The first time we stepped into Andy and Juli’s home I knew they were different—a refreshing kind of different. Their way of living was well-integrated. They lived among people the way I thought Jesus would live if he were here now.
Andy and Juli live in an urban neighborhood among a diverse group of people. Andy can walk or bike to work, and Juli teaches piano and voice in their home. When she is not teaching, she is performing with vocal ensembles, accompanying others on the piano, or singing as a soloist. Both are rooted and invested in their local community. What makes them exceptional, at least in this day and age in the United States, is that they love and serve their surrounding neighbors in meaningful ways.
While not all neighborhoods lend themselves to open-door access, my first clue about their neighborly love occurred when their next-door neighbor knocked on the door, let herself in, and asked to borrow a large metal stockpot. When she saw me in the kitchen, she greeted me with a warm, “Hello!” Juli then introduced the two of us. She told us she was having friends over and wanted to make soup for lots of people. “Go ahead and grab it,” Juli said. “You know where it’s at.” And indeed, the neighbor knew. She grabbed the stockpot from a cupboard in the kitchen island and headed out the door. After she left, Juli told me that it was a communal stockpot. The neighbors all chipped in to buy it. Juli and Andy agreed to keep it at their house. When one of the households finished with the stockpot, they simply washed it and returned it.
Andy and Juli’s neighbors know where they keep their spare car and house keys. Neighbors are free to enter the house if they need something when no one is home. And if they need to borrow the car and it’s available, they can do that too. These neighbors share the stockpot, lawn mower, snow blower, cars, and other items. The thought is that there is no reason for each of the households to buy large-ticket items that are infrequently used. Such a course of action is unwise and a waste of money. Moreover, they desire to be good stewards of the environment. They can all chip in for the upkeep of these items, and then decide among themselves where to store them.
Not only do they share household items, these neighbors share life together. They eat in each other’s homes, on porches, or in backyards. Their children grow up together, are always at others’ houses, and are transported by whoever is available to help. Those with no children are like aunts and uncles to the neighbor kids. Shawn and I were eyewitnesses to these neighborly goings-on when we cared for the teenage kids for two weeks while Andy and Juli were away on a work trip. Over the years, these neighbors who live on either side of the family, and even several houses down, have become family. The thing is, very few of them are Christians. But they have observed the love Andy and Juli have shown them and have returned it. Whether or not they choose to follow Christ, they now have a better opinion of him because they have observed the light of his glory in their friends.
Jesus, Our Example
I once heard a speaker say, “It is one thing to go out for coffee, another thing to go out to eat, and something entirely different to invite someone into our homes. When we invite someone into our homes, we are inviting them into our lives.” I couldn’t agree more. I also understand that in some cultures it’s much easier to do that than in our own.
Jesus frequently spent time eating in people’s homes and hanging out with them. And all sorts of people invited Jesus over to hang out, including societal outcasts. But sometimes people invited themselves over to Jesus’s place (wherever that happened to be at the time). For example, when two of John the Baptist’s disciples heard John say that Jesus was “The Lamb of God,” they started following Jesus because they wanted to know more about him. When Jesus noticed they were trailing close behind him, he turned around and asked, “What do you want?” (john 1:38). Their response is telling: “Rabbi,” they asked, “where are you staying?” (v. 38). Notice Jesus’s response. He didn’t invite them to grab a bite to eat at the local inn. No. When they asked where he was staying, he responded, “Come and see” (v. 39). The book of John then tells us, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him to the place where he was staying, and they remained with him the rest of the day” (v. 39). They wanted to hang out where Jesus was in order to learn more about him. They lingered with him.
Not only did people invite themselves over to Jesus’s place, sometimes Jesus invited himself over to their homes. Think of Zacchaeus. When Jesus saw him, the first thing he did was invite himself over. “‘Zacchaeus!’ he said. ‘Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today’” (luke 19:5). If we are to take after Jesus, we learn that one of the primary ways to love our neighbors is by inviting them into our lives. We can do that by eating together in our homes and spending time with each other.
Eating and spending time together breaks down barriers and helps usher in Christ’s kingdom. Why? Because getting to know each other allows us to humanize each other. We are reminded that each person has a rich emotional life, that we all struggle and share things in common. Loving our neighbors keeps us from negative knee-jerk reactions, or automatically attributing ill motives to them. It keeps us from demonizing them. For example, maybe we find out that the woman in the apartment next door is always yelling at her aging father because he is hard of hearing and not because she is rude and insensitive.
