Watch What You Say

“I was determined to love this man…and above all stay out of pointless and unproductive arguments.”

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:6

The Apostle Paul points out in this short verse, two important virtues that should accompany our communication with those outside the faith, especially with those who are belligerent. First, he signifies that we should let our words be gracious, simply, we are to let our words be kind and without judgment so we bring out the best in others. And second, our words should be “seasoned with salt, so that you (we) may know how to answer everyone.” Along with grace, we need to be willing to take advantage of opportunities to speak the truth wisely with neighbors who believe differently than us. These two virtues characterized Jesus, He was “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) We need to exhibit these qualities as well in word and deed with our neighbors. Mike demonstrates this so beautifully with one of his neighbors who had had it with God and church.

Mike and Mary Day’s Neighborhood

In 2008 my fiancé and I started a neighborhood group in North Hills, CA for open Bible study and hosting neighborhood events we called Agape dinners featuring local musicians. We would typically draw 5-10 people for the Bible studies, but the dinners proved very popular, bringing up to two dozen neighbors over to the house for fellowship, conversation and good music.

Our neighbors were a decidedly mixed group socio-economically, some with a Christian background and many with little or none and no religious association. There were no other churchgoers in this group, the common bond being we were all neighbors. The group grew as we did service projects in the neighborhood, washing neighbors’ cars on the weekend and planning block parties.

One young married professional couple that lived a couple of doors down from us were active and eager participants in this group, even though they were emphatically non-Christian. I believe they were drawn into the group for two reasons: we were doing good things for neighbors without asking anything in return, and we did not push our faith on anyone. This couple had degrees in science and the husband was a lapsed and somewhat angry Lutheran. His speech was often marked by critical and contemptuous remarks towards Christians, the Bible, the church, and its leaders. And he was always spoiling for an argument concerning religion.

I was determined to love this man and model biblical Christianity to the best of my ability and not blow my chance to witness my faith to them, and above all, stay out of pointless and unproductive arguments. Our group planned a Thanksgiving food drive in the neighborhood and we all participated. By all standards, it was wildly successful and provided one of our local food pantries with cash and hundreds of dollars worth of food for distribution. The shock and amazement experienced by the group at the abundant response was incredible, and my fiancé and I saw God moving in our neighborhood.

My church held a Thanksgiving Eve service and I was asked to teach. Part of my message was sharing the progress of our neighborhood group, so I went out on a limb and asked this couple to attend. I did this not so much for them to hear my teaching, but with the aim that they would get up and share their experience at the food drive. They agreed to attend, and much to my surprise, the husband did the sharing, which he did skillfully. The other thing that stands out in my mind was his obvious and visible discomfort during my teaching. I fully expected him to stand up and start arguing with me at any moment. It seemed to me the height of irony that my chosen text for the evening was the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The group continued meeting and serving and it was about a year later that this young neighbor couple sold their house in the San Fernando Valley and moved to LA proper to be closer to work. Like most folks who relocate, they held a garage sale the week before they moved, and there was quite an array of books, clothes, tools, and tchotchkes on display. I walked down to their house to hang out and see if there was anything on offer I couldn’t live without and to help them out a bit financially.

I took a seat in the garage and we started to chat. The husband kept making pointed, critical remarks about a vindictive, vengeful, angry, impetuous God and an error-ridden Bible. Clearly, he wanted to argue. For some reason, the book The Bait of Satan by John Bevere came to mind. I felt I was being “baited” into an argument in which I chose not to participate. How awkward.

My apparent indifference to his remarks eventually had an effect and he relaxed. After a bit, he fished a couple of familiar looking books out of one stack and handed them to me. He said, “I figure you might have some use for these and I’d like to give them to you, no charge!” The books were a Lutheran Book of Worship (hymnal) and his Bible from confirmation class all those years ago. I asked him if he was sure and he said yes, he would no longer be needing them. I told him I would love to have them, and they would stay in my possession until he wanted them back.

The stunned look on his face was genuine, and he said that would never happen. I gave him an equally genuine smile and told him I was pretty sure he would want them back one day, and I would keep them safe until he did. It was pretty much the first time I saw this intelligent, belligerent man with nothing to say. He hasn’t contacted me yet, but I will never give up hope.

“Be wise in the way you act to 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 4:5-6

A time for reflection:

After Mike sent me his story, he texted me and said, “Well, it’s not a barn burner success story, but it’s all about planting seeds and watering, eh? It will be a heckuva story when he eventually wants them back (books).” I responded with, “If all were barn burner success stories the book wouldn’t be authentic. The Bible is filled with stories like yours…the Rich Young Ruler is a perfect example.” He responded, “So true.” Don’t let someone in your neighborhood like Mike’s neighbor discourage you, but have the kind of hope that Mike had with his neighbor. Do you have neighbor like this who is resistant? How can you demonstrate the kind of grace Paul encouraged with this person?



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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