“Rats! We missed a great opportunity”

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:4-6

Now and then we will be faced with neighbors who are intentionally difficult. They may not like the fact that we are Christian or that we appear to them to be “do-gooders.” The most problematic situations may arise when we try to kindly ask if they can do something about, let’s say, their annoying barking dog or loud music. Things like this can test us to the limits. Our first inclination is to call the police, but the Apostle Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:18, 21) It is so common for us Christians to turn to our own tactics with a maddening neighbor rather than turning the other cheek. (Matthew 5:38, 39) Dave and Carrie experienced such an ongoing difficulty with one of their neighbors that we all can learn from. Let’s see how they handled the situation.

Dave and Carrie Irving’s Neighborhood

Ironically, we moved to Reseda, a multi-ethnic low-income neighborhood because we wanted to “love our neighbors”. In the 90s, most people were moving out of Reseda as soon as they could afford it – to the suburbs.  But we had just returned from Mexico (where we served as missionaries) and we felt God wanted us to continue to be missionaries – living just two blocks from our church in the heart of this particular neighborhood.

We did all the “right” things – had a block party, introduced ourselves, invited them to a Bible Study (in Spanish) at our home, had yearly neighborhood teas, gave out Christmas goodies, knew the names of every neighbor and tried to stay connected. And for the first few years, everything seemed to go well. We endured the nightly police helicopters flying overhead, the constant flow of cars stopping at the drug dealer across the street, the ranchero music playing until all hours of the night, the graffiti scratched into our fence, the stones that the neighborhood kids threw into our pool…It was all worth it – part of “loving” our neighbors, we thought.

But one night, our next-door neighbor (we’ll call him Bob) was playing his party music till 2 in the morning to the point where our windows were literally shaking. So, the next day when it all started again at 2 in the afternoon, my wife went over and asked him (kindly) to turn it down as she’d reached her limit. He chased her off the property and from then on all hell broke loose. Any time we had people over, he would play music from giant speakers over our fence so loud we couldn’t have a conversation in our own backyard. That went on for over a year.  Graduation parties, family get-togethers, pool times, all ruined by his ongoing amped up music. He called animal control to come get our “vicious” dog (a playful boxer) when the dog would run up and down the fence line as he teased it. He claimed to smell car-paint fumes and had our property inspected by the city for illegal auto body work. He called the police to have us move our car which was “blocking” his driveway. He basically found whatever he could to harass and intimidate us. What once had been a friendly neighborly relationship had turned into an all-out one-sided war against us.

After each incident, we tried to forgive and forget. We knew God was calling us to love our enemy. But how do you love someone who seems to hate you so much?  We feel bad that things didn’t turn out all rosy. Not a guilty, shaming kind of feeling bad.  But a “Rats! We missed a great opportunity” kind of feeling bad.  I think loving our neighbors is a big part of who God is making us to be.  It’s a big part of becoming fully us!  That’s why Jesus tells us it’s the second most important commandment. (Matthew 22:39) And it’s why it’s totally worth it to do the hard work of actively loving our neighbors.  It’s a lot more than being “nice” neighbors.  It’s all those hard things in 1 Corinthians 13: Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up.

Two days before loading the U-Haul and leaving Reseda, we had a garage sale.  We also put up a big sign that said, “Come say goodbye to the Irvings!” We had donuts and coffee – and throughout the morning we said our goodbyes to all our neighbors and gave each other hugs.  Just as we were taking things down, Bob came over.  He made an attempt at small talk, and kind of kicked at the dirt.  And then he looked at me and said, “Four months ago I was diagnosed with brain cancer.  I’ve been going through chemotherapy but the doctors say I only have a few months to live.”  I was shocked!  I put my arm around him and asked if I could pray for him. I genuinely cared about Bob.  We prayed.  We cried.

Three months later, we got the news that Bob had died.

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (Colossians 4:5) As we get to know our new neighbors, Bob’s memory serves as a constant reminder to truly love (initiate real relationship) them.

A time for reflection:

Who would have imagined that Dave and Carrie’s story would have turned out the way it did with their neighbor? Dave’s last conversation with Bob was extremely moving with Dave praying for him and tears flowing. The Lord has a way of softening even the hardest heart. I am grateful that Dave and Carrie continued to forgive Bob and forget the torturous things he did to them through the years. I am sure Bob would never have approached Dave the way he did without experiencing the unconditional love of the Lord through them.  Dave’s statement, “Rats! We missed a great opportunity,” is, I am sure, a thought we all have had from time to time when a neighbor has moved from our neighborhood. It’s not too late to touch the lives of your neighbors who are still living next door to you. Paul says, “Make the most of every opportunity.” What opportunity is the Lord giving you with a neighbor, even if it is a difficult one? Join the Father as He works in their heart and you show them the grace of God.

(Dave and Carrie Irving live in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. They have ministered together for 25 years at the Valley Vineyard in Reseda, California and as missionaries in Mexico.)


Listen to Bruce Zachary's experience with Neighborhood Initiative.

Listen to Dallas Willard's word to pastors and leaders about Neighborhood Initiative.

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