Scrooge-Proof Your Christmas

He had just finished speaking to the members of the Manchester Athenaeum. He had witnessed the harsh conditions of the manufacturing workers in their city. They were experiencing a 15-20% unemployment rate. He had visited schools where children were illiterate, filthy and dressed in rags. 57% of children born to working class children in Manchester died before they reached the age of five.

So he wanted to do something for the cause of the poor. And he thought the time of the year to do it would be Christmas, which at the time was a minor holiday and not what we know today.  And so, after his speech to the library members in which they envisioned a place where anyone could come and learn and better their lives, he walked the dark city streets with his mind formulating what would become his most famous work of fiction.

In 1843 Charles Dickens wanted to revive his writing career and at the same time revive the spirit of Christmas.  The book and movie of the same title—The Man Who Invented Christmas—tells the story behind the story of A Christmas Carol. Dickens observed people living in dark times. He had lived them as a child. And he wanted to birth a story that would bring light to those dark places.

Your world might need some light today. And your Christmas might need a facelift as well. Dickens’ world had become dark because people cared little for others. People were like Ebenezer Scrooge who had made his money but cared little if anything for anyone else.

The Christmas season can surface some Scrooge in all of us. Snarled traffic can snarl our lips. Shaky economy can make us horde what we have. We “want” more than “give.” Before we know it we can be a bit like Scrooge. He was a miser. And that’s only one letter away from misery. How can we keep the holiday season with its crowded malls and decked out halls from making us miserable?

The answer lies in another story, the story behind the story of Christmas. The God who invented Christmas wanted to send light into a dark world too. His plot was to revive the world with Christmas.

Herod is the Scrooge of the story. No room for anyone else in his life, much less another king. The wise men stand in contrast to Herod, like Bob Cratchit did with Scrooge. They were looking for Jesus and came, not wanting anything, but bringing gifts. Most of all they brought him their worship.

With whom do you better relate in the holiday season? Scrooge or Bob Cratchit? Herod or the Wise Men? Which heart is most like yours? Difficult times can make us more like Herod. We hold tight to what we have because we fear we won’t have enough. And it’s been a difficult year. Harvey hit us hard. Some have lost work. Some lost jobs. It would be easy to withdraw into a hard outer shell to keep the harsh world at bay.

But let’s not. The season of Advent is a season for preparing for Christ. It is a perfect time to practice generosity instead of miser-osity. Generosity is not something we fall to naturally. Did you know the average American gives 2.1% of the wages to some form of charity? Generosity has to be cultivated. Here are some ideas of how you can generate generosity in your home:

  • You can be generous to someone in a foreign country. The Wise Men did. They helped Joseph, Mary and Jesus with gifts that enabled them to live while in Egypt. Organizations like World Vision and Compassion International can show you ways to help others in other lands.
  • You can be generous to someone nearby. Give to a nonprofit, volunteer at a shelter, give to a center that provides emergency help, or adopt a family in need for Christmas.
  • You can give to the church. Churches help people in need. And the amount of help is determined by what we give. In most churches, about 20% of the people give 80% of the contributions given. What if that changed beginning this season?

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the all-time great characters in literature. But let’s keep him on the pages of a book. Let’s let the God who invented Christmas write us into his script of bringing light into our dark world.

Question: How do you plan to cultivate generosity this Christmas?


Where to Go with Your Broken Heart

A mentor of mine once said, “I think it’s important to preach like there’s a broken heart on every pew. That’s always been a phrase that stuck with me. Not everybody is having a tough time, but you can bet your buck that there’s a good tenth of your church that’s going through a hard season. There really is a broken heart on every pew.

You never quite know who will be sitting in church on a Sunday morning. And you never know what is going on in their heart while they are sitting there. Maybe there is guilt from a poor decision. Shame over a broken promise. Sadness due to a ruptured relationship.

And they don’t quite know what they will receive. Some churches major in criticism when Jesus calls for his followers to show compassion. A person sitting in the pew might wonder which they will be handed.

