Archive for the 'Neighborhood' Category

From Gleaners to Neighbors

Rufus the Wonder Dog takes me for a walk nearly every morning. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we usually see John (my temporary name for him) pushing his shopping cart down our street. Wednesdays and Saturdays are trash pickup days. Every other Saturday is a recycling pickup day, likely John’s biggest payday. John takes from our bins items we residents have designated “trash” that he hopes will gain him a little “treasure”. He does his work neatly and unobtrusively. I’ve started putting my stuff out the night before in case I have something John can use. He’s doing his very best to survive. He clearly needs the little he makes more than the trash company does.

I say “Good Morning” whenever our paths cross. John responds with a smile and an almost-reluctant wave. I don’t think I’ve ever heard his voice. Is he not sure he’s worthy of a greeting? Not wanting to be noticed even that much? At first I mentally labeled John an “independent recycler”. Recently, however, I’ve upgraded his title. John is a gleaner. He lives off our leftovers and discards. He uses what we’ve declared useless. He works around the edges and values “seconds”, just as agricultural gleaners have done for centuries—gleaners like a prematurely-widowed woman named Ruth. Ruth went into Farmer Boaz’s barley fields seeking food for herself and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. (Boaz was a very distant relative of Naomi. That ancient Jewish mother-in-law likely had matrimony in mind as she orchestrated his meeting with her daughter-in-law.)

Boaz ordered his harvest workers not to bother Ruth and to do things that would make her job a little easier. He wasn’t doing Ruth favors he hoped she’d reciprocate. His kindness to Ruth followed the requirements of Jewish law: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the alien…” (Leviticus 19:9)When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow…” (Deuteronomy 24:19)

Membership in the community of Israel had clearly-defined boundaries. But Hebrew law also made room for folks who lived in the “neighborhood” but either weren’t “citizens” or lived a marginal existence—“…the alien, the orphan, and the widow…”  Israelite leaders recognized their responsibility for these vulnerable folks, whether they were officially Israelites or “aliens”. The tradition of gleaning encouraged generosity that enabled the “aliens” in the community to find sufficient food. Interestingly, Sabbath observance also applied to everyone: “…the seventh day…you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”(Exodus 20:10)

Jewish law prescribed that “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18).The provision for alien residents and other vulnerable folks cracked open a door through which many “outsiders” would eventually enter and become “neighbors”. Prophets like Isaiah envisioned a day when clearly-excluded “aliens” would become “neighbors”. Eventually, of course, Jesus came along and ripped this door clean off its hinges. The holy men loved to bait him with the question this verse raises—“Who is my neighbor?” Where’s the line? Who’s clearly outside my circle of trust? The real question, he knew, was “Who’s not my neighbor?” One day Jesus answered the question with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)  His (self)-righteous audience was stunned. Jesus had made the most impossible, least likely, and least-liked character the Model Neighbor! As his listeners picked up their dropped jaws, he told them, “Go and do likewise.” Go stretch your “neighborhood” boundaries far enough to include folks like him. After all, this man whose tribe you love to hate just stretched his “neighborhood” boundaries far enough to include you!

Jesus insists rightly that John and his counterparts among us are more than “gleaners” or “homeless”. John’s my neighbor along with my other neighbors who have live indoors and drive nice cars instead of shopping carts. I confess that I don’t know how to “neighbor” John and others in similar circumstances. Frequently we drive through busy intersections where ragged folks hold “Please help”-type signs and hope against hope for something–anything. We keep “agape bags” of food and water in the car for them. (Our 4-year-old grandson relentlessly insists that we and his parents observe this spiritual discipline.) Sometimes we offer our fast-food leftovers to these “gleaners”. (I know there’s more to their story than meets the eye. That’s another discussion.) These efforts are band-aids at best. Meaningful “neighboring” ranges from meeting immediate needs  to social and political action that addresses the root causes of suffering and transforms life for all involved. But it’s far from easy to know exactly what’s the most helpful action right here and now.

Neighboring is a learn-by-doing skills. We learn to “do likewise” as we learn to see people differently. We see “neighbors”, not labels;  “neighbor”, not “poor”, “homeless”, “welfare mother”, “different”, “lazy”, “illegal”, etc. Labels obscure our neighbors’ humanity and our common kinship. Remove the label and we reveal the image of God in every human God has ever created—even “them”.  “Neighbor” becomes both  noun and verb as we learn to “do likewise”. Jesus’ question might well have been, “Which of these three neighbored …?” His first response to human need was that he “felt compassion”—literally, he “felt with” them. There is no “them” when we have compassion. We’re all us. Jesus’ compassion triggered transformative action, often in the form of physical healing (e.g. Matthew 14:14, 15:32-35, 20:34.) So it will be with us as we learn to neighbor alongside Jesus.

