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Category: Acts

Four mistakes that keep me from loving my neighbor

It’s no secret that I have felt out of place in the Portland metro area where I live. I’m a Montana boy in a big city, and after living here for 17 years, I still fight the culture shock—and the fact that despite my wish to live elsewhere, I seem to be right where God wants me.


I crave peace, quiet, and elbow room, all of which are virtually nonexistent in my densely packed neighborhood with its traffic-clogged streets. And the neighborhood is visibly deteriorating.

My inner turmoil reached critical mass recently as I walked my dogs. It’s a beautiful time of year, but I couldn’t enjoy the warm sun or budding flowers. I didn’t even notice them.

Instead, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of disgust. It wasn’t because anyone had wronged me. It was about aesthetics.

My whole neighborhood looks like a junkyard.

I live on a small flag lot, wedged in behind some other houses, and the neighbor in front of me recently parked a decrepit old 24-foot travel trailer with covered windows in his back yard. So this eyesore now fills my view from my front porch. I think he is renting it out. I hope he’s not doing something worse.

As I passed his trailer and walked down my driveway, I noticed the neighbor across the street has followed suit with his own travel trailer—only far bigger, grimier, and uglier than the first. Again, I hope he is just renting it out, but I suspect he is doing more.

Trailer2Another neighbor has started up an auto repair shop in his home garage. And business must be really good because both sides of the street are packed with broken-down vehicles in need of a mechanic. Since my street has no sidewalk, all of the parked cars leave no place to walk except in the street itself.

Finally, I witnessed a drug deal. Unfortunately, our neighborhood is dotted with drug houses (and maybe trailers). People park, run up to a porch, and exchange cash for packets of goods. Then they get back in their cars, drive around the corner, and light up their pipes. My other neighbors have reported seeing this activity too, but it is not easy to document all the evidence required to stop it.

The longer I walked, the angrier I became. I was angry at my neighborhood and everyone in it. I could see that the whole place is going to seed, and I just wanted to get home, shut the curtains, and pretend I live someplace else.

But for now God has me here.

True, I may have legitimate concerns about the people who live around me. I could call their landlords or other authorities and report evidence that they are subletting their trailers (which, on these rental properties, I suspect is illegal), starting an auto repair business in a private garage (which, in this residential zone, almost surely is), and making drug deals (which definitely is). And I don’t think it is wrong for Christians to support what is good in our neighborhoods, and push back against the bad.

But this time, I realized after my walk, perhaps I’m called to “love my neighbor” in a different way.

As my anger cooled toward my unneighborly neighbors, I began to identify with the disciples James and John. These two “sons of thunder”— offended by some similarly unneighborly Samaritans—asked: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54)  – as if they themselves actually had the power to do so. But in response to this grandiose and vengeful suggestion, the Bible says Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:55). We don’t know what he said, but I’m sure it was sharp. In their arrogance and pettiness, they completely missed Jesus’ whole message of love and grace.

Then I thought of Peter—who, when commanded in a vision from God himself to eat “unclean” animals lowered down in a sheet, boldly declared, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean (Acts 9:14).” To Peter’s haughty statement, God replied: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean (v. 15).” Similarly, God seemed to be showing me a vision, too, about how he sees people—not as clean or unclean, but as lost or found.

These scriptures are just another reminder that the big picture, the Story, is not about me and my concerns. It is about God and his.

So, with hat firmly in hand, I took some time to reflect on my response to my neighborhood, and four personal mistakes that keep me from loving my neighbor.

Mistake #1: I fail to remember that there’s no escaping the corporate effects of sin. Sin is collective; each person’s sin affects everyone else—maybe not immediately or directly, but corporately. All sin affects humanity as a whole, and no place on earth is untouched by the fallout. In a cleaner, wealthier community the specific sins might look slightly different, but they are still there. So even if I move to a different neighborhood, a different town, or a different country, I can never escape the “junkyard” created by sin. Our job is not deny or ignore the sin all around us (and inside us), but to join Jesus in healing it.