David may have wondered the same. He’s on the run. It is no secret now that Saul wants him dead. He’s confused. Maybe angry. Feeling alone.  It wasn’t that long ago he was in the pastures enjoying an obscure life singing to sheep. Before he knew it he was singing for Saul. By the time he killed Goliath the entire nation was singing his praises. Paparazzi followed his every step. TMZ caught him for a sound bite whenever they could.

And now David has to find a place he can go where he can be safe. He runs without even packing his bags. But he can’t go to Bethlehem—that might endanger his family. He certainly can’t go into the land of the Philistines—they’d want revenge for their giants and foreskins. So David ran.

Where do you run when you find yourself in trouble? When your heart is broken? When you may ask, “Where is the Lord in my life?” Some run to drinking. Some run to the arms of someone new. Some run to another experience in another town.

And some even run to church. That’s where David ran. He went to Nob where he found a sanctuary and a priest. He is hungry and he needs a weapon so he does what you’d expect a person “after God’s own heart” would do. He lies.

Ahimelech the priest is forced to make a decision. His task is to keep the sanctuary holy. The only food available is the “bread of the Presence.” The law said it was only for the priests to eat. He could hold the letter of the law and refuse it to David and his men. He could keep things tidy and quiet. He could criticize David for lying.

Or he could out of love show compassion. And that’s what he did. He gave David the bread and the only weapon on hand: Goliath’s sword.

David’s life is not one to emulate at every point. This story does not give us grounds to lie our way through our life. But David’s life is a real life. He’s confused, maybe angry, and feeling like the walls are coming down all around him. He’s doing the best he can to get through his days.

You may be feeling the same way. And in your attempts to figure your way through the maze of your months you’ve said and done things you wish you hadn’t. If so, do what David did. Keep turning to God. That is the part of his story we are to mimic.

And find a sanctuary, a church. David needed bread for the day and a blade for the next. A church that is tasked with helping people connect to God will offer bread for the day—the Word of God—and a blade for the next—the spiritual armor to help you fight the real fight.

You never quite know who will be sitting next to you in church. Ahimelech was surprised to see David. And if, like David, your heart is broken and you’re looking for some bread and a sword, do what he did. Run to the church and find a priest. You’ll find what you need there. You might even surprise a person or two.

Question: Where do you run when your heart is broken?

The Ingredients of a Great Friendship

“Dunbar’s number” is a number you may want to know. It’s a number Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, came up with originally studying the brains and social circles of primates. When it comes to his number he isn’t monkeying around.

“Dunbar’s number” is 150. It’s the number of a person’s social circle. Dunbar says your brain can only hold a close connection with no more than 150. Out of the 150 your closest 15 are the most crucial when it comes to your mental and physical health. You turn to them for sympathy or to confide in. And the smallest number is 5—your close support group made up of your best friends and often family.

The problem is that more Americans are saying they have no close friends. That number has tripled in recent decades. The most common response to the question “How many confidants do you have?” is “zero.”

“Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” says Susan Pinker in her TED Talk. She says that one-third of the population say they have two or fewer people to lean on. Her study of the Italian island of Sardinia revealed that is has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland of Italy and ten times as many as North America. Pinker says that social interaction—having a good friend or two—is a factor in living longer.

It was for David. King Saul was his friend that turned into an enemy: a frenemy. Maybe you’ve had a friend who became an enemy. Sometimes a friend abandons us, snubs us, or stabs us in the back. There may be times we deserve those reactions. We don’t like it then, but we can rationalize why that would happen to us.

But sometimes we are doing good when we are given strong opposition. David was. All he had done was good. He played music for the king, killed giants for the king, and wiped out Philistines for the king. In the midst of this craziness David found a great friend in the unlikeliest of places: Saul’s own son Jonathan.

Their friendship brackets the six attempts by Saul on David’s life. The front end of the bracket: “Jonathan was bound to David in close friendship, and loved him as much as he loved himself. … (1 Sam. 18:1). The closing end of the bracket: “Jonathan then said to David, ‘Go in the assurance the two of us pledged in the name of the Lord when we said: The Lord will be a witness between you and me and between my offspring and your offspring forever’” (1 Sam. 20:42).

