The Art of Neighbouring
Though I agree with Matt that The Undertaking, a memoir of some of the oddities of the life of a poet and undertaker, was a beautiful, thought-provoking and fun read, I think it’s probably of limited appeal. So for wider interest and application I’ve gone for The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon.
The book begins with the two pastors, from Denver, Colorado, telling the story of their meeting a few years ago with a bunch of other pastors to consider what they could do to make their city a better place. They had invited the (non-Christian) mayor along to the meeting and asked him what he felt his city really needed. Most of the needs of the city, he told them, would be greatly reduced “if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.” The pastors admitted, after the mayor left, that they were slightly embarrassed by the fact that, “the mayor [just] invited a roomful of pastors to get their people to actually obey Jesus.”
Before moving onto suggestions for practical ways this could be done, and answering some of the objections and questions they have often faced (and felt in their own hearts) when trying to put this into practice, Jay and Dave take a quick look at the story of the Good Samaritan. They point out that whereas in Jesus’ day the shocking point of the story was that even strangers and outcasts count as your neighbour, today we’ve actually come to take it as something of a loophole. We know we have to be kind, generous and loving to the needy, the down-and-out and the refugee; what we’ve turned a blind eye to is Jesus’ assumption that we’d be being neighbourly to our actual, physical neighbours.
Oh yeah, them. The people who see and hear how we live every day. The people whose lives we could actually make a difference to day after day, not just in our ‘ministry time’ or that moment of compassion on the street.
I tend to think of it as a bigger challenge for me in my basement flat in the very centre of London - I know there are people living in the two flats above me, but I honestly could not tell you whether the shops either side have flats above them or not. I don’t have windows from which to watch the world go by and see who goes into and out of the surrounding buildings. I don’t have a garden over whose fence to chat in the summer, or a car to tinker with in the hopes of striking up a conversation with passers by. It would take a great deal of effort even to discover what my neighbours look like, let alone their names, occupations, hopes and dreams as the book challenges.
But as I write that I know you’re thinking ‘Well, it’s just as hard for me in my situation. I’ve got this, that and the other hindrance as to why I couldn’t possibly get to know my neighbours.” All I can say is, read the book. Yes, the ideas and examples are very American (and make it sound as if life in Colorado is one long block party), but you’ve got a brain, you can work out how to contextualise it.
Jay and Dave make a great case for why we should love our neighbours (basically: because Jesus said so), give compelling answers to some of the initial questions and doubts, offer a few suggestions of how to go about it, and have some useful notes on boundaries and how to handle difficult situations.
There is no final chapter telling how within 6 months of all the Christians in the area were living as Jesus told them to, the crime rate had dropped, literacy had risen, employment was at 100% and Global Warming had been reversed, but I think the book is probably better for that. This isn’t a quick fix for all the world’s needs, it’s a lifestyle of obedience, and a fresh and inspiring read for anyone seeking a New Year’s resolution that could actually make a difference outside your four walls.