Encountering Christ Through My Neighbor

As many of you know, I often go to coffee shops to read and study. At one coffee shop near my home, there is a homeless guy that I have somewhat come to regularly see and converse with. I’m going to call him Fred. Before I met Fred, it was fairly obvious that he was down-and-out. He had on mis-matched clothing, that wasn’t the cleanest or in best shape. And, he had a cardboard sign that he was holding.

The day I met Fred was a cold day this past winter. Fred had been holding a cardboard sign at the nearby street-corner, trying to get some money. He ducked into the coffee shop to warm himself. He got a small coffee and a little something to eat. As he was sitting at the table by me, I could see him counting the little money that he had stuffed into his coat pocket. And, after a little time passed by, he ended up asking me if he could use my phone to make a call. I allowed him to, and he made a couple calls to various people that he knew, and whom he was trying to meet-up with. He thanked me for allowing him to use my phone. A few moments later, he asked me if I had a few dollars that I could spare to give to him. He explained that he had recently lost his construction job and also his apartment, and that he was trying to get enough money together to get to Albany to stay with a relative in the mean time, as he got back on his feet.

At this point, we all probably would have a similar thought going through our heads. “Do I give this guy some money? What is he going to do with it. Should it matter if I know what he is going to do with it? What is the right thing to do here? What does the Lord want me to do right now (I hope this goes through your head regularly)?”

For some time, my typical rule of thumb — in a situation like this — has been the following. If I have cash in my wallet, and if a person actually asks me for money (opposed to just holding a sign or jingling a cup of change), then I will give them what they ask for (using some discernment: I’m not going to hand over a credit/debit card if a homeless person asks me for my credit/debit card). I take this approach because it lines-up with what Jesus says in Luke 6:30-31, “Give to everyone who asks you…. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” I had $5 in my wallet, so I gave it to him. He was grateful.

Typically, I am shy in situations like this, not wanting to force a conversation on someone I have just met. But, I figured the guy had already opened the door to ask for my help, so I thought that I should also ask him if there was anything that I could be praying for on his behalf. I hesitated a little, but went on to ask Fred. He basically told me to just pray that God’s relationship with him would stay good. I’m not sure what he meant by that, or if he even meant it. But, I acknowledged his request.

After our exchange, Fred gathered his stuff and headed back out into the cold to hold his sign next to the passing traffic. I figured that that would probably be the last time I ever saw him. Usually, that’s what these kinds of encounters are like.

I left the encounter thinking to myself, “Wow, that was cool that I was able to be an agent of God’s blessings and grace to Fred.” I even used this encounter as an illustrative story at youth group the following Sunday — as an example of how God is at work all around us, and wanting to work through our lives to bless others. It was definitely a high moment.

Then… came the following week. I was once again at this particular coffee shop. I was reading and writing away on my computer, when I noticed that Fred was once again holding his sign at the nearby intersection. And, next thing I know, Fred comes back into the coffee shop to get warm.

I am ashamed to say what happened next. In my mind, I was hoping that Fred wouldn’t recognize me sitting there. After all, I was the one who helped him last time, so of course he’s going to take advantage of me and want help again.

That’s not how it is supposed to happen right? This is suppose to be the kind of moment where I meet the person once, give them a handout, feel good about it, and never see the person again. Right?

Wrong. That’s what I have been conditioned to think. But, that is not the way it works in God’s kingdom.

God’s kingdom is not about the handout, but about the people that receive the handout. The relationship is what matters. And, in this instance, I was not interested in having a relationship where I was the giver and Fred was the receiver.

Now remember, at this point, Fred hasn’t even noticed me or asked me for more money or help. This is all just going-on in my head. But, the lie had born fruit in my mind, and I acted as if I was busy, so I didn’t have to talk or even make eye contact with Fred. Next thing I know, Fred had warmed himself and was back outside and heading down the sidewalk to some other location.

I felt so ashamed. I knew my attitude was not what the Lord desired of me. And, here I was left with a potential situation, where I might not ever see Fred again, and be able to repent and treat him differently.

I went home dejected and confessed and lamented to my wife that I was a horrible person and a horrible Christian. I even lamented over the fact that I had used my first encounter with him as an example at youth group, but I wasn’t faithful to follow-through with my own advice a week later.