Friends can bracket the evil in our lives. Friends can help us live through the difficult people in our lives. Jonathan did so with David. Read the story of their friendship and you find three components of a great friend:

  • covenant,
  • clothing, and
  • cover.

Jonathan made a covenant with David. They spoke words of affirmation to each other. They each knew the relationship was valued. David knew where his friend Jonathan stood.

Then Jonathan clothed David with what he needed. He gave him his robe, armor, belt, and sword. Some people in your Dunbar number will be your friend because they think you can help them. A great friend is concerned about how they can help you.

And then Jonathan gave David the cover of protection. He protected him from Saul by giving him warnings. And he protected David from himself. David could have given up on his anointing and returned to shepherding. He could have let his anger get the best of him and retaliated. But he didn’t. True friends help us become all God intends for us to become.

You may be wishing you had a friend like Jonathan2. You do, you know. Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). His covenant with you is to always be with you (Matthew 28:20). He has clothed you in salvation and righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). And he has covered you with his protection (John 10:28).

You have a friend like Jonathan. So why not focus on being a friend like Jonathan? There’s one somewhere in your Dunbar number. A friend can help you live longer on this earth.

It’s your other one—Jesus—that will help you live through eternity.

Question: Who are the “five” within your Dunbar number? 


What You See Sticks

In 1999, Scott Ginsberg attended a convention, the kind where they have everyone attending wear a name tag. The kind of name tags that as soon as you are heading out the door you rip off and toss in the trash.

Except Scott didn’t. He thought it might be fun to keep it on and see what happened. The responses the rest of the night led him to a crazy decision. He decided he would never take off his name tag.

It was a social experiment before you could find them all over YouTube. Cute girls started saying hello to him. People would come up to him, say “Hi Scott,” and give him hugs. One of his favorite stories is the time he was in line to get inside an Irish Pub. The big, brawny bouncer looked at his driver’s license, then his nametag, and said straight-faced: “Sorry, no Scotts allowed.”

Even if he took off the sticky-backed nametag, he’d still have on a nametag. He got it tattooed to his chest which landed him on a number of “worst tattoos” lists. It has also landed him in Ripley’s Believe it or Not as a world record holder.

Where others saw trash, Scott saw a trend. He’s turned his social experiment into a six-figure annual salary. What you see sticks.

The shepherd boy David understood that. He showed up at a battlefront one day to bring his brothers some bread and cheese. But no battle was taking place. Instead, the Israelite army has been listening to the taunts of the six-foot nine-inch giant Goliath for forty days. “I defy the ranks of Israel today. Send me a man so we can fight each other!” For forty days the Israelite army did nothing. The Israelite army saw a giant. What they saw stuck and so they were stuck.

But David saw something else. He speaks up and says: “What will be done for the man who kills that Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Just who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

Pay attention to David’s words. He doesn’t see a giant. He sees an “uncircumcised Philistine.” He doesn’t see the Israelite army. He sees “the armies of the living God.”

It’s important what we see. We have our own giants today.

  • Something from our past resurfaces every year on the anniversary of the event and the giant of depression appears.
  • The giant of unexpected unemployment taunts you with words you don’t think you can defeat: “You’ll never dig yourself out of this hole, your bills are stacking up so high.”
  • Your marriage is shaky and the giant of divorce is challenging you.

You’ve seen your own giants, haven’t you? And when you did and when you do, do you see God?

David did. Nine times in the story he speaks of God. He mentions Goliath only two. Do you think that perhaps your giants would be slayed if your thoughts of God outnumbered your thoughts of your giants by a nine to two ratio?

If so, do what David did. He knelt. He had to in order to pick up the five stones from the wadi. He had developed a practice of kneeling in the quiet of his shepherding duties. There he became saturated with the stories of God.

  • How he delivered his people from the giant named Pharaoh.
  • How he gave them provision when they faced the giants of thirst and hunger in the Wilderness.
  • How ten spies saw real giants and retreated for fear.
  • How Joshua and Caleb saw God instead.

