Continuing on in our Sunday school series “God in the Neighborhood,” we had another great class together. We are learning to see what God is doing in the neighborhood and asking ourselves how we might respond. In previous sessions I introduced the topic, discussed technical and adaptive challenges in the neighborhood and taught how to prayer walk on the block.
We started this session by sharing about our prayer walking experiences this last week. A prayer walk engages us in the places where we live in two ways. First, obviously, we walk (or jog or ride or drive) with the intent of lifting up our neighbors. We pray for the salvation of those who live around us, but we do more than that. We pray for health, safety, family relations, marriages, jobs and anything else God brings to our hearts and minds.
Margie went prayer "jogging" on Sunday morning. As she was consciously thinking about and praying for the homes on her block, a woman on a bicycle came alongside and began a conversation. The woman told a story of losing an envelope with $2000 in it. The money was supposed to be used for a car and now that dream was shattered. The woman shared openly and honestly about her significant loss. So right there, jogging down the street with a stranger bicycling at her side, Margie let the woman know that she would pray for her.
Praying for our neighbors is certainly the primary outcome of a prayer walk, but there are also other benefits. A second advantage of this exercise is that we learn to see the neighborhood in new and challenging ways. We look at the homes on our block with different eyes, asking God to help us see, hear and learn things that were previously unknown. We intentionally ask, "God what are you up to in my neighborhood?" And we are blessed and changed by what we discover.
Terron was taking the garbage out where he lives, a simple, ordinary task of apartment living. When he arrived at the community bin he encountered a man rummaging through the trash looking for aluminum cans. Prompted by the Spirit, Terron asked the man if he knew who Jesus was? The man excitedly responded that he did. He then told Terron about his faith in Christ, his ill fortune in the downturned economy and his struggle to make a living. But his faith was strong (probably stronger than those of us with good paying jobs!). Terron discovered a person loved by God and in deep relationship with his Creator. Terron's view of poverty, homelessness and people who dig through the trash was transformed. In offering to pray for this man, Terron was the one who discovered a blessing.
Dwelling in the Word
After some discussion about the neighborhood we shifted our thoughts to a passage of Scripture. Every week we practice a modified form of lectio divina. We open Luke 10:1-12 and read it out loud two times, meditate on the text and then share a simple word or phrase that stands out to us.
Today we spent a fair amount of time asking why the seventy disciples were sent out as “lambs among wolves” with instructions to “not greet anyone on the road.” Why is this ominous language used? Why would the disciples be told to lighten their load and not take “a purse or a bag or sandals?” We often spiritualize this entire passage and attribute nice platitudes to it such as, “Jesus’ method of ministry was to go in pairs and so should we,” or, “Jesus tells us that there is an urgency to the gospel so we must ‘go’ before he returns,” or, “Jesus shows us that we will be persecuted for our faith.” These are nice sentiments, but is that what the text really says?
If we place this passage back into its original context, if we stand “behind the text,” we may find some clues. A key to understanding Jesus’ strange instructions is found in remembering who controlled the land of Israel. Jews did not have self-rule; they were under the heavy hand of the Roman government. The Herods ruled long and hard over the land. Herod the Great was known for his colossal building projects, including the reconstituted Temple in Jerusalem. Son and successor, Herod Antipas, ruled Galilee and Perea and had a similar penchant for building, most notably his capital city of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He was also responsible for the murder of John the Baptist. Herod Agrippa, Herod the Great's grandson, is the Herod we read about in Acts and was also known as “King of the Jews.”
When Jesus sent the disciples out to prepare towns for his coming visit, he was sending them to scout out friendly allies. The massive building projects of the Romans daily reminded every Jew of the supremacy of Rome. The disciples were, indeed, lambs among wolves as they roamed through occupied territory. And what was their message? They proclaimed not the kingdom of the Herods, but a new kingdom demanding a new allegiance. “The kingdom of God is near!” This was very dangerous work. Some villages would open their arms in joyful acceptance of this new message, but others would reject it for fear of the reigning powers and principalities. The disciples’ message was traitorous. Any town accepting this message was declaring a new king and rejecting the government of the status quo. The potential response from Rome could be devastating. No wonder Jesus told his disciples to move stealthily across the countryside as they went in search of friendly communities.
What does this mean for us? How might knowing the disciples' context shape our involvement in our neighborhoods? Moving through a culture of commercialism, materialism and individualism is tricky business for the believer. There are times when we are called to speak in a way that is counter to the status quo. The reigning cultural, social and political paradigms do not always fit comfortably with the values of the kingdom. Yet amidst the conflicting and sometimes hostile territory we traverse, our message is clear: "The Kingdom of God is near!"
Resource: Reading the Neighborhood
We concluded our time together with the presentation of another resource. This week I showed how some simple internet research can help a person better understand the community in which he or she lives. Two websites are particularly helpful for "reading the neighborhood." First, the US Census Bureau offers an abundance of data that can be viewed for every census tract in the United States. Second, the local school district's website will give a wealth of information about students and their families.
Using theses two sources one can gather helpful information for understanding the surrounding community, which in turn leads to a fuller picture of life. What ethnicities are represented in your neighborhood? How many residences are owned and how many are rented. What is the percentage of single parent homes? What is the average income? How many languages are spoken? Awareness and understanding are the first steps in learning what God is doing in the neighborhood. Click here to download a document with instructions for accessing and using these two sites.