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.
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?