When you kneel, you see God. And what you see sticks. What you see will shape your life. And it may shape the lives of others too. Once David defeated his giants, the others followed and routed their enemy.

You can do the same. You have a spouse, a friend, your family, your children who need someone in their lives to help them face their own giants. They need someone who sees what maybe they don’t. Someone who sees God.

Kneel. Then run.

Then watch your giants run.

Question: What giant are you battling today?

View Your Work as Your Anointing

It’s Sunday. Monday is looming. And you, if you are like most workers in America, are glooming. A recent Gallup survey revealed that 51% of workers are not engaged at work, meaning they have no real connection to their jobs. Another 16% are “actively disengaged.” They resent their jobs. They gripe about their jobs to fellow employees and are the ones responsible for bringing down office morale.

Want to be a part of the 30% that are engaged with their work? Maybe you need to understand your work as your anointing. Let me explain. We say a singer has such an “anointing.” Or maybe a preacher has the “anointing” of God. I’ve never known exactly what that means other than that someone might prefer one singer or preacher over another.

In the Bible, however, being anointed means that God has given a person a job to do. (See Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall for a more detailed discussion of this idea.)  There’s a job to do, he assigns it, and more importantly the person he assigns it to—no matter how they look on the outside—can actually do it.

Take David for example. When we first see David in Scripture he is out “tending the sheep.” When Samuel the prophet shows up in Bethlehem at Jesse’s house to find the next king of Israel he asks Jesse to bring his sons in before him. He does. Every one of them. Except David. David’s father forgets him. His brothers forget him.

But God did not. “Then the Lord said, ‘Anoint him [David], for he is the one.’ So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on David from that day forward.”

The job God gave David to do at his anointing was to be king of Israel. Saul had been given that job to do, but he did not do it well. He began paying attention to the work of being a king but he did not pay attention to God. Any work that gets disconnected from God can lose its anointing. Saul lost his. It did not happen right away. But it did happen. When we are more interested in our work than we are in God, God will remove himself from our work.

David on the other hand paid attention to God. His first assignment after he was anointed was to serve a bad king. Eventually Saul wanted to kill David as David’s approval rate soared while his plummeted. Remember that when you want to complain about your boss. And yet he served well. He was faithful in what he was given to do. Later he will be given more.

All work is a place where God can do his work in us. Before he was anointed David was a shepherd. It wasn’t “filler” work until his real work began. It shaped him. Silence. Solitude. Integrity of protecting the sheep when no one was watching. All that prepared him to be a king. He watched. He served. He protected. He led. He cared for the sheep. He helped the hurting. He kept order.

Watch. Serve. Protect. Lead. Care for. Heal. Order. Those are things kings do. And that’s what we do when God anoints us with work to do. We represent God in our work. He works and we work. Listen to what the Psalmist said when he reflected on our unique place in God’s creation: “You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.”

Your employment and mine has to do with the work of God. All work is a training ground for God’s work in us. In our work we learn what it means to be shaped by our anointing. God finds the one who is faithful in the quiet things and gives them more to do. Jesus gave us this principle in his story about faithful and unfaithful servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

So if you want to be a manager someday, act like one now. If you want to be a leader someday, start serving in the role you have now. Do you want people to trust you with responsibility tomorrow? Then be trustworthy today.

You’ve been anointed to a work by God that you can do. When you do that work well by paying attention to God, you are really anointed. And you may find yourself engaged more at work.

Question: Is your work the place you see God doing his work in you?



When You Think You’re Forgotten, Think Again.

“The little brother.” That’s what I was known as growing up. My brother Scott was 13 months to the day older than me. We were about as close in age as you could be without being twins.

He’s always been older. Always been taller. Always been a year ahead of me in school and “firsts.” First to get out of diapers. (That’s my assumption.) First to lose a tooth. First to go to school. First to experience Jr. High. First to enter High School. First to get to drive. First to get a job. First to get married. First to have a child.

