We continue to be surprised by God through the stories of engagement in our neighborhoods. Maybe we shouldn't be--after all, we told him we'd be looking for him. Our "God in the Neighborhood" class has been helping us see and hear what he is doing.
Paul went into his neighborhood this week ready to ask good questions and listen to those he encountered. He noticed his neighbor working on a motorcycle so Paul simply asked about it. The neighbor began to tell stories of life which eventually led to sharing about his involvement in the National Guard. Stunned by Paul's interest in his life, the man made a telling comment: "Thanks, no one just listens to me."
Aaron was running before he came to church on Sunday, though he couldn't have imagined the situation God brought him to be a part of. Since he was feeling a bit ill he decided to take a shorter route than usual and also changed his routine by not wearing his iPod ear buds. He just wanted to enjoy the sunshine and listen to the sounds of the city on this particular run. What he heard shocked him.
F-bombs were flying. The young woman looked in trouble and Aaron had to quickly decide whether to intervene.
Not far from his home he noticed a car parked in the middle of a residential street. Though he thought it was a bit odd, he jogged on. Soon, however, he heard shouts of anger as a man and woman in a heated argument jumped out of the car. F-bombs were flying. The young woman looked in trouble and Aaron had to quickly decide whether to intervene. "Alright, God," thought Aaron, "Let's go over there and see what's going on."
Aaron spent the next twenty minutes calming the couple down and using his best conflict mediation skills, which felt woefully inadequate. The man soon walked off down the street and Aaron became the hands and feet of Jesus as he reassured the young woman, helped her find her car keys (which the man had thrown) and tried to temporarily fix the damage the man had done to the car door. In a final gesture of compassion Aaron offered his cell phone number to the distraught woman and prayed with her.
Aaron's story demonstrates what we've been learning together in this class--when we ask God to reveal himself in our neighborhoods we will most likely see things we never would have seen otherwise. So much of life is being lived all around us and until we become intentional about seeing and listening, we will miss the complex stories that happen every day. I'm reminded of Jesus' words in the Gospels, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
As I write this I'm listening to Arcade Fire's album called Funeral. A significant set of songs on the album are simply titled "Neighborhood." The songs seem to represent various characters who describe and encounter life on the block. Sometimes bleak and cold, often filled with lament and pain, this young, raucous and abrasive group speaks to the realities of home life that many of us forget or don't know about. Arcade Fire's music is full of passion and empathy; they lay down poignant and emotional brush strokes on the canvas. The only way they can capture such a sonic portrait of real life is to watch and listen with the eyes and ears of a prophet. Though not Christian (to my knowledge) they demonstrate for me a way to be aware of and alert to life in my neighborhood.
When daddy comes home, you always start a fight
So the neighbors can dance in the police disco lights
The police disco lights
Now the neighbors can dance!
The police disco lights
Now the neighbors can dance!
-Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #2”
Resource: Observation in the Neighborhood
Praying to see what God is doing in our neighborhoods means that we need to develop skills for seeing what is actually going on. This week the class members are going to walk around and observe what they can. Here is a list of things to consider.
Space: the physical place of places. How are buildings, homes, features arranged?
Objects: the physical things that are present. What items do you see? Trash bins, sidewalks, trees, fences?
Actors: the people involved. Who is out and about? What ethnicities, ages, types?
Acts: single actions that people do. What are individuals doing?
Activities: a set of related acts people do. What do people get together to do?
Events: a set of related activities that people carry out. What do people do that is part of a larger project?
Sounds: action on the block that can be heard. What are the sounds? Dogs, trash pick up, motorcycles?
Smells: the types of smells. What aromas come from cooking, gardening, waste?
Time: the sequencing that takes place over time. What cycles are evident? Gardeners, trash pickup, comings and goings?
Feelings: the emotions felt and expressed. How do different people feel about their neighborhood?
Goals: the things people are trying to accomplish. Is there a common cause?
For another great guide to walking and observing in the neighborhood see “An Exegetical Walk” by Simon Carey Holt (from the book God Next Door: Spirituality & Mission in the Neighbourhood).
Participating and observing the structures, people and activities in a neighborhood will lead us to a much better understanding of what God is doing and how we can join.
(Update: a great article here about the spirituality of Arcade Fire's music, especially their last album The Suburbs.)