This One Thing Can Change the World

In their book The Art of Neighboring, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon tell of a time when Denver area ministers met with their mayor and asked him, “How can we as churches best work together to serve our city?”

They asked the question because they wanted to help make their city a better place to live for everyone. They mayor surprised them with his answer. “The majority of issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.”

The mayor left and the pastors were left feeling a bit embarrassed. They realized that the mayor had just preached a sermon to them that was lifted from the words of Jesus himself. Jesus had said the greatest commandment was to love God. He had then added that the second was like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s an understatement: I think Jesus was onto something. (I actually believe he was the smartest person to ever walk this earth.) This one thing can change our world. Here are some examples from Jay and Dave:

  • Did you know that people who have close bonds with their neighbors live longer? Feel like sticking around this earth an extra few years? Get to know your neighbor.
  • Did you know that in areas where people know the names of their neighbors the crime rate is 60% lower? Want to feel safer? Get to know your neighbor.
  • Did you know that when natural disasters strike, your neighbors are your first responders? Those of us who live in the Houston area have experienced this recently.

Jesus told a story of what it meant to “love your neighbor as yourself.” A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, got robbed, beaten and left half dead. Two religious men came by and walked on by. A Samaritan stopped to help. This was the pivotal point of the story. Samaritans and Jews did not get along. Lots of baggage in their history. But he helps. He bandaged the beaten man, put him on his animal, and took him to an inn (a first century version of a hospital). He even left his credit card to take care of any further needs. The Samaritan proved to be a neighbor to this man.

Jesus’ teaching was for us to go and do the same. We can be a neighbor to anyone in need. But we can also be a neighbor to our neighbors. Literally. So try this exercise. Write down the names of the people in the eight houses that are closest to you.

Can you? If not, you’re not alone. The authors have conducted this experiment a number of times and have arrived at these results: About 10% can fill out the names of all eight of their neighbors. About 3% can name some relevant information about those neighbors. And less than 1% know any in-depth information about their neighbors.

How can this change? The first, simple step is very profound so you might want to get ready for this: get to know their names. Knowing a person’s name is a big deal. And knowing a person’s name leads to getting to know them better.

A second step is to understand that God may have placed you right where you are because you have a neighbor wanting to find him. The Apostle Paul was teaching in Athens and was telling the crowd about the one true God. He said that God had “determined the exact places where people would live so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him.”

Did God pick out your house or did you? It’s an interesting thought. Regardless of how you answer that question, you have been placed in your neighborhood for a very specific reason. You are there so that when someone reaches out for God there is a handle they can grab onto.

What would it look like if everyone reading this column were to learn the names of eight neighbors? This one thing could change the world.

Question: What can you do this week to get to know one of your neighbors?

How Tasks Can Transform Your Life

My first real job was at a movie theater. Not bad for a teenager who loves movies. I had worked a couple of other smaller jobs but this was the first one I deemed “real.” It was a one screen movie theater, one of the last of its kind in San Angelo, Texas.

Back in my teenage years things were harder for those of us working a concession stand at a movie theater than for those working a movie theater today. For starters, we did not have cash registers with pictures of the items on them. Now you can just look at the picture of popcorn and coke, hit the buttons, and the machine will tell you how much the person should pay you. And in the off chance that someone still hands the cashier cash today the machine will also take care of the calculations and tell you exactly how much the customer should get in return.

Not in my day. We had to know what each item cost, input the number ourselves, quickly figure tax in our head and add that, take their money and figure out how much they should get in return. It was a rough way to make minimum wage. Did I say how much tougher we had it back in the day?

You’d think that before my first day of work there would have been a training class. But guess what the manager did? He handed me a uniform and said, “Get to work.” So I did. My first shift was a Friday night. It was twenty minutes of chaos at the concession stand until the movie began and the customer line dwindled.

There’s no telling how many mistakes I made. When the movie ended everyone filed out and we closed up shop. The manager found me and asked, “How did it go for you?” I said, “You tell me. I felt like I was hanging on for dear life!”

He said, “You did OK. Got any questions?” I did. I asked him why he didn’t start with the questions and some training. He said, “You wouldn’t have known what to ask. This way, you get a feel for what you need to know so I can help you learn.”

I don’t know where my boss learned his training approach but he may as well have learned it from Jesus. The first thing Jesus does to make disciples is get them involved in the task of ministry.

The first thing we tend to do to make disciples is we encourage people to attend a Bible study, give them a book to read, or maybe even a workbook so they can read a passage of scripture and fill in some blanks and gain some information.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what Jesus did. And that may be exactly why many people do not see transformation in their lives. It may be why many don’t wake up every day wanting to learn from Jesus as if their lives depended on it.

