Originally published at Fathom
You really didn’t have to do this,” John, my downstairs neighbor assures me. “It’s very generous of you, thank you.” Later he tells me the homemade pizza I handed him was delicious—the best crust he’s tasted. A simple, grateful compliment has never made me feel more ashamed. But to me it wasn’t even a pizza. It was a bribe.
My wife and I live in a small triplex apartment in Montreal, sandwiched between upstairs and downstairs neighbors. It’s a situation we were excited about when we joined a new church with a vision to move into the neighborhood. This experience yielded the slow-won fruit of deepening fellowship with other church members. But the open-door policy among brothers and sisters has been more difficult to extend to my unbelieving neighbors. I’m convinced the source of this difficulty isn’t rooted in the hearts of my neighbors, but in my own.
Pizza with Strings Attached
I don’t actively think ill of my neighbors but I fail to hope the best in them. My assumptions suggest that relationships must be reciprocal—that accounts must be kept and balanced, lest I become the recipient of too much kindness and lose the privilege of being the good neighbor. This thinking led me to sweeten a recent request to use the backyard, which belongs to John and Janis downstairs, with a homemade pizza. They made it very clear we could use their space whenever we wanted, but I had already hedged my bets, and I couldn’t help but hang on to the power the pizza gave me. I would owe nothing.
With no conscious effort on my part, the truth that my hope and freedom was bought by God’s mercy had mutated into a functional belief that Jesus’ sufficiency for my need meant I was sufficient for the needs of the unsaved. It’s a wonder I hadn’t given up on evangelism years ago, although, maybe I already had. This self-sabotage was motivated by an unhealthy approach to evangelism, one where every moment I wasn’t obviously moving my neighbors closer to salvation; I was failing to earn my keep in the kingdom.
This thinking has calcified over time into barriers against relationships with neighbors, coworkers, and even many close friends. When sharing the hope of the gospel is a duty that can be done successfully or unsuccessfully, other people become potential successes (or failures) in my self-righteous trophy case, not friends. Which was the problem. I don’t think I’ve ever desired friendship from the targets of my evangelistic efforts; I’ve desired results.
Do I even care about my neighbors?
The most frustrating part of these adventures in neighborliness has been how my desire to reach my neighbors (save them) and my desire to be self-sufficient form a crippling cloud of guilt. I think, I have to do this, but I can’t. I want to love my neighbors, but I don’t, and I’m not very good at putting myself into a position to make that happen.
Convinced of my inability, I got what I wanted deep in my heart: the purpose of a divine mission and a safe distance from my neighbors. I was able to pat myself on the back for acts of service like delivering cookies on Christmas morning, righting overturned trash cans, and that classic Canadian kindness: shoveling the walkway. But this service never coalesced into shared life—I talked a good game but real intimacy wasn’t something I was willing to chance. The risks frightened me; the precious illusions of self-sufficiency I project might not stand up to closer scrutiny, especially to eyes and ears mere feet from my tottering kingdom.
Growing frustration with the “progress” I wasn’t making with my neighbors led me to question my assumptions. Did I care about my neighbors? Did I even like them? I didn’t, not truly, and certainly not for their own sake. The guilt I’d felt soured into shame. I wasn’t behaving like a sinner saved by grace; I was behaving like a little savior.
Recognizing that I need my neighbors as much as they need me.
If I wanted the barriers to come down, I knew I had to get more comfortable with my own need. So, I started asking for help. It hasn’t ushered in a state of divine hospitality, but it has made me happier to see my neighbors—and they’re smiling back. I missed several deliveries and asked the woman upstairs to hold the packages until I got home. I also expressed an interest in the downstairs couple’s garden and mustered the grace to accept planters, marigold seeds, and free access to all their gardening tools to join in. I can only guess at the reasons, but having my own needs has made our interactions longer and more frequent, and I feel as if I’m getting to know my neighbors for the first time.
Throwing out my pretense of self-contained sufficiency is nurturing a mutual hospitality. I’m not required to serve my neighbors into submission. Rather, I’m learning to value them for their own sake, and not just my own. I’m the one who needed to be disarmed of my assumptions and tendency to privilege profit over people. Now, three years after introductions, and mere weeks after paying them off with a pizza, all the neighbors will be getting together for a backyard garden party.
I don’t know what the boomer bohemians downstairs think of my kitchen garden dreams, or whether the young Syrian woman upstairs thinks I make too many Amazon orders, but I know there will be more pizza with no strings attached. I can’t think of a better way to start sharing more of life than by sharing a slice and enjoying the grace of a shared backyard in the city—no strings attached.