I admit, I purposefully drove past that coffee shop a couple times over the next couple of weeks to see if Fred was standing near there or sitting inside — so that I could have a second chance at letting God love Fred through me.

A few weeks later, I was once again at the coffee shop reading and writing, and Fred stopped in again. This time, I made sure to make eye contact with him and acknowledge him, and talk with him. As we chatted, Fred shared how he had recently attended a church on Hertel, and he was asking what I knew about it. He further shared how he had been staying at St. Luke’s in Buffalo, and how some other guys were trying to steal his stuff. He also shared how Catholic Charities was helping him to get a place to live, which would in turn increase his chances of being employed somewhere. He shared how he had applied for work at many places, but also conveyed that employers were skeptical to hire someone who doesn’t have a permanent address. We ended up chatting about life in general and how Buffalo has been changing, and even politics (this was right after Pres. Trump was elected). We ended our conversation and Fred went back outside to once again hold his sign by traffic.

I share this story to highlight a handful of realities. (1) In the end, this encounter was more about being present to Fred and listening to his story, than it was about him getting something from me.

(2) Fred is a neighbor that I didn’t expect to encounter more than once. But, having met him, I learned through my encounters with him, the value of being present over mere practical help. As much as Fred is not my neighbor next to my house, he is still my neighbor none-the-less (if using Jesus’ definition of a neighbor, Luke 10:25-37). And, just like with Fred, so also it applies with my next-door neighbors — that practical help (mere sharing shovels or cups of sugar) are not nearly as important as the attitude that I exhibit toward my neighbors. If I am trying to avoid eye contact, or avoid addressing people by their names (let-alone even knowing their names), then it may be a reflection of my heart toward my neighbor — which, in turn, if a reflection of my relationship with the Lord. My actions may seem to reflect that I care, but my heart isn’t inclined to care about my neighbor.

(3) As much as I thought Fred would encounter God through me (which I think still happened, even though I faltered), it is just as likely that I encounter God in my interaction with my neighbors. Maybe my neighbors aren’t lacking a home or a job. But, they are lacking something: joy, a unified family, healthy children, purpose, etc. We all are lacking something. We are all poor in some way. God is the only one who is not poor and not lacking anything. But, when I encounter and interact and serve those impoverished around me, I encounter Christ Jesus (Matthew 25:31-45).

Finally, (4) God’s truth may be read in the pages of the Bible, but those truths are further revealed on the pages of everyday life. So, just like my encounter with Fred, so also my encounter with any neighbor may be an opportunity through which God forms me further into the character of Christ Jesus. I wasn’t expecting to be formed in humility, grace, mercy, and forgiveness through my failures with Fred, but that is exactly what God shaped further in my heart through my failure and my response to it.

So take heart. If you’ve failed in your attitude toward any neighbor (next door, or homeless in the nearby coffee shop), Christ’s presence is not absent from that moment. Rather, Christ is present there all the more, if we would just take the time to look for him in the midst of our trials and errors with our neighbors.

Feel Like a Failure at Neighboring? There's Still Hope!

One time there were three young families that just moved into an established neighborhood.  Over the course of the next months and year, the families slowly, but surely tried to make connections with the neighbors right around them. The first family struck-up a relationship of trust with this one neighbor, where each were willing to watch each other’s children or pets — where each trusted the other with access to their home and treasured possessions. The second family struck-up a cordial relationship with this one neighbor, where each was willing to watch each other’s houses while the other was out of town, and borrow each other’s yard tools when the other didn’t have a particular tool for a job. The third family, well, they were never really able to make a good connection with this one neighbor. Try as they would, most of what they were able to do was just wave hello when they saw the other coming home or leaving, but they were never really able to make inroads to a deeper relationship like the other two families did with their neighbors.

Now, which of these three families do you think better better executed the discipline of neighboring? Was it the first family who was able to establish a deep trusting relationship with their neighbor? Or, was it the second family, who at least, was able to have regular interaction with their neighbor? Or, could it possibly be the third family, who seemed to never make it past the first step of establishing a relationship with their neighbor?

