How to Love Your Neighbors (yes, the ones next door)


A few weeks ago, my husband and I attended a Sunday school class on outreach called “And Who Is My Neighbor?”

I’ll be honest. It was one of those I-want-to-go-but-I’m-scared-of-what-he’ll-say situations. I know of young families who are ministering to the homeless downtown, and packing everyone up to visit the Compassion child in the Dominican, and snapping in car seats for weekly treks to the nursing home.

We are not one of those families.

In this season of my life, I often feel (right or wrong) that my main job is to feed the babies, to keep everyone alive, ensure everyone has clean underwear, and somehow have enough food in the house for three square meals (and snacks. Oh, the snacks!).

I do feel guilty about this apparent selfishness. The needy, and lonely, and homeless folks aren’t going away. And it’s my job (right? everyone’s job?) to help. But it’s a just fact that “organized outreach” is not happening right now in this season of raising little ones.

So, back to the Sunday school class.

I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved – loads and loads of relief) when the teacher identified our “neighbors” as… wait for it…our neighbors. The people actually next door, and across the street, and at the pool.

I don’t mean I felt relief because loving your neighbors is easy. In some ways it can be harder: it can be messier, feel more awkward, and it surely doesn’t end when you hop on a flight back home. It never ends, as long as you live there!

But if you’re a mom of littles, like me, who spends a considerable amount of time in the same square two-yards of shade under the big oak tree in the yard, and it feels like you’re always home, ministry to the neighbors sounds almost…possible.

Because we are home. A lot.

We see whose husband works late. We know which kids are lonely and parent-less. We notice whose trash can has been out for a few days. We have all sorts of good excuses to interact with and get to know our neighbors – lost kittens, and broken garage-doors, and please-do-you-have-an-extra-egg (along with other pressing mom-questions).

In short, we have an ideal opportunity for ministry.

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take your family to a local shelter or Peruvian orphanage. If you are doing that, I applaud you.

But what I am saying is this: if you are like me, and feel stretched in the season of home-bound baby-raising, homeschooling, or child rearing, there is still ministry for you. And it is important ministry.

Neighbor ministry.

Instead of feeling guilty about the organizations you had to quit or the trips you can’t go on, sit down with a cup of coffee on the front porch, and look around.

The fields are ripe for the harvest.

As I’ve embraced our calling to love our neighbors as a real calling, here are a few things I’ve learned.

  • The first step is always the same boring, awkward step. You have to introduce yourself. Totally obvious, but there’s no sense in wondering what spiritual needs are unmet, if you don’t even know someone’s name. The first step is always – go be friendly, and ask their name.

If you’re like me, there are neighbors right now whom you don’t know. Don’t even know their names! Make that a priority. The next time you’re out, and you see them, just saunter over (shirt with spit-up and all) and say something like: “Look, this is so awkward. I’ve lived here for __ years and I’m just now asking your name! But I’m Jessica, and it’s so nice to meet you! These are my kids…”

  • Be there and smile. That’s all? I know, I know. It sounds so ridiculously, insanely simple. But I promise you – just by being outdoors on a sunny day, by being accessible, by being visible, and throwing a smile in someone’s direction…they will come. Kids first. It’s amazing how kids gravitate to a home with a parent present. And eventually the grown-ups, too. You can’t love your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor. And you can’t know your neighbor if you’re not home. Being out, and being friendly is an important step!
  • Talk if they want to talk. Maybe this is my North Carolina culture speaking. But there are just some cardinal rules of life I think everyone should abide by. You should always clear your plate, and you should always chat if someone wants to chat. Let it go if that outfit you’re wearing is still, actually, your pajamas. Let it go if you were actually about to run an errand. Let it go if it’s not the greatest time. Just be friendly and chat.
  • Ask them for help. Counter-intuitive, right? We think we need to do the helping if we want to minister to someone. But it’s a crazy fact of human nature: people want to be needed. They feel special, important, and invited when they’re needed. Borrow some sugar. Ask them how their grass is so green. Invite them into your family’s life and needs.
  • Be humble. Don’t assume you know where they stand with their faith. Maybe they don’t go to church…because they looked for years and couldn’t find one. Maybe they don’t talk about God…because they’re very private people. You never know people’s hearts. I’ve often made the arrogant mistake of jumping to conclusions about someone, only to find that I really didn’t know the whole story at all. Don’t waste time formulating assumptions; just befriend them, and see where the Lord takes the relationship.

Real impact is made through real relationships. And real relationships don’t happen when one party is secretly thinking they’re better than the other!

  • Pray for your neighbors. This is one thing I love about my mission-minded husband. Whenever we pray, he remembers to pray for our neighbors. I need to be better about that. We can pray over the things we do know about them, pray that the Lord would bless them, bless their families, and make Himself known to them.
  • Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom, and then act when you feel Him leading. Who knows what He’ll have you do? This spring my son and I made muffins and shared some with the neighbors, and at the last minute I thought, maybe we should put an Easter Bible verse with them? It felt a little weird, but we did it. I think the Lord honors our prayers for wisdom – we just have to listen for his answer.
  • Be ready to sacrifice.  Eventually, all ministry is going to ask you to give something you don’t want to give. It will be uncomfortable. It will hit you where it hurts. For me, it often means releasing my grip on control when parenting one of my children can be really terrifying. Or it might mean sharing your resources…when it’s been a really tough financial time. It might mean watching a child…when you’re so exhausted you can’t think. It might mean opening your home up…when you were hoping for an evening of “family time.” What helps me is to remember all that Jesus gave up for us. And now, He asks us to lay down our lives for our friends.
  • Don’t be ashamed of the truth. I’m sometimes afraid to invite someone to church, or share a Bible verse, or ask them if I can pray for them – because I don’t want to be offensive, and I don’t know if it’s “the right time.”  I don’t know that there is a one-size-fits-all answer for this question, but I do know this: God’s word brings light to darkness, and hope to despair. He is the healer, and we are his hands and feet. May we be as bold as we need to be, kind as we can be, and home when we can be.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you love your real-life, next-door neighbors?


“Smartter” Each Day

6 Tips For A Simple and Stress-Free Summer With Your Kids

6 Tips For A Simple and Stress-Free Summer With Your Kids

We are halfway through summer, and maybe you are having the time of your life with your kids…and maybe you’re not. Perhaps you are feeling stir crazy, envious of those who are traveling to exotic places, or wishing your kids were involved in camps and activities that keep them busy. Perhaps you are not as fun as you thought yourself to be, and you’re summer is feeling more stressful than enjoyable. Here are 6 simple things to keep in mind that make a difference at our house…perhaps they will de-stress your summer too!

1. Make a basic schedule. Include reading time, quiet time, game time, etc. Having blocks of time for different activities helps everyone feel more content and involved in the present, without constantly questioning what is next. Check out this amazing list of summertime activities and resources. Also, don’t overlook the importance of free time “doing nothing“…they are more productive than you might think!

2. Kids Can Cook! We love to plan snack menus, what kid will make them, and what time to expect snack breaks. This, again, keeps the littles from asking constantly about food out of boredom. And, it’s fun to take turns making and creating snacks for the family!

3. Read alone, but read together. Quiet reading time is a must, but sometimes, the dynamic of children pairing up to read is a sweet time of bonding and experiencing literature together.

4. Get out of the house once a day. Even if it’s just a walk to the park, make the effort to head out with the kids. Relay races at the park? Water balloons in the yard? Delivering cookies to neighbors? Get creative and get out, even when there’s “nothing to do.”

Plan special dates. Make the library, the pool, Sonic happy hour, and other fun outings a privilege, and not an expectation. We love to plan for treats at the end of the week so that we have something to look forward to when all the other daily routine and home tasks are completed.

5. Learn something new. Why not try to learn a new skill with your children this summer? Why not buy some inexpensive watercolors and learn to paint? Check out Rosetta Stone or other kinds of language acquisition audio and video discs at the library and learn a language! Perhaps you and the kids can create a quilt together? How about leatherwork? beading? whittling? We, moms, tend to think that we must naturally be artistic or crafty to lead our kids in any of these activities, but really, there are so many resources available that all you need is really, desire.

6. Smile and have fun. I wrote recently about, how on vacation, my children looked for my smile more than they looked to the next thing on the itinerary. I’ve been humbled and continually surprised to find that my kids don’t actually care what it is that we do this summer, as long as we all (including MOM) are all having fun doing it together.