Inviting people into our homes to share a meal is a gesture of intimacy. And yet in our society this simple welcome is often put off. There are several reasons. One is that we don’t know our neighbors well enough and feel awkward. Perhaps we’re shy and introverted. We may think we’re too busy, we consider our houses too messy, or we’re too tired to clean up. Still others of us balk at the idea of having others over because we don’t cook well, or at all. Finally, some of us feel inferior because we regard our homes as small compared to others. I have heard each of these objections many times, and I am sympathetic
to them. But we might consider taking steps to overcoming these fears.
For starters, we can begin slowly and with intention. We can try to overcome our reservations and feelings of awkwardness. True, we might not be able to get over these feelings ourselves. Well then, we call for reinforcements—friends who are more highly skilled in this area, friends who can give us pep talks. After all, this is not about us.
We do what we can to catch a glimpse of our neighbor to say hello. If we live in a rural area where neighbors are few and far between, with acres of land separating us, getting to know our neighbors might require a little more gumption and creativity. For example, perhaps we could drop off some cookies or a gift certificate, or some little gift and then introduce ourselves. If that is too much, we can write them a little note letting them know who we are and where we live, and attach it to their front door. Eventually, we could go all out and invite them and others to a rural “neighborhood” cookout or picnic in pleasant weather. It’s all about loving our neighbors by living out the spirit of hospitality. If none of the suggestions above sound appealing, remember: soliciting the advice and help of local friends will help in developing a local flavor of neighborly love and hospitality.
Of course, we should be discerning about when to offer an invitation and to whom we offer it. I’m not advocating putting ourselves in danger by inviting neighbors with whom we feel unsafe. Neither am I talking about overbearing dispositions and pushy efforts to force our neighbors into hanging out and sharing a meal. This all calls for wisdom.
When we moved into our most recent house, I intentionally looked for opportunities to interact with my neighbors. Our family started by eating dinner on our front porch. We lived on the main street of our small town, with constant foot traffic in front of our home. People waved as they walked by. Back then, I was pregnant with our third daughter and could barely walk. This became an opportunity to meet people when I was able to get out. Late one afternoon, I lugged my fluid-filled self up our next-door neighbors’ front porch stairs in order to meet them. My baby bump quickly became a topic of conversation. I told them we had just moved in, that my husband taught at the local university down the street, and that I worked at a church downtown. I became intentional about developing a relationship with them and other neighbors.
Over the next three years, our relationship blossomed. They invited us to go boating at their cottage on the lake. Our families exchanged little Christmas presents and plowed or shoveled each other’s driveways. We made little meals for each other and hung out on our porches and our driveway and homes—sometimes eating and sometimes not. We welcomed them into our house, and they invited us in to their home. They cared for our daughters. Later on, I found out that eating in each other’s homes was uncommon in that little town; neighbors were happy to eat out with each other, but they seldom ate in each other’s homes. That was reserved for family members.
How many times do we say, even to our closest friends, “We really need to get together soon!” but it never happens because we never set a date and time? It has happened to me more than a few times! If we find ourselves too busy and overwhelmed to have others over, we might need to begin by making room in our schedules. Think of it as scheduling an opportunity to love others. A Saturday morning brunch or dinner, or maybe even a weekday lunch could work.
Isn’t it curious how it is possible for you and me to become too busy to love our neighbors, especially our closest ones? The norms of our society and our frenetic lives militate against Jesus’s command to love our neighbors (mark 12:31). Love requires time, sacrifice, and energy. And chances to love seldom come at opportune times. If we don’t intentionally schedule time to love our neighbors, especially those in closest proximity to us, busyness will ensure that time gets away from us. We have to be very intentional about sharing life with our neighbors. Otherwise our days are sure to fill up, even if our schedules are much ado about nothing.
The State of Our Homes
Before our third daughter was born, I became close friends with several mothers. We were in and out of each other’s homes constantly. We babysat for each other and ate meals together. Our homes were the very definition of messiness and clutter. After all, we had kids! If an unexpected guest were to enter any one of our homes during the day, and they did sometimes, the guest would see piles of clothes, zigzag through a maze of toys, and probably notice food left out on the table. Had we chosen to have our homes in pristine condition before others came over, we could not have forged such close bonds. We prioritized our friendships. Then we either helped each other clean up before we departed or cleaned up later by ourselves.
