good work, neighbor love, and kingdom come

I stretch out my limbs and too quickly my fingers reach the walls of our apartment. The cluttered cubic space shouts for thrown open windows and, in Brooklyn springtime, the windows shout back. Zella Ruth is sleeping now, so I have a chance to splatter thoughts on this page while the busses whir and that persistent man sings on the corner. His voice almost convinces me, six floors up.

But, back to these walls – these boundaries of our existence and mine especially as I newly articulate the bold title of “at home work.” The sun splashes against the wall of our kitchen – a hot, glorious reminder of a Spring long come and I stand in it awhile before clearing the remains of fresh salsa construction from our tiny countertop. I remember Zella’s scurry steps into the bedroom to babble very seriously about a broken something in the kitchen… and her pained brow when I found a special bowl in pieces on the floor. “It’s okay, Mama! It’s okay! I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry.”

Oh, this light. If only I could bottle it up! This patch travels up the kitchen wall, another climbs the bedroom above our bed, and a generous warmth makes a wake across the living room in midday. Windows are beauty and ours are giant, stretching almost floor to ceiling.

But, these walls. Every time I wash my hands in the bathroom, I wonder about the workers who tiled the walls. I wonder because it’s a curious construction, almost like a child’s mosaic the way the slivered pieces sometimes dwarf in comparison to the grout around them. And where the wall is uneven, more grout is applied and the effect is three dimensional. A statement of sorts about living in New York. Art.

We love this place. Even around the newest luxury condo, we can see the tips of the trees in Prospect Park, waving like sentinels and beckoning us to play in our neighborhood’s backyard. We often do. 

Well, anyway, the kingdom is here. In between the grout tile mosaic and in the view through dirty windows and under the gate leg table that opens up to fit twelve in our living/dining/den room, as long as everyone is cool with shoulders touching. The kingdom is in this midst.

I remember a sermon from a while back – one of those well known passages I almost tuned out but later I couldn’t get out of my mind. The kingdom is in my midst like the brothers in Luke 15. Their inheritance and mine is available right now, in its entirety. The robe, the fattened calf, the signet ring, the feast, and the best last name. Any good thing I can imagine requesting? Mine. A vast richness I could not possibly spend or exhaust or even fully enjoy. It’s that much inheritance. And the only way I can’t get to that inheritance is if I am not free.

The kingdom of God is freedom. 

But a kingdom has walls and gates and guards and I am skeptical like the son that there is any freedom inside. My mind drifts. I imagine the dreams I dreamt once – the ones that somehow wore charity and luxury at the same time, where dinner was never late or burnt or frustrating. Dreams chase freedom. And we chase dreams, hoping the blank will get filled in, “I just want to be able to ____” and the story ends well or doesn’t end at all.

And, I think, dreams are only bad if they have you convinced that you are not already free. 

The Band spins on the record player, a leftover request of Zella’s for “mugik” and that sermon from awhile back crackles over my laptop, “Both of these sons are on the precipice of being dead, of being lost… What’s most important to know is that you need to be found by the Father who wants to pull you into His feast.”

Hm. This kingdom, the kingdom of God is in the midst of us – another sermon especially settled in my bones. It’s a comfort and a horror to know that it’s here when I’m all unraveled and here when the knick knacks are all prepared for company. It, the kingdom, Jesus. Here.

Maybe this heart was getting annoyed at my spiritual procrastination and so started ahead that I might catch up. Or maybe these few sermons and a talk from Galatians 5 just started swimming together in the same direction in my spirit (do sermons swim?). This kingdom that came in Jesus had a vastness to it, a depth reaching outside existence. Yet, it was present physically in Jesus and is still present physically with us. The kingdom is here, and with so much repeat in the New Testament.

The message feels so precarious because the inheritance is so vast. The kingdom of lavish inheritance is everywhere, so why does our air feel so impoverished? Those brothers felt it too. With all the inheritance anyone could ever grasp for, neither was satisfied. They wanted a better freedom, something more fitting for the appetites in their bellies. Something not so established by a father who has everything. Something not so… available. They wanted different walls with different rules and different work.

And these walls, remember. And this work.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

Called to freedom, yes. Use it to serve neighbors? Sounds like constraint. Freed to be constrained? Sounds like gates and guards again and that generous father’s farm. 