Our new pastor taught us a Sesame Street song last Sunday: “Who are the people in the neighborhood?”  In the coming weeks, I’m anticipating some solid, specific—and sometimes uncomfortable—wisdom about neighboring our diverse neighborhood in the spirit of Jesus. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re invited into some “adventures in neighboring” as we follow Jesus and learn to “do likewise” .

Alaska Journal 3–The Power of Weakness

I intended to write this soon after Part 2, which I posted nearly a month ago. But Life intervened, first in the form of my granddaughter’s curiosity about the Frank Schaefer trial. She stimulated me to write “This Is Our Witness?” Impulses that strong usually generate some of my best writing, so I’ve learned to go with them. Life also intervened in the form of family Thanksgiving, including grandchildren, travel, and miscellaneous fun. Life’s apparent interruptions also put me in sync with God’s timing, which always trumps my hyper-scheduling and micro-managing. I think you’ll agree that this last part belongs in the Christmas season.

Two churches, Galena Bible Church (GBC) and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, serve the 500 people who live in Galena, Alaska, the town where I worked last summer as one of 80+ United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) helping with Yukon River flood recovery. Our team worshiped with GBC both Sundays we were in town. (Some will say we went to church in order to share the potluck feast that followed worship each week.) A few of us built shelves for GBC’s community pantry one day. This church of 21 members facilitated the work of another 220+  volunteers. Their cots, sleeping bags, and luggage were stacked around the edges of GBC’s multipurpose room all week, sometimes even during worship on Sunday. One Sunday a power tool battery sat in its charger on the platform just a few feet from Pastor Chris Kopp as he preached. The Altar Guild didn’t revolt because of the unorthodox liturgical decoration. For me the “functional” décor proclaimed that worship is meaningless if it doesn’t fuel and focus the church’s ongoing involvement in the life of its community—power tools and all!

Battery charging on the platform during worship.

I wanted to know more about GBC’s engagement with its community. But our team was involved with our work and Pastor Chris was rushing madly in all directions much of the time. After returning home, I emailed him and asked him to tell me more about the church and its ministry. He described how the church had called him as their pastor three years earlier. Eighteen months into his ministry he began working with GBC’s leaders to discern the church’s future direction. Study, dialog, prayer, and fasting led them to affirm that “…our gospel goal was that in five years we wanted any long-term resident of Galena to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.”

“Those are a group of people who love and care about each other.” It’s not rocket science, folks! Our life together is our most powerful witness to our immediate neighbors. Pastor Chris led that GBC congregation beyond “liking one another” to loving each other: “Just as I have loved you, Jesus told his disciples, “you also should love one another.” (John 13:34).By the way, Pastor Chris would insist that at most he’d led folks to be open to the Holy Spirit. That in itself is huge.

The quality of a church’s common life speaks powerfully to its neighbors, for better or worse. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus continues, “if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). Tertullian was a bishop in North Africa in the late second and early third centuries. The Christians under his care generously shared food, clothing, jobs, whatever they had that others needed. Love erased boundaries between believers and non-believers. Tertullian wrote that such love moved non-believers to say with amazement, “See how these Christians love one another!”

 GBC has grown (and continues to grow) into a community of people who deeply and truly love each other.  GBC had also unknowingly positioned itself to respond to last May’s disastrous Yukon River flood. Pastor Chris says that when the flood came, “What else could we do but respond according to the burden that God had put on our hearts?”  GBC partnered with parachurch mission agencies, its supporting churches, local, state, and federal government agencies to bring help and hope into the stricken community. How did this church of 21 members, most of whom were coping with flood damage to their own homes and to the church, pull it off?   “It is impossible to explain…,” according to Pastor Chris, “other…than to say it was the power of God made evident in our weakness. “

Sounds like Christmas to me. Peel away the layers of tradition and commercialism and we find two peasants welcoming their first child into the world in a stable far from home and family. We who follow Jesus see in this story God’s limitless, world-creating love going to incredible, unfathomable extremes to heal the brokenness between God and humanity. Love empties itself, sets aside power and privilege, and takes on our human weakness in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire. Thirty years later this baby grows up and starts traveling through the countryside teaching people a whole new way to understand life, God, and one another. His enemies engineer his execution, but he doesn’t die. Jesus’ followers insist that his life continues in them and beyond them. An early Christian hymn affirms “…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) At Christmas “all the fullness of God” chose to enter our world in “…the power of God made evident in…weakness”. “All the fullness of God” focused in one human life lived in very humble circumstances: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) The people of Galena, Alaska know that as the people of GBC love and serve their neighbors day after day through “the power of God made evident in our weakness”.

