When Neighboring Challenges Come from Within
“At that moment, we felt completely betrayed and abandoned.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)
Maybe you have heard the phrase, “the church is the only organization in the world that shoots her own wounded.” Neighboring is difficult when there are conflicts or challenges from those who do not yet embrace Christ. It can be even more trying when the challenges or conflicts come from those within the body of Christ.
Tom and Cami Anthony’s Neighborhood
What started as a grand desire to reach a neighborhood together turned into the most difficult season of our lives. As a new neighborhood was being built west of the city, we were approached by a family in our church to consider purchasing homes together. The dream was to build in proximity in order to partner in neighboring and reach the families around us. After much prayer, we made the decision to move.
A third family joined the process, and the first six months in the new community brought exciting opportunities and dozens of new relationships. We found families moving into a new community were eager to get to know their new neighbors. Block parties, soup nights, and regular times of connecting in the street in front of our homes ensued. Neighborhood Bible studies started, and people who had never experienced Christian community were drawn to what God was doing. The LORD was definitely moving in the hearts of those around us.
About that time, our family was going through a significant transformation. We had six children under the age of twelve and were about to adopt two more, a niece and nephew, out of the foster care system. While we were not idyllic in how disruptive we thought this transition would be, there was no way to know just how much of a challenge this would create in the life of our family.
Imagine two children pulled from their home by Child Protective Services and placed into foster care for five years – yes, five years – coming to live in another state with a pastor’s family with six children they hardly knew. Needless to say, it was not a smooth transition in those early months. While God was definitely shaping the hearts and lives of all ten people under our roof, we were a messy work in progress. Support groups for us, counseling for all, and therapy for the adopted kids were very helpful. We had support from a variety of different people, and God was in the center of our mess. In exasperation one day, I confessed to a trusted Christian mentor, “These kids make me so angry!” His response penetrated my heart when he said, “They don’t make you angry. They simply reveal what was already there.” During this season, what we felt we needed most was the faithful support of our Christian neighbors. What actually happened was the exact opposite.
Our desire for authentic community had us sharing the struggles, the emotions, and the sinful attitudes being brought to the surface in our lives. Instead of extending prayer, encouragement, and love, we were on the receiving end of accusations, withdrawal, and even threats. It was one of the most difficult times in both of our lives. At that moment, we felt completely betrayed and abandoned.
What we didn’t know was our situation had touched a wounded place deep in the heart of one of our Christian neighbors and also brought other childhood traumas to the surface for a few others. While we started a grand adventure to “reach the neighborhood,” God had other plans for transformation. As things became broken relationally between the Christians on the block, God was still working bringing neighbors to faith and involvement in the church. And He was doing His work of transformation in the hearts of the Christ followers on the street not allowing pain, trauma, childhood experiences, and unseen wounds to go unchecked.
If the story ended there, it might be difficult to want to jump into loving our neighbors and our Christian brothers and sisters. We might be reluctant to love neighbors if there was only pain and sorrow. But our God is a redemptive God. A few years after God called us to another state and another church, we received a letter in the mail. It was a letter of apology. Over several pages, one of our neighbors poured out her heart of conviction, repentance, and desire for relational reconciliation. God did a miraculous work of healing many of the hearts involved. What started as a grand desire to reach people around us who did not know Jesus Christ turned into a redemptive story of forgiveness, healing, transformation, and reconciliation.
A time for reflection:
It is very hard to read what Tom and Cami went through, but their story imparts a very important perspective. Neighboring can be portrayed as this idyllic adventure, especially with believers working together in a neighborhood. Tom has given a realistic picture of what we all need to hear when it comes to loving our neighbors. It’s not a blissful endeavor that is wrapped up with a pretty bow on top. Though the Great Commandment is not a spiritual discipline, in fact, it is the aim of the spiritual disciplines, there is nothing that brings about personal transformation like obedience to loving God and loving neighbor. Have you already begun to love your neighbors and have become disillusioned by a negative encounter with a neighbor? Have you said to yourself, because of this discouraging experience, “I am not doing that again.”? Is it time to reevaluate that decision and talk with some respected friend about what you went through with the hopes of taking baby steps back into loving your neighbors? If you are new to neighboring, are you willing to step into it even though you might encounter difficulty with a neighbor? Take time to make this consideration before stepping out.
(Tom and Cami have been involved in neighboring for over twenty years and have served in a variety of roles on church staffs in Indiana, Texas, and Colorado. They currently live in Colorado Springs and are involved in “transforming lives from the neighborhoods to the nations” at Mountain Springs Church. Tom serves as the Executive Pastor of Ministries and Outreach. They have eight grown children and are expecting their first grandchild in 2019.)