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Today we welcome Elizabeth Brown Hardeman as a guest-blogger on The Twelve. Elizabeth is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, a mother of three, currently living in Urbandale, Iowa. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Three years ago we moved from small town Iowa to big city Texas. After about two weeks of unpacking boxes and getting settled, I realized that I had yet to meet a neighbor. There was no neighborhood welcoming committee that brought a batch of cookies by during our first week, no friendly waves from driveways and no chit chats by the mailbox in the afternoon. I decided that if the neighbors weren’t going to come to me . . . with all my Iowa charm, I was going to go to them. With children in tow, I knocked on the door of one of my neighbors.  After a few knocks and long pause, the door slowly opened. I could tell the woman who answered was a bit puzzled and caught off guard as I introduced myself and my girls. 

After exchanging names I said, “We just moved in about two weeks ago.  We are still getting to know the neighborhood.” 

“Oh,” the woman said, “Well, if there is one thing you should know about our neighborhood, it’s that we all like our privacy.” 

Apparently, my Iowa charm wasn’t quite as infectious as I had hoped. 

Over the course of the next week, I managed to maneuver my way into meeting three more neighbors . . . all just as – if not more – guarded and aloof. The assessment of neighbor number one was accurate. My new neighbors liked their privacy. When I asked a neighbor to pick up a package at our door when we went on vacation, she didn’t. When I waved at my other neighbor as she pulled out of her driveway, she turned the other way as if not to notice. When I said good morning to the lady who walked by my house every morning, she looked right through me as if I was invisible with no reciprocated response.  

In the Gospel of John, we read, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” 

My favorite rendition of this verse is penned in Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase, The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Jesus, God with us, came to this place . . . to dwell, live, take up residence among people.

Simon Carey Holt, theologian, professor and author of God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighborhood, writes:
The story of the incarnation is the story of God en-fleshed in a particular place at a particular time and within a very specific community. So too for us, the call of God is to be in a particular place as we embody the presence and grace of God.  It’s a call to locality.  Quite simply, it’s a call to the neighborhood

By Jesus’ example, I . . . we are called to this kind of incarnational living . . . and dwelling . . . and taking up residence in our neighborhoods. Our homes are not simply containers that house our stuff and protect us from the world around us. Our homes are our connection to a people whose only positive contact with the presence of God may just very well be us . . . a neighbor. 

In the gospels, Jesus tells a story about a party that is supposed to represent the City of God. The shocking part about the party is the guests. They aren’t the ones with money or titles or stature in the community.  They don’t all look the same, believe the same thing or act the same. Rather the guests are the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, the good, the bad, the clean and the unclean. In other words, the City of God . . . the one we will all live together in someday . . . is a great big giant melting pot of people who are not at all the same . . . our neighbors for eternity are going to be as varied and different as the guest list in Jesus’ party parables. 

So the neighborhoods we live in now are great practice grounds for the neighborhood we will live in forever. 

I live in a different neighborhood now, but my neighborhood in Texas was a melting pot. People who looked like me were the minority. People who were on their way to church on a Sunday morning were an even bigger minority. Our languages were different, our skin colors were different, our beliefs and customs were different, but it is in that diverse neighborhood that God placed my family and called us to be . . . INCARNATIONAL . . . to dwell, live, take up residence. For the three years I lived there, I kept waving. I kept saying “good morning”. I kept inviting children over to play.

These may not seem like dramatic, life-changing actions. However, eventually conversations happened and relationships were built. On the day the moving truck pulled out of the driveway, a little girl from across the street cried as she said good-bye to my girls, a man from across the street stopped by to see if we needed any help, a woman two houses over came to give me a hug and two little boys chased our car down the street waving frantically to send us off. The send-off was quite a bit different than the welcome. I find myself wondering how different all our neighborhoods might look if we truly “moved into the neighborhood” and committed to a call of locality.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

One Comment

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Thanks Elizabeth! What a nice reminder as my neighbor and I prepare for a block party on Saturday and then build on the relationships that begin then.

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