Light Up the Neighborhood

Excerpted from Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy (Abingdon)

It may be possible
for us to think
of heaven too much;
it is impossible
for us to think
too often or too deeply
about our neighbors.
—C. S. Lewis

The way of the nomad isn’t about physical mobility as much as it about is the location and openness of your heart for others. You can be nomadic from the same zip code your entire life. In fact, maybe you should be. There is a deep transformation that can occur if we ignore the lies and promises of upward mobility and instead actually settle into a community.

Jesus says we have been called into this journey of resurrection, “so that they might believe.”

If you are full of questions like any good nomad, your first one might be “Who are they?”

They are broken souls, people like you and me who wake wondering how to make it through a day. They are people like us struggling to pay the bills, obsessing over their next purchase, consumed with protecting their reputation, enthralled with their reflections in an antique mirror and sometimes even working through a crash.

They are our immediate neighbors: the ones we wave to at the opening and closing of garage doors over well-manicured lawns or across apartment complexes and busy schedules. The folks we pass on the way to work and school. The people we invite to our backyards to grill out. Maybe they are people you can see right now traversing busy sidewalks as you peer out the tall windows across the urban landscape.

When the Gospel of John opens its pages by telling us that Jesus moved into the neighborhood, I think it means our neighborhood, our apartment complex, our city block, our roommate sitting across the kitchen table, our neighbors.

You probably wouldn’t have picked Edward and Libby out of a lineup and identified them as nomads. They were rather clean-cut, middle-class, suburban folks who lived in the same neighborhood their entire lives. When Darcy down the street lost her husband to cancer, they were at her door with food and comfort. Edward would stop by some evenings to throw baseball with her boys. At Christmastime, Libby would bring presents and baked goods to everyone on the block. She volunteered as a tutor in a local elementary school. When their much older neighbor became ill, the 67-year-old Edward mowed her lawn, and Libby checked on her each day. The kids of the neighborhood would gather on their front porch on warm summer afternoons for cookies and lemonade. They were counselors and decided to begin a meeting each week in their living room for people who were hurting. The get-together began with a few neighbors, but word spread. It grew until parking at their home on meeting nights was scarce. On Sundays they would stop by a retirement home to drive elderly folks to church. You could say that they brightened the very landscapes of their street with joy.

A car crash moved Libby and Edward forward from their earthly neighborhood. When that happened, the entire community came out to mourn the loss of the nomadic couple. The pair let a gaping hole in the heart of their community, an immeasurable vacancy of joy in the life of their street. Libby and Edward illuminated their neighbors’ lives with God-light. They did not retreat and hide in the confines of their religious circle; they were essential to the vitality of their neighborhood. They passed on light, person by person, one neighbor at a time.

The longer a Nomad lives at one address, the brighter their influence shines.

The mission of the nomad is clear. Earlier, we looked at Jesus’ announcing the greatest commandment in Mark’s Gospel:

“The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” – Mark 12:29–31

When we consider the call to love others—to love our neighbors—we begin with the understanding that the nomadic journey can’t be hidden behind closed doors. The nomadic life is an open invitation to others. Jesus tells us,

“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine!” – Matthew 5:14–15

The nomad is talking about that unfinished watercolor canvas hidden beyond our antique mirrors—the nomadic journey before us—he is commanding us to paint it with God-colors.

There was a time in America where a closed door on a Sunday afternoon was an indication that the residents were either ill or anti-social; now closed and secured entrances are the order of the day. But in a society of closed doors, we are called to a countercultural lifestyle. The way of the nomad means we maintain openness to everyone on the block, Jesus says, “Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Closed doors are often manifestations of closed lives. Even doors of the most pristine and reputable appearances may have the darkest and ugliest of realities hidden just behind their locks.

The way of the nomad means we are God’s little franchise right on our street, our apartment, our city block. You are God’s golden arches or Mermaid-branded coffee joint. Our home should be as welcoming and open as the neighborhood coffeehouse I frequent. Our taste of the nomadic life transforms us into a neighborhood asylum.

Jesus provides direction about running our house/his house. It begins with keeping open space in our hearts. In John 14, he tells us, “Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you?” There isn’t limited space in our Father’s house. The vacancy sign is always on.

When I was growing up, the door to my house was never closed to anyone. My sister lived in the chaos of constantly having friends camped out at our place. Our parents seemed to welcome it. When I would come home from college, I would usually find the empty rooms in use. One particular friend approached me recently and explained that her family life was tumultuous when she was young, but staying in our home provided safe harbor through the really formative years of her life. It offered her a sanctuary of freedom from abuse. She discovered joy in our open house. I never realized any of this—I thought it was just a big party.

Again in Matthew 22, Jesus makes it clear that everyone is invited, “‘Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on—every place filled.” It seems that Jesus was always up for hosting a party.

