It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and I was taking the short walk to pick up my kids from school. Parents who see each other every day were walking past with their heads down. No hello or head nod, just the American silent treatment. My family was in the throes of loss from the sudden and tragic loss of my mother-in-law.
As I looked around I saw the same pain we were experiencing in their eyes. I saw parents and neighbors who were broken and hurting. They were physically present but emotionally distant. They were half-decent players in the pretending game.
Front porches were empty; garages were closed. Something was strangely wrong, yet strangely normal, in my neighborhood. Where was the neighborliness? That day God gave me missionary lenses, and I started to see the cracks: cracks in my neighborhood, cracks in my current relationships, even cracks in my city. I realized I didn’t need to hop on a plane to make an impact for Jesus; I just needed to learn to stay and “dwell well.”
Now all I had to do was actually do something. I don’t mean to brag, but as a pastor and a neighbor, I am extremely gifted at finding excuses. I pulled out all the best ones.
“We won’t live here very long.”
“They won’t live here very long.”
“They’ll think we’re weird.”
“We have nothing in common.”
“I don’t have time to add one more thing.”
“They don’t have time to hang with us.”
“I’ll scare them off when I talk about Jesus.”
And my favorite: “Everyone in the world is my neighbor.”
Perhaps you’ve mastered these excuses too. My excuses were motivated by three things: fear of failure, a life that was far too busy, and a consumeristic view of the place I occupied.
It turns out it was no accident God had placed us in our home. He had planted us as missionaries, not accidental tenants. That day our family made the choice to love where God had placed us, not where I wished he would place us.
We began to “offer our lives to our neighbors” instead of counting on incidental encounters at the trash can or picking up my kids at school. We planned block parties, moved the grill to the front yard, and began to invite our neighbors into our lives in creative ways. We began to limit ourselves and take the limits off what God could do around us.
The journey into the heart of our neighborhood and city has been both exhilarating and routine. Both of these have been a gift from God. Our parties are different. Our days off are different. Those we call friends are different. Our metrics for ministry are different. Our lives are different. Our view of ministry is different. Our family is different.
I have led lots of mission trips, planned a lot of events, and led a lot of ministries, but I have never experienced anything like this. I have even started and led a lot of “missional” things, but this has been my first cannonball into incarnational living. Although it hasn’t been easy, I don’t want to go back.
Making the Right Choices
The journey into being faithfully present in your place won’t happen by accident. Sustaining a life of both mission and incarnation will require these choices:
Choose to trust that God has placed you. In order to love those you are around, you will have to trust you aren’t there by accident. God has placed you for a reason. Many people feel lost in their own lives and cities. Instagram convinces us to live somewhere more glorious, and Facebook convinces us to be someone more remarkable. We need to wake up each day ready to hand our restlessness back to God.
Choose to invest in those around you. You also have neighbors and coworkers just few steps away. Staying present with those around you takes a series of small choices. Will you invite these people into your parties? Will you be available to interact with others in proximity to you?
Choose to limit yourself. You can’t be everywhere- you are limited to one place at a time. Although Jesus travelled a region for roughly 10 percent of his life, He chose to limit his life and ministry to a space the size of New Jersey. No trips to Rome. The boats he boarded were fishing boats on a lake (the Sea of Galilee), not sailing ships. We only have so much time and energy to give during this one life God have given us.
The fears of failure and wasting “my” precious time, tugged at me more at the beginning of this journey than they do now, but it’s still a wrestling match some days. You can’t go everywhere, join every cause, share Jesus with everyone, or fight every injustice. Here’s the good news: you can choose to be present and available, to be the salty and luminous expression Jesus charged his people to be.
How will others come to know the Jesus you love if they don’t know you? How can you be faithfully present to those right around you?
Alan writes more in depth about becoming missionary right where you are in his book, Staying is the New Going: Choosing to love where God placed you. Learn more at alanbriggs.net.
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(Photo by Loren Kerns)