I am the first person in our house to rise. While my wife and three daughters snooze away, I like to enjoy the fresh morning air, sunshine, and wonderful flowers planted in my tiny front yard. But one morning this summer I was met with some unwanted company.
My flower bed had been invaded by Mr. Corona, Uncle Budweiser, and his nephew Bud Light. How did these empty bottles get into my flowers? Ah, yes, it must have been my loud and annoying next-door neighbors. Don’t they know I’m trying to beatify our street? Aren’t they aware of the imaginary fence fixed between our houses?
Maybe they’re attracted to my yard because they can sit, drink, sing, yell, and plant their bottles without my knowledge at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was ready to let them know I was mad as heck and I was not going to take it any more! Yet for some reason I felt God grab hold of my heart. God quieted my anger. God was trying to teach me something about how the church has transformed communities in his name.
John Calvin was onto something when he wrote the Geneva Catechism more than 460 years ago. His opening words ask, “What is the chief end of human life?” Eager students answered, “To know God.” The wise teacher fired back, “Why do you say that?” The students, with confidence, shot back, “Because he created us and placed us in this world to be glorified in us.”
We were placed in this world to bring glory to God and to be a witness for Jesus. Calvin alerted his students to the importance of being witnesses for God in their everyday lives. Thus transformation of culture begins with our own hearts, minds, attitudes, and neighborhoods. God was teaching me that grace must be given as I have received it through the divine mercies of Jesus. Grace is difficult to learn because
I want to restrict it to myself and not extend it to others who I think don’t deserve it.
One year ago we moved from the parsonage to our own home, which happens to be only two blocks from the church I serve. The neighbors know my family, and we know them. Four families from the church live on my block. A ministry couple from the suburbs moved into the neighborhood because they wanted to truly live out Jesus’ lifestyle of making “the Word flesh and blood” (John 1:14, The Message). They started a youth ministry and built a ministry home. Two longtime members, a mother and daughter, have lived on my block for more than 50 years. They resisted moving to the suburbs after the neighborhood changed from Dutch to Hispanic. The mother’s younger daughter and her family live right across the street. As neighbors we look out for each other’s children and watch the street for any activities that tear down community.
Four houses down from me, workers are putting the finishing touches on a newly renovated home. A young couple, who led my church’s youth ministry, will move in soon. The old white house directly across the street has been eyed by another young couple with small children who are seeking to buy it. Their children attend The Potter’s House school, an urban and racially diverse Christian school, which stands next-door to my church. God has been transforming my street one family at a time.
Back to those bottles. God told me to pick them up, not only the ones in my flowers, but also the ones in my neighbors’ driveway. Jesus had some insightful words on transforming urban neighborhoods. He said, “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all. . . . And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life’” (Matt. 5:38, 42, The Message). As a Reformed follower of Jesus, what kind of servant will I be? Cousin Bud Light, come with me. Mr. Corona, you are at least worth a dime. Picking up each of those 10 Budweiser bottles helped me to become more like Jesus. Jesus is interested in changing communities one bottle at a time.
- Have you ever had any problems with your neighbors? Describe the struggle you had over how to resolve that issue.
- What in Reggie Smith’s experience of dealing with a neighborhood problem touched you? Why?
- How effective do you think Pastor Reggie’s approach was? Would you have advised him to do something different?
- Why is it so difficult to share God’s grace with those who we think don’t deserve it?
- How can you contribute to a transformed culture?