My neighbor five houses down on the other side of the street died not too long ago. I didn't know his name. The next neighbor down, a guy married to a lady named, Betty, now mows his yard. Another neighbor, whose name now escapes me, told me the news.
Don't make excuses for me not knowing my neighbors. I know the man's anonymity was in some ways his own choice. I know I can't know all 6000 households in Speedway. I know I'm one of the more outgoing people on my block. The problem is that this isn't saying much.
So, I want to share something that gives me hope in the midst of my failures as a neighbor. The reason I even got the news of the neighbor's passing was that my other nameless neighbor stopped by while I was building a front porch. This is no secluded back deck where you have private or family parties; it's a front porch that faces the world as it goes by. It’s a place where a guy doesn’t do anything in particular and everyone, without thinking about it, knows that it's no interruption to say, "Hello." And so, when I'm on the porch they do.
My wife and I have complained for years that my neighborhood is not friendly, but now I've decided that this is because we had not built a front porch. Michael, a veteran, walks his dog and cares for his sister-in-law. He took some wood that was in my disastrous yard. Tony decided that I needed his big ladder. Mr. Zetsil, who is some kind of ex-clergyman-- I think probably an Episcopalian, or perhaps a Navy chaplain-- cusses with the practiced eloquence of a High Church sailor. Actually, his swearing is an attempt to connect with me. He wants to see if we are mad about the same things. Yolanda comes by daily with her dogs. I dislike them. She cherishes them in part because they don't yip at her, pee on her bushes, or poop in her yard. But I don't mind that much because she actually gets my house design and likes it. And her husband, Herman, has had cancer for years. It looks like he's going to make it.
More than a dozen others have commented on my porch. Brother Ron and Bill, my church members, stopped by and sipped cold drinks with me under its shade. I noticed the drivers-by noticing us. Frankly, I'm amazed at the power of the porch. It’s insignificant compared to the rest of my building project, but it is what gets most of the interest.
One Southern writer, still chafing at the outcome of the War Between the States, claims, "in
New York every man's house is his prison,
while in the South every man's porch is his home." While my people fought for the Union, most of
them came from the old part of Virginia.
And I know what the writer is saying.
Some habits, some architecture, some ways of living invite new
relationships and places of meeting.
So I'm now convinced that what the dying church in the West needs is to be converted to life on the front porch. The word porch comes from the Latin, Porticus, which means, "a passage," or as we sometimes say, "a portal." Like C. S. Lewis' doors to a wardrobe, the porch is a portal into another world, a place of meeting and of profound transition between what is "in" and what is "without." A porch marks this transition with great care. Entry may be very hospitable--even made relatively safe--but with a porch it is never totally casual. It is a portal through which we enter another dimension, where the spiritually homeless can enter Christ's home.
I am the door--the gate--Jesus said. In him, so are we. If his body is the temple--that portal through which heaven intersected the world--then we also are being built into a holy temple in the Lord. We are the front porch where folks can actually taste the powers of the coming age.
It should go without saying that this is not because the church has it all together. Paul taught us a “saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world for sinners of whom we are the worst. But for that very reason we, too, were shown mercy...” Jesus has chosen to dwell in us not just in spite of our brokenness, but precisely and scandalously because of it. It is in this way we are the light of the world, a city on a hill, a sinful sign of the mercy to come. In our grief and struggle we have hope. In our anger there is a persistent forgiveness. In our sin there is reconciliation because there is a re-creative Spirit dwelling in our clay jars.
Experiencing this mystery ensures that we realize at times how few answers we actually have. Perhaps it is because of our vulnerability that a porch becomes inviting. My porch first gained attention because the building addition made my property a wreck. Jody Crum, wife of a local radio personality, came by to see what was going on. She rang the door bell and awakened me from a nap because she felt compelled to know why, in her words, “the house was a disaster on all sides." My construction project draws people like the man left half dead on the road in Luke 10. It is our demonstrated need that is draws Samaritans into helping us, thus reuniting them with Israel. In a profound sense, the late Robert Capon taught us, that it is the Christ figure nearly dead on the road who saves the Samaritan by inviting him into hospitable action. So in all our brokenness we must not forget that [we] were once darkness, but now…are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. (Ephesians 5:8)
I want to be more of a front porch kind of guy, regularly inviting new relationship, vulnerably marking a transition between death and resurrection, darkness and light. I can do this because Jesus forgives negligent neighbors like me. He overcomes injustice. He gives love to the lonely and insight to the confused. Jesus raises the dead. And if that is so, and I of all people have been ordained to tell people so, then there must be no more excuses for doing a hundred things at church and still not knowing my neighbors’ names.