Our first inclination might be to award the first family, because they reached the deepest level of intimacy. And, we would probably at least give an honorable mention to the second family for having some level of interaction with their neighbor.

But, the third family. My guess is that we might be tempted to think that they flopped — that they just didn’t put in enough effort. We would probably say the first two families neighbored well. But, the third family pretty much failed.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a similar story,

14 [The kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Now you may not immediately think of this story that Jesus tells as a story about neighboring. And, in general, I would agree. But, I think there is an important point that Jesus makes that does pertain to how we approach neighboring. With the third servant, who only hid his talent, the king in the story says that the servant should have at least invested the talent with the bank, so he could at least get a little return on the investment. As many times as I have read or heard of this story, I often have left it thinking that the third man was dead in the water from the get-go. After all, he seems to be thinking, “I’m no good at this investing thing, so at least I can just not lose the talent I was given.” The servant seems to wallow in his inability to do what the other two servants were very gifted to do. But, the king, in the end says that he would have been just as happy if the servant would have just done a little investing. The king didn’t expect him to have the same return as the other two servants, but to just keep at it with what abilities he did have.

Now, isn’t that how many of us tend to feel when it comes to neighboring? We are like the three families at the beginning of this post. Some of us easily strike up relationships with a neighbor. Some of us easily establish a cordial relationship with a neighbor. And then some of us, we try and try and try to establish a connection with a neighbor, and all we get is a wave hello back from them — no conversation, no sharing of resources, nothing else. In those times, we feel as if it just doesn’t matter. Why bother trying. But, I think if we take Jesus words to heart, we are called to be like the third servant in moments like this. Not giving up, but faithfully doing the little we are able to do. And, if that is just willfully offering a wave hello at the moment, then we faithfully keep doing that till another opportunity presents itself.

I write this partly because this has been a personal experience of mine with a neighbor nearby me. We have tried and tried to establish a closer relationship with this neighbor, but nothing more comes of the relationship. So, we are stuck on waving hello for the most part. That is, until recently, we received a card from this neighbor saying how grateful they were that we are good neighbors. Now, that may not seem like anything. But, the fact that it was even acknowledged that we were neighbors, let alone good neighbors — that is progress, in my book, regarding our neighboring status.

Mike Bowers, a few weeks ago, spoke about how the little things that we faithfully do with our neighbors create a context in which deeper interaction can occur in the future. I think that thought is right in line with the story that Jesus told about the talents. As we all, little by little, faithfully bless and love our neighbors — even if just in simple ways at first — we are part of the bigger mission of God, where we are on the journey of inviting all people to enter into the kingdom of God. We just have to be faithful to do what we can do right now.

Gaining Knowledge & Insight, in Order to Love

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9-11)

It is no surprise to many that Jesus admonishes his followers to love God and love others (Matt. 22:36-40). Love is primary for follower of Jesus — it is by love that the world will know that we are of Christ (John 13:34-36). Love is so important that Jesus even emphasizes that it is the approach that we are to take with those who despise or mistreat us the most: our enemies (Matt. 5:44-46).

Love is clearly important for life as a follower of Jesus. But, what about those times when we are not so inclined to love? What about those times that we are not so inclined to love God? What about those times that we are not so inclined to love our brother or sister in Christ? What about those times that we are not so inclined to love our enemies?

Outside of Christ, the notion of loving is a highly subjective practice. When we feel warm and fuzzy around someone, we are inclined to love them. But, when the pricks of human relationships happen, we are not so inclined to love. Love in this subjective manner ends-up being dictated by our own limited perspective of life. We lack a broader perspective. We lack knowledge and insight greater than our own.

This is what Paul acknowledges in his prayer in Philippians 1:7-11. He realizes that if the Philippians seek to love out of their own limited perspective and experiences, then they will get muddled-down, and discouraged when they are called to love God or others, when either does not act according to their expectations. So, Paul prays for the love of the Philippians to be developed by knowledge and insight of Christ.

Now, gaining knowledge and insight of Christ does not mean that every person needs to attend Bible college, go to seminary, or aspire to a Ph.D. In theology. But, it does mean that every follower of Jesus should be aspiring to grow in their knowledge of Jesus, as long as they live life on this side of eternity.