Being the little brother is not such a great thing. Older brothers seem to think the parents take it easier on the little brother so they can be hard on little brothers. And your parents don’t always cut you much slack. How many times did I hear mine say to my older brother: “Please go play with your little brother. That’s basically the reason we had him.” (OK. I don’t remember them saying that. But it’s a good joke.)

When we’d play in neighborhood pick-up games and would choose teams, being the smallest one there, I’d be one of the last chosen. Last one noticed. I was the “little brother.”

You know that feeling don’t you? You interviewed for a job and made it to the final three but they went with someone else. You were encouraged to try out for the chorus so you did but didn’t make the final cut. You knew a group was getting together on Friday night but they never called you.

You know the feeling. The feeling of being unwanted. We say we’re “left out of the loop” or “didn’t get the memo.” Here’s one you may not have used: “he’s tending the sheep.”

That’s where “the youngest” was when Samuel the prophet came to town. God sent him to Bethlehem to anoint a new king. He went to Jesse’s house and had him line up his sons. The oldest to the youngest. As he passed each one God passed on each one too.

Samuel is a bit perplexed because he is out of options. He asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse answers, “There is still the youngest but right now he’s tending the sheep.”

“… he’s tending the sheep, left out of the loop, didn’t get the memo.” That’s where he is because he’s “the youngest.” Not just the little brother. He’s the runt. The Hebrew word is haqqaton. It carries with it the suggestion of insignificance. His society did not esteem him. Even his own family sent him out to the pastures. Even his own father did not think of him when Samuel came calling. No one thought to bring “the youngest” to Bethlehem that day. No one thought much of him at all. Not his brothers. Not his father. Not even Samuel.

But God did. The “youngest” is the one that God tells Samuel to anoint. “Then the Lord said, ‘Anoint him, for he is the one.’ So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him …”

I’m wondering how that last line affected you. Are you wondering what it would have felt like to be this youngest son, left out in the fields, being brought in as the forgotten one, and having Samuel the prophet take his horn of oil and pour it over your head? Can you imagine what it would feel like to have the oil begin to run down your cheeks? Can your heart grasp what it would be like to be chosen?

You are, you know. Those we refuse God will choose. And he chose you: “As you come to him, a living stone — rejected by people but chosen and honored by God…”

What does he see in you that others don’t? Here’s what he told Samuel: “Humans do not see what the Lord sees, for humans see what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.” Others may see only the haqqaton. God sees the heart. He sees your heart and mine. It doesn’t matter if no one else does. It matters that God does.

And because he does, you are not forgotten after all.

You are chosen.

Question: When have you felt like the haqqaton?

How Story Can Transform Your Life

Most people love stories. But not all do. One time a number of years ago I had finished preaching when a lady came marching towards me. (It’s never good when a lady comes marching towards you right after a sermon.) The sermon was based in a gospel account, a story of Jesus. She said, “You tell too many stories.”

I said, “I take it you don’t like stories?”

“No,” she said. “You need to teach more Bible.”

“Do you think I should teach more like Jesus, then?” I cast the line and she took the bait.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

Then I opened to Matthew 13:34: “…and Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and he did not tell them anything without a parable…”

Jesus loved to tell stories. In fact, stories are the primary way in which God’s word is given to us. When we come to the Bible we find many stories. They are all important and have something to teach us. But there are two primary stories. Eugene Peterson helps us see these two stories in his book Leap Over a Wall. One is in the Old Testament and one is in the New. The Old Testament story that takes up the most space is the story of David. David’s story is the primary story of the Old Testament. His story requires 66 chapters to be told. His name is mentioned over 600 times in the Old Testament and 60 times in the new. Even a novice reader of scripture would understand that there is something important about this person David.

Stories are powerful. Just think about the movies you love. Take Dunkirk for example. There’s no big setup. The opening scene shows a group of soldiers moving cautiously through a street. Leaflets are falling from the sky, dropped from German planes warning them to surrender or die. Before you have time to settle in with your popcorn and coke the soldiers are running for their lives.

And you are too. You’re not quite sure if you are going to survive or how. When the movie ends you have to check to see if you are still breathing. That’s the power of story. Story invites you into its life. Through it we learn what the world is and what it means to be a human in this world.

