Why Neighborhood Relationships Are Sacred

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” The song plays as a soundtrack in the back of my mind as I scurry around town checking off items on my list: pay the water bill, deposit money at the bank, pick up a few items at the grocery store, and indulge in an iced coffee (well, that wasn’t actually on the list.) The familiar characters from Sesame Street serenade me with their chorus.

I find it amusing and yet profound that those simple lessons from childhood continue to speak into my life today. The voices challenge me to think about the answer to the question. In a culture of fast paced, rapidly impersonal exchanges with humanity, recognizing the faces in my community becomes challenging.

Who are the people in my neighborhood? Some are close friends; people with whom I have shared life for up to two decades. We become extended family; sharing the old fashioned act of borrowing a cup of sugar, watching each others’ children, providing meals in times of adversity, driving kids to school and generally doing life together.

But other people in my sphere are not people with whom I interact daily but are familiar faces in the routines of my life. I think of the cashier at the grocery store with whom I exchange pleasantries and small talk a few times a week as she scans my forgotten items for dinner. We don’t know much about each other but have gained glimpses into each other’s world through finding common humanity as we share a laugh or frustration. The woman who waits on my family as we grab snacks at a fast food restaurant on our way to church also comes to mind. We know her now on a first name basis and when we arrive, she already knows what will be ordered. Though not all these relationships have the same depth, they have one thing in common: “connectedness.”

That commonality has sacred implications.

One morning, as I woke up to the radio station set to my alarm, a woman’s voice convicted me that I also woke up to a new reality. As she spoke, I listened to her happily testify to an app she uses to order food and beverage. No phone call. No waiting in line. Simply show up at the appointed time and pick up the order.

What is happening to our connection to one another? I confess, as someone who is middle aged, it’s tempting to fall into the “when I was growing up…” train of thought. Every generation waxes nostalgically about their past while struggling to embrace changes in culture. However, this particular movement away from human connection really tugs at my heart.

The digital age appears to create an abundant number of ways in which we can increase our connections to one another. Social media allows us to initiate relationships with people across the globe. These relationships can offer opportunities to engage with diverse voices. However, it becomes tempting to quickly gravitate toward others according “categories.” therefore decreasing exposure to others different from ourselves.

I also wonder how many encounters in the “flesh” are being missed by engagement primarily online. If God’s character is revealed through the Imago dei found in all of us, what are the implications if we create barriers to encountering the breadth of human creation? C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.”

A few years ago, my 18 year old son was searching for a local job. I was surprised at the impersonal process he encountered. Most applications he submitted were online and involved personality tests, questions with limited options for clarification, and background history. Only a few of the many applications submitted resulted in an interview. Most of them yielded no feedback at all; even with follow up phone calls. After a year, he finally landed a position. Ironically, it was one with a pop up store which interviewed on the spot after he inquired about a position in person.

I am reminded that not so long ago, looking for a first job involved filling out a paper application and then walking into a neighborhood shop inquiring of vacancies. In person. No personality test. No exhaustive background check. Risky? Probably. But a certain amount of risk is always involved in entering a relationship. What do we learn about each other as the relationship builds and more of our stories are disclosed?

Changing our habits does not come easy. Convenience will likely be sacrificed in order to engage in intentional connections. I am mindful of my own struggles yesterday. As I waited in the neighborhood pharmacy drive through, the woman in the other lane engaged in what felt like a lengthy conversation with the employee. The woman’s dog had accompanied her and became the theme of a mutual adoration for pets. At first, I felt frustration bubble below the surface of my skin. My patience was running low as I typically expect a quick turn around in a drive through. However, my own passionate thoughts about the void of human interaction broke through my impatience. I was waiting for a sacred purpose.

Isn’t this where it starts? I asked myself. Simple observations, Impromptu connections. Transformation on a small scale. Yes, I sit longer while they talk. When these connections multiply within my neighborhood, we all benefit. Trust. Education. Understanding, People are more than their names or titles. Imago Dei. A ripple of connections not only strengthens the fabric of a local community but also has implications globally.

I am inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s words, “I admire the good Samaritan, but I don’t want to be one. I don’t want to spend my life picking up people by the side of the road after they have been beaten up and robbed. I want to change the Jericho road, so that everybody has an opportunity for a job, education, security, health.” By reframing how we view our interactions, we can see them as opportunities for transformation: for others and ourselves.

 

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Giving Others a Glimpse of More Than They Expected

Jesus wasn’t playing around.

And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt. 5:47)

Woah.

Certainly much of what Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated was counter cultural. It’s not an understatement to say that his commands and observations stretched muscles of the heart and mind.

However, these words right here? They directly target our “buts.”

But….you don’t know what she called me

But…he tried to get me fired

But….those people don’t worship my God

But… their child bullied mine

But…I don’t agree with their political views

But…they are living a sinful lifestyle

Woah.

Jesus doesn’t offer conditions on who to greet. In fact, he qualifies his statement with the rest of the context:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? “ (Matt 5:44-46)

Jesus was creating the picture of image bearers.  Many other people groups created their own Gods to worship. Even Israel tried it once. When you do that, the ability to bear its likeness is manageable.

But it’s not Holy.

“Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:47-48)

Our God originates from Heaven and pursues us at all costs in order to infuse us with that which is out of this world. It’s uncomfortable for sure and leaves us with muscle aches. It’s downright counter-human.

But, in the midst of the process, we radiate Holiness.

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Hiding in Plain Sight In Order to Be Available

Jesus was not good at “Hide and Seek.”

“While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him. They found him and said, “Everybody’s looking for you.”  Mark 1:35-37

He just wanted space. solitude. time to hear God’s voice pierce the silence.  So he sought it.

But, soon enough, he was found. And his “alone” time ceased. Why didn’t he make sure he wouldn’t be found? Certainly, there had to be a cave or some other perfectly located piece of landscape that could have provided hidden refuge.

If you want to hide, you can’t make yourself available to be sought. But, therein lies the rub. We are called to do both.

Messy is hard. I for one prefer clearly marked appointed times to mark the rhythms of my days. Like bars on a score. But following Jesus doesn’t work like that because he didn’t work like that. Even Jesus made himself available to move at the discretion of his father.

As a parent, those two realities are constantly blurring. When do I seek out time alone? When do I sacrifice my agenda for the sake of being a Jesus incarnated presence?

Now that my children are older, the line is still blurry. But I have come to realize that sometimes I can hide in plain sight. I can find solitude in the midst of the chaos. I can also teach others that maybe I’m not the one for whom they seek. God can use others to meet their needs.

Jesus constantly traveled between these two places. In the midst, he pointed others to God when they were searching for Him. If he could find peace in this messy reality, so can I.

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Learning About Justice From the Littlest Messengers

Sometimes the littlest church members teach me the biggest lessons.

As with many churches, ours has a rotation of servers in the nursery. Last Sunday was my turn. Since I don’t have small children anymore (cue a bit of sadness), I forget how their lack of life experience feeds into their actions. No filter. That can result in humorous embarrassment for the parents at times. “Kids say the darndest things.”

Yet, at other times, these small humans become the greatest teachers.

I had forgotten that my turn had arrived and was committed to also serving communion. For a moment, I thought about finding someone else to fill my spot. But I didn’t. And for that I am grateful.

One of the members brought her two year old grandson. Besides being ridiculously cute, he arrived with a cup of valentine candy hearts.

After interacting with him for a while, he walked toward me holding out his hand. Within it his curled fingers, lied a candy heart. While he offered it to me, my real one melted.

Isn’t this reflective of God’s love to us? Unfiltered.  Our past is not considered. The offer to accept connection is lifted up freely; abundantly.

Isn’t this reflective of being image bearers of God’s love? Unfiltered. The past is not considered. The offer to accept connection is lifted up freely; abundantly.

But we lose sense of that truth as we grow up. We analyze, justify, excuse. God’s sense of justice regarding human value takes a backseat to human reasoning.

We need the reminder.

Thankfully, God has no boundaries around his messengers.

“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” Galatians 6:1-3

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Finding Confidence Through Embracing God’s Promises

The anointing of God doesn’t always feel peaceful. Sometimes, it leaves our legs trembling and the heart racing.

“I can’t do this.”

In the fall of 1991, I began my seminary internship. Joyful anticipation collided with fear. Voices of the flesh whispered in my ears; chipping away at my confidence.