Jesus turned water into wine, was indiscriminate about his dinner companions and rarely turned down an invitation to hang out. The holy nomad provided a pretty good model of how to live out the call to joy in our neighborhood: Be a gracious host. Live a life of open hospitality and kindness.

I began to see the gospel in a new way when I was a young teacher in the South. I drove to work through a town with a large church situated on every street corner. And each morning I passed an area of extreme poverty nestled in the center of the city, where homeless people slept on park benches, gathered at street corners and wandered up and down the sidewalk. It seemed the church buildings outnumbered the homeless people. It transformed my perspective.

When the folks who live closest to us do not have their fundamental needs met, we are simply not living the gospel of Jesus. “So that they might believe” must begin with the labor, sweat and love of ministering to the basic necessities of the people nearest us. Jesus reminds us of our work in Matthew 25:

“I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.”

This is not a call to social justice, it is not political, it is not conservative or progressive, and it is not misguided—it is the uncompromising heart of the nomadic way.

A congregation in my hometown visits people in low-income housing each week to deliver food. Another nomadic church manages a tutoring program to support at-risk children in local public schools. My cousin Jason and my best friend, Mike, instituted programs through their respective churches to connect those in need with the services of nomads who could help them. Plumbers, lawyers, doctors and even headhunters joined their programs to provide people with assistance they couldn’t otherwise afford. They are all shining the light of nomadic joy across their neighborhoods.

The writer of the epistle to James directs us:

“Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, ‘Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!’ and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?” – James 2:14–17

My city of Cincinnati, Ohio, has an oppressive rate of poverty. One pastor has taken on the challenge to end generational poverty in a very audacious and public manner through a series of campaigns his church is calling “Game Change.” His vision has been viewed as arrogant and unrealistic by many, and he has met resistance. But his community, Crossroads Church, is boldly moving forward with the nomadic imagination of the gospel to meet the critical needs of the neighborhood. There is a deep-rooted joy in that illuminating work.

“If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it,” the disciple John wrote in one of his letters, “but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear” (1 John 3:17).

A group of nomads from my home church took several days of from work, loaded up a truck with supplies and moved into Phil Campbell, Alabama, after the horrible tornadoes ravaged the small town. They were God’s Emergency Management Agency for those few days. They spent a week rebuilding the house of a family who had lost everything and caring for folks on a street where the tornado had taken the life of the grandson.

The reality is that Jesus most often shows up when we do.

Talk about following in the footsteps of the God who “moved into the neighborhood.”

Nomads set aside our own rights and motivations to ask, “What can I do today to improve the life of my neighbors?” It might involve small joys like volunteering to tutor for a local school, giving up your seat on the subway, cleaning up a neighbor’s yard, turning down the promotion to spend more time with your family, helping someone find a cab, buying the coffee of the person behind you in line or even surrendering a parking space closest to the mall—it always involves offering your presence to another person. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 5 that we should live with bigheartedness, “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Living generously for others entails being intentional about showing up, not just for the doing, but also for the being. The nomadic journey calls us to be willing to put aside the busyness of distractions and consumption, not simply for nomadic actions of love but also to be present with our neighbors. The holy nomad offers his presence first and foremost above everything else. I find it is much less of a challenge to work for another person than it is to be emotionally present with them. But as a Sunday school teacher once reminded me, “God did not create human-doers, but human-beings.”

Pastor Bob was my youth leader when I was very young. I remember that he drove 7 hours to make an appearance at my dad’s funeral. I don’t recall much of what he said; I just remember that he was with us in those moments. Often just sitting in silence with another person is the most life-giving gift we can provide them. When I think back on times of pain and grief in my own life, I find there were rarely words spoken in the moments of healing that meant the most to me. I think of Pastor Bob’s hug at my dad’s viewing, my friend Wayne taking me out for dinner after my sister’s funeral, and I think of Pastor Rick sitting with my wife and me in a silence of consolation. I don’t recall them having answers or solutions or doing—I just remember that they were intentionally there, present with me in those moments.

God offers us his presence above all else. He will be with us. Sometimes we need to realize that to sit with someone in silence—to be in attendance with them—is to offer them that same very divine presence. There is joy in these moments.

I think nomads hug like Pastor Bob, maybe buy you a drink like Wayne, or listen like Pastor Rick.

Have you ever been to a candlelight Christmas service? It is a beautiful event where everyone is handed an unlit candle as they come into the worship area. At the outset of the service the only light is the flickering Advent candle at the front of the room, representing the light of the holy nomad, but as the singing continues that light is passed from person to person. When the service closes, the sanctuary glows in the warmth of a congregation each carrying their own flame. That’s exactly how my friends Edward and Libby lit up their street. Nomads cast the light of their journey, the illumination of Resurrection, the colors of lasting joy, person by person in this same way—across the neighborhood—one light at a time.

12HolyNomadThis excerpt is taken from Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy by Matt Litton. Copyright © 2012 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission of Abingdon Press.

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