The wife of President Theodore Roosevelt was chatting with French diplomat Jean Adrien Antoine Jules Jusserand (don’t you love that name!), when she decided to teach his countrymen a lesson.
Mrs. Roosevelt said, “Why don’t you learn from the United States and Canada? We have a three-thousand-mile unfortified peaceful frontier. You people arm yourselves to the teeth.”
The ambassador replied, “Ah, madame. Perhaps we could exchange neighbors!”
France’s neighbors, you may recall, include Germany on the north and Spain on the south. Over the centuries, that neighborhood has seen countless wars and constant strife.
When people are house-hunting, I wonder if they ever stop to consider the neighbors who will come with the purchase. They look at the structure and the furnishings, do a detailed search of the title and consider the value of the homes in the area. But have you ever heard of a potential home-buyer checking out the people who are about to become their neighbors? Maybe they should.
Do realtors furnish buyers with that kind of information? Do buyers have the right to go door-to-door on the street interviewing residents about the people who live on each side of the home they’re considering buying? Is that a good idea? Would that permanently injure the relationship with the future neighbors?
I don’t know. It’s worth thinking about.
I have neighbors.
For 15 years now, we have lived with the same neighbors in every direction. For a community as transient as metro New Orleans, that is something of an oddity. All our neighbors are nice and, like us, keep to themselves. With the houses practically crammed against one another and yards the size of postage stamps, people tend to stay inside when they return home at the end of the day. So, we barely know one another.
If you could choose your neighbors, would you?
Inez decided to give it a try. When the house next to hers became vacant, she called her niece in Tennessee. “If you will move your family here,” she said, “I’ll buy this house and give it to you.” That was an offer too appealing to turn down.
The niece and her family moved in and Inez was pleased. What did not please her, however, was the “for sale” sign that went up in the yard within a month.
“What are you doing?” Inez asked the niece. “You’re selling the house?”
“Yes,” she replied calmly. “We decided we just didn’t like it here as much as we thought we would.”
Inez said, “Well, if I’d known that, I never would have bought you the house.”
It goes without saying that the niece and her husband did not return any portion of the sale price to the aunt. It was all a ploy on their part to soak the wealthy relative.
Sometimes strangers make better neighbors than relatives do.
I heard of a pastor visiting a church member who had divorced his wife and was now living in a garage apartment on the back of their property, the ex-wife living in the main house. The pastor noticed how well the little space was decorated. “My ex-wife did that,” the man said.
After a bit, the man invited the pastor to share dessert and coffee. “My ex-wife made this apple pie,” he said.
The pastor could not understand. “If you folks are divorced, how is it you’re getting along so well?”
The man said, “Preacher, she makes a better neighbor than she did a wife.”
Robert Frost has a character in one of his poems saying good fences make good neighbors.
The writer of Proverbs (no one will ever convince me Solomon wrote those, particularly the section on love and marriage!) had something to say about neighbors. Here are a few random samples….
“Do not be a witness against your neighbor without cause.” (Pr. 24:28)
“Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death, so is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘Was I not joking?'” (Pr. 26:18-19)
“Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother far away.” (Pr. 27:10)
And my favorite: “He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be reckoned a curse to him.” (Pr. 27:14)
Of course, everyone remembers the second commandment, the one Jesus gave as companion to loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31 among other places). James 2:8 calls this the royal law.
In almost no cases or situations that I can think of are we allowed to choose our neighbors. Even if we did, along with my friend Inez we might find we wish we hadn’t. Better to let the Lord choose them.
One of my neighbors has stood in his yard cursing me because of my trees shedding in his yard. When I pointed out that his tree sheds in the other neighbor’s yard, he cut it down. Thereafter, he had carte blanche to harangue me. At first, I began raking his yard. When that only infuriated him, I asked a friend from our church who knew trees to come out and look at the situation.
“Preacher,” he said, “You have too much tree for your little yard. They both need to come down.”
The fellow who owned the house before me had planted these trees–a cypress and a sweet gum. If you know trees, you are aware of what these two varieties shed and how troublesome their droppings are on the driveway.
So, with the help of some men from the church, we took those two trees down and ground up the stump. Ever since, I’ve had no trees in my yard. Its barrenness embarrasses me, frankly.
And, ever since, the neighbor has been quiet.
Sometimes a quiet neighbor is a prize worth far above rubies (to quote another proverb).
I suspect the Lord is not above giving us a troublesome neighbor in order for us to have a great opportunity to demonstrate how disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ behave (or ought to).
When asked why I didn’t retaliate when this neighbor pulled some of the offensive tactics he did over the several months of our conflict, I answered, “All that would do is escalate the strife.”
When the neighbor tore open my trash bags and strewed the contents all over my driveway, had I called the sheriff and reported it–as was suggested by someone close to my family–the neighbor would have looked for other ways to get back at us. Instead of reporting him, I raked up the trash and rebagged it and set it on the side of the street for the garbage truck. The next morning, I went out and bought a King Cake (a local delicacy during Mardi Gras season) and took half to the neighbor.
In Luke 6:27 and the passage following, Jesus forever established how His people are to treat hostile neighbors. We are to do loving things for them. What kind of things? He mentions four: do good, bless, pray, and give to them.
What good does that do? It stops the escalation of strife in its tracks, it drives the neighbor up the wall–this was the last thing he expected and he doesn’t know what to do now!–and it may well make a friend of him in the long run.
But if your aim is simply to get back at the neighbor and give him a taste of his own medicine, I suggest you consider something worse than retaliation. The Apostle Paul gave this advice: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink. For in doing so, you will heap burning coals upon his head.” (Romans 12:20, quoting Proverbs 25:21-22)
What could be worse than dumping burning coals on one’s head! So go ahead, and hurt him real bad that way.
Feed him, give to him, bless him, give to him.