thoughts we sit and gnaw away at… all alone, formulating and re-formulating what we coulda/woulda/shoulda said, what we are going to say the next time… in those areas, we have a lot more control. This is called meditating on a certain thought, and here are two excellent suggestions for areas of this “mental meditation”

  • “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
    There is so much beauty and wisdom and good advice in scripture; find a verse or passage that inspires you and meditate on that, instead of on who did what to who today.
  • “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phillipians 4:8)
    What I held in my heart as I was pulling up weeds for my neighbor  was this: how thankful I was finally to have a chance to do something for him after all he has done for us. For some, those weeds might have bred resentment, but I can genuinely say that, based on heart attitude, the task instead became a joy and a gift given in love.

If we want to be better equipped— if, when the moment of crisis comes, we want to be able run the pumps on our internal emotional reservoirs and find that they bring up joy and resilience and peace, rather than anger and combativeness and bitterness— then there is only one path I have found that gets there. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It is the strong man who can stand up amid violence being inflicted upon him and not retaliate with violence.” Christ, the bible says, was able to stand quietly and calmly amidst his accusers— enduring patiently rather than lashing out. Isaiah describes this quality of the Messiah saying, “As a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.”

Where Jesus found that strength: it came from his father. Where we find our strength: same place. There is a beautiful song by the Christian band Selah called Press On, and the final chorus goes like this: “Dear Lord, with the prize clear before our eyes, we find the strength… to press on.” When it comes to our neighbors, for most of us, they are not going anywhere, and those of us who make a practice of cataloging our resentments are imagining an ending— that day our opponent must vacate the field, leaving us unopposed and victorious!— that will never come. Living with anyone, whether neighbors or roommates or family, is a marathon, not a sprint. As with running, doing it right takes repetition and trial-and-error and practice and failure and healing and grace. And the one thing we most sorely need in all of it is exactly this: to keep going. Runners call it endurance; we Christians call it the strength to press on.

Jesus work, fabulous luxury

Doing Jesus’ work through fabulous luxury

Have you heard the saying, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary”? My pastor recently spoke about that. It used to be one of his favorites, he said, but not anymore; instead, he urged us to talk about Jesus, “no matter how uncomfortable it is.”

I was thinking about that this week as I took vacation time with my wife and daughter and some dear family friends. Some see vacation time as a fabulous luxury, but despite what my pastor said, I think we were doing at least three things that express God’s design for us— building relationship, creating sabbath, using our treasure— quite apart from the need for words.

Building relationship

Recently I have realized that vacation is not “one thing”, and how people like to enjoy themselves varies widely. For example, when my 70-something parents vacation, they like to go someplace new and exotic, and suck all the marrow out of life; where they get their energy from, I have no idea. When my sister’s family vacations, they like to go to an event, like a puzzle competition or a bluegrass festival. Whereas for our family, vacation is all about the “who”, more so than the “where” or the “what”. We like to “stay-cation” at a beautiful spot about 40 minutes’ drive from home, and the whole time is spent entertaining friends and family who drive up to visit us there. We swim, we cook out, and we celebrate time together.

Is it holy? Are we doing ministry? As I reflect on it, the answer, I think, is very much of a yes, even though most of the time, nobody is talking about Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father… for I was a stranger and you invited me in.” I have written before about the deep craving for relationship that is ingrained into each of us. Meeting this need for others, Christ says, is on a par with life essentials like food and water.

Creating sabbath

Our society is stressed out. A 2013 study by the American Psychological Association says that we are “a picture of high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms that appear to be ingrained in our culture”. Stress, the study says, impacts both our physical and mental health:

  • resulting in high rates of anger, irritability and anxiety
  • contributing to ailments ranging from digestive upset to heart disease
  • compounding depression and obesity

We see the examples everywhere. The Onion just satirized it with an article entitled, “Father Teaches Son How To Fly Into Rage Over Completely Inconsequential B*******”. This week when a friend’s dog escaped and ran into the street, rather than help, a nearby stranger began screaming unprovoked invective at her, moving her to tears. She was able to offer grace to her tormentor, concluding “Be kind. Everyone is doing the best they can. I know that angry man has some battles of his own.” But none of this is what God intended for us. Part of the reason we have so little patience for each other is that we do not honor our God-given rhythms of work and rest. Ann Graham Lotz went on record this week blaming the decline of American society on all the usual suspects, but nowhere does she mention our wholesale abandonment of the sabbath. Yet the biblical commandment to honor the sabbath and keep it holy is no less strongly worded, and the consequences are far more obvious and direct.

Into the midst of this kind of world, I believe, nothing is more important than creating margin for downtime. We relax, we renew, we replenish. We invest in our marriages and our children. Again, I think it is work God would approve of.

Using our treasure

There has been a lot of talk in the U.S. in recent years about “the 1%”, by which we mean the super-wealthy ivory-tower elite. But in a global sense, I am actually part of that top 1%, and so, quite likely, are you. (Find out here.) We have a lot to share, and God commands that we do so; otherwise we are like Jesus’ parables about the rich man (“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God”) or the unworthy servant (“So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground”).

We have nice things. We like to share them. We get to vacation in a beautiful place. Why should we keep that experience to ourselves? Once, a friend’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and his kids pulled together to raise money and send their parents on the honeymoon they’d never had. We helped. Sometimes we are hosts on Airbnb, and have the privilege of helping to make that “pause from the action” happen in the lives of people we didn’t even know before. I think all of this is work that is pleasing to God, absence of a come-to-Jesus talk notwithstanding. Speaking of which…

About Jesus: uncomfortable?