Maybe we have children who leave a trail of clothes, toys, or food in their wake. Or maybe we work so much that we’re too tired to clean up at the end of the day. We figure we’ll get to it when we have more energy. And of course we never do have more energy. It might be that we are older and getting around is more difficult. As a result, it is hard to keep our home in the condition we prefer to have it. It might be that we simply aren’t good housekeepers and would hire a cleaning service in an instant if we could afford it.
We forget that people are usually honored just to receive an invitation to visit. Most care far more about spending time with us than about the state of our home. That’s not to say we don’t make an effort to tidy up or that we invite people into a pigsty. Cleaning the bathrooms, keeping our homes in sanitary condition, cleaning up pet hair and dander, and making sure our guests don’t trip over whatever is cluttering common walkways will go a long way toward making them feel welcome. But we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations. We can’t wait until our homes are museum-like before we invite others over. Otherwise, it may not ever happen.
Sharing a Meal Together
“But I don’t cook anymore! It’s just me,” an elderly friend said to me as we sat beside each other at a church meeting. The meeting was about hospitality and welcoming people into our homes. After the meeting was over, I caught up with her and learned she believed she needed to have a three-course meal prepared if she was to have guests over. “Oh no, no,” I said. “You can have chips and hot dogs or even soup from a can with crackers. Or if your guest is a vegetarian, he or she might be willing to bring something over to share. It does not have to be fancy.”
Meals don’t have to be fancy. Simple can be best. A meal might be deli sandwiches with fruits and vegetables for sides and a drink. And the meals don’t even have to be made from scratch! What’s most important is that we are sharing a meal—and our lives. We offer what we have—like the little boy who offered his sack lunch of five barley loaves and two fish (john 6:1–14). The boy gave what he had and Jesus multiplied it to feed many. God will use the meager resources we have in terms of cooking skills, food, and anything else, to bless many if we will simply offer it all to him.
The Size of Our Abode
I have had people confide that they do not invite people over because they are embarrassed over the size of their homes. I also knew a Christian couple with five kids and extremely modest means who lived in a relatively small home. They regularly had their neighbors over for dinner. Somehow, they were able to squeeze one more person around the table or find another place for guests to enjoy a meal. On more than one occasion I wondered how they could feed so many people. I didn’t think there was enough food to go around. Yet somehow, they made it work. Or maybe, Jesus multiplied their offering like he did the little boy’s barley loaves and fish.
My friend Michael was homeless for some time while living in Orlando, Florida. He lived in a tent in a patch of woods at the intersection of Colonial and Forsythe. He and his homeless neighbors shared whatever food and supplies they had with one another. Every Saturday, the homeless community in his neck of the woods shared a meal when a Hispanic/Latino church brought them food. Those without a home gathered together over a shared meal.
Friends who have traversed the poorest parts of the world have shared how deeply moved they were by the hospitality of those who had next to nothing—who offered whatever meal they could scrape together in order to honor their guests. Sometimes it was simply a piece of prized fruit. What we call “home” comes in all shapes and sizes.
God doesn’t judge the way we do. First Samuel 16:7 tells us, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Loving our neighbors has nothing to do with how much money we have or with how big our homes are. We don’t even need a home. A generous and hospitable spirit is what matters. What matters is our presence. Invite our neighbors into our space and eat a meal with them (as long as it is safe to do so). Include the poor, the disabled, the lame, the blind, and others who are different from us—the “tax collectors and sinners” who for some reason might not be able to return the invitation. That’s obeying Jesus by loving our neighbors (see luke 14:13–14). When we do that, not only are we tearing down the walls that divide us, Jesus tells us that we will be richly rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous (v. 14).
Of course, not all of our neighbors will respond to our invitation, just like not everyone will respond to God’s invitation to the most lavish of feasts that will occur at the end of the age—as highlighted in the parable of the great banquet. In that parable, a man threw a huge party. He sent out tons of invitations but those initially invited made all sorts of excuses about why they couldn’t attend. He ended up inviting whoever would come—even people he didn’t know (luke 14:15–24). We shouldn’t be discouraged if our invitations are declined. Some won’t be interested and others will be busy. That’s okay. By extending the invitation, we’re opening the door for others to share in what God has given us.