And as a bonus:

Learn to love family meetings. Let’s be honest, one of the most stressful aspects of summertime at home with the kids can be the constant fun-turned-arguing that happens every moment of the day with littles. A family is a group of sinful people, young and old, so naturally…being together all day every day without pressing schoolwork means more opportunities for discord and fighting. It’s always so discouraging when I find myself frustrated and NOT enjoying my time with the kids.

Meet together, confess sin, forgive…keep short accounts. Talk together, pray together, spend time on the couch peacemaking. This is also the stuff of summer.

And yet, rather than wasting summer hours avoiding one another, or busying ourselves so much that there is no room for conflict, perhaps we would do well to consider those long hours an opportunity rather than an obligation. The expression “long days short years” applies here…these long days of summer are quickly fleeting. We have fewer opportunities like these with our kids than we realize.

I pray these simple ideas will breathe some new life into the remainder of your summer break, and may we find ourselves enjoying the simple, free, and stress-free pleasures of spending time with our children!

Because of grace,


6 Summer Projects for Your Tweens & Teens

Are you a mom who dreads the summer months with your teens, fearing the unscheduled time and worrying about them being on their screens too much? Do you feel anxious about the rhythm of packing and unpacking for camp drop-offs and pick-ups in between family vacations?

Imagine being the type of mom who looks at the calendar and sees a blank canvas ready for doing life together, especially with your tweens and teens.

That’s what I’ve asked the Lord to do in me this summer, recognizing that I only have a few years left with my tween and teen at home. I’m so keenly aware that now is the time to make life-time memories, while also seizing the moment to train them up with the skills I’d like to see them take into their future.

Summer Projects for Tweens & TeensSo rather than letting a summer pass without purpose, I’ve come up with six summer projects that I can do with my tween and teen that will enable us to connect while expanding their skill set.

1.  Paint a Room {or Something}

Learning how to paint a room or a piece a furniture is a skill worth having, so look around your home — or maybe a grandparent’s place — for a small space that can be painted in a day with a gallon of paint. This is a low budget project that offers a great reward!  Work with your teen, teaching them how to pick out the paint and supplies as well as prep the space:  clearing out the room, getting the walls ready (Spackle, sand, etc), taping edges, cleaning the floor before painting, etc. And then do the job with them, showing them how to roll, cut in, etc. If painting isn’t a skill you have, watch some tutorials on YouTube and do the research together before you start.

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2.  Prepare the Food

How about having your tween or teen plan the family’s menu for a week, or for an upcoming trip, and prepare all the food? Offer them a budget as well as assistance in the shopping and food prep time. Use the process to teach about how to select produce and meat, what unit price really means, shelf life for food, how to determine quantity, measurements, etc. Depending on your son or daughter’s maturity, let them handle as many of the responsibilities as possible. You could even toss in an incentive for an older teen, such as “Here’s the amount we spend on food per week.  If you can fix our meals for less than that amount, without us eating bread and water all week, you can keep what you save.”

3.  Purge Something

I’m guessing that you have a closet, storage room, garage, or cabinets that need some purging and reorganizing. Maybe even your tween or teen has a personal area that needs some TLC — like their dressers, bedroom, or old toy room. Let them pick one space to totally purge and reorganize. Be involved in the process in the beginning, but also give them space to figure it out on their own. You can keep it simple and have them focus on “keep, give, toss” for the space. If there is enough to give away, considering letting them organize a Yard Sale and keep the proceeds for themselves.  Or, if your budget allows, you can let them redesign the area, including painting and creating organizational systems.

4.  Put on a Party or a Small Gathering

Since everyone doesn’t have the gift of hospitality, learning how to put on a party or small gathering is another skill worth developing. Consider hosting a party for a birthday, anniversary, or a milestone celebration, or put on a small “themed” gathering for your tween or teen’s friends or your own friends. Have your son or daugther organize the details, including the invitations, menu, decor, party schedule, and setting up the house as well as clean up. Offer a budget as well as working with them through each step. If you do not have the gift of hospitality, don’t fret. Here’s some help just for you, and ideas for a simple tween party here and here.

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5.  Pick a Project

Is there a project your teen would like to work on, but needs your approval, input, and budget help? Maybe it’s learning a new instrument or developing a new skill, like how to paint with watercolors or write an app for a smart phone. Take your tween or teen out for ice cream and ask them, “What is one thing you’d like to learn how to do this summer?” Help them brainstorm and offer your support in the process, making a timeline and setting attainable goals.