Mistake #2: I see my neighbors through a “me vs. them” lens. It’s easy for me to look down on my neighbors because what they are doing disgusts me and makes me uncomfortable. But the Lord never tolerates that attitude in his followers. He soundly corrected Peter, James and John for looking down on their neighbors—because his focus is loving one’s neighbor. In a “me vs. them” mentality, love for my neighbor is often the first thing to go.

Mistake #3: I don’t see my neighbors through God’s lens. The houses and apartments around me are filled with people whom God loves just as deeply as he loves me, and many of them are dealing with far greater challenges and far fewer opportunities than I. Am I more concerned about my own comfort than about the souls in those homes? In the entire scheme of things, the universe doesn’t revolve around me and what I judge to be disgusting. My neighbors and their problems are more important than my prim sense of aesthetics. Maybe I’m being called to remember that God seeks not to condemn all of these people, but to save them (John 3:17).

Mistake #4: I forget that even if I try to run away, the common denominator is me. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that I “have it all together.” But the truth is, in the same way that I have felt disgusted by my neighbors, they could just as easily feel disgusted by me—because like them, I am filled with brokenness and sin which often hurts others. So some of my disgust is caused by my own sinful attitudes and responses—not theirs—because wherever I go, all of that baggage goes with me.

Jesus loved my neighbors enough to die for them. They are neither good nor bad; they are just lost. Maybe one day I will live somewhere else. But if I can’t learn to reflect Jesus right here, right now, in this time and place, it’s a good bet I won’t be able to reflect him in any other.

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A fowl reminder of grace

rooster-crowing-2A rooster’s crow aroused me from sleep during a campout / speaking engagement last weekend. Normally that sound is pleasant to me, but this time I was annoyed. This rooster’s morning song apparently was on Eastern time or earlier, because here in the Pacific Northwest it wasn’t morning; it was only 1:30 a.m. Not only was the day not about to break, but I was pretty sure the sun was still hovering somewhere over Europe.

So for about half an hour, I lay listening to a time-challenged bird, desperately hoping to get some sleep before I had to speak in the morning. Then I caught the irony: my topic was the apostle Peter—who, after insisting he’d die for Jesus, in truth was so afraid to die that he denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed, just as Jesus had predicted he would (John 13:38).

Peter denied knowing Jesus to a servant girl.

Then again to someone else.

Then a third time.

Finally, in the night, as rooster crowed.

And Peter, knowing he was guilty, stood reprimanded by a dinner entree.

Whenever I hear a rooster crow, I always wonder how that sound made Peter feel after his three denials of Christ. Did it remind him of that shame? Did it make him feel condemned? Maybe even hopeless?

The stereotypic rooster image is that of a rooster perched atop a fence by an old barn, welcoming in the sun on the horizon, waking the world to the start of a new day. But like the rooster near my campsite last week, Peter’s may have been time-challenged because some texts imply it was still night when the rooster crowed (for example, in Luke 22:56, shortly after Jesus’ arrest, people were gathered around a fire to keep warm). That premature crow proclaimed the darkest hour of Peter’s night: the arrest and trial of his Savior, plus a triple failure in denying that very one.

Yet the rooster also brought clarity. During the previous three years, while Peter kept falling all over himself trying to prove what an awesome disciple he was, the only thing he proved was his ability to get in the way of God’s work. Now, the shrill cry of a rooster confirmed it: Peter was a screwup, a failure.

And for the remainder of that night, Peter could only stand alone in this condemnation. The Messiah was on trial and surely headed for execution. Now there was no one who could save Peter from himself.

But that crow, in the dead of night, also announced something Peter didn’t yet understand: a new day was coming. Like the sun, the Son (an old pun, but still true) would rise again!

And unlike Judas, Peter hung around for that event. The rising sun was not yet visible, but it was coming. And with it came the risen Son, full of forgiveness and grace, who met Peter on the lakeshore and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” And each time, Peter said, “Yes.”

Scripture says Peter was grieved (John 20:17) that Jesus kept asking the same question. But Jesus was giving Peter a do-over—three affirmations, one for each denial.

In fact, within just a few weeks, Peter the cowardly screwup was bravely proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to thousands. He even confronted the same religious group who had crucified Jesus by telling them, after a healing: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed” (Acts 4:10).