That’s why the David story takes up so much space in scripture. His story teaches us what it means to be human. And yet David is always dealing with God. In fact, in Acts 13:22 Paul is preaching a sermon and includes David with these words: “… he [God] raised up David as their king and testified about him: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse to be a man after my own heart, who will carry out all my will.’”

Look at David’s story and we find that he deals with danger and enemies. He has friends and lovers. He has children and wives. (Too many wives but that’s another part of his story.) He deals with pride and humiliation. He struggles with sickness and sexuality and fear. He’s not a very good parent. His son will have more wisdom to pass on than he. He’s an unfaithful husband.

“How did David ever wind up taking up so much biblical space?” you ask. David gets so much air time in Scripture because what is important about David is not whether he was a great military leader or a great moral character. What is important is that he deals with God. Listen to David’s story and we find someone who is human in every way and yet keeps connecting with God.

After you get to know David, you’ll think, “Now there’s a down to earth guy I can connect with.”  He’s not so different than you or me. We see him fighting, praying, loving, sinning, angry, devious, generous, and dancing…naked. It’s all very human. And it’s all connected to God.

Often we look to a set of rules or moral guidelines and try to squeeze our lives into them. We think that is what a real spiritual life is all about. But God gave us story because story is powerful. Unlike rules that try to shape us from the outside in, stories get inside us and shape us from the inside out.

God took a very flawed and human David and through him wrote a great story that ended up with Jesus. If he used David, he can use you.

And any story connected to Jesus is an epic one.

Question: What do you think it means to be human and spiritual?


Steps to Opening Your Door to Your Neighbors

One recent evening our doorbell rang at about 8:00 p.m. You’re probably thinking what I was thinking: “Who rings someone’s doorbell at 8:00 p.m.?” I was in the back room and thought maybe Karen had locked herself out of the house.

Our dog was jumping up and down at the front door so I grabbed her to put her somewhere else so I could answer the door because now I had to answer it. Our door has glass in the middle and on either side. I saw the salesman and he saw me. Stupid glass door!

Outside was a young man selling storm windows for homes. He asked if I’d want to schedule an estimate. I told him it didn’t matter what the estimate was because we would not have the money for the storm windows. He said we could finance it and I told him we like to stay out of debt.

He said if I gave him my phone number they could call and check in with us in a few months to see if we had changed our minds. I said if he’d give me his phone number I’d call him during the evening when he was relaxing at home. Not really. I just told him I saw the number on the flyer he handed me and we’d call if we decided we needed storm windows.

Then I said, “So, I noticed your accent while you were talking. Where are you from?” He replied, “From Egypt.” I said, “I know a guy who spent some time there when he was a young child. His parents had to hide out there for a while.” (OK. Maybe I just thought that. But it would have been a great line!) I asked, “How long have you been in America?”

“Three years,” he said. We talked a bit more and then he asked for a bottle of water, which we usually have, but didn’t that night. I shook his hand and wished him well.

When I went back inside Karen told me our neighborhood Facebook page was full of chatter about the guys going door to door. Already the police and Constable had been called. Some said they were upset with someone coming to their door at that hour of the evening, especially with recent stories of abductions home invasions circulating.

Honestly, I don’t like people coming to my door any time after I get home either, so I understood my neighbors. Sometimes we close the door on strangers due to fear. Sometimes we close the door on our neighbors due to our fears too.

Jesus taught us to overcome our fears and love our neighbors. As we watch him we learn. For example, he called Matthew to follow him and then Matthew threw a party with his friends and invited Jesus. See what can happen? Jesus did not have our fears but we discover a principle with his relationship with Matthew: overcoming our fear of connecting with one person might open the door to other friendships.

But fear of what others think about the people we spend time with might keep us from being good neighbors too. The Pharisees and scribes—the religious people of the day—complained to Jesus’ disciples that Jesus was eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners” at Matthew’s party.

Some people God places in our way may not get the approval of some church people. Don’t be concerned about their approval. The only approval Jesus looked for was the approval of the Father. Fear of what others might think can keep us from people Jesus would welcome.  So how do we overcome our fears? Here are some practical pointers that may help.

