Among quarreling neighbors

One Sunday we came back from worship to discover that one of our neighbors had torn down the short fence between our properties and replaced it with a taller, uglier fence.

There had been no warning. No conversation at all. Just silent action. And the whole thing had been done during the few hours they were sure we wouldn’t be around.

We had no idea about the hostility felt toward us until that day. But it launched a cold war that we tried to remedy for years to no avail.

You know things are bad when you get terse letters in the mail from your next door neighbor.

And, no, fences don’t make good neighbors. They only highlight how broken our relationships are.

This is where my mind goes when I read Psalm 120.

I’m in trouble. I cry to God,
    desperate for an answer:
“Deliver me from the liars, God!
    They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”

Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming,
    all you barefaced liars?
Pointed arrows and burning coals
    will be your reward.

I’m doomed to live in Meshech,
    cursed with a home in Kedar,
My whole life lived camping
    among quarreling neighbors.
I’m all for peace, but the minute
    I tell them so, they go to war!

I like The Message version above. But I often found myself quoting to myself the NIV’s take on verse 5: “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek.”

It’s a self-pity thing. I know. That whole “woe is me” thing is never really helpful. But that’s where I find myself more often than I’d like to admit. And so did the psalm writer.

I find that so helpful. The Psalms validate my feelings, even though they generally steer me away from them. They acknowledge that what’s going on inside of me is par for the course. I’m not unspiritual, not far from God, not morally out to lunch.

Generally, when the Psalms validate my baser feelings as normal human experience, they don’t leave me there. Psalm 120 is a “woe is me” exception. But it’s not the only exception. Psalm 137 leaves me in my “smashing babies” anger and Psalm 88 leaves me in my “darkness is my only friend” mode.

Why is this? Why would we be left with these wretched feelings?

I take these psalms as starter prayers. They’re complete prayers, not requiring us to get ourselves all fixed up on the spot. But they are included within the 150-psalm collection, which is itself included in our 66-book Bible. It is fine and good to start with these prayers and even to continue in them for as long as it’s necessary, since they get us praying. But the rest of the Scriptures draw us toward God’s good goal of reconciliation and restoration.

Feeling our feelings is the first step toward this end. And praying these feelings is our second step.

We were stuck on these first two steps with our quarrelsome neighbors for about five years. It was a long time and it felt like it. I tried to be nice to them when I had the chance, but there seemed to be no opening for reconciliation until we started getting toward Christmas one year. During that Advent season, I heard my kids tell someone how terrible our neighbor was and I knew that things had to change.

So, I asked my wife to make some Christmas cookies and then got my two younger boys to take them next door to deliver them. And somehow the combination of time and cookies and kids softened the hearts of our neighbors and they invited the three of us inside their home.

And just like that, we no longer lived among the tents of Kedar. The war had ended. And so, too, had the praying of Psalm 120. It’s work was done.

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