My front door opens directly onto the sidewalk in front of my Bronx apartment building. It's a lively neighborhood in summer. Moms bring folding chairs out to enjoy the evening breeze. Teens turn up their car stereos, confident that we all share their taste in music. Dogs frolic. Kids play ball.
As soon as the weather was warm enough, I put several clay pots of colorful flowers on either side of my front door. My son said they would just get stolen; my super said the same thing. But I put them out there anyway, as my gift to the neighbors who pass their evenings in front of my apartment. And rather than standing guard over those flowerpots, I try instead to watch my thinking and resist such cynical assumptions.
Before you write me off as naive, let me tell you why I've adopted this approach. A while back my car was stolen about two blocks from my apartment. Naturally, it bothered me that I'd lost my car. But it actually bothered me more to think that my neighbors were thieves and liars. I believe that God exists and that He made each of us in His image. I believe that it's our nature as God's image to be honest and considerate. And I believe that I owe it to my neighbors to regard them as Godlike and innately good, even if circumstances indicate something else.
In a letter to another group of neighbors, struggling to reconcile their sense of God's goodness with the world around them, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8).
The founder of the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, took that thought a step further when she wrote in her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts" (page 261).
I hadn't really been doing that.
I'd parked my car on that street many times, even though I'd seen broken glass on the street more than once. But when I couldn't find a space anywhere else, I parked there and just hoped the car would be OK. That lack of assurance in God's government didn't support the neighborhood.
So I started praying for my neighborhood and for my neighbors.
That prayer took on the characteristic of Paul's words to the Philippians. I tried to hold on to every indication of neighborliness, consideration, or respect that I saw around me. When I heard that almost half of the African-American men in New York City were unemployed, I prayed about that, too. I knew that God created man to be useful and productive, and that I shouldn't accept that any circumstance could thwart God's purpose for His creation. I saw "hold[ing] thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true" as a way of praying, a way of honoring God and reverencing His power as the Creator and Governor of all that He made.
A month after my car had disappeared, someone in another neighborhood saw it parked on his block, found my number, and called me. Did he call because I prayed? I wasn't praying to get my car back. I was praying to see my neighbors as honest. To my mind, that prayer was answered in a big way.
So these flowers by my front door are a gift of gratitude to my neighbors for their goodness. This morning, as I was watering them, a man stopped to tell me that a kid had taken one of my flower pots a few days ago, and he saw him and made him bring it back. "We can't have that going on in this neighborhood," he said. "We look after each other here." We chatted for a while, I thanked him for looking out for me, and then I went out and bought some more petunias for our sidewalk garden.
Speak ye every man the truth
to his neighbour;
execute the judgment of truth
and peace in your gates.