“Michael! Duck below the window… now!” shouted my mom at the top of her lungs. I was probably the most scared eight-year-old on the planet as I hunched down into a corner of our living room.
She yelled out again, this time to my older sister, “Sarah, get down! Our crazy neighbor across the street is waving a shotgun around on his front porch and he just pointed it at our house!!”
What a way to spend a summer morning. Apparently the always drunk guy across the street, who lived with his elderly parents, had somehow obtained an old shotgun. And in his alcohol-induced delirium he thought it fun to wave the gun around the neighborhood.
Yep. The crazy neighbor action around our crowded urban street on the eastside of metro-Detroit was rapidly going out-of-control. Law enforcement calls were becoming increasingly frequent. Front yard fights; break-ins, and late-night parties were weekly events – especially in the hot and humid summer months.
Once a comfortable bedroom community near 9-mile road, our block of postage-stamp homes now resembled a concrete jungle of confusion, fear, and chaos.
I will never forget the afternoon when my neighborhood friends and I found a spray of large pills all over someone’s front yard. One little girl pulled up on her bicycle and nearly put one of the capsules in her mouth, thinking they were candy. The police later told us they were illegal drugs.
I will never forget the Saturday morning when my sister and I climbed up our backyard swing-set, peered over our neighbor’s fence, and found a half dozen people sleeping on their lawn, surrounded by piles of beer cans.
I will never forget the evening I saw the neighbor girl’s boyfriend desperately trying to break-in to their house.
I will never forget the weekend ritual of our home shaking at every beam because one neighbor guy liked to blast rockin’ oldies at 140 decibels. Ironically, his amp blew out while we were playing classical music.
I will never forget the summer afternoon when I saw the neighborhood drunk beat his poor dog almost to death with a “40” (for those of you in the suburbs, a “40” is urban slang for a 40 ounce bottle of cheap liquor or beer). Fortunately, the local vegetarian animal-lovers walked by just in time to stop him before the fatal blow and call the police yet another time.
I will never forget the day our neighbor packed one-too-many cigarettes into his large maple tree – and it rapidly caught fire in the dry summer heat. Not wanting to call the fire department, he instead enlisted several other neighbors to point their garden hoses at the towering limbs, while the vinyl siding melted off his garage.
I will never forget the night a police helicopter focused its huge light on our house and yard in search of a marijuana dealer who had escaped from the city or county jail. He just so happened to be the neighbor girls’ boyfriend, and apparently was attempting to seek shelter. I remember my dad gathering us into the center of the house, ready to protect us with my little league baseball bat. They found the crazy runaway hiding in our front bushes.
Bad Neighbors? Good News.
There is no question some of our neighbors were not State Farm quality. Oh sure, they were there, but they certainly were not ideal community residents. In fact, I would have no problem adding twenty more short stories to my list of neighbor antics and crimes.
As our neighborhood grew increasingly difficult and unsafe, I remember us forming a distinct habit: we would constantly tell our friends and other family members how bad our neighbors were behaving. We would eagerly tell them how stupid the guy was who broke his hands to pieces while trying to use metal nun-chucks (he was drunk of course… and on his front porch of course). With a laugh, we would describe the crazy stunts of the wild skateboarders who would break bones as they went down the middle of our street. And with a serious tone, we would talk about the drug dealers, the break-ins, and most importantly, how we needed to move away from all these “bad, horrible neighbors.”
We were so caught up in sharing the bad news about our neighbors that we mostly ignored God’s command to share His good news with our neighbors.
Now don’t get me wrong, I fully understand my parents desire to move us to a safer and quieter home. I totally know my own longing for my wife and children to live in peace and protection. But in all of this, I can’t shake the nagging thought that we missed the heart of God’s mission. Certainly, we talked with some of our neighbors about Christ. They probably knew exactly where we stood politically (I’m sure the Bush/Quayle campaign signs out front helped make the announcement). I remember my mom and dad occasionally leaning over the fence to talk with the neighbors. And I recall my sister leading a little girl named Jennifer to faith in Christ.
But over and against Gospel communication was the constant thread of conversation about the bad neighbors who surrounded us… perhaps I became the worst instigator of such discussion.
Last week I heard Pastor Steve Viars (from Faith Church in Lafayette, IN) say: “Don’t tell me how bad your neighbors are. Tell me how bad you want your neighbors to know Jesus.”
I cannot get Steve’s challenge out of my skin or cleared out of my mind.
Sure, my mom and dad probably needed a bigger home for the five of us and moving to a safer location wasn’t unwise. But looking back at how I’ve handled “bad neighbors” ever since our time in eastern metro-Detroit, I see I’ve been very quick to point out their problems without genuinely caring for their souls. I have been far more concerned about getting a laugh or moving away, than I am about sharing the message and mercy of Christ Jesus.
The Halloween “Thing”
Today the calendar flipped to Halloween, October 31st, and my mind is swirling with numerous memories from my childhood in metro-Detroit. Why was I surprised when our house got “egged” on Halloween? Had we shown the good will and love of Christ to the neighbor kids? Or were we more concerned about moving into our holy huddle to share the bad news about our neighbors rather than sharing Christ’s Good News with our neighbors? Perhaps we might have sweetened up the conversation with some chocolate or marshmallow?
Last night we welcomed more than 1,200 visitors to the campus of Evangel Baptist Church for our annual Trunk R’ Treat outreach event. God incredibly blessed the night of love and generosity. But you know what? I bet some of them would not be perfect neighbors. Some of them might even be “bad” neighbors. But all of them need to see and hear the love of Jesus.
Our Rescuer, Jesus Christ, responded to the Pharisees’ question about “the greatest commandment” this way:
“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Don’t rush over Christ’s words here. We cannot say we love Jesus if we don’t love all the people Jesus made. The central way you and I demonstrate our holistic love for God is by loving all the people made in His image – including the difficult ones. We cannot say we love God if we don’t love people… even the bad or irritating neighbors next door.
As it just so happens, my family and I currently live in a terribly safe and quiet neighborhood with charming neighbors and meticulously manicured yards. But I’m sure we’ll see lots of neighbors tonight we have yet to meet and they need to see and hear the Good News of Jesus through us… so that’s just what we’re going to do as we pass out irrationally large amounts of candy to show the extraordinary grace of God to people who need Him.
I invite you to join the mission of sharing the message and mercy of Jesus with every ‘bad neighbor’ you can find…
May the Holy Spirit guide and empower you as you communicate God’s Good News in Christ!
By the way, here’s a great 3 minute film explaining how Jesus-followers can reclaim “All Hallow’s Eve” as a celebration of Christ as the Victor over the Evil One: