And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Acts 17:26-27
Last week, I talked to you my efforts this year to build a neighborhood in my city through Next Door. This is a heavy burden I have, one that I have not steward very well in the past. The verses above speak about God’s providence, namely that God determines our dwelling places. Have you thought much about that? Yes, you thought you live where you do because of the great deal on the house, the school district, the proximity to work, etc. But in and through all of these secondary causes, there’s a primary cause that you live where you do: God put you there.
And God’s providence is not without God’s purpose.
God’s purpose in Acts 17 is “that they should seek God…and find him.” So let’s put this together. God placed me in this particular plot on planet earth for the purpose that people should seek God and find Him.
And God’s purposes should become the passion of our lives.
If God’s purpose of providentially placing me in the city where I live so that people would seek God and find him, then it ought to be my passion to accomplish that purpose. God has a design. He’s being intentional and purposeful. When I embrace that intentional design, my response should be a passionate embrace and acceptance of the mission.
Simply put: I live where I live so that those without God can find life in Him. What difference would this make if my life really looked like that?
I live in the city of Cape Coral, FL. It’s a fascinating city in many ways. A few years ago, it was one of the top ten fastest growing cities in the United States. More recently, it has held top ranking for highest numbers and percentages of foreclosures and short sales in an area with the worst performing job market of the 100 metropolitan areas of the United States. Cape Coral has massive potential unfortunately ruined with horrible planning. It’s a story that advertises paradise with a much darker reality.
The city is built like a massive grid (see the image above). Only a handful of neighborhoods in the midst of 165,000 people. I would say 90% of the city lives without any communal connections in their immediate geographic context. It wasn’t made to be this way. Cape Coral was to be a bedroom community. Business development was severely discouraged (we don’t have an actual “downtown” or business district). Because it was once swamp land, the developers dug over 400 miles of canals throughout the city (more than any other city in the world). According to Wikipedia, Cape Coral was a “master-planned, pre-plotted community” which means us 165,000 were to fit into a postmodern template where neighborhoods didn’t exist. Because the city expanded so quick with developers, most of the homes don’t have running water or sewage (instead use well water and septic systems), and because there was only a few select neighborhood developments, the majority of the homes are randomly scattered (in my case, I have 13 vacant lots surrounding my house, and an additional 5 foreclosed (empty) homes past that).
The city is much like the boats that line the canals. It is without roots and is about as stable as the water upon which it sits. You are hard pressed to find indigenous folks here with multi-generational roots (the city was started in 1958). There aren’t stories that transcend generations or narratives that shape the culture as a whole. Rather, it is like a jigsaw puzzle. The people moving in are primarily (a) retired couples from the north who have intentions to “snowbird” part of the year and perhaps move down full-time at a later time and (b) Caribbean islanders (Cuban, Haitian, Dominican, etc.) and long with other Hispanic ethnicities migrating from the east coast (Miami/Ft. Lauderdale) looking for work in the blue-collar service industry. Then there’s the investor piece to the puzzle–people who buy property with no intentions on living in the city. So in any given street, the makeup of the community could be:
house 1: low middle-class full time resident (highly transient due to low-performing economy)
house 2: foreclosed home
house 3: investment home from someone in Europe
house 4: home own by snowbirds in town 3-6 months out of the year
(and in between these homes are numerous vacant lots)
Because there are not roots, it is very unlikely for people to stay. Job security in many cases is determined by your ability to own and operate a small business in the service industry. The moment you get to know someone, you find a UHaul truck in their driveway. On my street, only one of my neighbors has been here longer than I have (four years).
As you can imagine, this journey of dwelling in this city has been a real challenge. At times, I have just waved the white flag and given up on building community. Pessimistically, I envied living in a college town, because you would at least have folks around for four years (or more). Of all the places I have lived, I have become convinced this is the hardest city I have ever lived for the purpose of fostering community and living on mission.
But, this is my mission field, I am renewing my commitment this year to be the best neighbor I can be and positively invest in the welfare of my city. One of the creative ways I’m seeking to do this is through an online platform called Next Door. Throughout this tool, I am gonna try to create a neighborhood where one does not exist and bring those around me together. Here’s a brief overview from Next Door about what they’re about:
Why is this so encouraging to me? Well, it is going to provide me the opportunity to make my neighboring efforts to “stick.” By that I mean, I am going to be able to transcend the current dilemma seen above (house 1, house 2, house 3, house 4) by networking those who are present and interested in helping one another out. I believe it will help me personally know my neighbors so that I can practically serve my neighbors so that I can genuinely love my neighbors.