“…In five years we wanted any long-term resident…to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.” It’s a worthy mission/vision for churches of all sizes, shapes, styles, and settings. It’s a great way to proclaim Good News without getting too many words in the way. It’s a way to celebrate authentic Christmas: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Your neighborhood. My neighborhood. That neighborhood we’re afraid to drive through, especially after dark. Every neighborhood. Everywhere. For ever and ever. Amen.

Neighboring by Walking Around

A while back some earnest folks trying to be both authentically Christian and environmentally responsible wondered aloud, “What would Jesus drive?” I’m pretty sure they’d rule out my 4WD pickup. Our mid-size SUV would be on the bubble at best. But Jesus didn’t drive anything! Jesus walked the earth centuries before the automobile appeared.

“Jesus walked…”  I know, I know. So did everybody else in first-century Palestine. Walking provides a different perspective on life. Everything looks different when we pass it at a few miles an hour instead of a few dozen miles an hour. We notice so much more at that slower pace. When we’re not sealed in our automotive isolaton chambers, we can stop and talk with folks we meet. Walking around our neighborhood connects us to the place we live in a way that driving cannot.

Our daughter and son-in-law bought a house and moved into it not quite a year ago. Its finest feature is a first-floor grandparent-ready guest room. The first time we brought along Carson, our ShihTzu, he insisted on an early-morning walk just like at home. One early-morning walk quickly became every-morning-and-every-evening. Carson and I met the neighbor who babies his car that’s just like one I sold long ago. We found the houses where dogs lived–and barked! We saw a wide variety of cars and trucks, as well as some nice boats and RVs. We noticed the personal touches some folks had added to the nondescript subdivision landscape–and other houses with little or no personal touches. Had their occupants decided not to try to make that temporary place “home”? Were they too busy, too stressed, too financially-stretched?

Our morning walks have helped me learn to read people’s trash. No, I don’t touch it, I just look! Before we met the neighbors across the street, I had deduced that they were Asians. Their trash contained large cartons that had contained large quantities of rice! You can also tell by the cartons when people have new furniture, appliances, or toys for their kids. Curbside trash also identifies houses in transition. Someone moving out has left at the curb what they don’t want and can’t get rid of any other way. Someone’s moving in, it appears by the discarded packng materials. This neighborhood, like so many , has experienced its share of Southern Nevada’s  real estate struggles. It contains some long-empty houses that just won’t sell, some that are in transition, and a few that appear to be headed toward foreclosure.

Our grandson Lucas (almost two) also likes to walk around the neighborhood with me. We met the man with the old car–and his poodle. He and the poodle appear to be about the same age.  One warm evening we met a man sitting in his garage playing with his toddler and trying to entertain his 6-month-old twins. His van/tour bus sits out front and I suspect it doesn’t haul as many people as often as he’d like, but he’s doing the best he can. We met young teen boys playing basketball with a portable goal. Lucas loves to sit on the curb and watch them play. One day one of the boys invited him to play. They rolled the ball around a little. Then we lifted Lucas up to the hoop and helped him drop the ball through the basket. He loved it! Of course the basket was well below the regulation ten-foot height, so those boys  could dunk and imitate the moves they saw the pros make on TV.

My preliminary exploration of the neighborhood (with Carson and Lucas’s help) reminds me of God’s action in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG).  Our “neighborhood” is wherever we live our lives. Most of us live in other neighborhoods in addition to our physical neighborhood–work, online communities,  church, school, family, various other communities to which we belong. God is not aloof from our “neighborhoods”. In Jesus God has “moved into the neighborhood”. God cares about that young father and his family, those boys playing basketball, those families trying to survive through the housing crisis. Jesus doesn’t sit around the church all week waiting for us to come visit him on Sunday. He’s immersed in the wondrous dailiness of our ordinary lives!

 So what does all this mean for us who follow the One who’s “moved into the neighborhood”?

  • Expand your definition of “neighborhood” as it makes sense, but don’t neglect your physical neighborhood.
  • Take a walk. Take regular walks, mostly when some of your neighbors will be outside.
  • Pray for the neighbors you know and the ones you don’t, for issues you’re aware of and could reasonably expect to exist, and for your observations as you “move into the neighborhood” with Jesus.
  • Don’t expect instant results. Getting to know the neighborhood takes considerable time and attention. Relationships will develop through dozens of small steps.
  • Our mission field begins at our doorstep. The people in our neighborhood are our neighbors–those whom Jesus calls us to love as we love ourselves (Luke 10:25-37). Our loving presence invites them into the best news ever–“The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.