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Thursday, October 10, 2013

God in the Neighborhood

This is the way Numbers 35:34 is rendered in the New Revised Standard Version:

You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the Israelites.

Do not defile this land God has given you, Israel.  God is making His home with you.  Act as if God is present even when you don’t see Him, because God is always with you.

I like the way the verse is rendered in The Message:

“Don’t desecrate the land in which you live. I live here, too—I, God, live in the same neighborhood with the People of Israel.”

The incarnation is similarly described in The Message rendering of John 1:14. 

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

We Christians, we humans, must always live as if God is watching us.  No, Bette Midler had it wrong.  God is not watching “from a distance.”  We live as if God is with us.  God lives in the neighborhood.

Is there an environment where a human being is more in his element, more natural and less affected than in the neighborhood?  That is where one’s norms are established.  Everything else in life is measured by the pace, volume, and sense of life as experienced in the neighborhood. 

If you neighborhood is in the city that never sleeps, in the middle of constant traffic and masses of humanity in constant motion, you would find the country arrestingly quiet. 

If you live in a small town where all the houses have huge yards and farms are seen beyond the town’s outskirts for miles and miles in every direction, you’d be appalled at the cramped quarters in an urban suburb, like Arlington, VA.  There, people pay top prices for .25 acre plots.  Half the money would get you 2.5 acres out in the country.  But the country folk find the city too crowded, too congested.  It’s too unlike their neighborhood.  The city people would find the country too quiet and a bit dull.  It’s not fun and hopping – like their neighborhood. 

In Israel, God made Himself at home among a particular people.  Whatever they imagined to be their neighborhood norms, God was at the center.  In Christ, God makes Himself at home among all peoples.  God settles right in the wide open spaces.  God is just as comfortable in the sensory-overloaded city. 

Do we live like God is the norm in our own neighborhoods?

I don’t think my neighborhood would feel comfortable with the thought of God being in the midst of everything.  Rarely do my neighbors and I talk about God.  Most know I am a pastor.  Out of respect, I try not to force religion onto people.  I find they will be more receptive conversation partners if they bring up spirituality or theology or evangelical Christianity. 

Usually when I bring it up, I feel a couple of things.  First there is the apology.  “I know, I know – I should go to church more often.”  I may not have said a word about church.  I may have tried to invite God into a conversation or make the conversation about God.  But quickly, my neighbor switches to a safer topic – church.  From there he acknowledges he “should go to church” the way people should brush their teeth or call their moms once in a while.

Another response is the buffet.  You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.  In this posture, absolute truth is an unwelcome subject.  God is an option, not an actual, living, personal reality.  I could say what I felt like saying about God, but the response is always some form of “I am glad that works for you.”

A third reaction to me raising the notion of God is very similar to the first.  My conversation partner will refer to some church in town as “my church.”  I know that last weekend that person went to the beach, and the weekend before they were at the mountains.  Prior to that they referenced being in the grocery store when it was empty, 10AM on Sunday morning.  Knowing this person as I do, and knowing their Sunday habits, I wonder when they ever actually attend “their church.”  I am convinced they have attended once or twice and it becomes “their church” because when you’re talking to an overly zealous pastor or especially to preacher, you have to be able to reference “your church.”  Otherwise that preacher might not leave you alone.

The far worst response when I try to raise topics like faith or religion or Christianity or spirituality is the non-verbal wall.  The person’s face loses expression.  Nonverbal cues indicate that defenses are going up and a counteroffensive may be in the works.  The other seems bothered, even offended to the point of hostility, that I would dare raise the idea of God in a friendly conversation.  They will most likely shut down the conversation and things will not be friendly again until this encounter is completely over and we talk in a few weeks. 

All these responses – the apology, the buffet, the fake “my church,” and the nonverbal wall – make it clear that most people do not want God to be at home in our neighborhood.  But in the Pentateuch, in the book of Numbers, God is not asking to be invited.  God is not asking at all.  God is commanding.  “Do not desecrate the land.  I live in the neighborhood.”

Christians cannot control the neighborhoods in which we live.  But we can make decisions about how we live.  Maybe I’ll use another post to ponder ways around the apology, the buffet, the fake “my church,” and the nonverbal wall, although I will say right now I don’t have any secrets. 

In this post I simply suggest that the ways of God should be what is normal for a Christ-follower.  We know that in Christ, God moved permanently into the neighborhood.  Not only that, but God declared that the neighborhood belongs to Him.  We should acknowledge that, respect it, and live with our lives pointed toward Him.

This is not seen in how holy we act.  Prayer, Bible reading, and church participation are all important things, vital life practices.  But, our orientation toward God is seen when we treat our own families with love and grace.  Our God-lives speak when we are filled with joy.  Our witness is energized when everyone in the neighborhood knows we are people of love and they know our love is linked to our faith.  If we can establish that witness, it won’t mean all our neighbors feel at home with God.  But they will know that someone in their neighborhood has God in their home.  That is a start.

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