This past weekend there was a major bust up here in the slum between my neighbour and his wife. She was screaming. He was screaming. Our whole neighbourhood was on edge.
I was just trying to read a book.
After quite a bit of yelling, I sighed and put down my book. I walked over to look outside.
By this time the wife had started waving a knife around. The kids were cowering in the corner. It looked like someone needed to help "de-escalate" the situation before it ended up getting messy.
And then I recognized the gentle nudge of God: "Go over there."
I’m convinced that part of seeing God’s Kingdom come on earth is to start with something as basic as loving our neighbours. Our actual neighbours - the ones with names, and weird hairdos, and annoying radio-playing habits.
One of the the things that fascinates and challenges me about Jesus, is that He limited Himself to being immersed for so long in one small Jewish neighbourhood - a little hick town called Nazareth. He did life with real people - real neighbours. Not just a generic, sweeping, "Jesus came to earth and loved everybody".
Jesus was all about grounding our love in messy reality. That's why He said, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. He called that task second only to “Love the Lord your God” in terms of BIG, IMPORTANT things to remember and do. (Mark 12:31)
But perhaps the idea of loving your actual neighbours presents a bit of a challenge. Perhaps you commute across town to church, work and school. And your neighbourhood has become a place where you no longer have much of a sense of connection or commitment.
In affluent societies we no longer know or even need our neighbours. (The natural result of a lack of Theology of Place – but that’s another post).
Shane Claiborne puts it like this, “The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”
And I’d reframe that even wider: the great tragedy is not that rich Christians don’t love their neighbours but that rich Christians don’t even know their neighbours.
If you’re like me – the thought of getting to know complete strangers is right up there with going to the dentist and filling in tax forms. Important, but not very energizing. Vital, but headache-inducing. Best to be avoided, in other words.
But what if I were to tell you that connecting with your neighbours need not be a guilty burden? What if I were to tell you it's OK that you're not extroverted? In fact, I’d like to magically sweep away the pressure of connecting with your neighbours, and suggest that unless you’re a natural extrovert who strikes up conversations in bus stops and with strangers at the supermarket, don’t even bother. Don't. Even. Bother.
Instead, pray for God to give you eyes to see when the door is open to connect. Stop trying so damn hard and simply ask Him to show you the moments HE is giving you for deepening those relationships.
I believe God provides the open doors, but very often we lack the eyes to see. So, along those lines, here are 5 doors I’ve learnt to recognize as "open doors" to connect with my neighbours. See what you think...
Open Door #1 – the Door of Curiosity
There’s something fascinating that happens when you first move into a new neighbourhood. Everyone is curious about the newbies. Who are they? What do they do for a living? Where did they get such a hideous sofa?
And the good news is, curiosity trumps shyness. It’s a door waiting to be opened!
So, prepare yourself mentally BEFORE moving in, to use that open door. When you first arrive, seize the moment and go around to introduce yourself to as many people as possible. Whether you move into an apartment block, a leafy suburb or a slum community like mine, this is your window – or door – of opportunity! Don’t let it slip away. Once you’ve made that initial connection, things will be MUCH less awkward, and you'll find it easier to connect with people because you know their names.
Likewise, when someone new moves into the neighbourhood you live in, determine that you’ll go out of your way to introduce yourself and welcome them to the community. They'll feel relieved and welcomed. You'll feel awesome. And who knows where that initial connection will lead?
Open Door #2 – the Door of Crisis
Sometimes the garbage collectors go on strike, the neighbours get burgled, or their pet hamster gets run over by an ice cream truck. Much like my incident with the knife described above, you will occasionally be faced with neighbours who are in crisis, or suffering of some sort. It might not be anything overly dramatic, (and it may be less obvious in an affluent neighbourhood), but we’re ALL human – we all have pain, death and sickness.
I've learned to see this as an opportunity to serve and connect with my neighbours. Even if it’s simply to go outside and stand around in shock - perhaps all you can do is laugh bitterly together or lament about the annoyance you’re all facing.
There is a deep truth here - suffering binds people together in significant ways. The only question is, will you be open to the Spirit in the midst of struggle?
Open Door #3 – the Door of Commonality
Some of my best connections with neighbours happen when I’m injuring myself in my attempts to work outside – trying to fix my motorbike, doing a crap job painting a wall, or perhaps making a ridiculous chair out of packing crates.
I remember the day I decided to cut our old double bed in half to make two singles. All the neighbourhood guys crowded in with excitement as soon as they saw that I was brandishing a saw. (Crazy-eyed foreigners wielding sharp objects quickly draw a crowd).
We laboriously cut the bed in half and then it dawned on me that I was missing quite a few legs and a couple of cross pieces. After the guys had finished falling about laughing at me, we managed to rustle up some spare wood and finally I got one single bed in a presentable state. Our common interest around working with our hands created a bond of laughter and friendship.
The connection need not be made only through carpentry. Really, any hobby could potentially be an open door that God is giving you to connect naturally with a neighbour. Brewing some beer? Fixing a motorbike? Playing Twister? Take it outside if you possibly can, and see what God wants to do. (well maybe not Twister - that's just weird)
Open Door #4 – the Door of Celebration
In my community, the 5am blaring of loudspeakers and monks chanting means I'll be waking up with a groan and a strong desire to move house, because there is some sort of ceremony happening that day.
But I’ve learnt that these days of community festivities are often times when the Spirit is opening the door to deepen neighbourhood relationships.
As an introvert, set aside energy to be part of these community events, whether it’s a block party, a yard sale, Christmas or Halloween – make the effort to be there with bells on!
And if you’re immersed in another culture, there is even more reason to participate - to learn, to connect and to care for what your neighbours care about. Come on, it's only one day. Do it!
Open Door #5 – the Door of Chance
Finally, there are moments that are simply God-ordained. They cannot be categorized. They are moments in time, when you’re walking along minding your own business and something or someone stops you. The door is open. Go through it and connect. You can recuperate later. For this reason, I try to remain mindful of God’s presence. I try to keep one ear open to His gentle whisper.
The keys to these open doors are in your hands already - intentionality and prayerfulness (awareness of God's presence).
Be ready. And listen for God's voice. You don't need to force it. Relax! - and let the Spirit lead. The right moment will come. And when it does, you'll be ready.
SO, here's what happened with my neighbour...
I walked awkwardly over to their house a stone's throw away, second-guessing myself the whole way. I stood in the doorway. I didn't know what to say really, so I just listened. She lowered the knife, crying. The husband had already made himself scarce.
Then I whispered a quiet invitation to the kids to come over to our house to play. They were glad for a place of refuge.
And that was that. Nothing ground breaking. Just one neighbour reaching out to another to say, "Hey. It's OK. I'm here too."
Love your neighbour. The door is open.