What does the single mom that's trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, the college student lacing up his running shoes, and the elderly couple walking their dog all have in common? They're likely your neighbors.
Right now, there are people of many shapes and sizes with an array of beliefs and backgrounds from a variety of races and regions that live – to be quite honest – uncomfortably close to you.
Think about it: that guy in his boxers playing X-Box across the hall in your dormitory, and the divorcee who's trying to restart her life next door to your life, both showed up in your life completely unannounced. They just rolled right smack dab into the middle of your world and no one even consulted you. Such is life, as G.K. Chesterton humorously observed, "We make our friends, and we make our enemies, but God makes our next door neighbor."
What this means, of course, is that something quite profound is at work all around you. God has hand picked and delivered to your doorstep a mysteriously peculiar but perfectly suited group of neighbors. Every person that God brings into your life is full of meaning, so full in fact that God summarized the entire law with one word concerning neighbors, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).
Seeing the significance of loving neighbors, an obvious question arises, "How are we to love our neighbors?" The most basic and beautiful answer to this question comes in the gospel. In order for us to love our neighbor we must first know Jesus as neighbor.
Jesus became our neighbor in the incarnation when the eternal Son of God became flesh and took up residence among us (John 1:14). Then, he showed us the extent of neighborly love by coming not to be served but to serve, demonstrating His love on the cross, removing the guilt of our miserable neighborliness and renewing us in love (Matthew 20:28, Romans 5:8). At this moment, he is in heaven preparing a place especially for us, that when he returns, we might forever be neighbors with Him (John 14:2-3).
To live out the ultimate neighbor love of Jesus in the here and now, let's briefly look at a five practical steps for building loving relationships with neighbors.
1. Meet Your Neighbors
If we ever hope to love our neighbor in a way that even remotely resembles the love of Christ, we must overcome our tendency to remain anonymous. So whether we're reintroducing ourselves to what's-his-name next door, or establishing a relationship with the brand new employee in the corner cubicle, a personal introduction with pleasantries is the first step in opening up lines of relationship. Loving your neighbor starts with meeting your neighbor.
2. Refocus Attention on Your Neighbors
The very thought of meeting neighbors causes nervousness for many of us. Sometimes this nervousness is triggered by focusing on how we appear rather than the person appearing before us. To refocus, take a deep breath and ask the Lord for courage. Remind yourself that this person shares with you in the image of God, in being a sinner, and in desperately desiring love and care. This little exercise will often clear your heart of anxiety and refocus attention on your neighbor.
3. Make Notes about Your Neighbors
If you are often forgetful of names or important personal details like family relations, occupation, etc. let me encourage you to commit that information to writing soon after the encounter. One of the most helpful practices I've found in neighboring is simply making notes about the people I meet and revisiting those notes often to refresh my memory.
4. Plan to Follow Up with Your Neighbors
Make every effort to beat down a path through the hedge. Lengthy silence will send a relationship into limbo; so seek to keep short accounts with neighbors by targeting regular times for reconnection and deepening of the relationship. Informal hospitality is quite possibly the best path forward. Be open to spontaneity. Keep it simple. Sometimes lemonade on the front porch or a plate of cookies is better than a four-course meal on fine china.
5. Step into Service of Your Neighbors
Listen and look for ways to care for ordinary needs in your neighbors life. If they're out of town, volunteer to mow the grass or check the mail while they're gone. If they're having car trouble, offer to drive them to work or make a grocery store run. Offer your time, talents, treasure, and yes, even your tools. Take advantage of the opportunities before you, and then purpose to walk through the open door.
These five instructions are not exhaustive by any stretch—just a few simple ways to get down the neighbor-loving road. More important than what you do, however, is the purpose for which you do it. Each of the five points above, or any additional steps you may take are not just good things to do but occasions to participate in and share the love of Christ. In being good neighbors, we are positioned to touch others with the truth and power of the neighbor-loving gospel.
What step will you take this week to build a closer relationship with your neighbors?