“Do you really think you can do this?” 

Fear attempted to keep me from walking toward God’s purposes. What if I fail?

I reflected on my pathway to this place.

I recognized that I could never have arrived here on my own volition.

I realized that my cries of resistance to my Creator were nothing new. Same song, different singer.

But I said, “Hold it, Master God! Look at me.
I don’t know anything. I’m only a boy!  God told me, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy.’
    I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there.
I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it.
    Don’t be afraid of a soul.
I’ll be right there, looking after you.”
    God’s Decree.” 
 Jeremiah 1:6-8

20-21 After Samuel got all the tribes of Israel lined up, the Benjamin tribe was picked. Then he lined up the Benjamin tribe in family groups, and the family of Matri was picked. The family of Matri took its place in the lineup, and the name Saul, son of Kish, was picked. But when they went looking for him, he was nowhere to be found. 22 Samuel went back to God: “Is he anywhere around?” God said, “Yes, he’s right over there—hidden in that pile of baggage.” 1 Samuel 10:21-22

Jeremiah flourished. He embraced God’s promises.

Saul missed out. He resisted them.

17-19″ And Samuel told him. “When you started out in this, you were nothing—and you knew it. Then God put you at the head of Israel—made you king over Israel. Then God sent you off to do a job for him, ordering you, ‘Go and put those sinners, the Amalekites, under a holy ban. Go to war against them until you have totally wiped them out.’ So why did you not obey God? Why did you grab all this loot? Why, with God’s eyes on you all the time, did you brazenly carry out this evil?”  1 Samuel 15:17-19.

I want to be a Jeremiah. How about you?

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Why Building on the Rock is Essential Even When it Doesn’t Make Sense

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.” (Matt. 7:24-25)

But what happens when you are the smart carpenter and it appears that your house is not as secure as you thought?

I can think of several seasons when the turbulent weather of my life rocked my “house.” Sometimes, it felt like it would collapse. Inside, we felt the torrent winds knocking against it.. Job loss. Broken bones. Mental Illness. Disappointment. Unexpected financial setbacks. Chronic illness. Marital stress. Trauma. Lost pregnancies.

Often, looking at others’ homes led to confusion, disappointment, and jealousy. Their houses were built on sand but they seemed pretty secure. In fact, the surrounding landscape seemed to flourish and become more colorful and vibrant by the day. Mine seemed kind of shabby in comparison.

Does God not see what’s happening?

Am I not praying “right?”

Does building on rock even make a difference?

Yet, I realized that looks can be deceiving. A lot of destruction can be taking place behind closed doors. What appears captivating from the outside can really be a facade.

Sure, my house is a bit weathered. It bears some dents and cracks. But those features speak of its resilience to the forces around it. No matter how intense the storm, the foundation will never give way. Never.

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A Reminder That My Identity is Formed by “Who” Not “Where”

The first few pages of the book jarred me. My soul felt the conviction.

Where do I find my daily Identity?

Like Tish Harrison Warren who wrote Liturgy of the Ordinary, I’m aware of my identity in the bigger narrative. I am God’s creation and image bearer. I am a follower of Christ. But she pushes for another title: Beloved.

Do I understand what that means? How does living as God’s Beloved inform how I live the ordinary moments of my life? 

As I wake up, my mind races to the agenda of the day: checking social media and emails, getting my son off to school, substitute teaching, writing, posting, picking up son from school, shopping, meeting….But she reminds me. Have I invited God into my day?

It’s all too tempting to live by the clock. I strive to cram in all that must be done. Any interruption is met with anxiety. I thrive in order and checking items off my list. But, subtly,my identity has morphed into many; each of which depends on individual achievements.

How did I get here?

Harrison writes, “Examining my daily liturgy as a liturgy=as something that both shaped what I love and worship-allowed me to realize that my daily practices were malforming me, making me less alive, less human, less able to give and receive love throughout my day. Changing this ritual allowed me to form a new repetitive and contemplative habit that pointed me toward a different way of being-in-the-world.”

My days begin differently now. I begin by consecrating my days to my Creator and Sustainer. The one who calls me Beloved and reminds me that my identity is informed by “who” not “where.”

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