6.  Plan for the Future

This one is definitely the most serious of projects, but worth the investment of time. Have your tween or teen begin the process of preparing for their future — specifically their college years — by creating for themselves a College Bound Checklist & Portfolio (CBC&P).  They can do this either in a binder or notebook, or online using Google Docs, which they can share with you. Their CBC&P can be divided into sections based by grade-level, with a “to do” list for each year. We’re using the Countdown to College: 21 To Do List for High School as our guide. Your teen can also include in their CBC&P a list of college scholarship opportunities (something that can be researched throughout the summer), college picks, and a record of their volunteering, work experiences, and awards throughout high school.

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What summer projects are you doing with your tween or teen?

How are you using side-by-side experiences to connect with your teens while they are still at home and train up skills they’ll need in their future?

Shine Bright,

Elisa &


For more ideas on how to connect with your tween or teen, especially a daughter, visit


Cooking Fun for Kids {perfect pizza at home}

Recently I was asked to take a look at a few classes from an amazing website called Craftsy. I am excited to share those classes with you here over the next year. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I heard of Craftsy. I didn’t expect to find such an extraordinary resource. But it is really an invaluable wealth of information.

Click here to take this class with Craftsy for FREE!

Cooking Fun with Kids - Perfect Pizza at Home

There is one food that seems to be loved by everyone. Pizza. I love pizza and so do my kids. But not all pizza is created equal. Once you have tasted pizza from an Italian brick oven, or spent the time to make your own pizza at home, you will never go back to “fast food pizza”.  So I decided it was time to teach my daughter how to make the perfect pizza. She was so excited and we had so much fun! First, Bella (my ten-year-old daughter) and I spent time watching the class, learning how to make the perfect pizza and then we got to work in the kitchen! One of my favorite parts of the class was learning how to make the dough. In fact the instructor, Peter Reinhart, suggests that the most important part of the pizza is the crust! I couldn’t agree more! Mr. Reinhart shared a few of his favorite crust recipes and then demonstrated exactly how to make the perfect crust (not based on the recipe but based on the technique). That was actually my favorite part of the class. I loved learning some of the secrets to making the perfect dough ball (like using olive oil intermittently in the process) and then turning that into a beautiful crust. The instructor then went on to teach how to make the sauce and put the perfect toppings on. He even included instruction on how to make a delicious Focaccia Bread!

Besides the actual instruction, the biggest take away from this class for me personally was realizing how fun it is to include my children in on cooking classes. It was a great learning experience for both Bella and me, full of information that we will use for years to come. As I am learning ,my children can learn too….and we can have a great activity to enjoy together! Below is a picture of our finished product!

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Craftsy’s, Perfect Pizza at Home class was so good!  This class was so professionally done and easy to understand!

One of the best things about taking the class online, besides the valuable information, was the ability to start the class and pause the class whenever I needed to. When the kids were in bed, or when I had a few minutes during the day to spare, I would sit down and watch a bit of the course in the comfort of my own home. It was so convenient! Craftsy is the perfect solution for us busy moms who want to learn, but don’t have time to leave the house and attend a class.

Here is a little more info about Craftsy:

Craftsy offers online crafting classes, taught by world renowned instructors who love the craft as much as you do. Craftsy classes are online, so they are available to you anytime you want for as long as you want, there are no scheduled class times, so you can enjoy them entirely on your own schedule. Each class is taught by an acclaimed instructor and consists of several hours of HD-quality video content… but Craftsy classes are much more than just a video!

While taking a Craftsy class, you can:

Ask your instructor questions, upload photos, and get personalized responses

Participate in discussions with your classmates

Access supporting class materials – including recipes and helpful tips & tricks

Bookmark your favorite moments in the video so that you can easily re-watch them and take notes that you can refer back to anytime

The great thing about Craftsy is that there is a class for everyone! You can learn knitting, photography, cake decorating, sewing, cooking and more!

Today you can take Craftsy’s Perfect Pizza at Home class for FREE! I encourage you to include your older child/children in on this activity. It will definitely be valuable instruction that they will surely use time and time again.

If you are ready to check out Craftsy you can click here to take Perfect Pizza at Home for FREE!!


Ruth Schwenk

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Craftsy. The opinions and text are all mine.

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