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.