by David Sanford
Blame it on being firstborns.
Blame it on moving to Portland, Oregon.
Blame it on spending time learning from those who have served in “the graveyard of missions” in Central Europe.
Blame it on being the first ones in our family to become all-in followers of Jesus Christ.
Blame it on a passion to live out the Golden Rule, the Great Commandments, and the Great Commission with the Filling and Fruit of the Spirit.
Blame it on a misguided evangelistic mentor who once told us to question everything.
Blame it on my atheistic father’s advice to try everything once.
My wife, Renée, and I started adopting some decidedly counterintuitive ways to love our neighbors when our family still was pretty young.
We started by moving into a specific neighborhood in east central Portland just north of its most famous natural landmark, Mount Tabor.
We continued by informing our children that we would live in this specific neighborhood the whole time they were growing up. Not the same house, necessarily. But the same neighborhood.
Why? “Your friends in preschool and kindergarten will still be your friends when you graduate from high school,” we told them. They weren’t sure what high school was, but thought it sounded okay.
Only when each had nearly finished middle school did I start to tell them the real reasons why.
The world was at our doorstep. Our neighbors represented every age group and economic status in spades. They encompassed every race, every major religion (including Pagan), every gender and sexual preference, a plethora of nationalities and ethnic groups, and 104 languages.
We loved our Portland neighborhood’s richness and diversity. Very haltingly. Very imperfectly. Still, if our children learn to love their neighbors here, I thought, they will be able to love anyone for the rest of their lives. In Jesus’ name.
Often, thanks to our kids, our family has tried some crazy but fun ways to love our neighbors.
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Inciting Incident #17: Let God use your worst day for His good in your neighbor’s life.
It was just another typical day for a mom with small children. Renée managed to put a naughty young child in a time out calmly. Then to cool off she went straight into the kitchen and slammed the sturdy wooden back door.
Who doesn’t slam a door from time to time, right? Only this particular door had a decades-old window that promptly broke into pieces. After getting over her initial embarrassment, Renée immediately thought of her new neighbor friend, Karen, and her husband, Ed, who did home repairs.
Karen and Renée had become friends a few months earlier and had even started doing a Bible study together. Ed, however, was wary of people he didn’t know. Yet, when asked, Ed was more than happy to come right over to fix the window. Once he was in our house, he relaxed, met the kids and teased them, and discovered we were a friendly family too.
Out of that humbling “worst day” experience came a “best neighbors” friendship. The reality? On our worst days, we can go to our neighbors in weakness, ask them serve us, and know God has good in store for them and us.
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Inciting Incident #18: Allow your young children to be creative as they seek to love your neighbors well.
I’m glad to report that Ed did indeed become a good friend of our family. Within that first hour, our young son, Jonathan, was sure God would use him to help lead Ed to faith in Jesus Christ.
Some months later Ed felt bad about forgetting to attend one of our family’s celebrations. To make up for it, the next day he showed up at our church unannounced. So unannounced, in fact, that our family didn’t even see him. So, without any clue that Ed was in the audience, I used yesterday’s family celebration as the springboard to present a clear, compelling Gospel message.
Later that day, we found out Ed had been at church and had shed tears during my evangelistic message. Yet he said nothing. Days went by. Finally, Jonathan pulled out some art supplies and drew a picture of the three crosses. Then he added:
Are you a Christian? □ Yes □ No
As soon as he finished his creative endeavors, Jonathan walked down the street, knocked on Ed’s door, and gave him the drawing. An hour later, there was a knock on our door. It was Ed with a crayon drawing of his own for Jonathan. On that page Ed had written:
Yes, I’m a Christian.
For years afterward, Ed went on to teach our family many, many counterintuitive ways to love others and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with them.
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Inciting Incident #32: Encourage your adolescent children to be creative as they seek to love their peers well.
When our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was in her first year middle school, she became best friends with a girl named Katie. No, she didn’t color a picture for her, but she came up with another great idea for helping Katie choose to follow Jesus Christ. Katie tells the story below.
Elizabeth and I met in the middle of sixth grade just before my twelfth birthday. We became fast friends, connecting first over silly things like our contact lenses and needing to borrow contact solution and crushes on boys and other typical junior high conversations, and later about more meaningful things like our families and our spiritual backgrounds.