Here’s another big reason I’m encouraged. People no longer come to their front door. If they do, it is with a shot gun and a threat. You are a stranger and likely a very dangerous one at that. First places (the place of the home) are fortified with fences, security systems, and blinds. However, people are open and actually want community. And they are finding this community through social media and social networking (principally Facebook). So the front door of the 21st century neighborhood is no longer the front door of the house but the social networking invite. That’s how you enter into their lives.
But here’s the difference with Next Door. Those in your online network are actually your REAL neighbors. They are people whose lives you gain access and can actually make investment in the world you are living in. The front door of the virtual world through Next Door has the potential to become the key to unlock the front door of people’s lives (and their homes).
I say potential because I’m just getting started in 2013. My goal is to have 50 neighbors networked together, forming a new neighborhood I’m calling Burnt Embers. It’s an experiment that I hope will become a precedent, perhaps for our city. We need neighborhoods, not just “master-planned, pre-plotted communities”. I’m committed to giving it my best shot, to living incarnationally and on mission so that Jesus would be magnified in my life, my neighborhood, and my city.
For those interested in this kind of thing, I will try to keep you updated. May God help me form a neighborhood where His kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
In his book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, J.I. Packer has a chapter entitled “The Gospel as of First Importance.” In that chapter, Packer discusses the pastoral and formational applications of the Gospel. Many are familiar with the quote from Tim Keller that “the Gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian life; it is the A through Z of the Christian life.” Packer writes,
“In that spirit we offer the following ‘Gospel Alphabet’–twenty-six pastoral and formative reasons why the Gospel must retain primacy as the content of Christian education” (108).
This week, we come to the letter “X”.
X is for Xenophilia
The actual Greek word we have in mind here is philoxenia, which literally means “love of strangers, foreigners, aliens.” Our coinage, if such it be, means exactly the same. In our English New Testaments, philoxenia is rendered as “hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9) and “to show hospitality to strangers” (1 Tim. 3:2). In the final judgment Jesus will either commend or condemn based upon whether or not people have welcomed “the least of these” (and thus welcomed Christ himself; Matt. 25:35, 43). Jesus is the greatest model for philoxenia, as is indicated in the Gospel narratives as well as in the whole wonder of his incarnation and passion. Indeed, we were not merely strangers to him; we were God’s enemies when he died for us (Rom. 5:8). In declaring such love, the Gospel also calls us to imitate it (1 John 4:10-11).
It was an attempt of self-justification, of validating his own standing before the second table of the law, and it was this question which launched Jesus into the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. After having explained the story, Jesus wrapped up his point in the phrase of a question, “Which of these, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”
The most unlikely person displayed the greatest amount of compassion, while those who had all the knowledge in the world had hearts of stone. They thought they knew love. They thought they had this “love your neighbor” thing all figured out – at least enough to justify themselves. But Jesus opened their eyes to the emptiness of their hearts.
I confess. I do not love my neighbors as I should. Last week, as I was running through the streets of my city, I realized how much easier it is to connect with people in the virtual world than in the real world. The common interests and pursuits provide pathways for networking online that are not readily there in the context of everyday life. You have to make them.
At the beginning of this year, I did the typical evaluation of my life to see where a “new year’s resolution” would be appropriate. What kept coming back to me was the fact that I need to be a better neighbor. No, actually, I just need to be a neighbor. To love them, serve them, pray for them, and bring the gospel to them.
We are living in a world where the front porch has been replaced by Facebook, kids playing in the streets replaced with interactive gaming online, and “friending” someone is more likely to be seen to writing on a wall rather than going across the street. The good news for this new year’s resolution is that it has not faded over the past four months; instead, it has increased.
On a broader scale, I think that when it comes to conservative evangelicalism, we could be a lot more obedient to Christ’s command to love our neighbors. But I want to begin with me, and then to share some of the ways I have been (and continue to) seeking to repent of my apathy towards my neighbors. Paul reminds us that God has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,” and since that is true, God’s providential placement should be wedded to an intentional pursuit of the hearts of those nearest me for the expansion of His kingdom.