Around midnight we had to call 911 because of a disturbance with possible gunshots in a park on the next block. This park has a rough history, but has been reclaimed for good in recent years. This morning, I woke up to an alert on my iPhone that three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge. This comes on the heals of multiple, horrific episodes of violence in Minneapolis, in Dallas, in France, in Turkey, in Bangladesh, in Iraq and other places in our country and around the world. It comes in the midst of the harshest, most vulgar and divisive election season in memory. As followers of Jesus, what can we do? How do we deal with the monumental problems facing our national and global society?
Surprisingly one answer is to “get smaller” in our focus. Our friend Jon Huckins, author of “Thin Places” writes:
“When we are daily exposed to all the worlds’ problems without being rooted in our own soil, it’s as though a collective numbness takes us over. We lose touch of our senses, priorities and relationships. We become more irritable. Our relationships become more mechanical and forced. Our attention span shortens. An anxiety about our individual and collective future breeds paralysis. The distance between those of different cultures, traditions and ethnicities grows. We pour more time and energy into our political allegiance than our Kingdom allegiance. We miss seeing the sacred even when it’s being displayed on the faces of our kids, sidewalks, parks and pubs”.
This week, Iris and I spent part of a day picking up trash in our neighborhood, later we bought some plants from the bargain bin at Lowes and refreshed the traffic circle that we adopted a few years ago, we received a bag of apples from a friend’s tree and passed the extras on to another neighbor. We lent a glue gun to another neighbor, we took possession of another neighbor’s house keys as they were out of town. We borrowed a tool to trim a tree from another neighbor. We said “yes” to a block party on the next block over, we walked our neighborhood and prayed for the gospel to take root and flourish. We met “Randy”, a vet dealing with PTSD and some physical injuries. Randy lives in the Mark Cooper House, a transitional housing center in our neighborhood for veterans recovering from addiction. Randy spends most of his day on a park bench a block from our house reading books and watching people. We updated the email and phone numbers on our neighborhood guide, turned it into a “google doc” and made it available to our neighbors. We said, “hi”, to everyone we saw on the street or sidewalk. Especially the black kids with sagging pants and the blind people who work at Lighthouse for the Blind. We smiled when we spoke to strangers. We walked to Borracchini’s Bakery and had coffee. We walked to Pinky’s and got a haircut. We walked to the neighborhood fruit stand and bought tomatoes and blueberries.
Do these small choices make a difference? Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that when planted grows to become a large tree in which the birds can find shelter. He says that it’s like leaven that works through dough in a loaf of bread. The Kingdom looks small, almost invisible, but it has tremendous effect.
The exciting thing is that these kind of Kingdom outbreaks – these small steps fostering human connection and love are taking place in neighborhoods across our country. People are loving their actual neighbors and it is making a difference. We just returned from a trip to Oregon in which we walked and heard stories of redemption in three different cities and towns. We celebrated Independence Day in a cul-de-sac in Corvallis, Oregon and participated as believers were sowing Kingdom Seed in the midst of sparklers, burgers, and micro-brews.
We hear stories from friends in Florida who have just opened their home to provide a safe place for kids whose parents are in drug rehab. These same friends facilitate a bible discussion in their home with neighbors of various faiths. We’ve received three letters this week that have pictures of friends gathered around tables for meals. I’m reminded of the book “Next Door as it is in Heaven” in which the authors make the case that the most powerful evangelistic tool at our disposal and the one Jesus used more than any other is the dining table.
We are learning. We are learning that ministry consists, not primarily of activities and events, but of the everyday, the mundane and the ordinary in a particular place over time. As a friend from Philadelphia wrote recently, “I have been challenged in my ‘theology of place’, to think in geographic rather than demographic terms. The learning curve has been high in this new initiative”.
Dallas Willard writes about the Kingdom impact unleashed when we learn to love our neighbors. “We must see what that means in practice. Why we are not to love everyone as we love ourselves, but our “neighbor.” Who that is. Think small here: with humility and boundaries based on humility. How many “neighbors” would you have? Investing in a few relationships. Openness. Planning to do it. Learning as you go. The place of spiritual disciplines in all of this. Steps”.
In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright puts it this way, “It’s difficult to quantify the results of good neighboring. What we do know is that when people get to know their neighbors, good things start happening. Real relationships are formed. And these relationships make a difference. Neighbors start to work together. They shovel driveways, get to know aging neighbors, notice strangers walking around, and help each other in a pinch. These small acts add up to something significant”.
It’s small. It’s big. It’s a movement.