So, my current living arrangements are a bit unusual. For the last two years, my husband and I have been living with my son and his children in their home.
My husband and I are basically starting over. We’re living in the very same housing complex that we did when we first got married and started our family.
We lived here for four years the first time around, then bought our first home close by in the same neighbourhood.
It was not the nicest complex then, and not that much has changed; this is still a troubled area. Everybody here has a story, and sadly, many of them are living in the pain of their pasts.
The people here are vulnerable in every sense of the word.
Some of my neighbours prefer to keep to themselves. Their body language speaks, Stay away; you keep your distance and I’ll keep mine. Others though, seem starved for some interaction – a polite smile on a friendly face is enough to invite conversation, and they will stop and tell me their life story.
As I get to know them, people tell me stuff, personal stuff that I have no business knowing. Stuff that breaks my heart and makes me want to despair that humans could treat each other so shabbily. As if other people were mere commodities to be consumed until they have served their purpose and are then discarded.
I have pain, they tell me, over and over again. Give me compassion, their eyes beg, validate my pain, my right to have sorrow over this…but do it in a way that doesn’t take away my victimhood, don’t make me look at my own part in the choices that brought me to this place, because on top of everything else going on I can’t bear to look.
I can understand this so well. I’ve felt this; lived this. They long to hear to sweetness of the Gospel, but are terrified of being crushed by the Law. They may not know it, but they do.
So many of my neighbours have truly been victimized; they’ve had traumas perpetrated upon them, things that have so skewed their view of the world that their capacity to make healthy choices is diminished. Worse, some of them aren’t able to distinguish what a healthy choice looks like, much less apply it to their lives.
They’ve heard about Jesus before, of course, but what He offers seems so distantly related to what they live every day – the forgiveness of sins doesn’t even register on their radar.
Even the most casual mention of God, faith, church brings out the suspicion.
I once casually mentioned to a neighbour about needing to get my grandkids ready to go to church.
You don’t actually believe in that bullshit, do you? It comes out sounding partly disdainful, partly incredulous.
Yes, yes I actually do, I say with a chuckle.
You know, no one has ever asked me why I believe…they usually just launch into a big explanation for why they don’t.
The Church just wants your money.
The Church is full of hypocrites.
The Church is so judgmental.
The Church is not for me, they tell me, over and over again. Your God is not for me.
It’s a paradox. Their hearts are so bruised and tender, and yet so hardened towards the very Balm that would heal them.
And what can I do? Do I argue with them and tell them they’re wrong? I’m sure that would go over real well. Do I keep my mouth shut while they slag all over my Lord, mischaracterise Him and profane His name? That’s tough to take, it makes me angry and sad at the same time. It make me want to shake them and say This Jesus that you think you know is not the Jesus that I know, not the Jesus that the Bible portrays!
But I keep my mouth shut. This is not the time for me to talk, not yet. This is the time to listen. I’ve learned you only get so many chances with these people; the ground needs to be well prepared before I even attempt to plant a seed.
So I listen to their objections (rejections, really) to God and faith and anything that has to do with church; I listen and I try to understand and empathize, to hear their stories from their perspective as people who have been broken by others and are trying to make sense of it all. I try to give them what they need in the moment – someone who will listen to their tale of woe without judging them.
It’s tricky. There’s a fine line between being non-judgmental and being an enabler. I don’t pretend to have it all worked out – I just do the best I can, in the moment.
I am acutely aware that their greatest need, the one that I long to tell them more about, is their redemtion in Christ.
Redemption! What a wonderful word!
I long to tell them that this mess of a life that they’re living has already been redeemed; that the ashes of their ugliness have already been exchanged for beauty. That everything that they’re looking for is found in Christ.
Not judgment, but grace, mercy, and peace. Forgiveness for the wrongs they have done and for the wrongs that were perpetrated against them.
There are moments – just moments, when they have laid their souls bare to me and the unspoken question is left hanging between us – If your God is so good, how could He have let these things happen to me? Why on earth would I ever put my trust in THAT?
I will only have a moment to respond, to get in a quick soundbite before the conversation will shift away to something less uncomfortable for them.
How do you tell someone in a sentence or two how sorry you are for all that they have gone through, how it grieves your heart that they have suffered so and that they shouldn’t have, that it was never meant to be that way among us? That I understand how crippling it is to carry around not just the guilt for my own sin, but also the weight of the anger and bewilderment and sorrow of the sins that were committed upon me? That I can’t figure out how to reconcile myself to people like that, much less to a God like that? And that in the end I found that I couldn‘t and that I had to let God be reconciled to me? And that in doing so, letting myself live in that reconciliaton, that I finally found my peace?
How do you get past all their assumption and fears and pain, and communicate ALL THAT in the few moments you will be allowed?
Moment by moment.
It’s not always easy to know what to say in those moments.
I can never know when their hearts are prepared and the soil is ready, so I want to make the most of the moment, say something that matters, that speaks to where they are in this moment and turns them towards their Saviour as well.
I’m chuckling here, but plenty of the seeds that I’ve dropped have not so much fallen on stony ground as they have been spit back at me! But not all. Sometimes, something appears to penetrate the soil.
Just a tiny little seed. In itself, it seems so insignificant, so ineffectual. It’s hard to trust that something so small could do the work of bringing about a healthy, flourishing faith. I want to push the moment I have been given because I fail to trust that this tiny seed is enough. I want to take the moment back into my hands and make more out of it than I have been granted.
At these times, the words of Paul often come to mind:
Apollos planted, I watered, but God gave the increase.
These words ever draw me back to trust in His sufficiency. I have done what I could in the moment that was given me. There will be others who will also faithfully make the most of their moments. And God will use it all, for to Him is given the increase.
That’s how we do evangelism in the ‘hood, yo.
Slowly, patiently, moment by moment.
And above all, trusting that God is able to use it all.