Thoughts on Dandelions, Children Stuck in Trees, and My Neighbors.

April 18, 2016

My neighborhood as seen from my front porch.
It is finally spring in Minnesota, and the neighbors on three sides of me have been busy edging, cutting, and spraying their grass. When I drive by their homes, I see the beginnings of lush carpets of green covering their lots. Their lawns look almost fake, they are so beautiful. Their children are grown, and they have the luxury of hunting down every stray clover, every last crabgrass and waging war against any green thing without the word "fescue" in its name.

My lawn, on the other hand, is what I would call "bio-diverse," and I sometimes wonder if we have more weeds than actual grass. With young children and busy jobs, my husband and I these past eight years have barely had the time and energy to run a mower around the yard on a weekly basis, much less primp and pamper our lawn.
My kids leave chalk out on the sidewalk. And sandals. And toys. We are in a neighborhood filled primarily with grandparents and empty-nesters, so my loud family is definitely the noisest on the block. There are evenings when our laughter and shrieks and chaos seem to echo around the cul-de-sac as we zoom up and down the sidewalks on bikes, tear around the yard in games of tag, and the kids shout for help after getting stuck in their favorite tree. And I think, "Oh dear, what must the neighbors be thinking?"

Despite all the "flavor" we add to the neighborhood, we've made it a point to open our house and our backyard to our neighbors. Late last summer, Aaron and I started scheduling periodic neighborhood bonfires. Neighbors swung in and out, depending upon life and work schedules, but everyone loved the opportunity to sit down on a breezy summer night, relax with a favorite beverage and simply catch up. It was so successful that we'll be starting these periodic neighborhood evenings in the backyard again this spring.

Why do set aside time in our busy lives to bonfire with our neighbors? Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending the Missio conference in Denver with several members of my church.  While there, we were asked to write down the names of the neighbors in the eight houses immediately surrounding our own house. Out of a conference room filled with pastors and church leaders, no one could name all eight of their closest neighbors. Because I'm married to an extrovert, I was one of the few who knew six of my eight closest neighbors. I was feeling slightly smug about that fact until I was asked to write down one interesting fact about those people...and then I was asked to identify one hope or dream in each house. I had nothing. Nothing. FAIL.

Dave Runyon, co-author of The Art of Neighboring, presented compelling statistics about the direct correlation between neighbors and neighborhoods that were actively engaged in the lives of one another and a substantial decrease in crime, a decrease in various forms of public assistance and the ability for elderly individuals to stay in their homes. He spoke of city officials across the country repeatedly telling church leaders that helping at the homeless shelter and the soup kitchen is great, but that what their city really needed, the one thing that would make the biggest difference, was for Christians to be good neighbors.

Umm, you mean when Jesus said to "love your neighbor," he might have meant that we should reach out to the actual people living literally next door?   
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)
Yep. Apparently, Jesus knew what he was talking about when he told us to love our neighbors across the street, across the alley and next door... even the ones with the barking dog, the obnoxiously loud children, the dandelions for a lawn. It's relatively easy to love our figurative neighbors -- to financially support a missionary, to pray for world issues like hunger, to become active in a cause like sex trafficking (and those are all good, good things) -- but perhaps it is a little more difficult to love those imperfect, sometimes annoying fellow human beings in the houses around us. After all, anytime we get involved with tangible, real people (regardless of who they are or where they live), we risk being asked to walk with them through hard, hard things: illness, divorce, job loss, death, mental illness, addiction, abuse. And yet, isn't that what we Christians are called to do? To step boldly into hurt and pain and the muck of humanity and to walk along with others in the midst of the suffering?      
Dave's suggestion? Smile, walk across the street, and introduce yourself. Throw a party. Lots of parties. All summer long. Invite your neighbors into your backyard, into your house, into your life. Turn strangers into acquaintances into relationships. If you are looking for more resources on this crazy, "radical" idea, here is the link.

And if you happen to drive through my neighborhood this summer, I'll be in the house with dandelions for a lawn, kids toys strewn along the sidewalk, and a big party going on in the backyard. Feel free to join us.

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