Everyone comes to loving God and others out of some knowledge and insight. But, all of us are at different points on that continuum. Maybe you came to love God out of the knowledge that his son left the beauties of heaven to love the creation of his Father by coming to live on earth. Maybe you came to love your husband or wife out of the knowledge that they left their parents to create a new life with you.

Whatever the knowledge or insight you have about a person, at some point, there will always be something more we can learn about them. At this point, we can either choose to love out of the current knowledge that we have. But the downside is, our current knowledge or insight of the other person will run into some bumps, if the other person does something out of sync with our current knowledge of them.

Jesus’ disciples anticipated that he would deliver Israel through a king like David. But, when he acted differently by allowing himself to be crucified, and later resurrected — the disciples were confronted with having to increase their knowledge and insight about what God was doing. They had to gain knowledge that God was not just about delivering Israel from Rome, but delivering humanity from sin and death (Rom. 8:2). As they increased their knowledge and insight of God, their love for him is expanded as well.

Scholar Michael Reeves in his book, Delighting in the Trinity says,

Christianity is not primarily about lifestyle change; it is about knowing God…. [And] getting to know God better does actually make for far more profound and practical change as well. Knowing the love of God is the very thing that makes us loving. Sensing the desirability of God alters our preferences and inclinations, the things that drive our behavior: we begin to want God more than anything else.

When we learn more about God, it it not just an exercise in gaining knowledge. Rather, it is an exercise of opening ourselves to a broader reality than just our own. And, when we encounter the wonder and expansive beauty of God — that we see in the life of Jesus — our love and dedication to God grows; and when our love for God grows, so also grows our love for others (see Matt. 22:36-40).

I, like Paul, also pray that our love would abound more and more, as we gain knowledge and insight into the God that we worship and the master that we follow, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day that Christ returns, and so that we will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ Jesus.

Fully Receiving Christ’s Gift to Us

One Christmas, there was a relative that was not grateful for anything they were given. This individual had so much going for them. They had a caring family. They were well cared for. They had a good education. They were well fed. They were greatly blessed with many material possessions. This person had received so much. But, for a person who had received so much, they complained about the gift that they were given and said they didn’t want it. Now, one would expect a person to not be impacted by the generosity of someone giving a gift. Nor, would it be expected that a person’s life not be impacted by the the cost of the gift itself.

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Working a Pointless Job?

Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians 15 concludes with what has become in my life, one of the most paradigm shifting verses I have encountered in Scripture. Having just concluded an exposition on the concept of resurrection, in verse 58, Paul says, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

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What Would You Do?

Have you ever watched the show What Would You Do? The show where a controversial situation (like bullying, theft, or abusive parenting) is staged in a public place to see what everyday, average people would do — to see if they would not respond and just sit and watch? To see if they would respond? If they responded, how would they respond?

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Should It Already Look like Jesus Has Overcome the Troubles of the World?

Huh?! That may be your response to some of what you see and hear Jesus saying in the gospel accounts. So many of the things that Jesus says sound so strait forward and easy to understand. And, no more than half-way through a logical sentence, Jesus seems to say something illogical — seemingly counterintuitive to what he just said. One such example of this comes from John 16, where Jesus tells his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

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It Won’t Affect Me If I Skip Church… Will It?

On a Saturday night, while preparing for Sunday, how many of the following thoughts hit home for you? “I’ve had a long week, I need a morning to just sit at home and relax.” “My daughter has a soccer game this morning, and she can’t miss, or she might not get to play as much in the next game.” “We have guests tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll have to get the house ready for them tomorrow morning.” “I need to make a connection with this client, and the only time they seem to be able to meet is Sunday morning.” “My boss asked if can work tomorrow morning. I do need to pay for that vacation that is coming up, so I better take the time while they’ll give it to me.”

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Theology & Cookies

Who of us hasn’t had a hand in making cookies (of any kind)? We get all of the ingredients and utensils out of the cupboard. And, we start following the recipe we have on hand. Now, when we start, we have a pretty good understanding of the individual items that we handle. If it is chocolate chip cookies, it is clear-cut that four is flour, eggs are eggs, and sugar is sugar. By themselves, the items’s are easily distinguishable (black and white). But, once we start mixing all of the ingredients together, that black and white distinction fades. And, not only does it fade, but the resulting concoction of ingredients becomes messy.