What changed in Peter? Nothing, really. Peter was still Peter, a sinful screwup badly in need of grace. The only difference between Peter the denier and Peter the proclaimer was Jesus’ resurrection and forgiveness—a new day, announced by the rooster in blackest night.

After that, I believe that whenever Peter heard a rooster crow, he was reminded of his failure, but in a context of grace.

Fast forward two millennia, to a happy camper in a tent near Rainer, Oregon. At first I was annoyed that the crow of a stupid bird had awakened me from a deep, much-needed sleep. Then I thought of Peter, hearing that same sound during the worst failure of his life—and then hearing it again later, after Jesus’ forgiveness. And the crowing sweetened to a tune filled with grace. The same grace which had poured over a screwup like Peter.

I drifted back to sleep with a new song of grace in my ears.

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Waiting (and waiting) for the thrill

roller_coaster_up_hill2I love rollercoasters. Love them.

I love them for the thrill, the rush, the speed. I love the anticipation, the clack-clack-clack as the cars crawl up that first monstrous hill. I love the loops and flips, the twists and turns, the drool swinging from my seatmate’s wide-open mouth and the bugs slamming into my own. I love the way I vow to eviscerate whoever talked me into this as we crest that first terrifying hill, and then laugh and clap as we roll to a stop at the end.

That’s what I love about rollercoasters.

But apparently, judging by the long lines, everyone else loves them too. And the line is always longest for the best rollercoaster in the place. It provides the longest wait, followed by the greatest thrill of all.

So I also hate rollercoasters. I hate them for the wait, the crawl of the line, the crowd pressed tightly together. I hate standing in the sun, shuffling like cattle through those narrow rails, feeling like I’m about to pass out from heatstroke. I hate waiting an hour for a ride that will last sixty seconds. I hate calculating that if admission to an amusement park costs X dollars and I’m there for just a couple of hours, then I’m wasting half of my money to stand in line for an hour, sweating and scowling, when I could be enjoying something else.

That’s what I hate about rollercoasters.

Practicing patience is a lot like riding rollercoasters: both involve exceptionally long waits, followed by moments of exciting reward. As I wait for my book release, I am trudging painfully slowly toward what I know will be an absolute thrill. However, last month when the release was delayed, my wait got a bit longer. The delay was no one’s fault, and I’m told it’s fairly common in publishing. So I waited.

Now comes word of another delay—shorter than the first. My publisher gives me a choice: we can rush through the final proofing, or take another week or two for quality assurance. Of course, the sniveling twelve-year-old in me, screaming for instant gratification, wants to demand a release now. But the adult in me knows it is wiser to wait, to make sure it is done right, to allow my wonderful publisher to give it their all. So I choose the latter, trying to beat down the spoiled brat inside of me.

And while my wait grows, I must grow with it.

As with the best rollercoasters, the longer the wait, the greater the anticipation and the better the thrill. Soon, I will be on that rollercoaster, screaming and giggling like a little girl. Good things will happen—in time.

After the resurrection, Jesus’ final word to his followers was to wait: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:1).

Stay and wait. Something big is coming. Don’t try to force God’s hand. A gift has been promised, and it’s going to be awesome: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2).

Great! But when, and can’t it come sooner?

No. Stay in Jerusalem and wait.

How long? Who knows?

Ever notice that when we try to coax timelines out of God, he tends to keep things vague? “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set” (Acts 1:7).

I have noticed that there is a lot of waiting in the Bible. A lot. But I have also noticed that waiting on God always brings something awesome. In the case of the first Christ-followers, it brought tongues of fire and one of the coolest evangelistic crusades ever (Acts 2:1ff). They had to wait just forty days – which, come to think of it, is the total number of days my book release has been delayed! (Coincidence? Sure…totally.)

So now I stand in line, shuffling along inch by inch. But until the ride comes, how can I pass the time? Well, to continue with the rollercoaster metaphor, I am squished in among other people who are also waiting through their time on earth, with their own hopes and dreams. I might as well make the most of it: build relationships with those around me, try to be Jesus to other cranky people, and perhaps help someone else who actually does pass out in line. While I wait, there is stuff to do – stuff far more important than a book release.

Eventually, I will board that coaster, feel the bar slam down across my lap, and prepare for what could be a very wild ride.

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