  • Pray and ask God to help you overcome any fear you may have and replace it with love. Fear of the other person is overcome by love for the other person.
  • Hang out where you can meet others. Jesus was in the marketplace, at the temple, in the village…places where he could see people and get to know them.
  • Give invitations. Jesus did. He said, “Follow me.” “Come and see.” He opened up his life to others. Learn to invite people to your house. You might just start with one neighbor. Like Matthew, they might open the door to others.
  • Accept invitations. Jesus did. To weddings. To houses. To parties. If you get invited, go!

Let’s face our fears of getting to know our neighbors. And let’s learn to be the ones who know how to throw the best parties in our community.

Question: What fear keeps you from getting to know those who live near you?

How to Find Time for Your Neighbor

It had us at hello. No, not some corny line from a movie. The iPhone. On June 29, 2007, the iPhone appeared on the scene and quickly made its way into our hands and spread faster than a California wild fire.

The iPhone basically changed everything. It improved our predictions of what you will find a group of people doing in public places: looking down at their mobile device. Within six years most Americans owned one. It has allowed us to find our way around towns or on trips. With it we can find places to eat and hotels to stay in.

But an advance in technology may have ushered in a decline in relational abilities. Sociologist Sherry Turkle uses the phrase “the alone together phenomenon” to describe what has happened.  Whereas in the beginning of the iPhone age people would huddle together and show each other what was on their phones, now they just look at their individual phones, sucked into whatever world they are seeing on their screen.

Interestingly enough, all of our time saving devices that have entered our homes and workplaces since the iPhone have not saved us time. They have only led us to pack more things into our already busy lives. Ours days are full. Our weekends are full. We live at a pace that leaves us little time to be available for our neighbors who live the closest in proximity to us.

Martha did not have an iPhone, but she had the similar issues. Martha and her sister Mary invited Jesus to their home for a meal (Luke 10). Mary sits at the feet of Jesus while Martha takes care of the house and meal. Martha is “distracted by her many tasks.”

Put yourself in her apron. She’s busy taking care of and serving Jesus. She’s busy. She needs another set of hands to help. And she looks over and Mary is just sitting there at the feet of Jesus. So she does what most of us mature adults would do: she complains to Jesus.

Here’s what he said to her. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Martha get reprimanded for serving while Mary get praised for sitting. In the Hebrew culture to sit at someone’s feet indicates a relationship between a disciple and a teacher.  In that culture, however, women were not students. They were supposed to be in the kitchen being a good hostess. Mary bucked the societal norms to be with Jesus.

We will have to do the same to be with Jesus too. Sometimes being with Jesus means being alone and quiet so we can hear his voice. We need times like that.

But sometimes being with Jesus has to do with being with people like our neighbors. There are many things we can do. But there is one thing that is necessary. Even if it means going against the busy lives we think everyone else is living to be where Jesus has called us to be.

If iPhones have not helped us do this, what will? As Dallas Willard once said, “We have to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives.” Three things will help:

  • First, make the main thing the main thing. Jesus told Martha there were “many things” and “one thing.” The “one thing,” or the “main thing,” is being with Jesus. Make him first in your schedule.
  • Second, eliminate time wasters. If you need some help try these: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, watching TV, surfing the web, or playing video games. My guess is no one will say these are vital to their lives. They’re not evil. They just don’t add much. We need to chip away the excess in our lives so the true beauty can be seen. Jesus saw beauty in God and people. When we eliminate time wasters we free ourselves for both of them.
  • And finally, be interruptible. Jesus was. He had as much to accomplish as any of us. But he had time for interruptions: children, blind beggars, Centurions and a Samaritan woman to name a few. We may need to control some interruptions to a degree, but what if we can eliminate hurry to the point that when a neighbor has time to chat we see that as a divine appointment instead of a disruptive moment.

Face time—not the kind on your iPhone—with your neighbors is proven to bring you happiness.

Question: How can you “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” from your life today?


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?