I was raised in a postmodern home. I don’t remember from the early years there being a lot of negativity around religion. There was just a void of talking about anything spiritual. My parents found a lot of meaning in connection and community—they were coaches and volunteers at school. They were (and are) extremely generous people and they had a huge network of friends. I would say that they just didn’t feel like they needed God in their lives.
As I got older I realized my parents had a lot of baggage surrounding the churches they both went to growing up (being raised in the South during a time of segregation and deep racism) and finding it very difficult to reconcile their worldview with how they were raised (but I didn’t know any of this before meeting Elizabeth).
As a result, when I first met Elizabeth, I had very little, if any, context for Jesus. My first clear memory of hearing the Gospel was in seventh grade at something called Trick-or-Treat Commandos at Spring Mountain Bible Church. I remember thinking something along the lines of, Whoa, that sounds serious. This is a big deal. It definitely made an impression on me.
I remember having a lot of deep conversations with Elizabeth. She has always been very easy for me to connect with (one of my favorite things about her J) and very honest and vulnerable with her own story. So, it felt very comfortable as we became better friends to talk about more real things. I started going to youth group with her off and on through eighth grade and when we were freshmen in high school we went on a retreat. That would have been in the fall of 1998. By that time I’d heard the Gospel presented in several contexts.
I remember that one of the biggest hurdles for me was actually the idea of sin. This isn’t something that is talked about in non-Christian homes. At least not in mine. We were raised to believe that all people are essentially good, and we all make mistakes but, if given the right tools and resources, we will make good choices.
Once I was able to wrap my mind around the idea of sin and therefore the need for Jesus (which didn’t take too long!), the rest happened pretty quickly. I became a believer in December of 1998. I remember it very clearly. I was listening to a CD that Elizabeth had given me for Christmas (Supernatural by dc Talk) and I just remember having this knowledge that Jesus was pursuing me. That He wanted me to know Him and also a realization that, while I didn’t know what it would mean in my life, I knew that I wanted Him too.
In retrospect I feel so grateful that it happened when it did. Before life gets complicated (in many ways). Before huge life choices are made (that carry consequences with them), and before the waters of politics and religion start to mix. I just got to encounter Jesus in a very real and profound way at a phase of life that was (looking back) quite simple and undistracted. It has shaped the trajectory of my life hugely and I am so very grateful!
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Inciting Incident #47: Encourage your college-aged children to be creative as they seek to love their new neighbors.
After graduating from high school, our second oldest daughter, Shawna, moved to Langley, British Columbia, to attend Trinity Western University. Trinity had hundreds of English-language learners from China. Shawna loved this, applied to serve as a Resident Assistant, had a Chinese roommate for the second year in a row, and met many young Chinese women through her. “It’s like being on the mission field,” Shawna told me with a huge smile.
That next autumn, Shawna became good friends with some of her roommate’s Chinese friends. These students really weren’t atheists. They simply had never heard of God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Church or Christianity. In fact, they didn’t even know the most basic words.
Instead of teaching them some important new vocabulary words, Shawna focused on fun and friendship. A few weeks after the start of the new school year, one of the girls asked her, “I want to learn how to pray. Would you teach me how to pray?” Shawna said yes, but still chose not to teach her any new vocabulary. Instead, she modeled how to pray from the heart, honestly and authentically. It felt strange to her friend, but after a few tries she started to get the hang of it.
Then Shawna’s friend asked a wonderful yet obvious question. She asked, “Who hears my prayers?” Then, and only then, did Shawna begin to tell her the most basic and important facts about God.
Intuitively, led by the Holy Spirit, Shawna focused on her friend’s felt need, learning to pray, as the door through which she would come to learn about God, Jesus Christ, and much more.
The next summer, Shawna demonstrated the depth of her Christian love by spending a month in China with her two closest Chinese friends and meeting her roommate’s family.
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So, as you’ve just seen, “inciting incidents” come in many shapes and sizes.
Never give into the lie that you can “nice” someone to faith in Jesus Christ. “Nice” is never enough. Besides, many of my neighbors can “out-nice” me any day of the week.
Instead, focus on loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. Then, listen to your Maker inspire you with creative ideas and fresh opportunities.
The reality is, sometimes “nice” stunts our imagination and actually prevents us from calling others to choose for or against Jesus Christ.
This guest blog post is an excerpt from the new book, Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think, © 2017 David Sanford and used by permission.