Information from scripture is important. But information alone does not necessarily lead to transformation. Jesus is interested in transformation. He nicknames Simon “Peter” which means “rock.” This is the Peter who argued with Jesus. The Peter who denied Jesus. But it’s also the Peter who eventually leads the early church and gives his life by being crucified upside down on a cross because of his faith in Jesus.

How did that transformation happen? Jesus puts his disciples in ministry situations and ministry creates a desire to learn from Jesus. Imagine this: those first disciples’ first experience was watching Jesus cast out an unclean spirit that was screaming at them and tearing a man apart. Think they might have had some questions after that? Think they may have moved a little closer to Jesus when they saw his authority and power?

They certainly did. And you will too. If your understanding of learning from Jesus is merely taking notes or filling in workbooks but you haven’t seen much transformation in your life, maybe it’s time to start where Jesus did. Find a ministry. Team up with others. Be a part of the story of Jesus. It’s an adventure.

And here’s a spoiler for you: the ending has to do with the transformation of your life.

Question: Name a time when being active in ministry moved you to learn from Jesus.

What to Do in the Aftermath of a Storm

Harvey has been a storm of all storms. We sheltered in our homes waiting it out. Some used boats to get down streets designed for cars. Others listened to anxious people needing comfort. My hunch is everyone has prayed.

I did. At first I prayed for our house. Last year, in the Tax Day Flood, we had a few inches of water make our lives miserable for a few weeks. A few inches were nothing compared to what others have experienced then and now. But I prayed. And I prayed for people in Houston. For the devastation. For the months ahead as people rebuild their lives again.

What do you do in a storm? While you’re thinking about how you deal with a storm, consider a storm recorded in Matthew 14. The disciples were sent by Jesus onto the Sea of Galilee. A storm came up and they found themselves “some distance from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them.” They found themselves in “the middle of the sea.”

Maybe that’s where you find yourself today. Not in the middle of the storm. For now, this one has passed. But in the middle of the aftermath of the storm what do you do?

  • In the middle of questions. “Why did this happen again?”
  • In the middle of guilt. “Some lost everything. I only lost some sleep.”
  • In the middle of financial worries. “I’ve lost work. I get paid by the hour. Rent is due.”
  • In the middle of helplessness. “There’s so much that needs to be done. What can I do?”

You’ve felt the winds. You feel far away from answers and fighting hard questions. We encounter hurricanes even when it’s not hurricane season. They’re even stronger when a real one hits.

That’s where the disciples were. They’ve been in the storm eight to nine hours before Jesus came somewhere between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. It’s pitch black other than lightning strikes. They’re fighting heavy winds and a wall of water. They’ve been in the storm for 8-9 hours before Jesus comes. It’s long enough for them to get weary. Discouraged. And it would be a safe bet to say someone asked, “Where is Jesus?”

From the middle of the storm in the middle of the sea came an answer. They heard the voice but couldn’t see him clearly. They thought he was a ghost. But what they heard was what they needed. “Courage! I am. Fear not.”

That translation may sound strange, but it is literal. We need to hear it this way. “I am.” Because when you do you remember “I am” at the burning bush. Moses asked for God’s name and he gave it. “I am.” Present tense. God is a present tense God. He is not different than he was yesterday. He will not be different tomorrow. He is active in the present. And that means when you are in a storm, that is where he is. He may be hard to see but he walks into the storms of our lives—whatever hurricane you may be facing—and says, “I am.” He says that right in the middle of the storm.

That’s the first thing you can do now as you live in the aftermath of the storm. Listen for the “I am.” It was only after Peter heard the words “I am” that he was able to take a step out onto the water. You next step will be taken when you take your eyes off the storm and put them on Jesus too. As you do that you take care of yourself. You need to take care of yourself by practicing silence and solitude. Get some rest.

Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. The best thing you can do for others who were impacted by the storm is to listen. We love best when we listen most. Some people will just need to talk. They may just need you to sit with them silently.

Listen to others and then learn what the real needs are. As the weeks go by the needs will change. Winter coats are not needed…maybe not ever…in Houston. But gift cards, dehumidifiers, fans may be. Physical help will be needed for a long time. Take time to learn before you act and your actions will have more impact.

Hurricanes can teach us much. They teach us we will be better off not holding onto stuff too tightly but holding onto each other instead. And when what you are seeing all around you makes you fearful, look to Jesus instead. He is the “I am.”