There was a watercolor disaster in the living room yesterday. I said things like, “I am very disappointed,” and “Mama is sad,” to a not-quite-two-year-old who doesn’t yet understand the cost of an area rug. Deep breaths, we take them together. I pretend like I’m teaching her about coping mechanisms for frustration, but it’s really about keeping me under control. Inside these walls and inside this work is the vast and glorious kingdom inheritance, but I will keep feeling impoverished unless I claim freedom.

Teaching on Galatians 5, Thabiti Anyabwile says Christian freedom is the antidote to the Galatian error, that freedom is even the goal of the gospel that we must embrace, enjoy and cherish. “We are freed to inherit all that Christ has purchased for us,” he said, “…but we must remember what we are freed from.”

I am freed from the desires of the flesh and freed to an inheritance. I am freed from a dream of better walls and different work, freed from the betraying appetite in my belly. Freed from chasing an answer to the open ended and paralyzing question, “What is my calling and God’s will for my life?” Because it all comes in the same inheritance-freedom package. 

Q: What is my calling and God’s will for my life?
A: That I would be free and use my freedom to serve others.

This inheritance that we are freed to accept – it so blesses us and so fills us that the greatest dream we can dream hangs like mist in the air above our fingertips. In love, serve one another. This is the most freed act. There is no haggling about worth or comparing about value, no hierarchy of importance or ranking of achievement.

The most free thing anyone can do with freedom is serve others. And not just the glory, headlining kind of service. The quiet kind – make a meal, tidy the toys, clean the dishes, disinfect the toilet, arrange the bookshelf, run the errands, write the letter, invite them over, wash the laundry, crunch the numbers, listen to the neighbor. You get it. Also the glory kind – definitely keep that around, but not for glory’s sake. 

This cold traveled slowly and took about one week to get from my chest to my throat to my nose. Now, it is flowing freely on this flour sack kitchen towel and my shirt sleeves, which I’ve newly re-purposed as handkerchiefs (why don’t we carry those anymore?!). One was not enough. The hum of the restaurants and traffic and sirens at street level drift up and settle between my cotton ears.

And there is good work to be done in this midst.

because His love won’t run out

The last neighbors, strangers, and friends had just left Pancake Mondays at Patrick’s apartment when another neighbor knocked to say thank you for the invitation we left on his door. Ted had lived across the hall from Patrick for 6 months, but they had still never met.

For some unfortunate reasons, we have moved the Pancake Mondays operation to Patrick’s apartment for the month of March. And (are we surprised?) what appeared to be every bit evil, God has turned into every bit good. Patrick and I both have griddles now and the ingredients float between our apartments as we host neighbors, strangers, and friends for pancakes and waffles and bacon.

the sign on my door...
the sign on my door…

Last night, we all sat on armchairs and stools and leaned against the wall with criss-crossed legs on wood floors. Tam took drink orders and I flipped waffles in the kitchen and Patrick taste-tested until we got the recipe and timing just right (wafflemaker courtesy of my favorite neighbor-friend Yeun). 

Everything about Monday night was just the right amount. Laughter, conversation, neighbors, and friendly banter. Good, old-fashioned neighborhood love was happening around a coffee table stacked with waffles, coconut jam, peanut butter, raspberry jam, coconut, syrup, and chocolate chips. 

I think we tripled a cinnamon vanilla waffle batch and served 13 people in all. I saw several neighbors as I was taping up invites and those who had plans asked if there would be a repeat the following week. “Yes!” is fun to say when it means more pancakes and neighbors and crowded living rooms.

I kept wandering into the kitchen to let out excited squeals and Patrick kept following me to match my joy because community was happening in the other room. It’s like we uncovered a secret that God has already spoken so plainly: the love Christ has lavished on us is meant to be lavished on others.

So, we crack the door open, mix up some batter, and trust His love won’t run out.

photo by Patrick
photo by Patrick

how to make the neighbors talk

The average “how to” article is written because people want to know how to do something they don’t already know how to do. But this isn’t your average “how to,” I suppose.

In December, my sister and I moved into a house that was built in 1865 on a block in what used to be an Italian neighborhood near downtown Des Moines. The biggest selling point for the house was the landlord with the loud voice, who lives next door. I guess that prompted our next day move in. We saw the house on a Friday night and moved in on Saturday with a simple handshake sealing the deal.

