The Blessed Burden of Next Door Neighbors

Over the past 10 months I’ve lived in three different apartments. Having left our home of 7 years—our first big purchase as newly-weds and the home we began our family in—my wife and I schlepped our two children from apartment to apartment, finally settling in a quaint neighborhood where we hope to plant deep roots. (Did I mention that the first move was in the dead of Boston’s winter, and the second in the middle of the brutal summer? And did I mention that we happened to have our third child a few weeks ago? Yes, my wife was pregnant through all the packing and schlepping!)

While we mourned moving away from our neighborhood and our friends, there was something anticipatory and exciting about the unknown. We looked forward to exploring new territory and uncharted neighborhoods. We still do. But one of the things we hadn’t spent much time contemplating were the new neighbors. This is one reason why Kinfolk contributor Nikaela Marie Peters’ recent essay, “Neighbors: A Blessed Burden,” caught my attention. “Exploring the complex relationship we have with those who live in the next room,” Peters writes:

In truth…our identities are not fixed, but fluid: formed by our relationships, contexts, histories and homes – our time and place. Living in a time and place means having neighbors: Noisy, nosy, occasionally delightful people who encroach on our lives and parking spots and affect us in both meaningful and trivial ways. They know things we do not necessarily choose to share with them: which newspapers we get delivered, the contents of our recycling bins, what time we turn our lights out at night and that we leave our Christmas tree on our porch until April. Neighbors become some of the most important relationships we have because they keep the extrovert-hermit tension alive. We feel burdened because we desire to both hide from – and open our doors to – them.

Every day I feel the tension Peters describes—that internal squabble between hiding and hosting, between befriending and avoiding. But therein lies the great conundrum of the human spirit. In each of us is the desire to be recognized and esteemed, accompanied by the desperate fear of being “de-neighbored”—the fear of not being found suitable or lovely. Our neighbors keep this tension alive, which also keeps vibrant our search for a solution—our hunt for something to ease the tension. In this way, day-after-day, our neighbors shove us closer to the gospel. Listen to how Peter’s concludes:

That’s what makes neighbors neighbors: They see each other. We don’t choose them. We can’t control how they see us. We’re blessed with the real, physical, challenge of living with and beside other human beings. There’s no such thing as a digital neighbor. Online, we can make friends, but we don’t have neighbors. Neighbors are necessarily physical. And this is why they’re important. They soften our edges. They keep us human. They’re given to us instead of chosen by us; they teach us grace.

Peters is right. Our neighbors “teach us grace” because they bless us with the “real, physical, challenge of living with and beside other human beings.” They rouse us to confront our self-centeredness, our desire for autonomy, our yearning for self-mastery, and even at times our neurotic idiosyncrasies.

Neighbors teach us to get past ourselves and to love the other. And in this way they mirror the Great Neighbor, Jesus, who willingly took on the “real, physical challenge of living with and beside other human beings.”  While the cross shows us that we dehumanized the Savior, the Resurrection shows us that he didn’t return the favor. Instead, he made strangers into neighbors; he made enemies into friends. He ultimately took drifters and made them family.

Allow this gospel to color your view of yourself—the “blessed burden” that you are. Then allow it to color your view of your neighbors—the “blessed burden” that they are.

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