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When We Want to Understand Something, Where Do We Look First? With Jesus?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1ff)

Leslie Newbigin (a late Brittish theologian, missionary, and author) reminds us that the nature of how Christians understand how to live and act in the world, finds its root in the incarnation of Jesus (God taking on flesh and bone).

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Ken Bone, Undecideds, and Learning God’s Ways

I have been listening to a certain podcast for the past month or so, (for those of you who don’t know what a podcast is, it is an internet only radio-style talk show). It is hosted by two minister friends who like to offer thoughts on theology and how theology intersects with culture. Recent episodes of their podcast have been post-debate analysis for the past couple of Presidential debates. On the most recent post-debate episode, the hosts were giving their opinion on how sad they were about the entire 2016 election, with all of it’s name calling, mud slinging, each candidate pulling skeletons out of each other’s pasts, and the sheer avoidance of any substantive discussion about actual issues. In all, the hosts’s perspective was that the population was not much different. In fact, they viewed the general voting population as just as pathetic.

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It’s My Right!?

We hear about this because of the current electoral season. And, in the day and age and society in which we live in the United States in 2016, it is near difficult in any capacity to not hear about an issue pertaining to the rights of someone — whether it is: parental rights, ethnic rights, gender rights, privacy rights, etc. It shouldn’t surprise us, that the concept of rights is a big deal to people living within the United States. After all, rights are a main topic in the inceptive documents of the United States: The Declaration of Independence (“…certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”), and the Bill of Rights has the term right in the title. In light of this, it is no secret that many people, including us, get consumed with preserving our rights.

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Loving our Enemies to Death

Who do we fear? And, how we do overcome those that we fear?

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever…. The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in humans. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes. All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. … Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. (Psalm 118: 1, 6-10, 29)

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The Impact of Sin… Generations Later?

I know, I’m jumping ahead in our reading through the Bible, but I will jump back to the Old Testament in a moment. In Matthew 2, we encounter this scene where Magi from the east come to Jerusalem to honor the king who had just been born (pointing to the birth of Jesus). King Herod, at the time, inquires of what the Magi know of this “new king.” He comes to find out that a child was to be born in Bethlehem, who would become king of the Jews. Herod, in his jealousy and insecurity and want to maintain power, decides right-away, to eliminate the threat of this newborn king. He does so by ordering the slaughter of every boy in Bethlehem, two years old and under.

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What Does God Have To Do With ___________?

This question can be asked from two opposite ends of the spectrum. On one side, it can be asked by those who believe, about how they should expect God to be involved in many areas of life. “What does God have to do with how people vote?” “What does God have to do with where I buy my groceries or home goods?” “What does God have to do with my job?”

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Meeting God in the Middle

What image of God do you hold in your mind? My guess is that we all have some sort of picture of God. For some, it might be the image of a desirable person, but someone in a position of power who towers over his subjects — a very other-worldly and distant image. Or for some, it might be the image of someone who is scowl-faced and seemingly ready to lash-out at the first sign of something not going as they want.

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God Has Not Forgotten

I’m sure you can recall it. You know. That moment in life, maybe it is happening right now, maybe it happened a month ago, maybe it happened years ago. That moment of real injustice in your life. That moment of angst, where life is not as it should be, and you know a little about who or what is causing it to be so, but you are powerless to do much to change the situation. Yes! That moment. I’m fairly certain we can all recall a time like this.

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Living Faithful Lives

A couple of years ago, the Christ in Youth MOVE high school conference week was based on Daniel and his friends, remnants of the people of Israel that were deported to live and work in Babylon. Daniel is a solid example of a faithful witness to the LORD God in the midst of a secular society that doesn’t give a rip about the LORD God or his ways. Daniel faithfully followed the ways of his faith, and in the process found himself in a den full of lions. But, God’s presence was with Daniel and he was not harmed by the lions, and his life was delivered. The result of this incident and the faithful witness of Daniel was an conversion of sorts by the Babylonian ruler, who recognized the one true LORD God.

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