And the pair of us, we moved in with intentions. We weren’t just going to be the two look-alikes with questionable driving skills and frequent memory loss on trash day. We wanted to be the kind of friends and neighbors who did more than wave en route to the driver’s seat.

I can’t tell you we’re there yet – but I can tell you about our progress and how to make the neighbors talk.

It all started in January when Christina decided the people with the worst job are airport workers working the early shift on a Saturday morning. As part of her church outreach, everyone in the congregation had been given $20 to bless the community in some way (funded by a private donor). So, off we went at 5 am on a Saturday to pick up donuts and coffee at Hy-Vee. A few very interesting conversations and several surprised airport workers later, we still had donuts and coffee.

(Now, remember I’m not saying this is how to recruit friends or admirers or a following… just how to make your neighbors talk. I just want to throw this in here, to be clear.)

We came back and took a nap before delivering the rest of the donuts and coffee to our neighbors. Yep, we just walked door to door and introduced ourselves, in all our roused and ruffled Saturday glory, and then when they looked at us like we were crazy we raised up our offerings and said, “Do you want some coffee and donuts?”

And do you know what they did? They invited us in! So, in we went to our neighbors’ houses to chit chat about neighborhood things and learn a little about some of the lives on our street. When we got back to our house, we kept saying, “That was so random. That was so random.”

And that was that.

Then there was February, when Christina discovered some leftover Halloween candy in her car and I unpacked some Valentine’s decorations from Mom in the kitchen. Christina crafted together some pink baskets with candy and I made sugar cookies from scratch. And Christina went out to deliver them door to door. She didn’t see very many faces, but she left them in mailboxes instead.

That’s when Tremain showed up on our doorstep. He had a chain necklace, a coat with fur, and several sparkly pieces in his mouth. He stopped Christina as she was walking in the door and said, “I just wanted to say thank you for the Valentine” and gave her two candles he had made for us along with a very sweet letter. A few days later, we received a card from Marie down the road and she said, “It was the only Valentine I received this year. It meant so much.” I remember Marie’s house because it has a very friendly lamppost in the front yard.

We really didn’t need an occasion to pop over to our Mexican neighbors’ home. We have been swapping baked goods since the week we moved in. And now we know that if you knock on the door you should be prepared to stay for a while. I once arrived home from work and told Christina I would be gone for a few minutes to bring a pumpkin cake next door. An hour later I came back wiping my mouth after enjoying a delicious tostada cooked to Mexican perfection. There were about 30 baking powder biscuits and an unhappy Christina to greet my satisfied belly.

Then there was March and, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. I went on an Irish baking frenzy – making Irish soda bread, shepherd’s pie, and irish soda cookies to bring to our neighbors. Caraway seed is a funny ingredient, but we reasoned that traipsing around to distribute something “irish” made our intrusions a little less weird. Looking back, I wish we just would have done cookies with green frosting or celery because caraway seed is just too strong of a taste. In any case, we knocked on doors and left cookies in mail boxes with an invite to church on Easter Sunday. Christina did another sweep with personal invitations later to invite everyone to church and then Easter dinner at our house.

Meanwhile, we got invited to a fiesta where they put tequila in the fruit punch and chocolate on the chicken. It was the best garage party we’ve been to in a while and the only one where Christina depended almost exclusively on my Spanish and her good looks to not embarrass herself.

Then there was Easter and, as it turns out, our neighbors mostly had plans. But an adorable couple across the street (lived here for 60 years) brought over a secret recipe jello and we made promises to have them over for dinner soon. Our Easter table filled up anyway, with our grandparents, a high school student and a friend (and thank goodness because we made two main dishes!). It was perfect.

Last night, I finally brought their jello dish back along with some banana bread. Luis and Arlene invited me right in to their kitchen. We chatted about the weather and about the neighborhood and then I asked them what they liked to eat for dinner because we’d like to have them over. They said they were easy to please.

I can tell you one thing, the neighbors are talking. They might be talking about dry, caraway seed cookies or they might be talking about the two pony-tailed girls making the rounds at 8 pm or they might be talking about stale candy and church invitations. We don’t really know what they are talking about, but we hear bits and pieces.

“Are you those girls in 318?”

“Oh, Marie was asking about where those cookies come from and we told her it was you girls.”

“Yeah, those irish ones were weird.”

“Now, are you two sisters?”

You want to make your neighbors talk? Figure out ways to get invited into their living rooms.

let LOVE fly like cRaZy