When my wife was involved in Young Life, one of their core principles was “earning the right to be heard,” meaning that your advice to others is fairly meaningless and hollow if you won’t take the trouble to invest and walk alongside. The class Perspectives on the World Christian Movement makes the same point in the context of global missions. The gospel message is good news of freedom and reunion and redemption, soaked in a tonic of self-sacrificing love. It is hard to see how we have worked ourselves up into a state where talking about that should be seen as an uncomfortable chore. Jesus’ conversations about himself and the kingdom of heaven were a lot of things— transformative, miraculous, polarizing— but they were never simply socially awkward.

When our focus is on building relationship and investing in others in love, conversations happen naturally about who we are, how we live, what we believe and why. And that, after all, is what Christian faith is fundamentally about.

Related links

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Surviving years alone with God and “Into The Woods”

Love— a poem

Here’s a viral headline: “Christians nice, talk about love”

This week, my daughter brought home a poem she had written as part of her third-grade class:

Love is pink.
It tastes like lemon pound cake.

It sounds like singing birds, and it smells like vanilla.
It feels like baby hair, it looks like a butterfly.
Love makes me feel like singing.

Inspired, my wife sat down and composed one too:

Love is periwinkle
It tastes like whipped cream.
Love sounds like the ocean waves softly crashing.
It smells like fresh banana bread.
Love feels like a long warm hug.
It looks like a sunrise.
Love makes me feel so peaceful.

In writing these beautiful poems, it turns out they have quite a bit in common with earlier authors who wrote things like this:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. We love because he first loved us. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Or this:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Or this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Will they know we are Christians because of… our political stands on certain issues? Because of… the people we are against, the laws we protest, the banks we boycott? Or will they know we are Christians by our love?

Some people think we are naïve in our view that love and prayer are our most powerful weapons: that they can save lives and transform society. If so, we share the naïveté of our savior. As Christians, we are on the wrong battlefield when we spend our time fighting to possess the kingdoms of this world. We need to be focused instead of the kingdom of heaven, and the only language they speak there is the language of love.

Relearning to love after we lost our baby

Compassion for “them”: relearning to love the people we were before we lost our baby

When you read about a horrible disaster— a doomed airliner, a tsunami, anything that suddenly shatters peace and calm and well-being— when you read an article like that, sometimes there are “before” photos. The people in harm’s way are normal people, just doing what normal people do: having fun, laughing, taking selfies… They’re enjoying themselves, and sometimes the photos survive and get published after the fact. You look at the people in those photos, and you can see it in their eyes: there’s an innocence, a naïveté, an uncomplicated trust. They have no idea what’s about to happen to them.

We have photos like that all over our house. They aren’t disaster photos. They are photos of our wedding. Of our family trips when our two oldest kids were small. Of us at the coffee shop, that time we snuck in a date night and my wife surprised me with a little white stick whose digital read-out bore the single word “Pregnant”. That was a good night. We were happy. We took photos.

From that day on, we rechristened our family as “Party of Five”. We bought bunk beds and a mini-van, and a gigantic double-stroller that we called “The Land Behemoth”. After the ultrasound, we started buying boy clothes. One said, “Little Rookie”. Another, we bought in Napa; it said, “Vintage 2007”. And then there was the picture my wife didn’t want to take. I scheduled our church directory sitting about a week before our due date; she wanted to do it after he was born, but the dates wouldn’t work, so we did it beforehand anyway. We didn’t know that was the last photo there would ever be with our entire party of five. We didn’t know there was already a kink in his umbilical cord. We didn’t know we were about to lose a baby.

When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself.

When you look at the people in those pre-disaster photos, sometimes you want to reach through that lens and warn them. How much more so when those people are you? When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself, and for a while, we were so angry at “those people” in our photos. They were so stupid and ignorant. They should have done more. They should have known.

Our baby boy (Boaz, we named him) would have turned 8 this year, and in that time, learning to have grace for “those people” has been an important part of our healing. Many of the lessons we learned from scripture have helped with that journey:

  • Matthew 24:38 says, “…and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came.” In the same way, we had to realize, there was no way we could have known. We did the same things that everyone else does; it was not our fault that it worked out well for them and badly for us.
  • Ecclesiastes repeatedly talks about things that are meaningless. We had fixated on finding the meaning: what was God trying to tell us (or being honest, why was he punishing us)? We finally had to let that go, realizing our need to “find the meaning” was a need to keep control. Instead, letting go and rejoining life was the legacy we wanted our baby to have. As Ecclesiastes finally concludes, “There is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.”
  • For me, the greatest lesson was from 1 Peter 4: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the painful trial that has come upon you to test you, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.” The redemptiveness of Christ’s passion was never so clear to me as in the midst of our own grief. His suffering was not wasted, and through our own suffering, the scripture says, we gain a unique partnership in that redemption.

I do not believe that God causes suffering, and I do not agree with the many people who say, “God did this to teach you… whatever.” We live in a fallen world, and we have to live here, because we are fallen too. Bad things happen here. That is not God’s fault, because this isn’t the place he designed us for. But he is here at work in this place too, finding ways to bring redemption out of the heartbreak that inevitably accompanies our life under the sun. As I became fond of saying in the midst of our loss: “Out of soil the devil has sown for evil, God can make many good and green and living things to grow.”

This article originally appeared as a guest posting at Me Too Moments For Moms.